A Hymn to Refrigerator Mothers

A Wrinkle in Time is very near and dear to my heart, but the unceasing perfection of Mrs. Murray always stung me, especially set beside haggard, toothless, screeching Mrs. O’Keefe.

So sorry not all moms can be charming double PhDs who conduct Nobel-worthy research in the barns of their charming Connecticut farmhouses, taking a break only to smooth radiant auburn hair from their violet eyes and perhaps make home-made tomato sauce in a rustic cast-iron skillet, L’Engle. Maybe Mrs. O’Keefe would have been more nurturing if your stupid angel-witches had tessered up some some milk money or a new pair of shoes once in a while.

Let us take a moment to honor the bad, cold, distant or terrifying moms of page and screen. I wish I could say there were some considered statement behind this, some blow against punishing standards of maternal femininity; but really, it’s just perversity driving this bus.


1. Lucille Bluth, of Arrested Development

Lucille is pampered, demanding, sarcastic, manipulative, supremely unconcerned with the lives and feelings of her children, and up to her eyeballs in chicanery. 

She drinks. From enormous martini glasses. All the time.



She winks.

She side-eyes.

She wears perfectly cut silk blouses with long strings of pearls, and has the remnants of the world’s last Mid-Atlantic accent.


2. The mother of Eloise

So spectral a figure is she that we never learn any other name. We do learn that she has a charge account at Bergdorf’s, owns stock in AT&T, cavorts with lawyers, knows Coco Chanel, the Plaza’s owner (also an ad-man, whatever that is) and wears dainty size 3 1/2 French heels. All this information comes from Eloise, who both adores her mother and seems blissfully unaware that most parents see their children at least twice a year.

Eloise does not seem to mind.

With ‘Eloise,’ Thompson turns the pathetic ”poor little rich girl” legend on its ear. Far from a neglected child, Eloise is a gleefully liberated one

I can’t tell whose life I envy more.


3. Malory Archer of Archer

Mallory Archer is played by the same actress as Lucille Bluth, and, at first glance, it may appear that she is merely a repeat of the latter. Neither appears without a drink in her hand if she can help it, and both are fond of tailored skirt-suits. Both sport a coiffed bob and a brutal tongue. Both are the torments of their sons’ lives (also generally evil).

But Malory would certainly win in a fight.  She has a better trench coat, and better furs. Her blunt digs often have a vicious truth to them to them that Lucille’s random passive-aggression lacks, and she’s ruthlessly capable. She gave birth on a bar in Tangier after killing a man, for crying out loud.


She takes innumerable lovers, and shoots them when they call her a whore (and are possibly fascists who killed the man she loved).


She is not afraid of life

Malory: I know you didn’t plan on this baby, but, Sterling, sometimes the unexpected things can turn out to be the most important things in the whole world.


Sterling: Wow, you sound shit-faced.

and wins all possible contests.


4. Katherine Comstock, of A Girl of the Limberlost

Have you read A Girl of the Limberlost? You should. 220px-Girl_of_the_Limberlost_Title_page

The best of part of the novel is Katherine Comstock, a hard, lonely woman eking out a living from an Indiana Swamp. Angrily mourning a husband lost to quagmire, she feeds her sorrow by neglecting and could-shouldering her daughter, until an emotional cataclysm re-orients their relationship . I won’t tell what prompts it, in hopes that you will experience for yourselves the weird keening grief Katherine gives to the swamp that took her husband, her rigidity and force of character, and her avenging angel fury.

“The swamp had sent back the soul of her loved dead and put it into the body of the daughter she resented, and it was almost more than she could endure and live.”


5. Emily Gilmore, of Gilmore Girls

By now you will have realized that this list runs to terrible WASP ladies in who specialize in expensive conservative outfits–high waisted trousers, matching sets, silk blouses, pearls–and emotional unavailability. “Daughter of the American Revolution” is not an aesthetic I would or could pursue myself, but any appeal that class holds is concentrated in its grand dames.

It’s like if Lady Catherine de Bourgh were on Lizzy’s side.

Yes, Emily is everything you can say about her and more: controlling, harsh, haughty, manipulative, rigid, disdainful, status-obsessed, lacerating.

But she’s also a mother and grandmother desperate to be allowed to take care of her family.

