My May book group pick was What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us : Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman by Danielle Crittenden. Crittenden is a journalist, not LDS, and presents some insightful analysis about what life is really like for women who have taken feminism to its heights. She lives among super successful women and notices that they really aren’t happy with their lives, after a certain point. Their restless urge to become mothers just as their careers are really taking off (in their mid 30s-40s) creates a lot of friction and unhappiness. Turns out, we long to be mothers and yet we feel like we are betraying our fellow-liberated-women when we admit it. It is such a great, reaffirming book for women who have chosen to be mothers and plan their lives according to the culture of the 1950s, which sounds backwards, but it really is what we are doing. Anyway, there is so much that I love from this book, so I am going to break it into sections.
Growing up in the post-feminist world, girls are coached to be independent. You can be the President. You can be a surgeon, a lawyer, an astronaut. There are no limits to what you can do. (Just please, don’t sell out and be a wife and mother). We feel great pressure in our teenage years to be independent and super-ambitious. We all know those girls who live for having a boyfriend or a best friend, who cannot stand to live their lives on their own. They are annoying. That is not the life of a deliberate, independent, aspiring woman. We don’t need anyone! We don’t want to need anyone! I’ll go stag to the dance if I don’t get asked, because if I want to go to the dance, I’m not going to let some boy’s negligence keep me out. And so it goes, through college, building up our independent selfhood.
Ms. Crittenden had the same trajectory as an early 20-something with her friends, and felt betrayed when her friends slowly trickled out of her group and into marriage. And then she finally did too. And she realized: “Once you have ceased being single, you suddenly discover that all that energy you spent propelling yourself toward an independent existence was only going to be useful if you were planning to spend the rest of your life as a nun or a philosopher on a mountaintop or maybe a Hollywood-style adventuress, who winds up staring into her empty bourbon glass forty years later wondering if it was all damn worth it. In preparation for a life spent with someone else, however, it was not going to be helpful.” We spend so much energy and time and thought building our identity as a self-standing monolith that the first year of marriage is a complete shock and even a little bit terrible. Give up my name?! Merge our finances together?! We’re moving for YOUR schooling?! We have to share a car?! If our independence is our religion, then marriage is a shocking apostasy.
Later she observes how the obsession with independence affects marriages. “In order for modern women to have the marriages we want, we will have to stop being so preoccupied about our identities, and instead develop an appreciation for the mutual, if differing, contributions we make to marriage as men and women. Maybe what we should expect from our marriages is not so much an equality in kind but an equality in spirit. We want our husbands to love and respect us, to see us as their equal in all aspects of the mind and soul, but that doesn’t mean we have to do exactly the same things in our day-to-day lives or to occupy identical roles. We must also understand that family has never been about the promotion of rights but about the surrender of them–by both the man and the woman. A wife and husband give up their sexual freedom, their financial freedom, their right to ‘pursue happiness’ entirely on their own terms the moment they leave the altar. No matter what may come of their marriage, they have tied their identities-and fates- together. Through the act of having children, they seal them. And this is what a woman today who takes her husband’s name acknowledges with that symbolic act. She is hardly declaring herself his chattel. She is asserting, rather, that she and her husband have formed a new family, distinct from all their previous ties, both permanent and total in its commitment. . . Alas, by withholding ourselves, or pieces of ourselves, instead of giving to our marriages wholeheartedly, we can’t expect our husbands to do so, either.”
I don’t want to be misunderstood: I think developing our own personalities, interests, talents and philosophies is extremely important. That’s the whole point of being here on earth. And it shouldn’t stop when we are married either. Marriage is not the end of the person, it actually amplifies a person’s growth and sets them on higher paths. The problem is when developing our own identity and independence is the destination where we stubbornly sit down on our suitcase and refuse to budge.
As I anticipate my daughters heads being filled with thoughts of surgeons, lawyers, astronauts and presidents, I want to make sure to give them some balance and cooperative living skills. That’s one reason we have four kids in five years. No one got used to having all the attention, ever. They have to share and play together and work together. And they find such giggling-infused joy in their cooperative efforts. Raising a family that spends time together joyfully is probably the best way to teach our kids how wonderful family life really is, and why it is important to blend our interests together.
I also think it will be important to counter the messages that they receive from the world of how they can be anything they want with the reality of “what you will really want to be when you are older, is a mother. Maybe not immediately, maybe not for 10 years after you finish college, but eventually there will be this insatiable desire to buy a carseat, paint a room light green, and sit and rock your own baby every night. You are hardwired for this job and you are the only one who can do it. So make sure you don’t choose a career that is going to cause too much distraction from this higher calling.” One day my four-year-old daughter announced, “I want to be a doctor when I grow up!” and I thrilled with the possibility of her growing up to be so fabulous. And the next thought was, I wouldn’t wish that on you for anything, darling. We absolutely know how tiring and taxing the schooling is, and then residency is far worse (that’s where we are now). Then the lifestyle of a doctor (except a pathologist, maybe) is grueling. When would she have a family? How long would it have to be put on hold? How would she juggle day care and studying and classes and early rounding at the hospital? Why in the world would we encourage her to pursue something that would just make her life impossibly hard? Maybe because parents are too prideful about what our children turn out to be. You rarely hear the old lady in the ward bragging about her daughter the hairdresser. The totally happy, flexibly-scheduled, working-from-home-so-she-can-be-with-her-kids hairdresser. Parents who focus on happiness, identify happiness and pursue happiness will raise happy, well-balanced children.
Because, for sure, the path to happiness for a woman is found in raising a family and dedicating herself to it. Really. It is. There may truly be women who have no desire to ever get married or have children, and I say, do what makes you happy. But that is what I love about Ms. Crittenden’s book–she knows those women, and they have confided in her that they are really unhappy. We, in the church, try to be tolerant and assume that we are so peculiar and we can’t make judgments for other people. But God has declared that this is what life is about. He created us with longing for each other and for children. He hard-wired us to want children and to nurture them. So I will say it again: the path to happiness for a woman is found in raising a family. What makes being a mom so hard and unsatisfying is when we still hold on to that old vestige of independence and “who I used to be” that makes us feel like we are operating waaaaay under our capacities. We are too smart for this job. We are too talented for laundry. Is this why I have a Masters Degree?
When we hold ourselves back and begrudge every meal, every dirty diaper, every trip up the stairs, every ride to and from school, we make ourselves miserable. Instead, use all of that wonderful, expensive education to build an amazing life for your children. Engage their curiosity and love of learning, teach them to solve problems and manage money. Travel with them and teach them about history, anthropology and literature. A woman’s education is absolutely essential to her family’s well being. So is her mission, her semester in China and her three years of experience teaching before she had kids. Women need to pursue their interests and solidify their own sense of self–and then use that confidence and knowledge to contribute to the family team. The sum is greater than all its parts.