In her new TimesOnline piece, “Why you shouldn’t let your kids rule your life,” Katie Roiphe trots out the familiar feminist canard about how she found her brain atrophying when she took a year-long maternity leave. She writes:
A lot of my friends who don’t work — and it was the same for me when I didn’t — indulge in a willing suspension of the world of ideas and immerse themselves in the rather dull world of kids’ trivia. You find yourself at a dinner party and, instead of talking about novels or politics, the discussion is about whether it’s important to make your own baby food. Even fascinating and brilliant women can revert to this incredibly mundane topic.
This has never been a problem for me, and frankly, I don’t even understand it. I’ve had a child every two or three years for the better part of the last decade, worked part time for the first few years and have been lucky enough to be a full-time stay-at-home mother for a little more than two years now, but I have never felt that my brain was atrophying. I have never stopped reading good books or following politics. I have never stopped thinking about books and history and politics, nor stopped talking about them with my husband and my friends. I’ve been working on a book for the entire time I’ve been a SAHM, and while it is certainly true that taking care of my children has prevented me from finishing it by now, it hasn’t prevented me from working on it, or thinking about it as I go about my domestic tasks. Do I think about what to make for dinner, too? Of course I do, but it doesn’t take all day, and I can cook and listen to talk radio or books on tape at the same time. Not all the time, of course, because my daughters like to help (and talk, talk, talk) some of the time, but other times they’re off playing in their room or outside, and my mind is free to do what it always did before I had children, even as my hands are busy with food or laundry or whatever.
Roiphe’s article was a bit hard for me to follow at some points, not because my brain has been damaged by obsessing over homemade babyfood, but because the article could have used a good editorial once-over. Moving on from the brain-atrophy problem, she writes:
In the 1930s, Winifred Holby, a journalist friend of the writer Vera Brittain, wrote about what she called the “rich unrest of family life”. I think that we’re supposed to embrace that rich unrest. It evokes a different attitude to the difficulty and chaos of child-rearing. We seem to be so oppressed by all these basic aspects of child-rearing, and I wonder if it is not self-imposed.
It also displays a lack of imagination and tolerance. Is it okay if someone raises their children differently, if a mother, instead of giving them art projects, puts them in front of videos at 8am so she can get dressed? Our judgments contain our own insecurities and a lack of imagination.
What is she talking about? And what does it have to do with (a) SAHM brains atrophying, or (b) letting your kids rule your life? I had never heard of Winifred Holby, but looked her up (finding that her name was actually Holtby, with a T) and learned that she never married or had children. I couldn’t find a reference to the “rich unrest of family life” and am still not sure whether Roiphe thinks that embracing it is a good thing or a bad thing for a mother to do. Similarly, I’m not sure if she’s defending or criticizing the moms who put their toddlers in front of the telly so they can get dressed in the morning. Why she thinks that videos or art projects are the only options is beyond me. Hasn’t she ever heard of children amusing themselves by playing? Truly, it is possible. Mine do it every day for at least a few minutes and often a few hours.
She wraps up the piece by observing:
I would be a terrible mother if I didn’t work — I’d go crazy. And I the fact like that my daughter sees me working. I want her to do whatever she wants in life.
If she wants to work, that’s her business. After all, she has only one child, and that child is already in school. But please, Ms. Roiphe, don’t assume that those of us who do want to be home with our children are mindless dolts who are “going crazy” or losing the ability to think about intellectually stimulating topics. For a great many mothers I know, it simply isn’t so.