Like a lot of you, I couldn’t escape hearing about Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, who is a woman who willingly walked away from motherhood as she recounts in her memoir Hiroshima in the Morning: A Mother’s Struggle for Identity. It was pretty hard to ignore this story. Friends sent me links, it was on the Today show and mentioned in blogs and sites all over the internet.
A mother choosing to walk away. Yowza. Why don’t we just throw a stick of dynamite into a crowd and see what happens?
The backbone of our society’s love affair with motherhood is a glorification of sacrifice above all, of celebrating Tiger Mothers. We want all women to be mothers. That’s what the War on Women is all about, right? It’s a matter of principle for a very vocal group that women have no choice in the matter at all. And when they become mothers, they must give of themselves completely. Those are the rules. (Well, unless you’re a feminist and realize that’s total bullshit.)
So, in a society that says motherhood is not just the ideal for women but is a sacred duty, the chorus must vilify Rizzuto. Off with her head!
I find this story and the reaction to it very troubling. But not necessarily for the reasons you might think.
On the face of it, I think that it is sad that Rizzuto either didn’t know herself well enough or felt obligated by social norms to become a mother. (Since she has more than one child, I assume they weren’t all accidents, if any.) If the reason she had children was because she felt pressure to conform to the societal ideal — all women must become mothers — then that is a tragedy not just for her children but for her, too.
As I have shared many times on this blog, it took me a long time to have any desire to have a child. For decades I was sure I never wanted to be a mother. And the reaction to that decision was frustrating and sometimes quite hurtful. Because whether overtly stated or buried in nuance, the underlying message was always that I was a failure as a woman because I did not want to procreate. This was all the more reinforced by the smiles and sighs of relief when I did choose (and it was a choice) to become a mother.
But as to the question of whether or not it is good or bad that Rizzuto walked away from her kids… that is much trickier for me. Because in my lifetime, at one time or another, both of my parents have walked away from me and their other children. I do not want to join the chorus screaming for Rizzuto’s head. But the questions it raises and the consequences for her children hit very close to home for me.
My mother got pregnant with me when she was a senior in high school (she was very much pregnant in her graduation photos). It was 1976 and abortions weren’t exactly easy to come by in the rural, Midwest farm community where she lived. But I know from various sources that she did consider it and almost did it, or rather an “emergency appendectomy” (then code for abortion), at the hospital where her mother worked. Instead, she married my 20-year-old father and they struggled together for three years before calling it quits.
There is no doubt that motherhood was not my mother’s aspiration in life. She often told me so in my childhood. And a few years after their bitter divorce and both my parents were remarried, my mother moved us to Alaska. And that was the last time I saw my father again until I was 16. (When I was 18 we reconciled and have had a good relationship since.) My father was gone. Outside of a rare Valentine’s Day card every few years, I didn’t even have a sign he was alive. There is no other way to call it: he was a deadbeat dad. (Although, he was raising his other children from a second marriage at that time, so I can’t say that he completely walked away from fatherhood in those years.)
There is no question that we do not hold fathers to the same standard or accountability or level of sacrifice that we do mothers. The story of another deadbeat dad, another man not ready for fatherhood… that’s as old as the hills. It’s accepted, even. But a deadbeat mother? We don’t even know that term. We are afraid to utter it. It’s unthinkable!
So, what about my mother? She struggled her way to the end of her second marriage (and giving birth to two more children). And when her second marriage was over, she walked away from joint-custody of her other two kids (I was just starting college) when she got a marriage proposal. But truth be told, she had been taking baby steps away from motherhood for a couple of years before that. When she left her second husband, I was a teenager and we moved to a neighboring city and did not see my half-siblings very often. (She had no choice but to bring me with her as I was not her second husband’s child and I had no relationship with my own father.) Sometimes not seeing her other kids bothered her. And sometimes this didn’t seem to matter to her at all — she was having the best success of her career, dating young men, driving a fancy new car. I think she was having the youth she felt she always missed out on because she felt forced into motherhood. This was belabored by her always saying to me that, “If I had never gotten pregnant with you, I could have been somebody.” Or, “I could have gone to college.” Or, “I wouldn’t be so fat now.” You get the idea. So, when she got a marriage proposal from her boyfriend, she didn’t just say yes. She ran away. She packed up her things and moved to the other side of the country to be with him, leaving her young sons with their father forever. In fact, my baby brother has no recollection of ever living with her.
It is impossible for me to divorce myself from my feelings about my own parents when I see stories like that of Rizzuto. Is she a bad person? I don’t know. It does appear that she put more thought into leaving than either of my parents ever did. And it seems that she still has contact with her kids and does some parenting things like going to parent/teacher conferences. (One report said she lives down the street from her kids now.) In my mind that makes her better than a deadbeat parent, who is completely absent. In fact, for all we know this makes her a better parent. She gets the space she feels she needs and still has a connection to her children, albeit a less engaged one than if she parented full-time. I don’t actually feel angry toward her, as so many on the blogs have expressed. I think it’s a complicated world and she’s trying to craft the best possible experience for herself without completely bailing on her kids.
What I do know is that motherhood — parenthood, really — is hard. Sometimes you do feel swallowed up by it. Sometimes you are struggling to maintain your own identity outside of parenthood. My wish is that everyone who becomes a parent does so with joy in their heart and that the experience is fulfilling, as it is for me. But the reality is that 50 percent of pregnancies are an accident. And many people — including the women who have the babies — aren’t always ready for or wanting the experience.
If Rizzuto had never had kids and wrote a book about how she was happy that she never had children, would she be as “bad?” Certainly, some would still vilify her. But I would bet that it would be less than there are now. What if Rizzuto and women like her had more choices about how their life unfolded and what place motherhood might have in it? That’s the whole point of reproductive choice — from sex education to contraception to abortion to childbirth. Of course, that doesn’t explain away every unwanted motherhood. There are 8 years between me and my next sibling. You can’t tell me that my own mother didn’t know what she was getting into by having not just one but two more children after me. So personal responsibility is definitely a part of the equation.
Motherhood is optional, if you have access to reproductive health care choices. But the debate about what motherhood is — Tiger Mothers, Deadbeat Moms, Welfare Moms, Stay-at-home Feminists — well, that may never end.