At first, it seemed like a rather thin premise. As author Janna Malamud Smith explains in her introduction, "A Potent Spell: Mother Love and the Power of Fear" is about the burden placed on mothers by the responsibility for keeping their children safe.
Well, sure, I thought, it can be a nuisance chasing wayward toddlers or keeping guard at the beach. Still, of all the problems that moms face, are these really the worst?
Then, as I read deeper into this wise and eloquent book, I gradually realized that Smith's idea was bigger than it first seemed. Protecting one's offspring is not just an inconvenience but a powerful drive that makes mothers uniquely vulnerable to manipulation, blame, undercompensation and even outright oppression. My own pooh-poohing of it is typical of the way people -- even mothers such as myself -- take that drive for granted.
Smith shows how the protective impulse does, indeed, play a part in many of the worst problems that mothers face: sex discrimination, day-care dilemmas, financial inequality, marital power struggles, work-life balance issues and that seemingly constant companion of moms everywhere, guilt.
With examples from literature, historical research and centuries' worth of child-rearing manuals, Smith shows how maternal fears have been exploited throughout history to keep women in line. Reluctance to break society's rules for fear of endangering their children helps explain "why women have continually been closed out of so much political and economic power, why the fight for social equality is historically recent, and why mothers are so sensitive to, so ever-hungry for, advice -- however demeaning or inaccurate -- about child-rearing."
In colonial America, when between a quarter and half of all children died of diseases that doctors were helpless to cure, influential religious leaders suggested a child's death could result from the mother's disobedience, spiritual failings or even excessive attachment to the child. "What sinful neglect doth it come to humble me for?" freshly grieving mothers were instructed to ask themselves in one popular manual.
One could dismiss such heartless pronouncements as the product of a crueler era, but Smith finds startling parallels in our own, presumably more tolerant times. Although child mortality has plummeted, mothers haven't been let off the hook. On the contrary, the bar of idealized parenting has been raised.
Nowadays, mothers are called on (the advice is often directed at both parents theoretically but, in practice, absorbed mainly by mothers) not only to keep their children alive but to avert myriad forms of psychological upset -- real or imagined, preventable or not, unusual or part of normal human existence. Mothers feel like failures if they don't give their children virtually unlimited devotion, "baking cupcakes, gluing valentines, picking up dirty socks or wet towels off bedroom floors, standing beside frigid hockey rinks, staying home when they might go to night school or for an evening with workmates."
Smith's prescription is for the rest of the village to start doing its part in raising the child. That means better day-care options, more flexible working conditions and so on. Until then, she suggests, our professed dedication to "putting children first" remains an empty promise, a cover for the unspoken reality that it's the mothers in our culture who come last.
-- Katy Read writes for national and regional magazines, including Parents and Organic Style. She lives in Minneapolis.