She hands them a drink the moment they walk in the door. Every single time. That is some genuine solid care right there. I don’t care how many seething resentments and unhealed wounds haunt your family, houses where someone hands you a pre-dinner cocktail in a crystal glass upon arrival do not come a dime a dozen.

Ditto people who insist, simply insist! on buying you diamond watches.

[Author realizes that Emily Gilmore is her ideal husband, blinks, returns to post.]

And the things that infuriate Lorelai the most about Emily are the things that Emily gave to Lorelai. They’re mirror images of each other: both stubborn, both managers (this is in fact Lorelai’s job) both unstoppable steamrollers when they want to be. They both navigate interpersonal relationships with uniformly hilarious and sometimes extremely cutting bon mots. Both tend to freeze out the hard stuff instead of working through it. And both would move heaven and earth to get the best for Rory.


6. Mayzie, of Horton Hatches an Egg

Who among us, charged with the care of a child, has not at some point wanted to fly off to Palm Beach and never look back?


7. Moro of Princess Mononoke

Moro is actually a wonderful mother–caring, powerful, committed to fighting the ravening industrialists to the death. But she is also a giant wolf, voiced in English by Gillian Anderson, and it is hard to imagine a more authoritative and terrifying maternal figure.




8. Ma of Little House on the Prairie, etc.

It’s easy, especially if you over-identify with Laura, to read the Little House series as a child through a lens of seething dislike for Ma. Would it kill her to let Laura run around without without a sunbonnet once in a while?

But Ma’s not the one who uprooted her family again and again for some nonsense about manifest destiny and an itch for fatter hunting grounds. Ma’s not the one who woke up one day and said “Wouldn’t a little settler colonialism be grand?”  Ma’s the one who had to pick up the pieces. She’s the one who had to give birth alone, live without any kind of female friendship, raise her children and manage her home with little help in an unforgiving environment she never asked to be dragged into.

All Ma ever wanted was safety for her kids and a clean place to put her china shepherdess.

So when Pa comes waltzing around, doing his good-cop, oh-look-at-me-I’m-the-fun-parent, how-fun-it-is-to-make-all-the-decisions-and-leave-the-consequences-to-women act, don’t fall for it. Hate Pa, not Ma.


9. Clytemnestra of the Oresteia 

Team furies all the way.

Everything’s Coming Up Rosen

This is the post I was telling you about–I had to take it down because  First Things magagazine offered to publish it on their website, which is super duper exciting for your correspondent.  Here’s the link:  http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2012/04/everythingrsquos-coming-up-rosen#commentContent . I already have one snippy comment, but as my favorite stay at home mom puts it “haters will hate, you know.”


So, unless you’ve been hiding out in a Nepalese yurt contemplating the infinite, you’ve probably paid some attention to the tempest swirling around Hilary Rosen’s recent remarks about Ann Romney’s work experience. I’m not as interested in Rosen’s actual snipes (which even she seems to acknowledge were beyond lame-brained) as in the problems surrounding contemporary American motherhood that they highlighted.

I don’t know squat from motherhood. I’m the oldest of eight children and the daughter of a stay at home mom who happens to be my best friend and general life-coach, but my personal experience in the area is nil. This makes me hesitant to write about motherhood, but it does seem a subject meriting thought, especially for a young woman entering the period of her life when one often makes Big Choices.  So if anything I say seems presumptuous, unrealistic, or stoopid (that’s how we prounounce it in my house), just chuckle. Say “What a sucker! What a maroon! I can’t wait till reality smacks her upside the head in the form of two nursing twins and a surprise pregnancy!” and pay me no mind. People who know better  tell me that motherhood changes you in ways you can’t imagine; certainly from the outside it often seems more like Navy SEAL boot camp than anything else.

The other constant caveat in discussions like this is that many mothers work, and some mothers stay at home, because they have no other choice financially.  Many women live in daily struggle for their family’s most basic needs, and they shouldn’t be dragged into the Mommy Wars (and shame on Rosen for doing just that).* They should also remind us that conversations like this can only happen among people who are already fairly privileged.

