Motherhood Deferred: A Woman’s Journey by Anne Taylor Fleming (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, c. 1994) eloquently discusses some of the most crucial cultural issues Americans confront. A former columnist for The New York Times, an essayist for The MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour, Fleming enjoys a well-deserved reputation for skilled social analysis. In this book she helps us grasp a bit about what it’s like to be a woman in our day. Fleming’s work weaves together several significant themes: 1) her desperate, late-in-life quest for motherhood; 2) her love/hate relationship with gender feminism; 3) her questions concerning the nature of marriage; and, 4) her unacknowledged hunger for transcendence, something beyond herself which makes life meaningful.
She’s the daughter of Hollywood actors–her mother co-starred on The Ray Milland Show–who divorced when she was five. She breezed through school, absorbing on the way the sexual mores of the ’60’s, embracing the new-found freedoms espoused by prominent feminists of that era such as Germaine Greer and Kate Millett. Following a cohabiting period with him, at the age of 22 she married Karl Fleming, a journalist 22 years her senior, to whom she remains married. Determined to succeed as a writer, she did. But vocational success failed to satisfy the hungers of her heart. Motherhood Deferred tells her story. For she believed (and continues to believe I suppose) that she needed a child to make life complete. Her husband brought two step-sons to their marriage, but step-mothering has its built-in, less-than-fulfilling limitations. At 38, Fleming found herself overwhelmed with the desire for conceive a child of her own. In her words, she was: “giddy, hopeful, lonesome, a babyless baby boomer now completely consumed by a longing for a baby, a feeling akin to heartbreak when you can’t breathe but for the sensation of loss” (p. 13).
Alternating chapters tell the medical details of the assorted treatments she tried in the failing endeavor to get pregnant. These chapters, journal-like in composition, enable us to feel the roller-coaster emotions of hope and despair, of medical promises and failures. Fleming tried everything–GIFT, ZIFT, IUI, ITI, IVF. She had the money, and L.A.’s fertility clinics had the programs, so every route was explored. Whether she was simply too old or just cursed with infertility no one knows. We do know she failed to conceive a child.
The ethicist in me has grave reservations about some of the medical techniques employed in Fleming’s quest. Discarding fertilized eggs, unneeded for a given procedure, raises serious questions concerning the sanctity of human life. Yet my heart feels compassion for Fleming, so desperately desiring a fundamentally natural good. And with her I discount the worldly wisdom of our gurus and experts who encourage women to place professional success ahead of motherhood. While undergoing various fertility procedures, Fleming revisited the feminist literature which had shaped her convictions as a young woman. In her college days she’d eagerly embraced the architects of gender feminism (Simone de Beauvoir; Betty Friedan; Germaine Greer) as well as revolutionary social philosophers such as Rousseau, Marx and Marcuse. Their words, their ideas, were heady stuff!
Enthralled with it all, “The world was coming deliciously unglued and I was part and parcel of it there on my wooded campus [U.C. Santa Cruz]. Armed with my contraceptives and my fledgling feminism, I was on the cusp of a fabulous journey. My sisters and I were the best and the brightest. The luckiest young women on earth. Everything was before us. With our birth control pills and the exhortations of the feminist foremothers to urge us on, what could stop us? Who could? We were the golden girls of the brave new world, ready, willing and able to lay our contraceptively endowed bodies across the chasm between the feminine mystique and the world the feminists envisioned. Strong, smart, educated, we were the beneficiaries of unique historical timing when the doors were opening, the old male-female roles were falling and the world was ours to conquer, to be part of, to matter in, the world of men, of lawyers and doctors, astronauts and poets. I wanted in that world. I wanted to matter. I wanted to be somebody. I wanted to send dazzling words out into that world. Babies didn’t cross my mind, there in my sweaty aerie among the redwoods” (p. 15).
So she lived out the fondest fantasies of her feminist leaders. She made it in a man’s world. She rose to the top. She resisted having children, even when her husband suggested it. “So after all those years of sex without procreation,” she wrote while in a fertility clinic, “here I lie, engaged in this procreation without sex. It is a stunning reversal, a cosmic joke. It contains my history, that arc–all that sex to no sex, a lifetime of trying to be somebody, my whole own woman in the latter half of twentieth-century America, a lifetime of holding motherhood at bay” (p. 16.).
