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MOTHERHOOD AND DOUBLE VISION

I shouldn't be doing this. Listening to angry voices on talk radio -- sopranos and altos this time -- isn't a good way to sustain my belief in even the skim milk of human kindness.

Today a 19-year-old British au pair named Louise Woodward stands accused in a Cambridge, Mass., courtroom of shaking and slamming an 8-month-old baby to death. The boy's parents, Deborah and Sunil Eappen, have described in wrenching detail what it was like to say goodbye to their son before he was removed from life support.

But over the airwaves, a caller says angrily, "I think she's guilty of manslaughter." And the "she" is the baby's mother.

Another woman finds this working mother guilty merely of neglect, not manslaughter. "The kid comes first," she says, "Bottom line. End of story."

Finally someone suggests (Can this be what the caller meant? Does this level of malevolence exist in the world?) that the Eappens got what they deserved: "Apparently the parents didn't want a kid. And now they don't have a kid." A dead baby is proper punishment -- an eye for an eye -- for a mother not at home.

As a battle-weary correspondent from the front lines of the mommy wars, I shouldn't be surprised. I know how the battle lines are drawn. Exactly half the mothers of infants are in the work force and half at home. Many on both sides have hunkered down defensively in their trenches.

But this "nanny case" is not being broadcast gavel-to-gavel across the country as just another murder. It's a Court TV warning, a cautionary tale, a horror story about what can happen when you leave your child in someone else's care.

How long ago was it that the scary tales were about sexual abuse in day-care centers? Now it's death at home with the nanny. Maybe that fits the times when skirmishes in the mommy wars can sound so much like class warfare.

What is the sub-text of this case about a two-career couple who hired a British teen-ager to care for their two sons? Deborah and Sunil Eappen are invariably described as "doctors" with all that implies. "Doctor" in this story is rather a synonym for status and wealth.

One swears she would be more sympathetic to a waitress. They have targeted this mother as a driven professional, an uppity "career woman" who didn't "have to" work.

The fact that the Eappens don't fit the stereotype is irrelevant. Fresh out of training and deep in debt, Deborah chose what her peers would call a medical mommy track. An ophthalmologist who worked three days a week, she described her life as a "juggling act" structured for balance.

But even this woman didn't fit between the narrow lines of Good Mother that gets our cultural seal of approval.

Consider, if you will, two coexisting and conflicting images of the Good Mother today. On one side of the tracks, the maternal role model of the moment is the high-powered professional woman, like PepsiCo chief executive Brenda Barnes, who chucks it all to be with the kids. On the other side, the role model of the moment is the welfare mother who leaves her children for the work force.

There is no child care good enough to justify the working mother staying in the corner office. There is no child care poor enough to justify the welfare mother staying at home.

The class bias and uppity woman bias in this double vision of motherhood goes without saying, although it goes without saying in both directions. Doctors and welfare recipients, mothers and, oh yes, fathers, are part of the majority of Americans stuck in the work and family muddle.

Married or single, today or tomorrow, middle or working class, we search desperately and individually for "good enough" child care and flexible enough jobs while our antennae pick up the hostile messages of society.

On this cultural split screen, a nanny trial in Cambridge competed with a White House child-care conference in Washington that offered depressing details of inadequate care and the desultory "hope" expressed by Hillary Clinton that it would "create some grass-roots, bottom-up concern."

What of this concern? Stephanie Coontz, a family historian and author of "The Way We Really Are," asks, "How much longer will we pretend that individual women will be able to cobble together these personal solutions to a major social problem while we continue to slap them across the face every time they fail?"

Deborah and Sunil Eappen have lost their son. Surely they are too numb to feel the slap across the face. But what a different country this would be if angry blaming voices mellowed into a chorus that understood: "There but for the grace of God go I."

Boston Globe Newspaper Co.

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