With Child: A Diary of Motherhood
by Phyllis Chester. Thomas Y. Crowell (1979), $9.95. by Barbara Joans
Phyllis Chesler’s With Child has put motherhood on the map. And what a map it is. She spares us nothing. Fear, pain, joy, terror and magic kaleidoscope before our bedazzled eyes. The diary opens with her awareness of pregnancy and ends with the child’s first birthday.
Three major interwoven themes compete for our attention: fear, work, and wonder.
My teeth are chattering. My fear—seems to rise up out of history, to swirl through my bowels, all the way up to my teeth. I’m afraid of you. Who are you, that I tremble so?
Chesler develops the theme of fear with agonizing clarity. She fears the baby. She fears her growing vulnerability, her lack of control, the enormity of the responsibility and the weight of the family finances. She fears she will not love the child. She fears the burden of children will silence her writer’s voice. She fears the pain, the desperation, the physical exhaustion of pregnancy.
She is unprepared. There is no way for her to become prepared. She asks perfectly sensible questions. Why can’t she be prepared? Other cultures train their people for the roles expected of them. They are not shocked into awareness. America, however, does not train for motherhood. Despite the pressures on women to become mothers, each woman goes through this experience fundamentally alone.
This is not the aloneness of existential consciousness but the isolation of silence. It appears to be a conspiracy of silence. The silence causes damage to each new-born mother. She faces the experience without advice, knowledge or help from other mothers. The isolation felt throughout pregnancy becomes one of Chesler’s keenest problems as she searches the literature for a pathway into motherhood. Finally, just prior to birth, she links the problems of silence to patriarchy. She asks:
“Is it too dangerous to treat motherhood as so existentially grand an event—when most men don’t become mothers?” She flashes an ancient answer:
“But to become a mother is to open the gates of your womb to admit life—and death— into the world. It is so significant an act, it is devalued. Falsely flattered. Lied about. Lived alone.”
I’m afraid of being called selfish (for complaining), stupid (for wanting to stay home—or for having to leave home to earn money), really stupid (for having expected to be spared this problem), incompetent, a “whiner” (about what every other mother takes for granted, knew about all along, handles magnificently, without complaint.
The next theme, work, comes strongly into focus during labor and continues through the book. All mothers are working mothers except perhaps the very rich.
The amount of time necessary to care for an infant is total time. One infant takes up all the time there is. The full-time mother literally works around the clock. She is no longer in charge of her own life. She is controlled by the ceaseless demands of infancy.
Here Chesler’s experiences differ somewhat from other mothers’. She has a mothering husband and a distant, unhelpful mother. This curious reversal raises as many problems as it solves. Her husband begins by assuming the major portion of child-care so as to “free” her for other work and breast-feeding. But it is soon necessary for her to hire outside help. She discovers, however, that sufficient, affordable, reliable, long-term child help does not exist in New York City. She has to accept continual temporary arrangements all of which take time and more effort to arrange.
“Why don’t the headlines scream ‘Child Care Emergency’ daily? Why are the single-income families still silent about the systematic ‘drowning’ of mothers into housewifery and childcare? The ‘drowning’ of fathers into money-earning?” She responds with withdrawal:
“I go through my days stunned, bitter, like an animal trapped into laborious captivity, like a prisoner of war.”
And still she works. She must. Her work— writing, teaching, making speeches—supports the family.
In colors of blood and air I spin without stopping: colon, foot, eye. By day, by night, for nine months, I weave you: precisely, faithfully. No wonder I’m slow at other tasks. What did we spin today? The shape of your smile? A last-minute gesture?
The final theme, wonder, helps to balance the dangerously overloaded scales of motherhood. Throughout this journal of fear and questions, pain and overwork, are glimpses of great joy and love.
Chesler is not afraid to express the peace, the genuine contentment she feels while watching her sleeping child. She gloats, she brags, she romanticizes over this child.
The relationship between Chesler and her mother is, at best, problematic. They argue constantly, painfully. The mother wishes the daughter were a copy of herself. She would be pleased if Chesler stopped writing and took up full-time child-care. She would have her become the Total Housewife. Personally, I feel that her mother would not be satisfied with anything Chesler chose to do. If she stayed home her mother would complain about her pot roast. We do not know the origin of this ancient quarrel or if it’s endemic to mothers and daughters, but in a book on motherhood it is a painful reminder of maternal rejection.
The husband, though shadowy, is compassionate, tender, nurturing and perceptive. When he ultimately rejects full time child-care in order to return to school we are not without sympathy. It is his unique position as male mother, however, that permits us this sympathy. We would not grant it to a woman.
Chesler asks more questions than can be answered in any one book. Each entry in her diary is our starting point for research on motherhood. She neither analyzes her “data” nor provides a comprehensive theory of motherhood. She has written not a scholarly tract but a prose poem.