In her current frustration, she questions the truthfulness of feminist rhetoric. She’s been one of the most articulate advocates of “women’s liberation.” She still supports the “movement.” Yet she wonders if it’s told the truth. She wonders if she’s championed an illusion. Her honest struggle with the ideology which had structured her life makes Motherhood Deferred a trenchant treatise: a feminist testing the truth-claims of feminism, her “faith,” (p. 254) as she calls it. However admirable its goals, however just its claims, “What we lost right there, in the schism between the sexual revolution and the women’s revolution, was the notion of a friendship between the sexes, of tenderness between men and women, in bed and out . . . .” (p. 154). Indeed, “In the name of equality we forfeited a certain protective kindness from men, courtesies that were a lot more fundamental than opening a door and yet, in hindsight, not unlinked” (p. 155). What Fleming finally discovered surprised her: “I didn’t want equality; I wanted something more, some delighted mutuality between men and women. . . . . I wanted to be reconciled to my sex, to revel in it” (p. 155). That’s what she failed to find in her professional success. That’s also what, despite its stability, she failed to fully find in her marriage with Karl Fleming. The book ends with unfulfilled longings. Though “reconciled to my faith” (feminism) and to marriage (which had somehow land lost its lustre), she vows to go on with life.
Now and then Fleming drops hints as to her heart’s deepest hunger, a covertly religious longing in an overtly irreligious woman. Early on, while furiously determined to have a baby, she noted that what she and others like her feel, as they approach 40, is not the steady ticking of “our biological clocks” but, instead, the darkening face of “the mortality clock” (p. 31). Beginning to sense the reality of death, she wanted something on earth to outlive her. That her step-sons cannot do. She longs to leave some of her genes, trademarking a child, when she dies. She wants “to put a foot in the future by having a baby” (p. 180). She hungers, clearly, for a tiny bit of immortality, not of her soul but of her genes.
Still more: in her discussions of feminism, she acknowledges its religious nature. She suspects that she “had pasted feminism over my soul-sickness like a Band-Aid and that what was under there–the childhood, the angry nights and mixed signals–had not yet been dealt with and would have to be sooner or later” (p. 119). Her intellectual dual with feminism in this book, however, is a feint, leaving her without solace for her soul-sickness, unsuccessful in her search for salvation. I closed the book persuaded a child would not have satisfied Anne Taylor Fleming, though it would have fulfilled her motherly instincts. What she failed to find in feminism, we Christians would say, can be found only in Christ. The hunger for immortality she hoped to satisfy with a child can finally be found in the Risen Lord Jesus.
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Bryce J. Christensen, in Utopia Against the Family: The Problems and Politics of the American Family (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, c. 1990), provides interesting insights as to why families have so struggled to survive in the past three decades. Christensen edits The Family in America and directs The Rockford Institute Center on the Family in America, so he writes from an informed and engaged perspective.
The book’s title sums it up: utopians undermine families in vain endeavors to establish perfect societies. Many moderns, T.S. Eliot noted, insist on “dreaming of systems so perfect that no one to be good” (“The Rock,” VI). We’ve followed social blueprints, such as the “Great Society,” and forced people to invest trillions of dollars in pipe dreams which devour the truly necessary things–moral standards, personal responsibility, family ties.
What’s lost in utopias, Aldus Huxley’s Savage, in Brave New World describes: “‘I don’t want comfort,’ he explains. ‘I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness, I want sin'” (p 10). Yet utopians, always promising comfort and material well-being, cheerfully abolish religion, risks, personal accountability. That they want to abolish the family is everywhere evident. In most extermination endeavors, utopians start with words. There is, as C.S. Lewis so “‘blood, legal ties, adoption, or marriage'” but may be defined as “‘two or more persons who share resources, share responsibility for decisions, share values and goals, and have commitment to one another over time'” (p. 36). Such elastic definitions have been picked up and stretched by the media and politicians. For instance, Mario Cuomo once espoused the conviction that the government must “‘be the family of America'” (p. 40). When the word “family” may apply to anything from baseball teams to lesbian lovers to an entire country, there’s been verbicide!
Persons most radically committed to redefining the family have often disavowed the traditional family. Without obligations to spouse and children, they covet some of the legal and social welfare advantages “family” affords. So, while married women typically give their time to such things as the PTA and church, unmarried women agitate the political system to attain their ends in legislative chambers and courts of law. On the political spectrum, married couples with children tend to be conservative; childless married folks are more liberal; single people tend to be devotedly liberal. This is true simply because, as Michael Novak says: “‘marriage teaches a realist rather than a utopian discipline'” (p. 64). It was, as you recall, the rootless urban mob in Paris, not the down-to-earth peasantry in the countryside, which supported the French Revolution.
Utopians, of course, cultivate the support of various constituencies committed to “change.” As divorce and single parenthood shake the traditional family, utopians gain adherents to their cause. One of the changes promoted, these days, is day care. Parents are encouraged to place children in day care facilities in order to maintain their professional careers. Such “child-rearing” factories are the staple of socialist utopias. Christensen subjects such factories to a stern review, concluding they threaten the well-being of children. Forty years ago an esteemed psychologist, John Bowlby, studied children in such institutions, and concluded it’s essential that “‘the infant and young child experience a warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with his mother in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment. A state of affairs in which the child does not have this relationship is termed “maternal deprivation”‘” (p. 68). Bowlby’s findings have never been refuted, Christensen claims. Problems running from higher incidence of disease to social maladjustment plague day care facilities. Day care, at its best, should be a last resort decision.
