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Motherhood as a Political Status

WOMEN do a lot of complaining. I've heard it in the back hallways and restrooms at the office. I hear it while sipping tea at my mother's discussion group and from female experts on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.

The cacophony of complaints has to do with frustration over poor pay and few promotions, worry about the lengthy waiting list at the local day-care center, and plain old working-mother "max-out."

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Historian and social critic Mary Frances Berry says it's time to stop grumbling and face up to what is really at the root of discrimination at work, insufficient child care, and 18-hour days: the assumption that women must be in charge of the physical and emotional care of children, and that men, busy in their careers, have little or no role.

In her book "The Politics of Parenthood: Child Care, Women's Rights, and the Myth of the Good Mother," Berry posits that only by a sweeping reevaluation of gender roles will women be able to achieve the political and social equality they desire. As long as "mother care" is the only care deemed suitable for children, women will never achieve true liberation, she says.

Initially, one feels uneasy over the author's call to change public thought so dramatically. Yes, we've seen the occasional Living Page profile of Vincent B. Lawyer who deserts his depositions for full-time diapering. But to have all men adopt daily fathering or share the burdens of homemaking? Unthinkable!

The challenge becomes less daunting, however, upon reading Berry's fascinating accounts of Colonial-era fathers, who were intimately involved in the rearing of their children. In early America, men were chiefly responsible for the feeding, clothing, and education of their children after the nursing period, and nonrelatives such as slaves and servants also figured in a child's upbringing. Women were thought to be intellectually dull and "too corrupt by nature" to guide children in the straight and narrow path.

It was only in the 19th century, when the forces of industrialization sent fathers away from the home to work, that mothers began to take on around-the-clock care of the children, Berry writes. This, combined with more favorable opinions about the moral and emotional constancy of women, generated the idea that mothers were the true purveyors of virtue, the molders of character, the guardians of the race. Thus the notion of "separate spheres" - woman in the home and man as the breadwinner - was born, and it became fully implanted in the culture by the time of the Civil War.

Berry presents a dispassionate history of the women's movement, day care, and home life, showing the persistent obstacles to economic and political power that have confronted women as a result of society's definition of them as "mothers." Her heavily footnoted chronology attributes the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment, the languishing of the women's movement in the '80s, and years of bickering over federal parental-leave and child-care bills to an unwillingness to rethink gender roles.

Despite its convincing analysis of the problem, "The Politics of Parenthood" leaves one hungering for ideas on just how a transformation of women's and men's roles could take place. Berry mentions only a few solutions, such as teaching parenting and child care to both boys and girls in school.

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Clearly, the culture of the workplace needs to change to encourage the sharing of family duties. Already there are signs, Berry notes, that some men are longing to spend more time with their families even at the expense of their careers.

Ultimately, Berry makes her plea to women. She challenges them to take new views of themselves, their relationships, and their potential. Without these mental changes, political and economic progress for women will remain elusive, and no amount of complaining will get them anywhere.

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