Being a Feminist Doesn't Mean She Can't Have a Baby
by Randi Henderson
When a feminist chooses to have a baby, she is putting herself and possibly her career on the line.
Phyllis Chesler is a writer and psychologist who has been a women's liberation activist since the Sixties. The author of "Women and Madness," "Women, Money and Power" and "About Men," her well-thought-out theses have provided some of the philosophical framework for the movement.
But for Ms. Chesler her writing, her teaching at a university, her frequent lecture tours were not enough. Something was missing from her life. "Social change, writing books, work has its place, it's important," she said. "But one day it was clear to me that I would have a child."
The result of this longing is Ariel David, now almost 2, a sunny, tow-headed blue-eyed little boy who has changed the world for his mother.
There's another result, too. After giving birth to her child, Ms. Chesler has given birth to a book about the whole process. "With Child: A Diary of Motherhood" is a day-by-day account of Phyllis Chesler's pregnancy, of the birth of Ariel and of the first year of her life.
She beings her story unceremoniously enough. "Child: How imperiously you make yourself known," she addresses the fetus within her. "This morning I vomited."
Her pregnancy is fraught with fear. At 37 she is more likely than a younger woman to encounter complications. Her husband is a student and she knows that she alone will carry the financial burden of the family. Her own mother, from whom she wants support and mothering for herself, seems almost diffident about the impending grandchild.
The birth process is even more grueling than the fearful pregnancy. In labor for a day and a half, she was given drugs she didn't want (Demerol, Pitocin) and almost (because of the protracted labor) readied for a cesarean section until a final triumphal bush birthed the infant.
"Oh, baby," Ms. Chesler writes. "Washed up on shore so naked. Come, flop onto my warm belly-beach. Come, creep into the nook of my arm tree. Climb higher. Nuzzle me. There's wet fruit to eat. Don't stop. Come closer. Eye to eye, soul to soul. Come say hello to your new-born mother."
And the first year of motherhood is the most trying time of all. Trying to recover from her own physical exhaustion that just lingers and lingers. Trying to fulfill promotional obligations to a publisher who thoughtlessly schedules a tour when Ariel is not yet 2 months old. Trying to patch a damaged relationship with her mother. Trying to pick up the pieces of a busy, fruitful and demanding life.
At times the despair of Phyllis Chesler almost outweighs the joy of motherhood. Her fears and insecurities, at least in her writing, seem to anchor the buoyancy of mother love. Her extreme self-consciousness – a trait invaluable to a feminist but perhaps one that must be subliminated in a mother – interferes with the overwhelming bliss that some women can experience as mothers.
Ms. Chesler is an emotional writer, though, and to see her with Ariel, one can appreciate the sincerity of her devotion to the child, even though she has chosen not to neglect her profession for him. They were town together last week, along with a babysitter.
Social criticism that she had previously leveled from an intellectual point of view are now experienced on a much more personal basis.
"I feel a little guilty about taking Ariel sometimes," she said of the current travel arrangements. I'm afraid that people will feel I'm exploiting him or making a point, rather than accept it as, here's a mother, when you're with child you might as well be with him when you work too."
She has found, however, that "children are hidden."
"If you have a child, you stay at home," she says. "You might as well be behind a wall or a veil. Because the public world, which is predominately male or without child, is not set up for infants or even children. They're noisy, they interrupt 'serious work' and we don't want to fuss with them."
This was never so apparent to her as when she was nursing Ariel in the early months of his life. "It's not the kind of thing I could do when I was lecturing or teaching or being on television. Even in a public restaurant, you can have topless dancers and you can have see-through blouses. Breasts seem to be all right in their place, but if their place includes feeding the human race, which is natural, normal and sacred, people are very squeamish and uptight and ambivalent about it."
When she wrote "Women, Money and Power" she discussed the underevaluation of the job of parenting, but now she knows what it really means.
"Women who are traditional women, who are good mothers, who really work and try, they don't have enough money to feed their kids and pay the rent. If their husbands got laid off from work or died or left them, the fact that they were good mothers didn't entitle them to benefits a decent living wage or even to education benefits after they reared t heir children successfully.
"Our country thinks that motherhood is worth a welfare wage, and the women who are mothers on welfare are called lazy welfare cheats. That is what we really think of motherhood."
Now that she has someone dependent on her but still has the obligation of supporting a family, Ms. Chesler can truly understand the paucity of child-care options for working women. For a time, her husband undertook the responsibility of full-time care for Ariel, but it was an occupation he found stultifying. Only after intensive searching has she found babysitters she can trust and depend on.
"It's so hard, even with one other person promising to help. We don't have functioning extended families anymore. There is no 24-hour-a-day quality infant center located in every neighborhood and near every place of employment, nor is there any parent-controlled child care that would be good for the children."
She wrote about motherhood, she said, because "when I became pregnant and went to look for spiritual companions I found none. I knew I was on a journey that has no return ticket. That it was a great adventure and it required from me enormous courage. Unlike a much younger woman or a more traditional woman, I didn't take motherhood for granted."
With motherhood has come a special kind of wisdom, Ms. Chesler has found.
"Inside, I've felt changed deeply. I felt not in control of things anymore and that I would never be again. One of the things I learned is that you can survive without being in control. If everything falls apart, well, you'll pick up the pieces and start over again. I didn't think I could do that. I also refused to admit that I had limitations. Now I know I have limitations, but I won't die from them either."
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I recommend this book be put on the reading list of every American school.
--Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Author of Infidel and Nomad
This is a bold book, intimate and rich in detail… Chesler is a voice crying out for women. She will never stop
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