Following day care, utopians prescribe compulsory public schools for children, anxiously force-feeding each generation with their dogmas. They especially seek to eliminate parental influence and family values from schools. In Democracy and Education, John Dewey’s classic treatise, “social unity” and “state-consciousness” were lauded, while home and family went unmentioned!
Reflecting on educational developments transpiring a century ago, Harvard philosopher George Santayana said, in 1934: “While the sentiments of most Americans in politics and morals . . . are very conservative, their democratic instincts, and the force of circumstances, have produced a system of education which anticipates all that the most extreme revolution could bring about. And while no one dreams of forcibly suppressing private property, religion, or the family, American education ignores these things, and proceeds as much as possible as if they did not exist” (p. 88, quoting Character and Opinion in the United States, p. 44). Few folks have read Santayana. But parents home-schooling their children, paying to provide private education, pleading for a voucher system which will give them the right to choose good schools, validate his words. For America’s schools have played a role in fracturing her families.
What then can be done? Christensen, now and then at least, says there’s hope, but only if we can recover some fundamental convictions, build upon them, and break the hammer-lock utopians have imposed on some of our cultural institutions. His hope is best summed up in the words of the great Russian emigre who established the department of sociology at Harvard, Pitrim Sorokin: “By tragedy, suffering, and crucifixion, [society] will be purified and brought back to reason, and to eternal, lasting, universal, and absolute values. . . . Such a shift will be led, first, by the best minds of Western society. Its best brains will increasingly become again new Saint Pauls, Saint Augustines, and great religious and ethical leaders. Their lead will be followed by the masses. When this stage . . . is reached, the crisis is ended” (p. 34, quoting Social and Cultural Dynamics, pp. 701-702).
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While Christensen assails utopian influences, a case study of utopianism is available in Spencer Klaw’s Without Sin: The Life and Death of the Oneida Community (New York: Penguin Books, c. 1993). This is a fascinating, carefully researched study of John Humphrey Noyes and his followers who sought to live out his “perfectionist” teachings. Noyes, like another religious prophet, Joseph Smith, came of age in upstate New York when it reverberated with religious revivals. Noyes sampled various expressions of evangelicalism, studied a bit at Andover, and floated around in “perfectionistic” circles incubated by (among others) Methodist preachers.
Noyes, however, could never tolerate structured settings other than his own. So, having thought through his views, especially concerning communal property and marriage, he launched his version of realized eschatology, the Kingdom of God fully established under his guidance. In time he recruited converts, many of them family and friends, and established a utopian community near Oneida, New York.
Thoroughly communistic, the community eliminated private property–possessiveness equaled sin in Noyes’ thought. Also abolished was monogamy. Thus Oneida is remembered for its “free love” milieu–though it was not quite as sex-saturated as university dormitories these days. To eliminate sin, Noyes believed you must eliminate possessive sex. Thus members of the community, with the permission of its elders, were allowed to have sex with anyone they desired. Since the sexes lived in different quarters, special rooms were constructed for their sexual liaisons.
As you might expect, Noyes himself was the primary beneficiary of such sexual freedom! Young women, needing the skilled hand of the master, were usually introduced to love-making by Noyes himself. Favored members of the community, interestingly enough, also received sexual advantages. Nevertheless, the community survived for 40 years before internal problems forced Noyes to flee to Canada and the remaining residents to transform Oneida into a prosperous business community.
What’s interesting about this book, read in conjunction with Utopia Against the Family, is the fact that the very things “advanced social thinkers” in our day espouse were tried by the Oneida folks. The traditional family was abandoned for such things as sexual liberty, day care for children, absolute equality of the sexes. When the Oneida experiment finally collapsed, there was an instant return to the traditional nuclear family. One suspects the same always happens simply because the family is as integral to the human condition as hearts and lungs. We can’t last long without it!
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Finally, let me recommend a book I haven’t space to discuss: Growing Up with a Single Parent: What Hurts, What Helps, by Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, c. 1994). This is a solidly-researched, scholarly study, basically declaring that Dan Quayle was right in his 1992 criticism of Murphy Brown. In the authors’ judgment: “. . . the evidence is quite clear: Children who grow up in a household with only one biological parent are worse off, on average, than children who grow up in a household with both of their biological parents, regardless of the parents’ race or educational background, regardless of whether the parents are married when the child is born, and regardless of whether the resident parent remarries” (p. 1).
That’s the truth! For the good of our kids, parents must be married and stay married. Carefully examining such things as success in school, teenage pregnancies, and job performance, McLanahan and Sandefur, in cautious quantitative terms, make it clear that, however Hollywood imagines it ought to be, families–traditional nuclear families–really matter. How to rebuild families, however, the authors cannot say! They call for various new government programs, giving child allowances rather than tax breaks, more of what seems (to many of us) at the root of many of the problems. It is a fact-filled, helpful book, however.