By now, legions of tireless essayists and op-ed columnists have dressed feminists down for making such a fuss about entering the professions and earning equal pay that everyone's attention has been distracted from the important contributions of mothers working at home. This judgment presumes, of course, that prior to the resurgence of feminism in the '70s, housewives and mothers enjoyed wide recognition and honor. This was not exactly the case.
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However diligent she may be, however dedicated, no mother can escape the larger influences of culture, biology, fate . . . until we can actually live in a society where mothers and children genuinely matter, ours is an essentially powerless responsibility. Mothers carry out most of the work orders, but most of the rules governing our lives are shaped by outside influences.
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What stunned me was the regular assertion that feminists were "anti-family." . . . It was motherhood that got me into the movementin the first place. I became an activist after recognizing how excruciatingly personal the political was to me and my sons. It was the women's movement that put self-esteem back into "just a housewife," rescuing our intelligence from the junk pile of "instinct" and making it human, deliberate, powerful.
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Since civilizing children takes the better part of two decades--some twenty years of nonstop thinking, nurturing, teaching, coaxing, rewarding, forgiving, warning, punishing, sympathizing, apologizing, reminding, and repeating, not to mention deciding what to do when--I now understand that one wrong move is invariably followed by hundreds of opportunities to be wrong again.
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Most literature on the culture of adolescence focuses on peer pressure as a negative force. Warnings about the "wrong crowd" read like tornado alerts in parent manuals. . . . It is a relative term that means different things in different places. In Fort Wayne, for example, the wrong crowd meant hanging out with liberal Democrats. In Connecticut, it meant kids who weren't planning to get a Ph. D. from Yale.
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The job description of mother is clearly in need of revision. As it stands, the shifts are 24 hours, for a period of approximately 1,825 consecutive days. The benefits are sorely in need of amendment: no vacations, no sick leave, no lunch hours, no breaks. Moreover, it is the only unpaid position I know of that can result in arrest if you fail to show up for work.
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However global I strove to become in my thinking over the past twenty years, my sons kept me rooted to an utterly pedestrian view,intimately involved with the most inspiring and fractious passages in human development. However unconsciously by now, motherhood informs every thought I have, influencing everything I do. More than any other part of my life, being a mother taught me what it means to be human.
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Mothers are likely to have more bad days on the job than most other professionals, considering the hours: round-the-clock, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year. . . . You go to work when you're sick, maybe even clinically depressed, because motherhood is perhaps the only unpaid position where failure to show up can result in arrest.
After I discovered the real life of mothers bore little resemblance to the plot outlined in most of the books and articles I'd read, I started relying on the expert advice of other mothers--especially those with sons a few years older than mine. This great body of knowledge is essentially an oral history, because anyone engaged in motherhood on a daily basis has no time to write an advice book about it.
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It takes twenty or so years before a mother can know with any certainty how effective her theories have been--and even then thereare surprises. The daily newspapers raise the most frightening questions of all for a mother of sons: Could my once sweet babes ever become violent men? Are my sons really who I think they are?
One year, I'd completely lost my bearings trying to follow potty training instruction from a psychiatric expert. I was stuck on step on, which stated without an atom of irony: "Before you begin, remove all stubbornness from the child." . . . I knew it only could have been written by someone whose suit coat was still spotless at the end of the day, not someone who had any hands-on experience with an actual two-year-old.
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Certainly, words can be as abusive as any blow. . . . When a three-year-old yells, "You're so stupid! What a dummy!" it doesn't carry the same weight as when a mother yells those words to a child. . . . Even if you don't physically abuse young children, you can still drive them nuts with your words.
The naive notion that a mother naturally acquires the complex skills of childrearing simply because she has given birth now seemsas absurd to me as enrolling in a nine-month class in composition and imagining that at the end of the course you are now prepared to begin writing War and Peace.
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Today, only a fool would offer herself as the singular role model for the Good Mother. Most of us know not to tempt the fates. Themoment I felt sure I had everything under control would invariably be the moment right before the principal called to report that one of my sons had just driven somebody's motorcycle through the high school gymnasium.
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A "snapshot" feature in USA Today listed the five greatest concerns parents and teachers had about children in the '50s: talking out of turn, chewing gum in class, doing homework, stepping out of line, cleaning their rooms. Then it listed the five top concerns of parents today: drug addiction, teenage pregnancy, suicide and homicide, gang violence, anorexia and bulimia. We can also add AIDS, poverty, and homelessness. . . . Between my own childhood and the advent of my motherhood--one short generation--the culture had gone completely mad.
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In the range of things toddlers have to learn and endlessly review--why you can't put bottles with certain labels in your mouth, why you have to sit on the potty, why you can't take whatever you want in the store, why you don't hit your friends--by the time we got to why you can't drop your peas, well, I was dropping a few myself.
If my sons are to become the kind of men our daughters would be pleased to live among, attention to domestic details is critical.The hostilities that arise over housework...are crushing the daughters of my generation....Change takes time, but men's continued obliviousness to home responsibilities is causing women everywhere to expire of trivialities.
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Although a firm swat could bring a recalcitrant child swiftly into line, the changes were usually external, lasting only as long as the swatter remained in view....Permanent transformation had to be internal....The habits of self discipline, as laborious and frustrating as they were to achieve, offered the only real possibility of keeping children safe from their own excesses as well as the omnipresent dangers of society.
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With two sons born eighteen months apart, I operated mainly on automatic pilot through the ceaseless activity of their early childhood. I remember opening the refrigerator late one night and finding a roll of aluminum foil next to a pair of small red tennies. Certain that I was responsible for the refrigerated shoes, I quickly closed the door and ran upstairs to make sure I had put the babies in their cribs instead of the linen closet.
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How can one explain all the time and thought that goes into raising a child, all the opportunities for mistakes, all the chances to recover and try again? How does one break the news that nothing permanent can be formed in an instant--children are not weaned, potty trained, taught manners, introduced to civilization in one or two tries--as everyone imagined.
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