I came to this book because I had picked up The Secret Lives of Wives at my library and in the first couple of pages realized this author had a history of an approach to marriage and motherhood that I needed to understand in order to fully appreciate her investigation into wifehood. Plus, I was writing a paper on working moms and the (still persistent!) cultural message that “we can’t have it all,” despite the fact that the approximately 70% of American women in the workforce might feel that we are in fact doing a fine job being an employee, raising our kids, participating in family life, and more or less being well-rounded people and contributing members of society. So I admit my approach to Surrendering to Motherhood was antagonistic from the start, and not much in the book persuaded me to feel otherwise.
The strength of the book is the memoir portion, when Krasnow keeps the focus on her own life and her own struggles with spirituality. Her transient thrills with est, meditation, and the Bohemian California lifestyle, her pursuit of the “high life” in Chicago, then Dallas, then Washington, D.C. which reveals to her that all that glitters etc. etc., and her finding of a true spiritual path in her Jewish heritage, which provides her with a depth and meaning for which she’d apparently been ardently searching in various failed love affairs and public acclaim–all of this comes off as sincere and eminently readable. In fact, anyone who has pursued ambition and found ambition is not all–or pursued love and found love elusive–can identify with Krasnow’s struggles. That she eventually diagnoses and blames the promises of second-wave feminism for this emptiness is not something I agree with in principle or identify with personally, but I’m not going to argue with her about what she internalized or what she felt.
Nor will I argue with her that motherhood is or can be a deeply spiritual experience. If the root of all respectable spiritual traditions is love and connection, the realization that there is no Other, then parenting is the ultimate of experience of that immersion in love, whether it’s your own biological kid you’ve incubated or your child who came to you by other means. (Krasnow, incidentally, doesn’t address adoption, surrogacy, IVF, or guardianship as viable parenting options with as potent a spiritual pull; for her, motherhood is gestation, period.) I had to laugh at Krasnow’s accounts of how the relentless demands of a very small being pretty much demand that you Be Here Now, another mantra of the spiritual path that one has to experience to understand. Her personal struggle to lay to rest her ambition for public approval and admiration to be fully present for and available to the four small beings in her life was heartfelt and believable.
My quarrel with the book was when Krasnow, while still identifying herself a feminist, commits the faux pas of assuming her experience is both representative (don’t *all* women want to just stay home with their kids? Don’t you? she asks the reader at one point) and ideal. The least palatable parts of the book are those in which Krasnow can’t help but apply her own system of values to the women around her, and while she professes to respect women who actually do want to leave the house and have their own careers, she really seems to be secretly judging and pitying anyone who hasn’t made her choice. Feminism has succeeded in establishing that the personal is political, but the personal is also personal; if we are to achieve real equality, then we all–and women especially–need to respect each others’ choices and make every effort to make those choices real. Krasnow doesn’t seem to understand that her embracing of domesticity is actually very different from her mother’s because she has the fortunate choice of choosing to stay home with her kids (with the help of nannies, babysitters, and housekeepers, it must be said). She freely chides Simone de Beauvoir or Betty Friedan because she, Krasnow, actually likes housework and marriage, not seeming to realize she might feel very differently about them if they had been her only possible path and not a choice she made because she had the good fortune to a) have a successful career to put on hold and b) a spouse whose income can support the family + help. What’s bordering on repugnant is Krasnow’s repeated repetition of the virtues and rewards of motherhood, for her, without once acknowledging how very fortunate she is to *have* the choice to make. Without this acknowledgment, she starts to sound like the rest of the voices of the backlash, who just want women to go back into the home and stop trying to fight for affordable childcare, among other tedious demands.
The final drawback to the book is that Krasnow’s one revelation–that motherhood is her way to Be Here Now–and she doesn’t seem to ever realize that it’s her way, not the way–is arrived at somewhere between the first third and first half of the book, and thereafter is a point that simply gets repeated without much elaboration or insight. The narrative of her life with her husband and boys doesn’t have much structure, after that, other than to repeatedly point out how very lucky and blessed she is, which becomes a little tiresome. I can see where Krasnow is coming from; someone who feels that she was pressured to have a high-profile, high-powered career while relegating her kids to child care might feel the need, in book length, to explain and justify her point. But I would have had a lot more respect for Krasnow, in the end, if she’d been able to sustain her feminism and envision spiritual motherhood as a viable option that each woman, each mother, is allowed to pursue and integrate into her life in her own chosen way.