Story by Tracy Thompson
Photographs by D. Gorton
The Washington Post
Do you see her?" I kept asking David. The sterile drapes blocked my view. "No," he'd say. Then, finally: "I see her head." There was no sound in the operating room except for the doctors muttering to each other. And then: a tiny gasp.
I think she must have been too amazed to cry. I was. At 8:06, there were seven people present. At 8:07, there were eight. Just like that. The emotional force of this ordinary event obliterates the intellect. You try out the words, to see how they sound, and it is as if you are experimenting in ancient Farsi. "We have a daughter," you say. "I am a mother now." You look at her: She is fabulous. It does not seem real.
My old life was gone -- blown away more completely than if a bomb had destroyed my home and my workplace and everything I owned. The universe narrowed to three: me, my husband, this child. I am a new person, I thought, as raw to this world as if my skin had been peeled away. Emma is here.
I was at Ground Zero of the Mommy Wars. By then, I'd already gotten my draft notice. In my eighth month of pregnancy, I had gone to a party in honor of a friend who had written a book about the war on drugs. In his irreverent way, Danny took me around the room introducing me to guests as "my friend Tracy, a pregnant crack addict." "Actually, I work for The Washington Post," I would add, hoping to clarify things, and people would say, "Really? What do you cover?" and then I had to say, "Nothing at the moment, I'm on maternity leave." And there conversation would stop. After this happened three or four times, I began to get the distinct impression that it would have been better, conversationally speaking, to have come to this affair as a pregnant crack addict.
Six weeks after Emma was born, I encountered one of my old news sources at a social gathering downtown. "Hey," he said. "Haven't seen your byline lately. What are you working on?" Nothing, I said; I was taking a year's leave to stay home and be a mother.
"Oh." A pause. A very long pause. "Do you have children?" I asked -- a question I never even thought to ask before -- and he answered me, but his eyes were searching the room. Within 60 seconds, he'd eased away and found somebody else to talk to. That was when I started to put two and two together. Showing up at a Washington social gathering as just a mom is like showing up in your underwear: revealing and chilly.
This sudden social demotion is the way many women get inducted into the Mommy Wars, my shorthand for the cultural and emotional battle zone we land in the minute we become mothers. It is a war fought inside your head, on soccer fields or in PTAs in the wary undercurrent between working and stay-at-home moms, in the car when you leave your child for another long day at day care, at play groups, at work and in your own bedroom in those lights-out talks with your spouse. It involves many different social and moral and financial issues, yet it often boils down to a personal question: How does this child fit into my life, or should my life now fit around this child?
The seriousness of this question is, quite often, the inverse of the seriousness with which society now regards you. One woman I know, who used to practice corporate law with a prestigious K Street firm, recalls being asked the usual what-do-you-do question by a female partner at an equally prestigious New York firm. Upon finding out my acquaintance was now a stay-at-home mom, the other woman simply turned her back and walked away. Another lawyer-turned-full-time-mom says that used to happen to her, too, but she learned to fight back. "Now I say, 'I'm in-house counsel to a small family firm,' and people can talk to me." Before her children were potty-trained, she used to add that her specialty was "environmental cleanup." This being Washington, that could jump-start a conversation.
In retrospect, I don't know why I was so shocked at suddenly finding myself in the middle of a cultural battlefield. Everybody told me a child would change my life, and I had no trouble believing it; I'd seen it happen with friends. I knew this little person would change my body, my marriage, my work habits, my finances, all in unsettling and profoundly emotional ways. I expected a roller coaster, and that's what I got: first euphoria, then loneliness. In the mornings, my husband, David, would leave for work, the neighbors' cars would pull out of their driveways, and I would be left with this new person, she of the inscrutable and never-ending needs. I would think of the newsroom, crackling with gossip and inside jokes, and then Emma would start crying again: I traded that for this? One day I was a big-city newspaper reporter; the next, I was wearing stretch jeans and comparing diaper prices at Wal-Mart. In my old life, I'd written a book; in my new life, I was just one of those generic maternal units referred to by the nurses in my pediatrician's office as "mom."
Perhaps it was a question of the context in which my motherhood was unfolding. I was 41 when Emma was born, happily married, with a husband who is a physicist. I was a veteran of nearly two decades as a working journalist, the last nine years of which had been spent in Washington, the Valhalla of the working woman: According to the Department of Labor, 67 percent of all women in this region work, more, even, than in New York City. And Washington reveres mothers who go to the office. It's the city of Hillary Clinton, perhaps the country's most famous working mom, who juggled law and politics with raising a daughter; of Madeleine Albright, who learned Russian while rocking her babies to sleep; of Supreme Court justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O'Connor, whose careers barely paused when children came along; of Marian Wright Edelman, who created the nation's leading advocacy group for children while managing three sons; of congresswomen and countless others, black and white, of lesser fame, who have managed to change diapers, make lunches, help with homework -- and put in a full day at the office.
