Parenthood vs. Passion

Some writers of self-help books are really ‘family unfriendly’. Here’s one.

July 12, 2011, 11:15 AM
Parenthood vs. Passion
By LISA BELKIN

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Illustration by Barry Falls

In the Sunday Review this past weekend, the writer Erica Jong took on her daughter’s generation for the second time in less than a year. Last fall she wrote in The Wall Street Journal about how today’s mothers invest too much of themselves in their children, and are “imprisoned by motherhood.” This latest, titled “Is Sex Passé?” suggests that women are giving up sex for motherhood, too.

Ms. Jong’s best-known novel, “Fear of Flying,” preached the values of the sexual revolution: that women were entitled to enjoy their sexuality without fear of dominance, repression or unwanted pregnancy. Why, she asks, has this latest generation turned their backs on these ideals?

Better to give up men and sleep with one’s children. Better to wear one’s baby in a man-distancing sling and breast-feed at all hours so your mate knows your breasts don’t belong to him. Our current orgy of multiple maternity does indeed leave little room for sexuality. With children in your bed, is there any space for sexual passion? The question lingers in the air, unanswered.
Hallie Palladino would like to answer it. In an e-mail to me she asked to respond to Ms. Jong’s essay. Ms. Palladino, the 31-year-old mother of a 5-month-old son, apologizes if it isn’t polished. She wrote it during naptime.

She says:

As a 30-something mother with views on parenting fairly aligned (from what I gather) to Ms. Jong’s own daughter, I felt I must respond. The idea that involved parenthood necessarily kills passion in marriage is dangerous myth that serves only to make women feel as if they must choose between being good mothers or good wives.

Ms. Jong is disappointed that attitudes about sex have become what she views as more conservative (but which many people might simply call pragmatic). Does she honestly still romanticize dated ideals of “free sex” and “open marriage” (both of which failed spectacularly at making people either happy or liberated)? Strangely, she seems to be angry that the younger set has so fully rejected these fantastic social innovations. She jokes that mothers her age “failed to corrupt” their daughters, and dismisses this rejection as some type of adolescent style rebellion without venturing to guess why such behavior might seem unappealing to a generation of women who grew up watching so many of their parents splitting up. Implied in her accusations, through the demeaning language she uses to describe involved motherhood, is that young women are turning their backs not just on sex but on feminism itself. Monogamy, to Ms. Jong, seems distasteful if not downright disgusting and certainly antifeminist. This is quite a leap: an expectation of faithfulness in marriage is now bad for feminism? Her characterization of younger women as “obsessed with motherhood” especially stings.

It is sad that Ms. Jong’s ideas about pleasure and intimacy are so narrow that she fails to see how parenthood and family life can yield these things in abundance. She mocks young women for “breast-feeding at all hours” as if this is a hostile rejection of men and not simply a practical way to nourish a baby; she even stoops to using the tired misogynistic argument that women are just doing it to prove their breasts “don’t belong to their husbands.” Shame on her — one of the mothers of second wave feminism — for failing to remember that no part of a woman’s body belongs to anyone but herself. And double shame on her for devaluing motherhood and perpetuating the myth of the asexual mother in opposition to some idealized Venus. How careless of her to prop up this ugly and damaging fallacy.

But Ms. Jong doesn’t stop there. She continues to lament rather oddly that: “Our current orgy of multiple maternity does indeed leave little room for sexuality. With children in your bed, is there any space for sexual passion? The question lingers in the air, unanswered.” I’m sorry: Is she actually admonishing parents of young babies for not having enough sex? As for her burning question, I am more than happy to clear this up. First, is a widely known fact that parents of infants (no matter where the baby sleeps) are extremely lucky to seize a private moment when and where they can. Secondly, I would think that Ms. Jong would be the first to recognize that sex (even for married couples) doesn’t need to take place in the bedroom at bedtime. And lastly, as a mother of an adult daughter she must realize that the interruptions of babies are temporary. Children are infants for a short time; a couple married at 30 might easily have 50 years of marriage ahead, perhaps five of those years with infants in the house even if they participate in this sordid “orgy of multiple maternity” (most people call it raising a family). That leaves 45 years for this theoretical couple to fool around sans the “man distancing” baby-sling Ms. Jong finds so horrifying. (P.S. — Daddies can wear baby carriers, too.) And I’m willing to swear on a stack of diapers that once those children are all grown-up, the vast majority of these couples won’t regret a few missed nights of passion as much as they will relish the memory of those cozy evenings with their kiddos during those precious early months.

Her whole complaint makes me sad because the women of my generation owe much to the women of Ms. Jong’s generation. As a young feminist I am acutely aware of the battles and sacrifices made by our foremothers that enable me to have the choices I have today. And I am likewise forever grateful to Ms. Jong’s generation for destigmatizing the sexually active American woman. She is wrong that the women of my generation have turned up our noses at this gift. On the contrary, we might have even better sex and more deeply intimate relationships with our partners because we enjoy a generation of men raised in an atmosphere of increased gender equality both at work and at home.

Sexual freedom to us meant that we were free to have serious intimate (and yes, monogamous) relationships in our 20s. This might be one of the reasons that when we choose to marry, we are better prepared for the complexities of true partnership. Men of our generation are also embracing marriage and family life as more-equal partners and engaged, enthusiastic fathers. She has it backward when she concludes that “physical pleasure binds two people together.” It isn’t great sex that sustains happy relationships, it’s happy relationships that lead to more fulfilling sex. To this end it’s a shame that Ms. Jong doesn’t recognize that involved parenting is not just good for women, it’s good for men, too. Couples who parent together tend to stay engaged and connected — a great foundation for a happy marriage and a satisfying love life. The old-fashioned notion that women have to choose between passion and parenthood? That’s what women today think is passé.

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