Discoveries by an Unintentional Sanctimommy

Posted on February 5, 2013


Janine Kovac, writing for Role/Reboot, got herself into a world of hurt last week with her post, “Maybe You Are Ready for Kids, You’re Just Not Paying Attention.”  It was an open letter to her friend, “Doris,” who was apparently a thirty-something, self-absorbed career woman agonizing over whether she would ever be ready to have children.  Ms. Kovac, a mother of three who blogs about her parenting experiences and coordinates events for Write On, Mamas, was not kind to Doris.  The thrust of the open letter seemed to be that Doris needed to stop being so inattentive and selfish, realize that her career was no fun anyway, and then her eyes would be opened to the Great Truth that no one ever feels ready to parent, but they bravely forge ahead and discover that yes, they are capable, and the implication is that yes, this is what’s truly important in life.  The childless Dorises of the world, deluded career women, are painted as all too unaware that they are unfulfilled, missing out, maybe even as worthless as rats on an exercise wheel.  Or at least, that’s how a lot of people took it.

As it turns out, “Doris” was not even a real person, just a literary device for Ms. Kovac to organize her thoughts.  But that didn’t stop an enormous wave of backlash from smacking Ms. Kovac squarely on her virtual chin, and even inspired some notable open letters in response, by Mary Elizabeth Williams, Kerry Cohen, and several other readers.  Most of these letters were written by mothers who share the real-life difficulties of parenting, who remark on the valid reasons that they themselves waited, who blast Ms. Kovac for the presumption that she just knows what all women really want.  Frankly, I’m with them.  Childless by choice for multiple reasons, I cannot begin to count the times I have been harassed by all-knowing new mothers and even by co-workers, concerning when I was going to have some kids, that I must have kids, as if that’s all I was good for.

Ms. Kovac really hit a nerve.  Check out the comments on that article.  Ouch.  Just in the first few lines of commentary, we encounter “self-righteous,” “condescending,” “patronizing,” “sanctimonious harpy,” “wretched,” “narcissistic,” “smug,” and even “hateful.”

This past weekend in Salon, Kovac  explained her thinking at the time, and shared her thoughts on how the harsh criticism opened her eyes.  Not so much to the issues of choosing motherhood, but to how her thoughts had been received by others.  “… I learned a few overnight lessons… Of course I looked like the Sanctimommy whose whole life is her children… it looked like I declared open season on all women, regardless of their life choices…  I should know better.”  And magnanimously, she apologized, and it was well received.

I think by far the very best, most thoughtful response to Kovac came from commenter “fleshapple.”  Here’s an excerpt, or you can read the whole comment on Salon:

That’s a big apology, and good of you, certainly…  But… your original piece hints at something I’ve found also to be true. Motherhood … is a binary state. I don’t mean this to simply differentiate people who don’t have children versus those who do, I mean to the *self* before and after children…. certainly the before and after bring with them changes that are nigh untranslatable to others, and unguessed at by the child-free self….  I also think it’s fair, in the current tenor of the mommy wars, etc., to be able to say, frankly, “Having kids, especially if you happen to be an introspective sort of person, can be altering in ways you could not have imagined before children.” However, it’s also fair to say that once those children are present, one can never truly know the other path either, the path of those who remain childless, who invest in their lives in other ways, and who grow and change over time as well–in ways also unfathomable to their younger selves. What we’re really talking about here, in a roundabout sort of way, is the “End of History” illusion…. it’s paramount to remember that a. it is only one [history], and b. the multitudes of change those events contain holds no clear promise of a shared–or even shareable– experience.

Wow.  Well said, fleshapple!  Parents and the child-free aren’t so different that never the twain can meet.  We all make valid choices for our own lives about what is right for us.  Or maybe we discover that we have made a choice that wasn’t so right for us, but then we deal with it and grow from it.  Our choices and our mistakes are our own to make.  No one else’s.  It’s just a matter of respecting each others’ choices, and butting out unless asked.