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Rebalancing work and motherhood

THERE IS little doubt anymore that women have the ability to succeed in traditionally male fields of endeavor. The debate persists about the extent to which workplace discrimination is still holding women back. But few people would deny that the unequal division of labor in the home continues to be a major obstacle to equal achievement outside the home.

As an answer to this dilemma, many feminists want to see the state free women from the burden of child-rearing. In the March issue of The American Prospect, Brandeis University women's studies scholar Margaret Morganroth Gullette calls for "affordable, high-quality child-care and after-school programs, run by well-paid and well-trained and caring teachers." Others blame men for shirking responsibilities at home.

But does the feminist approach ignore many women's desire to care for their children? So says a new book by clinical psychologist Daphne de Marneffe, "Maternal Desire: On Children, Love, and the Inner Life." De Marneffe is no conservative calling women back to their traditional roles. She embraces much of the feminist heritage, and she writes powerfully about the happiness that can be gained in integrating work and motherhood. But her case for "maternal desire" is an important corrective to feminism and a must-read for anyone concerned with family and gender issues.

Full-time motherhood, de Marneffe writes, is often framed in terms of female self-sacrifice -- but such rhetoric ignores the pleasures of this way of life. "There is the sensual, physical pleasure of caring for small children; the satisfaction of spending most of our waking hours . . . with the people we love the most, taking care of their needs."

"Maternal Desire" does not paint a rosy, Hallmark-greeting-card picture of motherhood or shy away from its more frustrating aspects. But the author chafes at the not-uncommon feminist assumption that women who stay home have been merely guilt-tripped into giving up their own lives for domestic misery. Often, she points out, it's working women -- even ones who love their jobs -- who feel terrible when they have to leave their children.

De Marneffe, a mother of three, herself temporarily left her clinical practice when she realized that she was too torn between the demands of her profession and the need to mother her children. She writes movingly about the total immersion many women feel in the mother-child bond. To her credit, she does not downplay many women's need for professional accomplishment or their struggle to maintain an individuality separate from motherhood. But she also challenges the idea that only work outside the family is "real work." In de Marneffe's view, establishing an intimate connection with a child and tending to his or her development can be a rich form of personal expression.

De Marneffe's argument has its weaknesses. At times she seems to see the spontaneous rhythms of maternal life in almost mystical terms. She can also be overly negative toward Western culture's emphasis on autonomy and achievement, even turning a critical eye to mothers who focus on educational activities rather than emotional interaction with their children. She underestimates, I think, the pitfalls (for both mothers and children) of wallowing in emotions. But much in her account of "maternal desire" rings true.

"Many people," writes de Marneffe, "would rather put their money toward funding their own `high quality' care of their children than toward a publicly funded system." This simple fact, not the desire to keep women down or mistrust of government, is the primary reason for the lack of subsidized day care.

Unlike most writers on motherhood -- conservatives and feminists -- de Marneffe does not ignore or downplay fatherhood. In a passage sure to raise feminist hackles, she recognizes a man's willingness to shoulder the burden of breadwinning as a "gift" to his wife. But she also urges women to include men more fully in family life, to recognize and confront their resistance to sharing the power and pleasure of being the primary parent.

Yet de Marneffe notes that for now, child-rearing is done primarily by women -- and that is a reality our discussion of work and motherhood has to recognize, instead of imposing an abstraction of equality on everyone. Striving toward equality while recognizing reality, and seeking the best possible balance: That's a good prescription for change.

Correction: Due to a translation error, I misquoted European Commission chief Romano Prodi in my March 22 column. His actual statement was, "It is clear that using force is not the answer to resolving the conflict with terrorists."

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.

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