I imagine that upon reading the Modern Love column this weekend, “A Feminist’s Daughter Finds Love in the Kitchen,” many mothers performed the same ritual I did: quietly counting how many times they made a meal in the last week. In the column Janet Benton describes how once upon a time, her own mother used to inhabit the kitchen, letting her children lick “drippy, sweet things off the mixing spoon.” But then “full feminist revolt” arrived. When Benton was nine her mom got divorced, decided to become an artist, and left dinner to chance. Meat got put in the oven and forgotten. Sometimes, a banana had to do. Instead of cooking, her mother could be found in her studio, torching metal into statues, her red hair bursting out of her cap, a “sign of her uncontainable passion.”
Benton is relatively gentle with her mother. She gives her credit for teaching her “self-respect and assertiveness” and calls her an “inspiration.” But it’s clear that her liberation came at too high a cost to her daughter.
But my body spoke my devastation. I went from being well fed and popular in third grade to near skeletal and often mocked in fifth. I wasn’t anorexic; I just didn’t know how to cook. I turned sallow and hollow-eyed and suffered headaches, eczema and stomach pains. On the windy playground, other children would crow, “She’s so skinny, she’s going to blow away.”
And I was lonely.
As a result, Benton decided that once she had a daughter, she would stop work every day when the school day ends, stop her “paid pursuits” and greet her daughter with a hug. “Children do not stop needing what they need,” she writes, and if you ignore that, “they will suffer.” This is true, she writes, even “if you love them.”
The tone is kinder but the logic is very much like what we've heard from Alice Walker's daughter, Rebecca Walker, who calls her mother a “rabid feminist” and blames her for instilling in her daughter a disdain for motherhood. The problem with the logic is that feminism has not much to do with it. It’s not feminism that makes someone a neglectful mother, or so busy with welding that she can’t remember to make dinner. It’s maybe excessive investment in the importance of one’s art, or just willful blindness.
Of course children need what they need. But there are many ways to give them what they need. A father, perhaps. A hug, a little later in the day, say at 6. Ordering their favorite take-out might even do it. A long talk at bedtime.
If it’s true that there was a generation of feminists who liberated themselves to an extreme during the divorce boom of the '70s, they are a historically bound phenomenon. This was a small wavelet, and it is all but gone. Our generation’s issue is not neglect due to rabid feminism. If anything, it’s too high a bar for parenting. These days, if a mother declines to bake cookies for her child after school it’s because she believes that cookies have too many trans-fats, or that the family should be living gluten free.