Katha Pollitt interviewed on motherhood and feminism by Ada Calhoun for

Longtime Nation columnist and “good old-fashioned feminist” Katha Pollitt found herself at the age of fifty-two finally learning to drive. Her driving lessons correspond to her growing awareness of just how badly she’d been treated by her philandering Marxist boyfriend, whom she finds herself compulsively Google-stalking. Such funny, sad confessions form the bulk of her charming new personal essay collection, How I Learned To Drive and Other Life Stories.

In the sleeper-hit of the bunch, “Beautiful Screamer,” Pollitt writes about the loneliness and ecstasy of new motherhood. With great comic timing and a breeziness that makes it feel like an email from a good friend, she hits on pretty much every hot parenting topic out there, from sleep-training (she didn’t do it) to childbirth perfectionism (she calls it “machismo for women”). She also drops the bombshell that having babies can turn even the most equitable couples into “gender Republicans.” In other words, after the birth of her child: “The old assumptions about men and women, which had been lulled by money and leisure and youthful bohemianism and feminism, woke up.”

We took Pollitt out for a glass of wine in the East Village before her recent reading at the Strand bookstore. She was as funny in person as she was in her book, where she delivers zingers like, on breastfeeding: “If it’s so natural, how come there is a job called “lactation consultant” that requires twenty-five hundred hours of formal training?” – Ada Calhoun

Not long ago, we ran a story called “The Overparenting Crisis,” about how parenting perfectionism today mimics the housekeeping perfectionism of the ’50s. How do you think today’s mothers compare to ’50s housewives?

By today’s standards, ’50s mothers were unbelievably “devil may care.” Go out and play! Get some fresh air! You took your kids to the doctor and you did what the doctor told you.

The internet has created a new kind of authority.

But it’s bogus authority. Why would you take medical advice from someone named pussycat253?

But there is a good side to the information overload.

Yes, think back to the ’50s, when women gave birth in “twilight sleep.” You had all the pain of childbirth, but you didn’t remember it, so you’d do it again! But in general, I think this kind of worrying has some bad effects down the road. It’s a form of overprotection. How do children learn to take responsibility to solve their own problems? I see kids my daughter’s age – she’s twenty – who you can just see have been too coddled, too sheltered. The helicopter parent phenomenon. It’s so different from how people were raised in my generation. I sat down and did my homework. When I had a question, I asked my parents. If I was lucky, they could answer it. But sometimes I didn’t get the answer, and I had to go to school, and say, “I don’t know.”

In your book, you write, of people who have a baby to keep their marriage together, “Were they insane? You might as well set your house on fire because you were tired of your furniture.” It’s a great line, but is the “gender Republicanism” you describe still as bad as that? Among many of our readers, men and women are sharing child-care pretty equally.

I think there may be a little more gender flexibility in the social class where incomes between men and women are more equal. But when there’s a banker married to a would-be folk singer, I don’t think the banker is taking six months off to stay home with the baby.

So the key is to marry men who make less money?

That’s what Rona Mahoney says in her wonderful book Kidding Ourselves. She thinks women should marry down. The problem is that everyone then ends up poor. But I think it’s probably a good idea to think it out before you have the baby. Often, the woman just assumes, “Oh, I’ll just have the baby and we’ll have some babysitters and it’ll all be the same.” But it’s not going to be all the same, because children take a lot more time than you think they’re going to and they have a lot of needs that are hard to plan for.

Five Minute Time Out: Katha Pollitt

The feminist icon and mother on Learning To Drive. by Ada Calhoun

November 27, 2007


Speaking of planning, there’s been a lot in the press lately about fertility anxiety and women not being able to have babies because they waited too long.

Well, the problem is, you can’t time these things perfectly, because first you have to find the father for the baby. That can take a while. Or you give up on the father of the baby and just do it on your own. You have to have your work in a good place, so you don’t end up being a cashier at the supermarket when you want to go back to work. And so, one thing leads to another and you end up trying to get pregnant later than you might have wanted.

You have been very vocal against Sylvia Ann Hewlett, who warned women they would regret it if they didn’t have kids early.

There are a lot of things that people regret in life that they did or didn’t do. I would’ve liked to have had a second child. I got started too late and then other things happened in my life and it didn’t happen. I haven’t written a novel either. I actually knew Judith Friedlander, whom Hewlett quoted as saying it was a “creeping non-choice” not to have a child. Sylvia Ann Hewlett made that sound like a skin disease. But actually what Judith meant, as she told me later, was not, “Oh my god, I forgot to have a baby. That’s so terrible.” It was, “Oh well, it didn’t happen.” No one gets everything. But it’s only with children that it’s made to seem like you might as well slit your throat. People say nobody on their deathbed ever wishes they spent more time in the office. But they sure do say, “I wish I’d had the money to leave that bastard I was married to.”

You’re very funny about breastfeeding: “Sure, for the first month it felt like being bitten by foxes, but after that it was more just a fizzy feeling, like having breasts full of champagne.” Why is there so much pressure on women to do it?

Why can’t they just say, “You might enjoy this. Give it a try”? But not, “If you don’t breastfeed your child, you are denying your child the chance of a healthy life.” Obviously that’s not true because my entire generation of middle class kids was bottle-fed and most of us are still here and we’ll2.jpg

Buy Learning to Drive: And Other Life Stories be here for a very long time to come.

In some reviews of your book, people seemed to have gotten mad at you for revealing too much about yourself, or said, as Rebecca Traister did on Salon, that it made them anxious.

Toni Bentley in the Times Book Review accused me of giving too much information – says the woman who wrote a graphic anal-sex memoir! The people who reviewed the book as “what does this tell us about Katha Pollitt” and “what does this tell us about feminism” didn’t appreciate the screwball literary strategy. I think women are defensive now because we’re in a quite reactionary moment. All I can say is: read a biography of Simone DeBeauvoir. Nobody’s life is so perfect. That goes for everybody and not just feminists. Read the life of some born-again Christian and you’ll find they commit a lot of sins.

Do you see your daughter’s generation as more progressive about gender issues?

I think that things are changing slowly, but there’s a lot of pushback in pop culture. Let’s take the mainstreaming of the word “feminazi.” I remember when Rush Limbaugh started saying “feminazi.” I was shocked that anyone could get away with comparing women who believed women should have equal rights with the perpetrators of the Holocaust. It’s kind of amazing when you think about it. My daughter in her freshman sociology class was one of two students who raised their hand when the professor asked who was a feminist. Two.

But I bet most of those students believe in equal pay for equal work. Isn’t it better to be a feminist but not want to call yourself one than the other way around?

Feminism is the word that names both the idea that women should socially be equal to men and the ongoing social struggle to make that happen. When you lose the word, you lose the idea that gender is a way that society organizes itself – that women are expected to be this and men are expected to be that. I remember the beginning of Alison Pearson’s very funny book I Don’t Know How She Does It. The character is “distressing” the apple pie that she’s bought at the grocery store to pretend it’s homemade, because all the other mothers are bringing homemade stuff. I just wish there was a little more pushback from women about some of those totally time- and labor-intensive perfections. I’m not saying you shouldn’t bake cookies when you want to. I bake cookies. But really, your kids would be quite happy with Entenmann’s.

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