“But what does that mean about me and my children?”

For most of my years as a practicing obstetrician, I worked part-time and only at night. I got the idea from a male colleague who, as he neared retirement, arranged to work only during the day. I was working part-time already, but I missed my children when I was working and figured that working only at night would be ideal for our family. Our large HMO practice was desperate for night coverage, so it seemed like a perfect fit.

Despite the fact that my new schedule would benefit the practice as a whole, my boss was reluctant to approve my request. Her response was quite illuminating. “My children are the same age as yours,” she said,” if you decide to work only at night, what does that mean about my children and me?”

I was reminded of that episode when I read about the recent uproar over Katie Roiphe’s essay My Newborn is Like a Narcotic, in which she rhapsodizes about her love for her 6 week old son. On the face of it, the piece is rather uncontroversial. Roiphe is experiencing the same thing that many other new mothers experience, a love overwhelming in its all encompassing nature and power. Mother love IS like nothing else, and there is certainly nothing wrong in celebrating it.

Unfortunately, many feminists reacted with outrage, and their response seemed very much like that of my boss. “Katie Roiphe thinks that motherhood is more important than her work; what does that mean about my children and me?”

The passage that caused the most offense appears to be:

One of the minor dishonesties of the feminist movement has been to underestimate the passion of this time, to try for a rational, politically expedient assessment.

As can be expected in any discussion of motherhood and work, the response of feminists has been vicious. They range from the dismissive (“just wait until the baby is older”), to the pedantic (“Roiphe is battling a straw man”) to the nasty (“she doesn’t love her baby; she merely loves not working”).

The response of feminists is so formulaic as to be a stereotype, right down to the humorlessness often attributed to them. Describing the experience of a friend after the birth of her second child Roiphe writes:

My friend looked down at her newborn and her tiny eyelashes… Here, sitting in the garden, looking at the eyelashes, would you trade the baby for the possibility of writing The House of Mirth? You would not.

This is what is understood by most people as humor through hyperbole. Predictably, feminists are livid. Katie Roiphe thinks a baby is more important than Edith Wharton’s masterpiece!

Roiphe’s comment is figurative, not literal in the same way that the claim “if my mother hates my new dress, I will kill myself” is figurative, not literal. It is a way to emphasize strong emotion. Just as a woman wouldn’t really kill herself if her mother hated her new dress, Roiphe is not seriously suggesting that Wharton should have had a baby instead of writing a book. She is merely trying to convey how powerful her love for her new baby feels to her.

Feminists have a nasty habit of being too self-referential. They seem incapable of accepting Roiphe’s piece for what it is, a paean to the intense feelings of early motherhood and her surprise that feminism has devoted so little attention to this important phase in a woman’s life. Roiphe is not talking about other women. She is not chastising them because they did not feel as she does. She is not secretly criticizing their decisions to return to work, or to work the hours that they do. She’s talking about herself. Any criticism of them, implied or overt, is in their imaginations.

Don’t believe me? Try a little thought experiment. Imagine if a new father wrote the following:

One of the minor dishonesties of American male culture has been to underestimate the passion of new fatherhood.

Would feminists condemn that statement as criticizing fathers who do not feel overwhelmed with love for a newborn? Would they view the statement as implied criticism of men who work? No, they would do the opposite. They would celebrate that new father as a man who truly appreciates what was valuable in life.

Feminists need to get over themselves. Katie Roiphe was not talking about you and your children. She was talking about herself and her son. She was asking a perfectly valid question. Why are feminists afraid to celebrate the power of mother love? Instead of imagining personal slights, feminists should try to answer the question.

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