Monday, January 30, 2006

Why being a mum is tops

A normal woman answers the bitter and twisted Maureen Dowd back and tells her what she is missing

Are women necessary? Yes, they are, at least for breeding, and changing the sheets. But what about women who aren't married and don't have children? Could we get rid of them? No, I'm kidding, just as New York Times writer Maureen Dowd was kidding when she called her new book Are Men Necessary? Dowd is only woman at the Times to have her own, permanent space on the Opinion page and she is a single, childless feminist. So, without reading her book, people have assumed men aren't relevant to her life. They assume she's going to say: "Let's get rid of the lot of them and use a sperm farm to reproduce!" But in interviews to promote her book, Dowd says yes, men are necessary - if only for "heavy lifting" (boom, boom!).

No, that's one of Dowd's jokes, too. She really does like men and has actually dated quite a few of them. Trouble is, none were willing to commit. She suspects it might be because she's so smart, funny and successful. In her book, she says she might have had more luck with romance if she'd been a maid like her mother. She recounts a tale in which a powerful man explained he wanted to ask her out but was too intimidated by her brilliance. Such claims - made in jest, with the aim of ruffling a few feathers - have sparked outrage in the US, especially from married women, who reject the implication that they must be stupid, otherwise how else did they find somebody willing to marry them, and from men who don't think their wives are thick.

The controversy has startled Dowd, who says she wrote Are Men Necessary? in a "fun, breezy" way, hoping to start "cool, sexy conversations" between men and women about what she calls "sexual politics" and "modern relationships". I have read Dowd's book and she's right, it does have a breezy feel. It isn't argumentative and often it's quite fun. I'm not offended if she thinks my husband chose me because I'm dumber than him. It may well be true.

However - and maybe this is because Dowd is about the same age as my mum (in their 50s) - some of her ideas about women's lives do seem a bit old fashioned. For example, Dowd laments the fact - and it's true - that many young women no longer want to move into positions of political power and are "losing interest in scampering up the corporate ladder". She says the corporate culture still "reeks of testosterone". She notes that only 7 per cent of men in the top tier of the Bush administration are single, compared with 33 per cent of women. Women who do get "to the top" - like the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice - tend not to have children.

Dowd seems dismayed by all of this and I suspect that's because, despite putting herself forward as a fun commentator on sexual politics, she doesn't really understand women. She lives alone in a big old mansion decorated with nude statues. Every night, if she likes, she can pop out for a martini. She has good friends, lots of money and prestige, and she's won a Pulitzer Prize for journalism. Most women don't live like that. They go to school, then get a job and date a bit. They find a fellow they like, get married and have children. After those children arrive, most women either stop working or start working part-time, at least for a while.

That's because most women believe it's important to be home for the children. Sure, they can see how pleasant it might be to be able to shop at leisure for leopard-skin boots, but it's not as important as raising good citizens. They don't want to spend long hours in the office while the little ones are raised by strangers. I know it's not polite to say this, but it's difficult for women who are not mothers to understand the depth of commitment required to get married, have babies and then raise a child. It's not like having a boyfriend. The emotions involved are extremely powerful, too. When my children are away - such as this week, when they spent a night at Grandpa's - I sometimes crawl into their empty beds at night, stick my face into their pillows and try to drink up the smell of them. I'm sure that sounds pathetic, but every mother I know has done it. Or else they've opened their children's wardrobes and sunk their faces into their clothes, or walked around patting all their stuffed toys on the head. Spending time with the child is vastly more satisfying - and takes more skill - than spending the longest night in the coolest bar in New York, or the most satisfying day in the office.

Dowd laments the quality of conversation between men and women, too. What she can't know is that when mums and dads go to bed at night they often spend a few minutes nose to nose in the dark, chattering in whispers, about their children. It's an exquisitely tender part of the day. It's hard to explain to a woman whose interests are world politics and US oil consumption, because it sounds so daggy, but the joy of having these conversations - and of putting Band-Aids on scraped knees, of singing lullabies, of feeling one's chest burst with pride as the child puts on his first school uniform and marches proudly into class - is, for many women, more important than scrambling madly up the career ladder.

