‘The Mother of All Dilemmas’ Explores Cultural Conditioning and ‘Choices’
Dilemmas, by their very definition, don’t offer easy or tidy resolutions.
Now, toss in some deeply ingrained stereotypes, social and economic pressures, and reproductive siren songs and reckonings. Top it off with a healthy amount of identity sorting. What have you got? A hardy dilemma salad of sorts with some intense and, at times, biting seasoning.
This book review was first published on Medium in Books Are Our Superpower
You will find these topics along with more personal insights in the soon-to-be-released book, The Mother of All Dilemmas. Author Kathleen Guthrie Woods begins with her story and then takes readers on a multifaceted look at family, cultural conditioning and confounding demands felt by (mostly white and typically educated) women as they approach their forties.
So, how many of us, born post-birth control pill, were socialized to believe we would dictate how and when parenthood will (or won’t) play a role in our lives? Raise your hands, please. Do you recall the ‘you can have it all’ and ‘the choice is yours, you’ve got time’ mantras echoing in your ears?
When that didn’t pan out there was always a clueless chorus on standby practically shouting: ‘Just ADOPT.’ (As if adoption is as straightforward as an Amazon purchase delivered right to your door).
What’s Possible vs. Reality
These choice messages, first offered up by second wave feminism and further fueled by the ‘fertility’ industry, IMHO, instead served up misplaced expectations. They also formed the basis of myriad myths and newfound conventional wisdom about what is biologically, financially, and socially possible.
For example, search ‘fertility’ any media outlet. You’ll come away convinced anyone, regardless of age, can conceive on demand. With a sperm or egg purchase, IVF, egg freezing, or surrogacy on clinic menus, what was once immutable is now fungible. For those who desire it, parental ‘choice’ went from an ‘if’ to a ‘when.’ In theory, with a bottomless bank account and a cutting-edge team of scientists along with a supply of young gametes, that may be true. Reality, however, is a little more complicated.
Dilemmas and Choices Galore
Choice is mentioned 79 times in The Mother of all Dilemmas. But, choice is a tricky fox. Is it really a choice if you don’t have the funds, the partner, the right biological bits, the ethical temperament or the clear conscious to pursue third party reproduction? More like Hobson’s Choice or Sophie’s Choice.
I know the dilemmas Kathleen and many readers face all too well. I lived them, viscerally, a few years before I met Kathleen for lunch. It was around mid-2010, not long after I’d published Silent Sorority. I was in the early days of reconciling multiple failed IVFs. That’s when I’d discovered the Life Without Baby blog and community, one of many creations from Lisa Manterfield. Kathleen penned the It Got Me Thinking column. We swapped emails and set a date for the first of a few tête-à-têtes.
While awaiting our entrees and shaded by Redwood trees, we delved into the dominant cultural paradigms that colored and shaped our childhoods: first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage. Kathleen, like me, grew up in a conventional nuclear family. Our mothers sacrificed their professional dreams to remain at home raising children. Like many daughters, we felt an obligation to do more. If we played our cards right, we’d get both a career and family. But life had other plans for us.
When Life Doesn’t Go According To Plan
Dreams often collide with facts. Moreover, the perception of choice further complicates matters. For instance, Kathleen wrestled earnestly with whether she wanted to procure sperm and attempt pregnancy on her own. That tall order, meanwhile, was just the beginning. First, pregnancy had to work with her 40-year-old-plus eggs. Infinitesimal odds.
More soul searching ensued. She writes with acute intellectual honesty:
“As much as I’d been telling myself I was looking for a child, I’d ended up shopping for attributes I really wanted in a mate. I shivered involuntarily as I acknowledged I might be looking for a child to fill that role in my life, that companion place, that empty space in my heart.”
Later, an extended stint as her toddler nephew’s caregiver fully revealed the exhausting demands and dilemmas in minding an infant solo. Responsible to her core, Kathleen set about interviewing women who had pursued single parenting and those who hadn’t. Her researched turned up evidence of the many ways society makes life difficult for childless women by ignoring or marginalizing our existence. (You, no doubt, will grit your teeth at the dismissive comments and stereotypes about childless women.)
Meanwhile, the author (and many of the women she interviewed) had to overcome much of the social conditioning that originally defined her identity and view of the world. For example, these and related thoughts come early and often throughout the book:
“I just want to be here, versus wasting energy wanting my life to be something else.”
“I wished the divine plan for my life came with more specific instructions, like with a neon sign that spelled out a message so clear that said either “You will have children, so stick it out!” or “You aren’t going to have children. Get on with your life, woman!”
Welcome New Perspectives
Kathleen’s interviews with other women felt reminiscent of Jessica Hepburn’s 21 Miles. Seasoned by life and the dilemmas of those like her, Kathleen discovers she’s far from alone. Our fierce and multi-dimensional community of women without children offered a welcome balm. Society, we learn, doesn’t make it easy for those who struggle with unrealized pregnancies and the disenfranchised grief they surface. Fortunately, by writing and speaking out we’re breaking old molds and challenging judgments about childless woman.
Memoirs on the motherhood experience have had a long run. With books like The Mother of All Dilemmas, I’m Taking My Eggs and Going Home, The Next Happy, and Living the Life Unexpected we can feast on writing from different perspectives. It’s refreshing to read about those who not only navigated the minefield of parenting promises, but also showed that life offers up many paths for nurturing and creation.
Ultimately, Kathleen finds her way out of the ‘must be a mother to have value’ morass and determines:
“I needed to discard the ‘truths’ I’d been modeled and taught about a woman’s roles, and discover and embrace another way to be.”
This is where the book soars. It also serves as a reminder that we need to make space and encourage more re-imagining of the roles and contributions of all women in our society.
Now, dear readers, what are you reading this summer?