Americans Ambivalent About Motherhood and Marriage

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
June 22 2009 11:00 AM

Americans Ambivalent About Motherhood and Marriage

Jessica Grose Jessica Grose

Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.

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Hanna, you call out the false dichotomy between the miserable married and passionate single, and in this weekend's New York Times Magazine , Ginia Bellafante discusses Jodi Picoult's novels , and the false dichotomy between good parent and bad. According to Bellafante, Picoult's incredibly successful slew of novels, including My Sister's Keeper and Nineteen Minutes , involve "terrible things happen[ing] to children of middle-class parentage: they become terminally ill, or are maimed, gunned down, killed in accidents, molested, abducted, bullied, traumatized, stirred to violence." Bellafante continues, "Picoult’s message is at once cautionary and subverting. As much as her novels underscore the hazards of parental shortcomings, at a certain level they seem to exist to make a mockery of the cherished idea that we ought not to have any."

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Basically Picoult is pointing out that there's no such thing as the perfect parent, without shortcomings, just as Sandra Tsing Loh observes that there's no such thing as a the perfect marriage. But Bellafante's commentary on the underlying message in Picoult's novels-that they expose a deep ambivalence about having children-could be said of our collective feelings toward marriage as well:

Picoult’s books and the whole cultural machine devoted to maniacal worry about children often seem like a reflection of our collectively sublimated ambivalence about having children to begin with...Picoult’s novels access this disparity, the difference between what is said and what is done, the difference between parenting that assumes the shape of performed concern and parenting that takes the form of active tending. So much of the ugliness that transpires in her books could be prevented by a marginally greater degree of psychological caution.

Substitute marriage for parenting-"the difference between marriage that assumes the shape of performed concern and marriage that takes the form of active tending"-and you've hit on what we've been discussing all week with Tsing Loh's piece. Meghan quotes a statistic from an AOL poll that says 72 percent of women have considered leaving their husbands. What she didn't mention was that in that same poll, 71 percent of women said they'd be with their husbands until they die. Talking about any of these monumental life events-marriage, motherhood-in absolutes is a mistake. It shouldn't be surprising at all that most women are ambivalent about marriage and motherhood; most people are ambivalent about everything. Just because some marriages don't work out and sometimes terrible things happen to good children doesn't mean the institutions are doomed or are in need of an overthrow. As a woman who is on the brink of what Hanna describes as a "vanilla pudding" future, I think I'll take Dahlia's advice: Ignore what the books say and just live.

Photograph of mother and child by Getty Images.

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