With that said, it seems to me that we do women no favors when we conflate childcare and motherhood. Motherhood isn’t a job–it’s a vocation and an identity. Stay at homes are not “full-time moms” any more than women who work outside the home–as if breadwinning fathers were “part-time dads.” Fulltime childcare, especially as it’s usually combined with housekeeping, however, is a job–is hard, demanding, work. And the sooner we stop fetishizing it as the core of what it means to be a mother and a woman, as some sort of sacred, higher, path for the female sex, the sooner we will see it for what it really is:  difficult, necessary and honorable work whose workers deserve dignified and decent working conditions.

To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets, labors and holidays; to be Whiteley within a certain area, providing toys, boots, sheets cakes. and books, to be Aristotle within a certain area, teaching morals, manners, theology, and hygiene; I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No; a woman’s function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness. –G.K. Chesterton

I appreciate Chesterton’s thought, but rhetoric like this frustrates me, because it seems to imply that  childcare is one long, exhausting, ecstasy of creative energy and emotional fulfillment. A woman needs no other identity or outlet: motherhood, or at least the Victorian ideal of motherhood predicated on rapt and constant communion between mother and child, is all in all.

Our cult of motherhood demands human sacrifice–hence the constant need for, and glorification of, victimhood (interestingly, in my experience especially by women privileged enough to pay me for childcare while they work neither for pay nor passion). I see women at the playground who look like zombies–completely exhausted, frazzled by the demands of their children, clad in dirty and ill-fitting clothing, constantly interrupted in what may be their only adult interactions till the Mr. gets home by the requests and complaints of their offspring. “Men just don’t understand,” they say. “It’s all part of  being a mom.”

In what other field would we accept and even romanticize these working conditions? Contrary to the sacrificial lamb aspect of the motherhood mythos, it is perfectly acceptable to say “We need to make buying clothes for me a priority in our budget, because I am a human being and a worker, and both of those facts demand a certain dignity.” It is perfectly acceptable to say “No, you’re not doing trombone camp this year, because I have interests and talents that do not involve you, and spending my life in the car prevents me from pursuing them.” It is perfectly acceptable to say “No, I will not stay up late making rice-krispie treats in the shape of ninja turtles, because who does that? Thanks for nothing, Pinterest.

Childcare and housingkeeping is usually accomplished by mothers, but it is not motherhood, and it is certainly not a primary identity. It is intense work that men, women, grandparents, et cetera undertake for the sake of children, their families, and society–important work, rewarding work, but no more and no less. The sooner we get over our obsession with domesticity as female fulfillment, the sooner we scrap this ridiculous bifurcation that simultaneously glorifies DIY martyrdom and treats work in the home as a fun little hobby.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, I think Catholic stay-at-home moms escape this trap much better than their secular counterparts. Betty Duffy, Mrs. Darwin, Pentimento, and Simcha Fisher, among others, write very frankly about the demands and rewards of domestic labor, and they’re also interesting, engaged women who provide some of the funniest, most insightful, and most challenging writing I have ever encountered. It may be the financial burden a counter-cultural lifestyle imposes–a little semi-voluntary poverty often requires both spouses to see their respective jobs as a joint endeavour to keep the whole damn ship afloat. Some of it might be comfort with the idea of vocation–that their primary vocation as a wife and mother in these particular circumstances entails this particular work. It may even be a certain level of separation from the more noxious messages popular culture sends women.

Whatever it is, I hope it’s catching. Not because stay-at-home-moms are failures if they don’t look like a million bucks and conduct the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra in their spare time (that’s just what every mom needs in her life: more guilt), but because what our culture assumes about and expects of mothers and caregivers is nonsensical and unfair. Justice, they do say, begins at home.

Possibly tangentially related, and speaking of guilt…

More Loretta Lynn, just for kicks.

*I’m not trying to make these women a footnote, but ameliorating poverty and making the workplace for women need their own posts.

Mushaboom? Or, “A House of One’s Own”

We all like to rant about how we won’t be forced into restrictive gender roles, how we’re more than our wombs, how marriage and motherhood aren’t necessarily the pinnacle of a woman’s life.

But then there are songs like these, and our visceral reactions.  There’s something incredibly compelling about the picture Leslie Feist paints — the kids, the man, the homestead, the hearth.

Discussion questions!

1) What makes this particular future  so attractive?   (If you don’t think it is at all, tell me why. I can’t promise I’ll believe you, though)

2) Why are we afraid or dismissive of said attraction?

Let’s fight it out in the comments.