Philosophers with Wombs, Mothers without Housedresses

Although I was married shockingly young, right after my freshman year of college, I postponed having children for some years. I was moved by large and inexplicable ambitions. No woman I knew had the ambitions I did. The woman’s movement was in its toddler phase. In the Orthodox Jewish world in which I’d been raised, we hadn’t heard a peep out of it. So where did I get off thinking that I had important things to learn before I could even contemplate duplicating my genes? I have no idea.

I’d always had the thought of motherhood tucked away on my list of to-do’s. I loved kids, I more than looked forward to having one or two of my own someday. Yet the pressure to have children right after marriage—so universal in my family’s community as to go without saying—was as unwelcome to me as the thought of never having kids at all. I wanted to be a mother, sure, but I didn’t want to be a mother who wore housedresses.

The housedress is a garment halfway between a bathrobe and a proper dress. It allows you to change out of your nightclothes without allowing you to leave the house. A woman can respectably answer the door in it, but she can’t step out of the door. Sometimes they are called “housecoats,” cruelly pouring on the irony; coats that keep you inside.

They are cut like coats, boxy and waist less. In fact, they are the most singularly unsexy garments imaginable, designed perhaps to banish any innuendo of peek-a-boo sensuality hovering around nightgowns, negligees, lingerie. The woman who wears a housedress might not be fully clothed, but she isn’t in a bedroom sort of way either.

My mother got up and put on a housedress almost every single day, except of course on the Sabbath, when she got dressed up and went to synagogue. (Dressing up always involved another esoteric garment of those days, the girdle—but that’s another essay entirely.) Housedresses were my mother’s working uniform, and they always made me feel uneasily sorry for her. They represented a life of terminal drabness, the foreclosure of adventure. To get up and put on something that didn’t allow you to tread over your threshold and stride out into the great wide world seemed a renunciation so capacious that it left almost no room for stepping around in.

There was a queasiness that the housedress provoked in me, though I didn’t have the words to express it. My mother was fastidious to a fault—she ironed everything, including the bed sheets, our little footed pajamas, and of course those housedresses of hers. Still, there seemed to me something slovenly about life spent in a state of dishabille. A life in a housedress was a life of too much intimacy with the body, and I confess it made me squeamish.

Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which I read in college, finally gave me a means to explain the queasiness that mothers in housedresses—that my mother in her housedress— stirred up in me. I read de Beauvoir’s classic in the English translation, which has been criticized as not only mutilating her existentialism but as exaggerating her misogyny, making her appear too dismissively contemptuous of the life of the majority of women—of those who hadn’t gotten doctorates in philosophy from the Sorbonne and become the consorts of Jean Paul Sartre.

I confess, however—and judge me as you will—that I didn’t find the descriptions I read in The Second Sex as biased against women. Rather, I read them with the startled satisfaction of hearing one’s most private, inchoate thoughts given polished public expression. The suggestion of an unseemly intimacy with the body that I’d felt, even as a little girl, in the life my mother led in her housedress is laid bare in de Beauvoir’s unsentimental pages. “The species takes residence in the female and absorbs most of her individual life; the male on the contrary integrates the specific vital forces into his individual life.” Those specific vital forces turn the individual male outward, merging his identity with “projects” by means of which the ultimate project of transcendence can be pursued.

But woman, though she too has her intimations of transcendence, softens and liquefies in the rising tides of reproductive destiny, “the life of the species,” even when that destiny is unfulfilled: “Each month all things are made ready for a child and then aborted in the crimson flow.” De Beauvoir’s description of female life, stuck fast in immanence, is rife with references to viscous fluids. A woman’s life comes off sounding like some sticky syrup of secretions, as runny as a soft boiled egg. Man’s high and dry rational abstractions are lost in the moist goo of particularities to which a woman’s life—and so her mind—are given.

De Beauvoir had peered beneath the housedress-or whatever the French equivalent was, which no doubt was something far more chic and sexy. But even in French the sight was not pretty. The life of woman is viscous, fussy, and small. What was more, I loved high and dry abstractions. I was, after all, going to college, and then onto graduate school, to study philosophy.

