At 37, feminist Phyllis Chesler gave birth to a son and With Child is a diary of her pregnancy, the birth, and her first year of motherhood. It is an informal, very personal narrative, charged with nervous energy, enthusiasm and anxiety, and marked by the ambivalence towards motherhood that grew out of the feminist movement over the last 15 years.
Feminism fought the myths of motherhood, which declared women most happy and fulfilled through their children, and encouraged expressions of fears or frustrations, the building of an inner life for women and a life outside the home. It was an idealistic position freeing many to enrich their lives, but it failed to integrate this new self-expression with the potential pleasures and growth of family life. No one knew quite how to deal with those who had children, who wanted to have them. On the one hand mothers were applauded as underpaid, overworked members of the sisterhood, deserving credit for the monumental job of keeping a family going. On the other hand, perhaps because of the implications of such a view, motherhood was seen as a stigma, a prison, an immediate end to self-fulfillment that no woman could willingly seek and call herself enlightened. Motherhood became separate from womanhood at its best, having children became a political statement, a choice dividing women, creating mistrust and defensiveness on all sides. Motherhood was an embarrassment to many feminists – something so complex, elusive and heavy with emotional undertones and connotations that it was bound to produce contradictions and confusion.
Now there is a growing body of literature attempting to resolve such conflicts. Practical books like Ourselves and Our Children and Nine months, One Day, One Year treat with honesty and poignance the emotional needs of mothers. Poets such as Adrienne Rich and Sylvia Plath weave the profusion of feelings into art. Chesler's book joins these, adding the perspective of a well-known feminist writer and lecturer. It is easy to identify with many of her feelings and experiences, yet With Child is her individual story. For better or worse, it will be read not because she is a mother, but because she is a feminist who became one, and people may find in that a way to criticize, to examine and exult at the difficulty of her adjustments. Or they may find an affirmation that motherhood and feminism are compatible.
For Chesler pregnancy and life with her son are enriching experiences. They connect her more deeply to tradition, create an understanding of other mothers that adds to her friendships and force her to examine the need for love and support from her own mother despite their differences. Her chronicle of motherhood is one of personal growth, self-understanding and ties with a wider community. Her son "is a great teacher. Not only does he force me to see my limitations; he has me – kicking and screaming – accepting them. More: For the first time in my life, I'm learning about love." Later she writes, "People without children move too fast, overturn too much, care too little about conserving life…Ten months ago, I was a person without a child. Was I like that?"
Yet Chesler is very much aware of the tensions of being a mother, the exhaustion of balancing the demands of an infant with an active career. Her experiences underline the gap between the theory that women now have more options to work outside the home and have help with babies, and the reality of finding babysitters one can trust, developing schedules for mother and father that allow them both time to relax, to be with each other. She is angered and disturbed by the loneliness and isolation of mothers, the lack of interest others have in hearing their stories. Women are tolerated as mothers only if their mothering doesn't interfere with a poised and graceful front. "No one sees how exhausted I am. I don't know how to show it…I'll 'pass' for normal as usual. At what cost?" Or, "Mothers are allowed to share the details of child care by being 'Funny,'" she writes – and Chesler is also funny: "Shall I appear on television as a disheveled mother?...Or will the studio guard refuse to admit me? Will they say of me that I've become…a mother? Will they take away my books, my doctorate? Will they give me a cotton house dress and tell me not to bother them for twenty years?"
Things will no doubt get easier. The first months with a first child have an intensity, an emotional significance that makes perspective difficult, that must diminish if women are to manage a life of details and demands. With Child is full of the excessive joys of mothering too, with passages more studied and self-consciously literary than those that convey Chesler's doubts. "Oh baby," she thinks at the birth, "Washed up on shore so naked. Come flop onto my warm belly-beach." The need to describe what is tender and intimate, teasing and lovely is so great, so immediate and impossible that Chesler, like most of us, falls back on the coy and sentimental. Certainly the emotions are genuine, but language is limited and cannot always express adequately the profoundest human experiences as they confront us directly.
Childbirth, mothering are more emotional than intellectual experiences, rooted in feelings, not words. Perhaps that was the problem with trying to deal with it in a movement that needed to define and articulate women's problems as a prelude to change. Now that that is begun, we can perhaps relax more, enjoy more. With Child ends when Chesler's son is a year old, but this is clearly a beginning. One wonders not if she will survive the experience of motherhood, but how she will. One hopes that, for Chesler and for all of us, this is a time to rediscover motherhood, to share its pleasures and give each other support, and not lose sight of ourselves.
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