Monday, August 31, 2009

Thoughts on the "opiate" of motherhood

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

Katie Roiphe published a piece on feminism and motherhood last Tuesday, and it immediately sparked a heated discussion. This was all last week, so we're very late to the party. It's been picked over so many times that I'm almost tempted simply to give links to the very good analyses on Slate and Broadsheet. But I think as a young feminist, there is another perspective to add. As I first debated about whether to respond to Roiphe's piece, I felt somewhat as though I was unqualified to discuss it at all. After all, I'm a junior in college, and I've never had children, so I've never experienced Roiphe's "daze" of motherhood - so was it my place to comment upon her experiences? When I sent out the links to the Equal Writes listserv, another blogger brought up this very issue. Below is my response to his question, which I think deals with this question of whether we're "qualified" as non-parents to talk about motherhood, and articulates some of my issues with Roiphe's arguments.

"I'm going to write something about this, because I had the same reaction at first - how am I qualified to comment on this piece? But I think that's the trap she wants us to fall into - she wants to make feminists who have had children feel guilty because they're not constantly celebrating this "perfect" motherhood experience, and feminists who haven't had children feel unqualified to speak. But you don't have to have had a baby to comment on the ways that motherhood is constructed by pieces like this one, and I think a smackdown is very much in order for Roiphe, because this piece is in some ways quite offensive.

Just to clarify, I think my main objection to the article is not that Roiphe has fallen in love with her baby. It's that Roiphe is first attacking feminism for somehow denying this bond (quite unfairly - although I will admit that part of the blame lies with Slate for their banner headline), and then equating these feelings in the first six weeks with child-rearing generally - something that she is herself not capable of speaking about firsthand. Also, let's examine what Roiphe's doing to celebrate her love for her child: writing about it, even though she says in the first paragraph that writing about her feelings seems out of reach.

So great for Roiphe - I'm glad she's loving motherhood, and my problems with this article have nothing to do with her personal experiences. But this article is more about her trying to push buttons than anything else, something she's clearly done. And I think that as commentators on feminism in the media, we have every right to comment upon Roiphe's argument, without touching the fact that she's experiencing parent-child bonding, which I have no doubt she is. What about postpartum depression, for example? What about women who don't experience this opium-like love haze? Are they not real mothers? Are they brainwashed by feminists? What about women who don't want children? Are they not real women? And you must admit - Roiphe uses feminism as a straw man in what I think is a very cheap way. The essay is well-written, but it doesn't hold up, and I would thus love it if one of our bloggers took it apart."

What do you think - about Roiphe, motherhood, and what "qualifies" us to talk about certain issues?

2 Comments:

At August 31, 2009 at 8:33 AM , Blogger Franklinster said...

As far as being qualified to talk about an issue in general, I think I want to reiterate something that I linked to from Feministing a few weeks ago, about the idea of 'accountable space'. Basically, I think everyone is qualified to talk about whatever they want, as long as they're honest about their own relationship with the experience in question. And this goes both ways. Maybe a good example is being a man in our society. I would welcome a woman's comments (or the comments of someone identified with another gender or no gender), and they should be understood as an outside perspective. But being able to articulate a personal experience of masculinity doesn't make me more qualified to make universal judgments about the male condition; the myopia of ideas developed through personal experience engenders its own biases and limitations. So just as a woman ought to acknowledge that her comments about masculinity are limited to observation, I should admit that the specificity of my own experience distorts my ideas. So part of the issue--who is qualified to talk about what?--is realizing that everyone is ultimately fallible.

I picked the example of masculinity for a reason, and I think it's more complicated in the case of motherhood, because I think there's a privilege issue to consider as well. Since male ideas tend to take unfair preference in society, I think it's necessary to be cognizant of the possibility that the discussion becomes structured by those ideas, and work to give an oppressed group a voice.

I think this is possible, and with respect to the original question--who is qualified to speak about what?--I believe that the crucial point is that we set up our discussion for failure by believing that there is only one truth or one meaning. Maybe this is politically debilitating, and I don't want to say that truth doesn't exist, but truth is complex and multifaceted. And more than approaching a discussion with the acknowledgment that you might be wrong, I think perhaps it's important to realize that in many cases, a variety of conflicting views are valid, when understood from the right perspective.

And so, with respect to Roiphe's article, I have to agree with Amelia. I don't have a problem with her ideas about motherhood. I think that the thing that's offensive about her article is that it sets up the many women who don't have this experience as morally deficient, lacking as women, deceived by the patriarchy, or all of these. And if Roiphe wants people to respect her experience and perspective, she ought to do the same for them.

 
At September 1, 2009 at 1:57 PM , Anonymous AC said...

It doesn't matter what "qualifications" you have, what matters is if your argument can stand up under scrutiny. Attacking credentials is the last refuge of someone without an argument.

 

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