So, sure, I wanted kids, just so long as they didn’t confine me to a life of runny immanence, covered over by a fastidiously ironed housedress. It was important to me to know that I would always be able to step over my threshold into the great wide world beyond, that I would belong to that world as it would belong to me. So though I knew that I was the sort of person who would eventually try to have a baby, I also knew that I couldn’t be a mother until I had a firm footing outside. I wasn’t going to yield an inch of that world to the “life of the species.”

And if I didn’t want to have to think about what to wear when I got up in the morning, well that’s why jeans and T-shirts were invented.

I felt inexplicably guiltless about all this, even though there were expert guiltilizers assigned full time to my difficult case. In particular, my mother and my mother-in-law joined together their considerable forces to convince me that my “insides were going to dry up” if I didn’t have a baby, sooner rather than later. I don’t precisely know on what they based their medical prognosis, whether the etiology of my gynecological desiccation was, according to them, due to my age (still in my early twenties) or my scholarly inclinations. My professional work was in philosophy of science and—I’ll grant those two mothers of mine—it was pretty dry stuff.

I remember a visit to my parents’ home for the late-spring holiday of Shavuot when I was 26. I was in the living room, reading, and I could overhear snatches of the conversation that my mother and mother-in-law were having over the kitchen table.

“So, have you spoken to her again about when she’s going to have a baby?” asked my mother-in-law.

“You know how she is, Leah. She’s always got her nose in a book. It’s very hard to get her attention. If you could get pregnant from reading books, we’d have 15 grandchildren from her already.”

“She’s still on the Pill?”

There was something in the way my mother-in-law said those words “the Pill” that made me think of Lenny Bruce’s riff on Jewish and goyish: “Dig: I’m Jewish. Count Basic is Jewish. Ray Charles is Jewish. Eddie Cantor is goyish. B’nai Brith is goyish. Hadassah, Jewish Kool-aid is goyish. Evaporated milk is goyish even if the Jews invented it. Chocolate is Jewish and fudge is goyish, Fruit salad is Jewish. Lime jello is goyish. Lime soda is very goyish….” My mother-in-law had never heard Lenny Bruce and wouldn’t have known what to make of him if she had. Nonetheless I think she would have subscribed to some variation along these lines: “Dig. Housedresses are Jewish. Maternity housedresses are very Jewish. Saying you have a headache every night because you already have all the children you want is Jewish. Contraception is goyish. The Pill is very goyish.”

“On the Pill,” repeated my mother in elegiac affirmation. “She’s been on the Pill so long who knows whether she can even still have children.”

“That’s very true. Who knows what that Pill has done to her insides?”

I happened to know, and I smiled conspiratorially at my belly in which my first-born, still indistinguishable from a tadpole, was busily gestating.

I held off telling my mother and mother-in-law for as long as possible about my pregnancy. I knew that the older women in my family would feel that they had me once I had a child, that they would assume that I had forsworn all my ambitions to make my own way in the greater world. They’d smile at one another in that infuriatingly knowing way. convinced that, at long last, I’d slammed the door shut on any more adventures out there. I hadn’t, but I was still insecure enough in my outside footing not to feel that their presumptions would make my path even more slippery.

Sure enough, my mother’s gift to me on the birth of my daughter was two housedresses, one solid blue, the other yellow with delicate flowers embroidered on its collar. And the smile with which she handed them over was exactly the one that I’d anticipated. At last, her smile suggested, I understand you through and through. Everything I didn’t get about you is now over and done with. I hadn’t been mistaken in the semiotics of women’s wear. My mother’s gift to me confirmed that the housedress stood for all that I’d thought it had, ever since I was a little girl and dreaded the thought of growing up into one.

Of course, I never put my mother’s gift to use. I kept the two housedresses hanging pristine in the back of my closet, rather than donating them immediately to Goodwill, just for their ironic value. They hung there, like two disapproving matrons, aggressively unattractive, behind the skirts and slacks I wore to work as an assistant professor of philosophy.

