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Is Midge Maisel a Bad Mom? A Feminist Query.

A 15th century mother of 14, Margery worked with two different scribes to get the story of her religious life onto parchment. Perhaps because it is categorized as an autobiography, literary critics have expressed surprise that, while Margery begins her text with a childbirth scene, she declines to narrate the years presumably spent raising her children. Some even suggest that the absence of any mention of the day-to-day aspects of childrearing from The Book implies that Margery abandoned her children in order to pursue a spiritual vocation. This has always struck me as fascinating, if not infuriating. Why do we expect her to talk about diapers and getting dinner on the table? It seemed clear to me, as a graduate student writing a dissertation while also parenting two children, that Margery’s focus in composing her text was her mystical experience of Christ and the impact that it had on her spiritual and physical existence, and not any of the other myriad aspects that might make up a woman’s life, childrearing included.

In the no doubt riveting television series to be made about my dissertation writing experience, you will watch as whatever witty, Semitic-looking actress Amazon chooses to play the role of me spends a lot of time at Starbucks in order to write in peace, absenting herself from the very loud and demanding sources of joy in her home. Of course, there were plenty of times during those years when I was present for my children and partaking in those joys, but that isn’t what the series is about. To perhaps extend Solnit’s phrasing beyond its intended scope, we can be there for the babies and the books, but not all of the books need to be about the babies. 

The point is, we don’t know what kind of mother Margery Kempe was, and to pontificate about it implies that any discussion of artistic creation by women who are mothers must always also be a referendum on their motherhood. Like modern judgment of Margery Kempe, critique of Midge Maisel as mother is predicated upon a conflation of women and maternity and reflects our cultural inability to distinguish between a woman and her uterus. It isn’t that I think Amy Sherman-Palladino is giving us a story about a great mother, whatever that is. She’s giving us a story about a woman who, somewhat to her surprise, finds that she is passionate about something other than being a mother. Sherman-Palladino has written a woman who discovers that she in fact wants to be there for the books and not necessarily the babies but because of cultural expectations, she already has the babies.

That woman is familiar to me. My Bubbie, who was also raising children in the ’50s, would have laughed at Horn’s citation of Kay Willis’s Are We Having Fun Yet?: The 16 Secrets of Happy Parenting and its assertion that “raising children…is supposed to be about having fun.” If there was ever an encapsulation of the way in which 21st century – and, it should be noted, first world – life departs from what came before, this is surely it. The belief that the core function of parenthood is to provide enjoyment – not to mention the idea that motherhood is something freely chosen and embraced – is a thoroughly modern one, and deeply anachronistic to the mid-20th century story that The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is trying to tell.

When, at the age of 80, Bubbie decided to write a memoir of her life, she included only two brief mentions of her children, including this gem: “The kids started school full time and I was free.” She eventually ended up in a high-pressure Wall Street job despite her lack of a high school diploma and in her writing it is clear that that work, and the various creative projects that came later, were what energized her. She loved her children but she became a mother because it was an unquestioned expectation rather than a raison d’être or a source of joy. This is anathema to our current parenting zeitgeist, which dictates, as Horn suggests, that we endlessly mine delight and pleasure from the fruit of our loins. 

The scene, in episode three, of Midge Maisel’s marijuana-fueled questioning of her own motherhood no doubt lends credence to Horn’s judgment of her approach to parenting. “What if I wasn’t supposed to be a mother?” she wonders. “What if I picked the wrong profession?” The scene suggests that she is closer to Bubbie, who rejoiced when her children went to school so that she could go to work, than to the presumably perpetually-joyful mothers. But the impulse to judge the latter as better than the former—an impulse I admit I share with Horn—may stem from our privilege as 21st century mothers. Unlike Midge and Bubbie, women of our generation were raised to believe that we could partake in joys both maternal and professional, that we could be there for the books and for the babies. Midge’s monologue reveals that, when she became a mother, she understood motherhood to be a job that must preclude any others. Horn’s critique elides the way our current (admittedly first-world, class-based) conceptions of what motherhood should be are enabled by the work that real-life Midge Maisels (and Susie Myersons) did to carve out alternative paths for talented women, including those who were also mothers. In other words, if we have a smorgasbord of joys, personal and professional, it is in part because they didn’t always have the choice.

Of course, motherhood and artistic creation are often still at odds, despite decades of feminist activism and “having it all” handwringing. The choices may be less overt or stark, but they still have to be made. And perhaps this key tension of modern motherhood also informs criticism of Midge’s choices as a mother. That is, the internalized cultural expectation that motherhood should be joyful can be in conflict with the desire to pursue joys of a different sort of creation. For example, I am writing this essay in the cafeteria section of my local Whole Foods because driving here was the only way to get my four week old to sleep and I needed salmon. As I write these sentences I must pause periodically to push her stroller back and forth a few times in order to lull her back to what I assume are dreams of nipples and breast milk. The observation by writer Maggie Nelson that “I cannot hold my baby at the same time as I write” remains true. Even with all the strollers, baby-wearing gear, and vibrating bassinets in the world, birthing and caring for children—what Virginia “A Room of One’s Own” Woolf called “the difficult arts of family life”—present a roadblock to creative expression. Not wishing to pause, I just typed that last sentence with one hand, the other alternating between pushing the baby away from me and then pulling her back. There’s surely a metaphor there but I’m too sleep deprived to articulate it.

The assumption, for much of human history, that women would busy themselves with one source of joy and not the other meant that it took some time for women like Midge to find their voices. That those of us who actively choose the demands of family life do so with the full understanding that we must balance the cultivation of our own voices with the cacophony of the voices we nurture at home does not make that balance any easier. To distance oneself, as Horn does, from a “terrible mom” like Midge is to pretend that deriving joy from our children does not, at some point or another, come at the expense of our own professional and creative endeavors. To criticize Midge’s parenting just when she is finding her voice is to miss the point of the show entirely.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.