I’ve been re-reading Writing A Woman’s Life by Carolyn Heilbrun — it was published in 1988 and re-reading it now makes me realize just how far women have strayed, ambled, run, and yes moved on and from the path of feminism. Heilbrun’s academic work is prodigious and serious, but also revealing and soulful. She considers the problems of women biographers and autobiographers — the fact of women’s lives and their ill-fitting structure when modeled upon the male narrative. Heilburn turns to Cather, Woolf, Sexton, Plath and others to illustrate both the possibility and pain of women who wander from the enclosed and prescribed path of womanhood when it comes to self-expression, choice, writing, and just about anything else. No doubt, Heilbrun’s choices also illustrate the price women pay when they choose to live beyond/outside the border of patriarchy.
At the same time that I’ve been digesting Heilbrun, over at The Hairpin, I just read a tongue-in-cheek post about moms who bring their kids to bars. I could be overjoyed that women have such freedom — to bring children to bars, to continue their lives, uninterrupted, to manage to “have it all” — hipster lifestyle, job, husband, kid, money to frequent bars. I sound sarcastic, but that is probably because I am trying to synthesize these two wildly different views of “modern womanhood.” Heilbrun’s brief but incredible work reveals the desert sands that enclose women’s lives, and simultaneously the power of feminism and individual women to defy the sand storms, to persevere through the cold night, and to drink at the oasis. Twenty years hence, women seem to have no enclosures, no barriers, no obstacles. They roam freely in a verdant idyllic pastures, replete with kid-friendly watering holes, no desert sands for them.
Maybe it was the tone of the post, the sarcasm and yet the accompanying self-righteousness, that set me to wondering. Who am I to throw stones? I have brought my own children to bars, yes I have. Yet, I find myself seething at this hipster-mom, bar-hopping thirty-something. Is this generational incomprehension? Am I behind the times? Perhaps I was burnt in the more earthy and fiery days of feminism.
The hipster moms who bring their kids to bars are the same ones who bring their kids to Family Grounds Cafe; until recently, I had never heard of this strange place. Our toddler play group, made up of families with young (2-4) year olds adopted from Vietnam, had its monthly outing there in December. I had to look it up, and when I did, it was all I could do not to laugh and then gag as I read the website. I quote at length from the “About Us” section:
If Momma Ain’t Happy, Ain’t No One Happy (Goes for Dads too!)
The joys of parenthood are endless. There is nothing more special than the bliss you have with your little one(s). Truth be told though, there are several experiences from your life before kids that you miss! Can you remember the last time you actually finished a conversation? How about that novel that never gets read? Tending to your child’s sweet demands has taken up all your time, right?
Family Grounds Cafe seeks to bring some element of calmness back to your life. A parent’s job is rewarding – but it’s no cakewalk! It’s fun, exciting and heartwarming, but oh can it be exhausting!
Family Grounds Cafe, a family restaurant, strives to be your oasis of restoration. We have created a play space that interacts and engages with your children – enjoyment all in view from your seat. Coffee in hand, decadent muffin in the other, child at play in his/her own little world, what can possibly be wrong with this picture? Absolutely nothing.
The old adage “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t no one happy” is oh so true! For you stay-at-home dads, we’ve got your back!
Is this what feminism has won for us — reducing parenthood to convenient platitudes? We, oh upper-middle class, white women, living in Chicago, an urban oasis, we deserve it. Whatever “it”is. This is not your mother’s feminism, oh no, this is no bra burning, self-actualization — this is “I can bring home the bacon, cook it up in a pan, and never let you forget your a man, cuz’ I’m a wo00-man,” feminism. It seems at odds with feminism to decry the advances that have created an entire coffee house just to keep women sane — after all, didn’t Plath commit suicide because the stifling life of wife/mother didn’t allow for any creative outlet, much less a sane place of connection with other mothers/women? How can this coffee house be a bad thing? How can women taking their kids to bars be anti-feminist?
Here’s how — the women who have the money (and I count myself among them) have left behind the real causes of feminism. I know this is a bigger picture than I can draw here. On the one hand, women have made it because we are no longer trapped by the domestic sphere, no longer enclosed in a cloak of propriety, no longer wedded to the either/or of Cather, Woolf, Plath. On the other hand, women are caught ever more insidiously in the web of consumerism pretending to be liberation (from whatever force weighs in your life). I am all for women connecting, working, writing, keeping themselves sane, but at what price?
When I took my kids to Common Grounds, on an anthropological note, we (and I mean the 40-something moms of 2-4 year olds) stood out for our age, our visibility (we had a bunch of Vietnamese kids with us!) and our lack of hipster-ness. Many of us are teachers, some are single moms, all have come to motherhood after trials, personal decisions and loss. It makes us different. Maybe that is part of my angst about this “take it for granted” form of motherhood. In the days of my own mother, it was just an expectation — a job — that you have kids (and god knows how the women who were infertile then dealt with it), but now that it is a choice, it also seems to come loaded with expectations about the cool stuff (see the ad in Common Ground) that comes with being a parent. They’ve reduced parenthood to platitudes, in order to entice and relieve moms desperate for connection.
My own mother would never dream to take any of us to a bar, ever. We spent time with other kids, families, in kitchens, in backyards, but never in bars. We didn’t have the money for such extravagance. I’m certainly not pining for the good ole’ days here, just noting that the connections women made then are different, and perhaps had my mother had different opportunities, our lives would have been other than they were as well.
Maybe it all comes down to class. Maybe when you finally “move on up” in the world, the hard fought battles for choice morph into “deserving” the very things that we railed against.
I’m not sure where all of this has taken me. I do know that when I was at Common Grounds, I felt ill at ease, out of place, sort of not even really a mother. Maybe that is my own shit, and I have to deal with it. But, maybe there is something in the post-feminist American culture that separates us across even more boundaries. When it was all women fighting for their lives, maybe it was easier for us to coalesce against the power, but now that the tiny door has opened into the world of privilege it is hard to back away, to reconnect with those who still are knocking, waiting to be let in.