My chair at the department had known of my impending motherhood well before my mother. I’d very conveniently timed the birth to occur during winter break, but I was hoping to be able to take off the spring semester to do the bonding about which all the baby books spoke so highly. I knew that it would be no hardship to find a temporary replacement for me, since graduate departments were turning out far more Ph.D.s than could be hired in those days of the academic slump that had resulted from the baby-boomers hitting the market. Yet my chairperson was rather begrudging about the proposition I presented. Unmarried and childless, she turned out to be a pretty committed guiltilizer herself subtly suggesting that I would not be as useful a member of the department, much less of the scholarly community, once I was a mother. She seemed to suggest that parturition and its aftermath would cause leakage of my philosophical ability.

“I knew you wanted children,” she concluded sternly, “But I didn’t think it would be so soon.” So soon? I felt like answering her (though still well-trained to keep demurral demurely hidden); Would you mind telling my mother and mother-in-law how inappropriately soon you think it is for me to be having a child?

None of these three women ever succeeded in making me feel the slightest bit guilty, however. The either or dichotomy to which they each subscribed seemed false, at least for me. “Mothers without housedresses” was my fearless motto. “Philosophers with wombs.” So I got up every weekday morning, got dressed and walked across my threshold into the out- side world…and was overcome, almost to the point of tearful prostration, with scalding lashes of guilt.

Because, of course, where mothers, mothers-in-law. and department chairs couldn’t touch me, my infant daughter did. She more than touched me. She grabbed those disputed insides of mine and really worked me over.

I could never have anticipated the pangs that I would feel when it was time to go back to work full-time. During the spring and summer, I had bonded like crazy with that amazing little creature, so that by the time the new semester came round the two of us were as close as, well, mother and child. (For some reason, I seemed to be the only one in the university with a fiveday week. I suspect my department might have been punishing me for my audacious frivolity: the very idea of actually using a vestigial organ like the uterus.) Not only did I have to leave my infant daughter every weekday, but I had a pretty substantial commute as well. The thought that I would be two-and-a-half hours away should anything ever happen to my daughter was hyper-agony, a noxious cocktail of guilt and worry.

My daughter, as if intuiting that I had extra-maternal intentions for my future, had always rejected a bottle. Talk about guilt. Not only was I two-and-a-half hours away from the poor child, but so were my breasts, her main source of nourishment. A week before going back to work, trying desperately to get her to take a bottle, I finally got her to sip out of one of those tipsy cups, though all she would take in that form was Welch’s grape juice. She was eating some solid food by then. So at least she stayed alive while I was off being a philosopher. But needless to say, the moment I could leave my office, I would flee, together with my leaking swollen chest, back to my daughter, beneath the accusatory stare of my chair, silently espousing her commitment to the irreconcilable contradiction between slovenly maternity and the life of the philosopher.

I began to think that perhaps my chair had a point, for life was undeniably messier; and I was aware that there was some sort of systemic mollification that I’d undergone, though I hoped it hadn’t progressed to the softening of my analytic reason. But it was undeniable that I was awash in affect, all sorts of gushy emotions, as I’d never been before. Something that had always remained firm and hard in me had given way in this new attachment to life. I was much more given to being moved, lachrymose.. .Goddamn it, I was downright viscous.

I’d always been able to place myself at a rational distance from life, viewing it from the outside, as it were, abstracting from the identities of the various agents in the situation, even if I were one of them. This sort of extreme objectivity is what the philosophers call the view sub specie aeternitatus—under the guise, or the form, of eternity. The view has much to recommend it, but not if you want to be a mother. Just try keeping your baby alive and contentedly gurgling while living sub specie aeternitatus.

In any case, once I gave birth the form of eternity was as remote a possibility as, say, my husband’s taking over the nursing now and then. Philosophical distance was simply impossible when it came to my daughter. Every particularity of her gleamed with significance because she was who she was. She was my daughter, my responsibility, my worry, and my most supreme joy.

No doubt about it, it was the life of immanence. Perhaps, as my glaring chair unsubtly suggested, I was a lesser philosopher for having become so very much of a mother, but that didn’t make me feel in the slightest bit guilty. That job belonged to my daughter alone.

Rebecca Goldstein is the author of five novels, including The Mind- Body Problem, Mazel, and Properties of Light, as well as Strange Attractors, a book of short stories. Her most recent book is Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Godel.