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Rewriting the Story of Motherhood

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Recently, I was visiting a first grade classroom and I asked the children to tell me what their most important reading experiences had been. Of 22 children in the room, twenty mentioned reading with their fathers. I was deeply struck by this.

After writing What to Read When, I have received many emails and letters from people all over the world, men and women alike, who have shared stories of the pleasures of reading to children. So it puzzled me that when I asked children themselves what made those experiences so meaningful they all talked about the focus of the fathers, the sense of being lost in the book together, of a lack of distraction. I was struck by the absence of mothers in the children's special moments.

The philosopher Elisabeth Badinter has just published an important new book entitled Conflict: The Woman and the Mother. Her voice is in my opinion a welcome addition to the cacophony of domestic goddesses out there who preen their perfect home styles for all to see (and make me envious, I must admit). Badinger wants to "defend women from the possibility of trying to be the perfect mother ... Women's lives have grown more difficult in the past 20 years. A revolution has taken place in our conception of maternity, almost without our realizing it ... the baby has now become the best ally of masculine domination."

Why is this? According to Badinter, the "green mother" is pressured to refuse an epidural, to create a purely organic home and life for her baby, no matter what the consequences for her personal sense of self. The bottle, the disposable diaper are all attacked by the green movement. "We are being urged to discard the inventions that have liberated women" says Badinter.

While I agree, like others, I believe it is not just women themselves who are making things difficult for each other. The workplace needs to be more hospitable and supportive of women returning to work. And so this debate about what women should and can do is not only about what pressures women to stay home, but what might motivate them to return to work.

Badinter's words have got me thinking about the variety of ways society conspires against women to force them back to a place of guilt and yes, even despair. I would take this one step further, to express my concern with the way women themselves end up pitted against one another, from the "stay at home" wars to the conflict between green and not green, women who have an epidural versus women who do not. It's time for us to come together and demand better work conditions for mothers in the workplace. It's time for us to stop multitasking so frantically and snuggle in with a good book (leaving the dishes unwashed, or better yet, having a partner do them).

On a lighter yet related note, the author and Emmy-Award-winning television host (and recovering Marthaholic) Lisa Quinn gets real on the follies of housekeeping in her new book Life's Too Short to Fold Fitted Sheets. She kicks up the humor quotient on women's self-induced pressure as well as what ways we can keep a closer eye on our own self- destructive tendencies when it comes to wanting to be perfect: all things to all people. It's a fun read, and will make you feel better instantly!

There is enormous pressure on us as women to be the "perfect mothers" and to run the perfect household. Just recently, our daughter, aged 17, wrote a letter to the Swiffer company asking why in this day and age the only people seen cleaning houses on their television ads are women. She received a polite form letter back saying her views would be carefully considered. I most certainly hope so.