Dowd talks often about her singleness, both in her books and her interviews. It helped her get to "the top". I'm sure she's trying to be helpful when she says other women, including mums, should be able to join her there. But maybe they don't want to.



Last November, I wrote about the controversy about the Public Broadcasting Service documentary, ''Breaking the Silence: Children's Stories," which claimed that male batterers and child abusers frequently gain custody of their children in divorce cases after the mothers' claims of abuse are disbelieved by the courts. The film caused an outcry from fathers' rights groups. In response to these protests, PBS announced a 30-day review to determine whether the film met the editorial guidelines for fairness and accuracy. Unfortunately, it seems that the review amounted to little more than a whitewash.

On Dec. 21, PBS issued a statement acknowledging that the film ''would have benefited from more in-depth treatment of the complex issues," but also concluded that ''the producers approached the topic with the open-mindedness and commitment to fairness that we require of our journalists" and that the program's claims were supported by ''extensive" research. Those claims included some highly inflammatory assertions: for instance, that three-quarters of contested custody cases involve a history of domestic violence, and that wife and child abusers who seek child custody after divorce win two-thirds of the time.

Connecticut Public Television, which co-produced ''Breaking the Silence," has supplied me with two detailed reports -- one from producer Dominique Lasseur, the other from Lasseur and George Washington University law professor Joan Meier, the film's lead expert -- on which PBS drew to support its conclusion. To call these reports shoddy and self-serving would be an understatement.

Thus, the reports cite the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's Gender Bias Study of 1989 as proof that fathers who seek custody receive it at least 70 percent of the time -- even though this study does not distinguish custody disputes from cases in which the father got custody by mutual agreement. Other sources used to support the claim of male advantage are even weaker: They include the Battered Mothers' Testimony Project from the Wellesley Center for Women, which used a sample of 40 women with grievances about the family courts. No mention is made of much larger, representative studies of divorcing couples (such as the one reported by Stanford University psychologist Eleanor Maccoby and Harvard law professor Robert Mnookin in the 1992 book ''Dividing the Child") showing that far fewer fathers than mothers get the custodial arrangements they want.

Assertions that abusive men are especially likely to seek custody of children and are likely to prevail in court are backed by similarly slipshod evidence. Defending the claim made in ''Breaking the Silence" that children are in greater danger of abuse from fathers than from mothers, Lasseur and Meier point to several limited studies that often lump together biological fathers with stepfathers and mothers' boyfriends (who, statistically, pose a far higher risk). Yet even these cherry-picked statistics show that a significant proportion of perpetrators of severe child abuse are mothers -- which makes the film's exclusive focus on abusive fathers difficult to defend.

The producer's account of how he went about researching the film reinforces the impression of bias. Battered women's advocates are presumed to be disinterested champions of victims, even though many of them have an ideological agenda of equating family violence with male oppression of women and children; advocates for divorced fathers or abused men are seen as tainted with ''antiwoman bias." In the same vein, Lasseur's report is supplemented by a letter signed by ''98 professionals" who support the film's conclusions -- but a number of those ''professionals" are feminist activists, including National Organization for Women President Kim Gandy.

Lasseur and Meier profess to be shocked that anyone could see the film as collectively maligning divorced fathers when it focuses only on abusive fathers in contested custody cases. Yet the film clearly suggests that if a divorcing father decides to fight for custody, chances are he's a batterer who's using the custody suit as an abuse tactic -- and that if he's accused of abuse, he's most probably guilty. And that's not prejudicial?

Notably, PBS ombudsman Michael Getler and especially Corporation for Public Broadcasting ombudsman Ken Bode have taken a far more negative view of the film than did the PBS review. On Jan. 4, Bode wrote, ''After close review including discussions and e-mail exchanges with those involved with the program or closely affected by it, I found the program to be so totally unbalanced as to fall outside the boundaries of PBS editorial standards on fairness and balance." The one silver lining in this mess is that PBS has decided to commission another, more in-depth film on the subject of abuse and child custody. Let's hope that this time, it tackles the subject with real ''open-mindedness and commitment to fairness."


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