by Vicki Larson
When I’m feeling morbid, as I have been lately given my numerous visits to see my ailing elderly father, I sometimes imagine how my obituary will read: “Longtime journalist and mother of two …”
I’m grateful the poor sap writing my obit will likely list the journalist part first. But since I haven’t kicked the bucket yet, I’m often asked what my biggest accomplishment has been so far. This is a no-brainer — my two wonderful kids.
It’s true; no matter what fame and fortune I’ve received in my professional life (granted, it’s been pretty miniscule on both ends, but still), I’m proudest of the fine young men my two boys have become.
Of course, they’ve had a fantastic mom to guide them along.
We all know what mothers are about, right? A mom “remembers to serve fruit at breakfast, is always cheerful and never yells, manages not to project her own neuroses and inadequacies onto her children, is an active and beloved community volunteer. She remembers to make playdates, her children’s clothes fit, she does art projects with them and enjoys all their games,” or so writes Ayelet Waldman in her latest book “Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace .”
Oh, OK, those are the “good” mommies. But even the good-enough mommies and “bad” mommies tend to put their kids first, before their own desires and goals.
In other words, we’re selfless. We sacrifice.
It just comes with the mommy territory.
Now that I’m divorced, I’ve found myself somewhat uncomfortably placed in the category of “single mother as hero,” or so Ann Coulter points out in disgust in her book, “Guilty: Liberal 'Victims' and Their Assault on America.” “There are more books on the heroism of single mothers than there are books on the heroism of the U.S. Marines,” she says with more than a hint of snark.
Well, what does she know, I think smugly — she’s not a mom. She doesn’t “get” it.
Actress Uma Thurman does; when touting her recent movie “Motherhood,” she lumped all of us moms — single, widowed, divorced, choice, married and, presumably, teen — into the unsung hero category. "Motherhood is a thing that can be terribly underappreciated. People are very willing to heap criticism on mothers," the mother of two said. “You don't hear that much about the successes of mothers.”
After raising two boys for as long as I have — almost 20 years for the oldest, 16-plus for the youngest — it’s hard not to puff up my Wonderbra-enhanced chest and declare, “Yes, damn it! I AM a hero!”
So, then, what are we to make of women who choose to be child-free? What are we to make of a woman like, say, Elizabeth Gilbert?
Gilbert famously cried and prayed on the bathroom floor as her then-husband slept in the next room, blissfully unaware that she had no intention of ever having babies with him — or anyone else, for that matter. And then she wrote a book about it that became a best-seller, and she was catapulted into near-goddess stature for legions of middle-aged divorcees like me.
But not a hero.
I have heard Gilbert talk in person, and I have interviewed her on the phone; she’s incredibly likeable and genuine. All of which makes me feel terrible that I’m among the handful of women who weren’t swept up in “Eat, Pray, Love” mania. In fact, I didn’t like the book at all. It was an excruciatingly tough read about all that’s wrong with modern womanhood — self-absorbed, neurotic, depressed, needy.
How different than “The Last American Man,” her brilliantly written biography of Eustace Conway, a self-styled man of destiny, a modern-day Jason of the Argonauts — the kind of man we place on a pedestal and laud as a hero.
And that is what makes the two books, written back to back, so fascinating. There is no such path for us, no lauded “woman of destiny,” unless babies are involved. And as anyone who read “Eat, Pray Love ” knows, Gilbert wasn’t about to become Mommy. Thus her divorce and the journeys that led her to Felipe — really Jose Nunes, the Brazilian-born Australian she falls for at the end of “Eat, Pray, Love” and ends up marrying in 2007 (the subject of her new book, “Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage ”).
Is it any wonder, then, that the 40-year-old Gilbert falls for a much older man — 17 years older. He’s done with having babies; his are already grown, having been raised by another woman. How sweet is that for a woman who doesn’t want to have kids — instant stepkids without any of the hassle!
Of course Conway, a naturalist who renounces modern life to create a utopian-like community in the wilderness, doesn’t have kids, either — although he says he desperately wants them. But kids and families just get in the way of men of destiny. As Gilbert points out, our idea of the classic American masculine hero is totally lacking any romantic or sexual notions. It’s man versus wild, alone or perhaps with a sidekick — a male sidekick.
If we choose whatever classic heroic journeys might be available to us, we’re seen as selfish, especially if we choose ambition over family — “How dare she abandon her children?”
Child-free women have it easier — if they’re Mother Teresa, that is. A woman who doesn’t have children is a suspect and somewhat tragic figure — “What’s wrong with her?”
For the great late mythologist Joseph Campbell, all of us — men and women, parents and the child-free, married and single — have heroic opportunities. We all have dragons to slay.
Heroes are willing to sacrifice for the good of others; they go through life with courage and strength.
Sounds suspiciously like the selflessness of mothers — and of women brave enough to admit that motherhood just isn’t their thing.
Also on Mommy Tracked about Elizabeth Gilbert and Ayelet Waldman:
Committed: Does it Top Eat, Pray, Love? 
Eat, Pray, Love & Work. 
The Bad Mother Police and What to do About Them. 
A Pretty Good Mom. 
Losing It. 
Mommy Tracked interviews Ayelet Waldman