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BOOK REVIEW : An Academic in Distress Over Child Care : THE POLITICS OF PARENTHOOD by Mary Frances Berry ; Viking $20; 284 pages

April 19, 1993|CAROLYN SEE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Both the subject matter and the style in which "The Politics of Parenthood" is written are enough to make the reader tear her hair out in clumps.

This study of the failure of women's rights was produced by an academic who confesses, in her first sentence, "Despair compelled me to write this book" and then goes on: "Some of my best friends failed to understand that defining a woman as primarily responsible for child care prevented women from enjoying the equality of life and access to power they sought."

Because Berry is an academic, she writes this volume in the form of an extended term paper. Because, as a professor who several times expresses herself as irritated with the obtuseness of her students, she states the obvious and then repeats it and then repeats it again.

Then, in the finest tradition of term paper writers, she peppers her pages with a trillion footnote numbers, but when you turn to the footnotes, you only get the name of a book and some page references--no explanations at all.

When the author remarks: "My women students tell me they spend a great deal of time contemplating the comfort of 'motherhood and apple pie fantasy,' " the accompanying footnote reads: "Labor Force Participation data from Tom Nardone, Labor Force Statistics Bureau of Labor Statistics, Department of Labor, December, 1991," and so on for five more baffling lines.

Obviously, this footnote documents earlier material in a long meandering paragraph, but what statistics are these? What dates were they written? What publications did they appear in? Will someone please give this woman an MLA Style Sheet for Christmas?

The enraging thing here is that much of what Mary Frances Berry says is "right." She mentions, for instance, that both virgins and whores appear in the Bible, suggesting that women have been defined by biological roles since ancient times. (Who could argue with that?)

She solemnly reveals that ". . . Nixon, projected as the embodiment of hard work and middle-class values, became a lawbreaker and was forced to resign the presidency in the wake of the Watergate scandal." (Thank you for sharing that, Mary Frances.)

Berry suggests that white men in power and right-wing women like Phyllis Schlafly have a vested interest in portraying men as breadwinners and women as homemakers who do very nicely taking care of their own children. Right as rain, professor!

Berry contends that as long as we assume that women are responsible for their own children, women will never come out from under the yoke of oppression. She suggests, again on her very first page, "The mother care tradition persists because we are acculturated to accept it and because it reinforces existing power arrangements. The tradition is, however, neither traditional or necessary." (That last sentence, I admit, gives me trouble.)

Berry takes us through a kind of wonderland history of America, starting around the 17th Century, assuring us that John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were largely reared by their fathers. (Actually, these lads were mostly raised by slaves or shunted off to boarding schools.)

What Berry means, if I read correctly, is that men in those days had custody of their children. But picture a year-old-baby with a bad case of flu who's just thrown up all over his bed and most of his room besides. Imagine if you will that he is Thomas Jefferson! Did Jefferson pere push back his lace cuffs and rush to repair the matter? I believe what Berry says about virgins and whores in the Bible, but I'm not convinced that famous 18th-Century American fathers took care of their own babies. The whole concept boggles the mind.

Berry is in "despair" because when women have babies, women are more or less stuck with looking after them. Isn't this pretty universal? I can sympathize with the author. And I'm aware of two would-be attorneys-general who didn't get to make history because they didn't have their child-care acts in order.

Berry feels strongly that husbands should share equal time in housework and child rearing. (How this might impinge on their rights is not discussed.) Berry feels that husbands must be made to pay child support when they leave and share absolutely equal responsibility for children until the children are grown. Right again , Mary Frances! And if you've got any specific ideas about how to make ex-husbands do that, I know about a dozen who might benefit from one of your bracing talks.

Most irritating of all, in an extremely irritating book, is the professor's contention that women who stay at home and take care of their children cannot be feminists: "In other words, feminist consciousness seems to be the last thing on their minds." Correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought feminism was about a woman's right to choose the life she thinks is best, the one she wants to live.

The real lessons of this book: Shun the experts. Accept no harangue. If you're a woman and want to be President, go easy on the kids. But do what you think is best for yourself.

If you like children, have them. Hold them on your lap when you watch TV. It won't interfere with your rights too much. It doesn't mean that you're Phyllis Schlafly if you go to the kids' school play. Take Ruth Benedict's sound advice (an expert anthropologist not mentioned in this book) and use your kids' toddler years to pick up college or graduate classes.

Most important, if you have kids, try to enjoy your life. Don't succumb to the "despair" expressed so wildly by this distressed author.

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