If there’s any one thing about the institution of parenthood that disappoints me most, it’s the antiquated gender roles which seemed to be ingrained within it. Oh, I know. You’ll dispute that. As a society, we’re far from the days of June Cleaver, right? After all, women are fully engaged in professional careers and aren’t the apron-wearing domestic divas they once were.
True. But, we’re nowhere near as far along as we think we are. And I know as much whenever I read or hear about a mom patronizing a dad’s effort in the realm of caregiving. Whether he was too aggressive in rinsing the shampoo out of Junior’s hair or has picked out another atrocious outfit for the baby, poor Dad can’t get it right. Many moms are more focused on the fact that dads aren’t executing the caregiving duties the “right” way than they are on the fact that this generation of fathers actually wants to be a part of the caregiving process in the first place. Whether they realize it or not, such women are ignorantly endorsing the myopic gender roles established by our forefathers — the same ones our society in general and women in specific have fought so hard to change and redefine.
And earlier today, I read a story from the other side — a tale of a woman whom traditional gender roles has labeled as a bad mom when, in her mind, she was anything but.
Rhana Reiko Rizzuto is a brilliant writer. Her first novel, Why She Left Us, won an American Book Award, and her memoir, Hiroshima in the Morning, received the Grub Street National Book Award. Yet amidst her professional accomplishments sits one very large personal failure — one she addresses quite candidly on Salon.
Rizzuto had been awarded a grant to live in Japan for six months to interview survivors of the atomic bomb. She and her husband were both on the same page — this was an opportunity she could not and should not turn down. Yet that decision would lead to her personal failure — it would cost the couple their marriage. Upon her return, Rizutto left her two sons aged 5 and 3, and her childhood-sweetheart-turned husband.
The fighting which led to the split began early in her Japan stint. Before she knew it, her marriage was disintegrating before her very eyes. Still, four months into her stay, Rizutto’s kids came to visit her. “Without a strong marriage to support me…I had no idea what to do with these bouncing balls of energy,” she admits. “Even feeding them, finding them a bathroom, was a challenge. It raised a little issue for me that I have neglected to mention: I never wanted to be a mother.”
So why did she become a mom? Because her ex wanted kids and assured her that he’d take care of everything. As Rizutto put it, he “removed every obstacle I could think of. He would be the primary caretaker if I would just have them.” So fast forward to her decision to leave her family and factor in that she didn’t want to have children in the first place and consider, too, that she awarded her husband primary custody of her two children. Bad mom, right? After all, moms don’t leave their children. They’re caregivers. They do most of the heavy lifting in raising them, right?
Sure. Some do. But not Rizzuto. Traditional motherhood was not for her.
“My problem was not with my children, but with how we think about motherhood. About how a male full-time caretaker is a ‘saint,’ and how a female full-time caretaker is a ‘mother.’ It is an equation we do not question; in fact we insist on it. And we punish the very idea that there are other ways to be a mother.”
Not only has Rizutto found a one of those “other ways” to be a mom, but she also claims that the other way has rendered “a damn good mother” to boot. My initial reaction was a skeptical one. How could a woman who preferred her husband have primary custody of the children she never even wanted to have in the first place be a “damn good mom”?
But as she points out, she didn’t exactly duck tail and leave, either. She moved right down the street. And though her kids might sleep at their father’s every night, they come over to her house every day after school. She helps them with their homework. They play Yahtzee together and watch a TV show or two. She prepares a dinner which they all eat together. She goes to every single parent teacher conference and she’s at all of their baseball games. And, despite the fact that her boys are now entering their teens, they still do a lot of hugging on their mama. Often in public.
And through it all, Rizutto has come to believe that the difficult decision she made to leave her family has made her a better mom.
I had to leave my children to find them. In my part-time motherhood, I get concentrated blocks of time when I can be that 1950s mother we idealize who was waiting in an apron with fresh cookies when we got off the school bus and wasn’t too busy for anything we needed until we went to bed.
I believe that Rizutto is right. About everything. Especially the part about being a good mom. The fact that I was initially skeptical of her assertion means that I’m just like a lot of other folks who think of parenthood as “an equation we do not question.”
But it’s not an equation we do not question. It’s an equation that has evolved — one with many different derivations. We solve the riddle by finding the equation that works best for us and our children. And Rizutto has done that.
If I were to categorize her as a bad mom, I’d be just as off base as the countless women who bellyache whenever dopey Daddy cuts Princess’s strawberries the wrong way.
If caring parents are plugged in and the situation is working for the kids, there is no wrong way.