IN Mothers Talk Back, Margaret Dragu, Sarah Sheard, and Susan Swan have collected interviews with 15 moms in an attempt to explode the myths of motherhood (we can't all be June Cleaver) and tell the truth of the experience from various points of view, including those of single mothers, working mothers, a stepmother, a mother with a special-needs child, a welfare mother, a lesbian mother, and a man who identifies himself as a mother. By and large, the book is a success.
Each interview offers valuable insights into the problems, pleasures, and possibilities of motherhood. Everyone in the book seems to agree, consciously or unconsciously, with Dragu's introductory assertion that "the mommy myths of eternal sacrifice, eternal niceness, eternally perfect nurturer" have saddled "women with enormous
cultural/political/spiritual expectations, double-sided morality, judgment."
An important recurring theme that connects most of these interviews is the issue of guilt. No matter how hard mothers try to overcome or live up to the myth of perfection, we are doomed to failure. Now that the noun "parent" has become a verb (not to mention a project), we are constantly failing to measure up to society's standards and our own internalized versions of what a good mother does and does not do. We are determined, it seems, to blame ourselves for every little thing. For instance, as Dragu says when she herself is being interviewed, "It's not my fault I was having trouble breast-feeding, but it made me feel that I was bad." (Note: it did not just make her feel bad, it made her feel that she was bad.) According to the idealized vision of motherhood, the woman who gives birth must become a martyr: "Your needs don't count, and you should put your needs on hold, and you're bad if you have needs." Any mother reading this book will feel a flash of recognition when Dragu says, "I feel guilty that I am a person!" If good mothers are not supposed to have needs other than those that can be fulfilled by motherhood, they are especially not ever supposed to get mad. As Susan Swan says,
I used to feel deeply ashamed - embarrassed and mortified - when I behaved angrily. It wasn't until much later that I realized getting angry in front of a child isn't the worst thing that could happen... ... Somewhere along the way, she's learned that when somebody gets mad, it isn't the end of the world - Kit I certainly thought it was, that I should be burned at the stake for it.
Susan Stewart, a lesbian mother, sums it up: "Guilt is the key word. We are all so guilty. That's the big one. Everyone's got it. We mothers. We've all got guilt. For one or another reason, we carry around this bundle of guilt." Interestingly, it is Guy Allen, the male mother, who seems to have the healthiest attitude towards all this guilt. He advises mothers to forget their guilt and live their lives by enjoying themselves, and in that way they will be good role models.
As the single-from-the-beginning mother of a now six-year-old boy, I was relieved to hear my own anger and frustration in many of these voices. What occasionally made me squirm, though, was the sometimes unbelievable naivete of the interviewers themselves. Why are they so surprised that motherhood has changed their lives? Why is Susan Swan so sympathetic to Mary Morris, a single mother and writer, who was able to hire a nanny to do the dirty work? How can Morris actually say out loud, "I don't know how women without resources poor women - do it"? (It happens all the time.) Why is Swan astonished to learn that Guy Allen can actually read a newspaper while his kids are around (kids who are, by the way, 20, 19, and four years old)? Occasionally this naivete nudges into snobbery, as when Margaret Dragu, commenting on the "equalizing power" of motherhood, says, "You do have something in common with people you wouldn't say boo to in the bank lineup.
Although the book is important and reassuring, this attitude seriously detracts from its strength. When Dragu asks Sidney Shadbolt, a 70-year-old mother of three, "How did being a mother change your life? Or did you start young enough that maybe it didn't matter?," Shadbolt so rightly replies, "You've got to be kidding to ask a question like that. Come on, Margaret, get real!"