Angelika Schrobsdorff’s You Are Not Like Other Mothers is a memoir of Weimar Germany, the Third Reich, and the chaos that filled the void it left after World War II. The book is mostly written in the first person, but its dominant perspective is that of the author’s mother, Else Kirchner, a Jewish woman who came of age in Germany as World War I was ending. It begins with a rather classic motherhood story: Else marries a Gentile and has his child, thus forsaking her parents’ goodwill and protection. When she discovers that he’s chronically unfaithful to her (here’s where it takes a turn), her initial anger turns to resolve: she, too, will love freely and have children with every man she loves. Angelika, the author, is her third child by her third serious lover. All three children live a life of somewhat chaotic uncertainty, in part because of the coming and going of father-figures and in perhaps larger part because of the growing power of the Third Reich. Else loves her children and goes to great lengths to ensure they are loved and provided for family, friends, and grandparents, and only sometimes by her. She builds the life she wants to live and lets her community care for her children along with her, and sometimes this means being apart from them for months at a time so that she can travel with her lovers or on her own. The only thing that ultimately interferes with her being completely in charge of her own life as time marches on is the Nazis’ gradual reduction of Jews to a less-than-human status. Only then does Else feel guilt as a mother: the guilt of having passed on her Judaism to her children, and the guilt of being unable to protect them from a life of hiding, running and danger. She loses her parents and many of her friends, but most devastatingly, she loses the freedom of the life she’s worked to pursue, pushing at times against the forces of norms and expectations that go along with motherhood. She never intended to be like other mothers, but the choice to set herself apart is no longer hers.
Else was a hard character for me to warm up to, the independent nature of her early life at times jarring, at times envy-inducing. No American mother in the 21st century would seriously entertain the notion of leaving her children for six weeks to go to Palma with her extramarital lover in the hopes of getting pregnant with his child (can you imagine the Twitter storm?), as Else did; the very idea is either laughable or criminal, depending on whose opinion matters most. I am much more accustomed to being expected to worship the idol of the nurturing mother whose entire self is devoted to others. Even when I’m not thinking directly about motherhood and its claim over my identity, whatever course of thought I am pursuing often brings me back to it somehow. It seems to seep into my reading and viewing choices, fiction and non: Schrobsdorff’s You Are Not Like Other Mothers. The Canadian TV show Workin’ Moms on Netflix. The news coverage of highly consequential court cases regarding abortion access (and, by extension, essays about late-term abortion that totally expose the hypocrisy of the way the government regards this procedure). The conclusion is this: unless you live in total isolation from society, you, a mother, are going to be getting some feedback from the world about how you’re doing in the mothering department. Maybe you’re not leaning in enough at work or maybe you’re not sacrificing enough of yourself to your children; from the moment your embryo is detectable, people are going to have thoughts for you. Your motherhood cannot fail to make its mark on every other part of your identity, even if it is one of the few characteristics you share with over 2 billion other humans living on Earth, or as Katherine Goldstein put it during a guest appearance on Mom and Dad Are Fighting, “literally the least interesting thing about [you.]”
Goldstein’s new podcast, The Double Shift, tells stories about the lives, struggles, and accomplishments of working mothers. Devoid of the usual work-life-balance and having-it-all talking points, it is “the first [show] to treat the experience and identity of working moms with journalistic seriousness and curiosity.” Treating mothers as people in their own right shouldn’t be so rare, but much of Goldstein’s recent work has highlighted and quantified previously-untold extent of discrimination against mothers in the workplace, along with its economic, social and political ripple effects. If The Double Shift is a marvelous podcast, and yet I wish we didn’t need it so badly.
Part of what The Double Shift sees and addresses is the coded nature of the term “work-life balance” as applied to moms. The allocation of our time is a zero-sum game; when we’re doing anything (even our actual jobs) someone somewhere is always ready to point out that we’re not with our kids. Without fail, whenever I travel without my three-year-old, someone will ask me who’s taking care of her, and even when they know who is taking care of her (it’s always her dad), they will find a way to remark on how he’s “on his own this weekend.” They’re rarely doing it to shame me or to make a point; quite to the contrary, it’s automatic for anyone and everyone to make note of the fact that I am not with my kid, that I am choosing to spend time away from her. I’m not a monster, I want to say…please don’t think I’m a monster. And yet I have moments in which I’m not sure I believe it.
“Is your work making you a less-good mom? That’s the question you ask yourself all the time. But also: Is your motherhood making you a less good writer? That question is a little more uncomfortable.” This is Claire Dederer in a 2017 essay for the Paris Review called “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?” written around the time the first #metoo wave was breaking over the nation, leaving many of us awash in disillusionment. Men who had created things we loved had also, it turns out, abused people whose humanity was secondary to them. While Dederer does write at length about what to do with Annie Hall now that we know that Woody Allen is a monster, she is more interested in how these uncomfortable questions get under our skin and stay there. To what end do we engage in moral debates about whether Manhattan should still be revered in film history? “When you’re having a moral feeling,” she writes, “self-congratulation is never far behind. You are setting your emotion in a bed of ethical language, and you are admiring yourself doing it.” Our outrage directed towards the monstrous men, she suggests, is fed to some degree by our worry that we may be somewhat monstrous ourselves. “Our sneaking suspicion of our own badness,” she writes, “lies at the heart of our fascination with people who do awful things. Something in us—in me—chimes to that awfulness, recognizes it in myself, is horrified by that recognition, and then thrills to the drama of loudly denouncing the monster in question.” What we really don’t like to think about, Dederer claims, is that all artists exist on a continuum with the “art monsters” in the news. Artists, to some extent, have to be selfish, “whatever-it-takes-selfish,” to become great, and the Woody Allens represent the maximum willingness to be selfish, to give their hearts what they want, to lead the life that will produce the art. “The artist must be monster enough not just to start the work, but to complete it. And to commit all the little savageries that lie in between.”
