I think all my readers can agree with me that I should not be able to throw out the phrase, “that reminds me of a section in The Feminine Mystique“ (a feminist keystone text written in 1963) when in discussion with my female friends in 2012 – almost fifty years later for those of you up too early/late to do the math. But with disturbing frequency, that has been my reaction to recent events in my own life as well as those of two friends living quite disparate lives – one, a 23-year-old mom struggling to raise her nine-month-old while addressing the issues in her relationship with the baby’s father; the other, a 22-year-old recent college grad in a long-term relationship with too much time on her hands as she takes a gap year before graduate school.
Parenthood, and especially motherhood, under the Freudian spotlight, had to become a full-time job and career if not a religious cult. One false step could mean disaster. Without careers, without any commitment other than their homes, mothers could devote every moment to their children; their full attention could be given to finding signs of incipient neurosis – and perhaps to producing it. – The Feminine Mystique, “Chapter 8: The Mistaken Choice”
Shopping with my young mom friend (note to self: why do baby stores allow non-parents inside? Is their master plan to seduce me with coordinated cuteness into tossing my birth control into the garbage?!) the other morning, we came upon a product that baffled me – “breathable” mesh crib bumpers. Mama turned to me and murmured, “people are insane!” After first getting an explanation of the difference between these bumpers and regular ones (apparently, in addition to protecting the baby from getting its limbs caught between the bars of the crib, these “breathable” bumpers reduce the, what I understand to be fairly miniscule, risk of suffocation should the baby shove its body straight against the bumper itself), Mama proceeded to describe the tyrannical culture of the “mom forums.”
From discussions of circumcision, breastfeeding, glucose tests, and more, Mama described the forums as environments where a destructive dynamic exists between “people who are lonely and people who take advantage of being anonymous to bully said lonely people” vis-à-vis their parenting decisions.
Likewise, while sitting in my gynecologist’s waiting room, I happened upon the complementary magazine-advertisement hybrid that is the bump – a product of the online wedding juggernaut the knot. the bump is full of motherhood ‘Q and A’s – including a 12-point guide on how to select a highchair.
‘Cradle to grave,’ as it were, women seem to be being herded (the charge led by those who have the most to gain monetarily) from planning their weddings (a process that can begin before an engagement has even been proposed) to mapping out their parenting style . . . both activities similarly fraught with a combination of anxiety and elation – infusing the decision-making process with highly-charged emotions.
(These women) were intelligent, but strangely “incomplete.” They had given up attempts to make housework or community work expand to fill the time available; they turned instead to sex. But still they were unfulfilled.
. . . the sexual frontier has been forced to expand perhaps beyond the limits of possibility, to fill the time available, to fill the vacuum created by denial of larger goals and purposes for American women. – The Feminine Mystique, “Chapter 11: The Sex-Seekers”
Talking on the phone with College Co-Ed (she unfortunately lives too far away for us to have these discussions over cosmos a la Sex and the City as would be fittingly ironic) she was finally able to let out frustrations she was feeling in her relationship. The specifics are neither important nor mine to share – the conclusion remains the most interesting. After a long “rant” (her word), she said in exasperation, “All I have is work and my boyfriend – I have way too much time to think about him. I’ve become one of those girls we hate.”
And that’s the thing – as modern, third-wave feminists (I would consider myself much more radical in my feminism than College Co-Ed, but there is no denying that she is a fellow traveler), we’ve been taught to scorn and pity “those girls.” The needy girlfriends with no lives of their own who have time to bake their boyfriends cookies and may or may not spend their Friday evenings (if not on a date with said boy, of course) doodling their names in tandem with their beaus’ in gel-pen ink.
So, when we find ourselves (yes, I said “we”) with enough downtime (post-grad, jobless/only working part-time/stuck at a mindless job) to analyze our every word and his every word, we end up hating ourselves a little bit.
Cycling myself between jobs (first an unfulfilling internship, and now a fantastic research opportunity that nevertheless doesn’t absorb that much of my time) and simultaneously experiencing my first romantic relationship, College Co-Ed’s frustration was reassuring in the sense that I no longer feared it was me alone undergoing this Jekyll and Hyde splitting of my personality against all internal feminist protestations.
However, because of my feminism (and because I happened to be reading Friedan during this period of my life), this reassurance is more than overshadowed by the disappointment and alarm that comes from realizing that whatever malignant social forces had indoctrinated ‘60s’ women into the behavior patterns observed in The Feminine Mystique are somehow also acting upon us as 21st-century women – and doing so on some level, perhaps an unconscious one, that is powerful enough to war with the decades of progress we have made.