My first ambition, after the ballerina dream got ditched, was to avoid becoming the heroine of Marjorie Morningstar, a 1955 bestseller I read as an adolescent, in which Marjorie dreams of becoming a Broadway actress but instead winds up living a mundane life on Long Island as Mrs. Milton Schwartz, housewife and mother of three. Please, God, I thought when I was 16, don't let that happen to me. And then one day I found myself living in Washington with a job that entailed staying at home and spending a lot of time dealing with baby vomit and dirty diapers. Is it any wonder that few people thought of what I did as important anymore? And how could I blame them?
That this attitude thrives in a culture that frets endlessly about the welfare of its children is just one example of the doublespeak we are drowning in on this subject. We say we value motherhood, but in fact what we value is jobs with power and paychecks, especially in status-obsessed Washington. We structure the workplace to give women money and feedback and perks they would never get at home, and then we expect them to say they'd rather be at home with the kids. We say men and women are free to swap roles, that greater involvement by men would solve some of the child-care problems, but unwritten rules of the workplace penalize fathers who take extended parental leave, and stay-at-home dads are considered weird. Experts tout the cognitive benefits to children of mothers staying at home while their children are very young, yet the solutions to the "child-care crisis" political leaders come up with mostly have to do with creating more government-subsidized and corporate day-care slots. We say teenage pregnancy is bad because young girls are too immature to handle the heavy responsibility of children, but every year thousands of teenage girls imported from abroad are given virtual full-time care of somebody's offspring. Feminists say they value sisterhood, but behind the scenes, stay-at-home mothers often criticize office-going moms for neglecting their kids, and working mothers often disparage their at-home counterparts for getting some sort of retro free ride. We say mothers on welfare should work, but when they do go to work, we give them dirty, crowded nurseries for their children, or nothing at all. Meanwhile, upper-middle-class moms who work are somehow blamed if tragedy strikes their child while they're at the office.
Given this kind of dissonance, it's not surprising that we are always looking for hidden agendas. And while the number of working mothers with young children continues to surge, there is an undercurrent of venom on this subject these days that seems new. When British au pair Louise Woodward went on trial in Massachusetts last year for shaking 8-month-old Matthew Eappen to death, the nation was transfixed not so much by the horrendous nature of the crime, but by the debate that sizzled around a much murkier issue: the morality of a mother who had left her young children in the care of a 19-year-old to pursue her career as a doctor. (Somehow, Matthew's father never came in for the same opprobrium.) "It seems the parents didn't really want a kid," said one caller, cruelly, to a Boston radio talk show. "Now they don't have one." Hearing that, I remembered a story I covered for The Post in 1990 -- a sentencing hearing in D.C. Superior Court for a nanny who, in a fit of rage, had killed the 9-month-old girl in her charge by beating her head against the wall because the baby wouldn't stop crying. The infant was the firstborn of Lawrence and Amy Banker, who are both lawyers. I remember watching Amy Banker in the courtroom, and wondering how anyone could survive that kind of loss. Now, I suddenly wondered: Were people saying that kind of thing seven years ago? "No, thank God," Amy Banker says. "Nobody breathed a word like that to us. All we got was sympathy."
Somehow, in the 1990s, the issue has stopped being just child care and started being the ethics of parenting choices as well. In 1994, 8-week-old Brenton Scott Devonshire, of Ashburn, died while in the care of his Dutch au pair, who admitted prosecutors had enough evidence to convict her of shaking him to death and eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge. Yet, it was Brenton's parents who found themselves in the spotlight, quite literally. Stephen Devonshire remembers walking out of the courthouse one night and being blinded by television lights, hearing a voice from behind those lights shouting, "Your parenting skills have been called into question. Do you have any comment?" After a Post article appeared referring to their house as "spacious," they got at least one anonymous letter -- maybe more, Sharon Devonshire tries not to remember -- telling them they'd obviously placed a higher priority on having a nice house than on caring for their child, that it served them right their baby had died.
What was it like to be on the receiving end of some of our cultural anger and angst? Sharon Devonshire and her husband have become media spokesmen on the subject of "shaken baby syndrome," the name for what killed their son as well as Matthew Eappen. The Devonshires seem more baffled than angry about the hate mail. "People were just looking to find fault," Sharon says, and she seems disinclined to probe the mind-set of those letter writers any further. She kept the letters for a while, but eventually threw them away. "I thought, 'Why am I saving these? This is sick.' "
But the truth is, those anonymous letter writers are onto something, in their own malicious way. What motherhood boils down to, quite frequently, is a series of choices, and sometimes they are quite agonizing. The only thing worse than making those choices is not having a choice at all.
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