I left academia last year for a lot of reasons, among which my growing sense that I was not getting the monster/not-monster ratio right, and I was tired of trying. Leaving my crying child at 8:00 AM on a Sunday to go to work and pound out some chapter revisions felt both monstrous and simultaneously not monstrous enough. Having barely shaken off the temper tantrum and convinced myself that I was not, in fact, a terrible mother, I would arrive to find the department chair already there in the office next door to mine. Why couldn’t I be more like him, I thought, and more like all the other scholars who I knew were buried in the stacks until the library staff kicked them out at night? If I could just care less about going to the office on weekends instead of being with my kid, about working late at night instead of being with my husband, maybe I’d get the book published and/or (but preferably and) get the tenure-track job. I did not want to be a motherhood statistic, but did I want to commit all the “little savageries” that might or might not bring me success? Satisfaction? How many broken things would be left behind when/if I arrived?
This was the question that plagued me, and I turned everywhere I could for advice. I would eagerly comb through articles penned by women who had achieved tenure during their child-rearing years, hoping to find the magic bit of wisdom that would unlock all the bonus levels of academic parenthood and grant me decades of job security and cozy dinners with my students and my family all around the same table. The sum of what I learned was that there was no reason I couldn’t “have it all” (are we laughing at that term now, or are we laughing at the laughing at it, or what?), except maybe myself getting in my own way. I hoped against hope for some actionable wisdom from the bracing real talk of a book called Professor Mommy, which was enthusiastically in favor of whatever little savageries needed to be committed to get the job done. “Embrace chaos,” the authors said. “Lower your standards when it comes to cleanliness.” The j’accuse that I couldn’t let go of was the almost-too-specific “you need to get some exercise, but you don’t need to be running marathons” (ouch). And finally: “It is inevitable that you will forget about yourself. This is what you need to do. It stinks. Get over it.” The subtitle of Professor Mommy is telling: Finding Work-Family Balance in Academia (emphasis mine). No doubt the authors realized that what they were describing could not be fairly called work-life balance, because the only thing getting balanced with work is motherhood, and everything else can fuck right off. The “balance” is indeed the product of a zero-sum game, the book concludes, and that everyone is going to feel shortchanged by you nearly all of the time. The kicker, of course, is that the state of the academic job market is such that you could very well do all of it correctly, give everything you have, and still wind up with nothing to show for it, no finish line at the end of this road paved with savageries.
“I believe telling mothers to raise their hands and try harder in the open sea of hostility we face in the workplace is like handing a rubber ducky to someone hit by a tsunami,” Katherine Goldstein writes. “I think it also inadvertently encourages us to internalize our own discrimination, leading us to blame ourselves for getting passed over for raises, eased out of jobs, not getting called for job interviews, and being denied promotions.“ The discourse on moms in academia is not much better at acknowledging the realities of the uphill battle most of us are fighting: an article in the Washington Post titled “Academia and Motherhood: We Can Have Both” breezily notes that “while it is true that there are pay differences between women and men, the pitfalls for mothers in academics are no worse — and might be better — than for mothers in other competitive careers.” Yep, that’s right: the gendered pay gap is the subordinate clause there, because let’s remember that it could always be worse! The message was the same everywhere: get over it. Do the work. The meritocracy awaits if you can just dig yourself out from underneath the diapers and bedtime routines.
I’m happy to have left a professional sector that clearly had such little regard for me, but I’m mad, too. I’m mad when I remember how some of the men I worked with, presented with at conferences, even interviewed with, spoke to me. I’m mad about the campus interview where the department chair (a woman without children) asked me, “so, if we were to offer you this job, would you really move all the way out here with your husband and your baby?” I’m mad that I felt nothing but guilt for years: guilt about being too monstrous and guilt about not being monstrous enough. “Guilt keeps mothers quiet,” writes Goldstein. “If we’re constantly inundated with the message that we’re personally doing something wrong,” that everything we do outside of parenting constitutes a subtraction from our children’s claim on us, “this leads to a brain response that shuttles us toward avoidance and isolation rather than outspoken defiance.” We don’t need any more guilt; we need anger. Part of why we need #metoo is because it is allowing us, essay by essay, protest by protest, to access that anger.
Like so many, I have been angry about the horrible men exposed by #metoo on a more or less daily basis since late 2017. I thought of this anger as separate from my anger at what became of my academic career, but part of why I keep going back to Dederer’s essay over and over again is that she has shown me the point where the surges of anger unite. These guys, these fucking guys, have never hesitated to take what they wanted for themselves. “Really,” she writes “I am always trying to find out: how selfish are you? Or to put it another way: how selfish do I need to be, to become as great as you?” The more we learn the answer to this question, the madder we get.
You Are Not Like Other Mothers reawakened in me the thought that maybe I am not like other mothers, either. We all deserve to be treated like Katherine Goldstein treats the women she interviews for The Double Shift: as people who move through the world pursuing the things that are important to them while also raising children. This is not a renunciation of motherhood; the experience of raising my daughter is one that is and will be for years to come one of the structural pillars of my life. But the person I was before her, the person I continue to be alongside her: these are also me.