Motherhood Deferred, by Anne Taylor Fleming
Motherhood Deferred: A Woman’s Journey.
by Anne Taylor Fleming.
Putnam. 256 pp. $23.95.
Anne Taylor Fleming is a free- lance writer who reports regularly about women and their “issues” for the New York Times Magazine, among other journals. In this, her first book, she clinically details her own unsuccessful struggle to conceive a child, and also chronicles her coming-of-age as a feminist. Mrs. Fleming’s account of her life, particularly her love affair with feminism, is the saga, writ small, of a good number of other women as well, some of whom figure prominently in our culture.
Mrs. Fleming begins her narrative at the end of her “journey,” in the sterile embrace of a gynecological apparatus during one of countless failed attempts to become impregnated. Thereafter she alternates back and forth, chapter by chapter, interspersing the story of her life with the story of her doomed effort to conceive.
She was born in Hollywood in 1950, the younger of two daughters of actors, both of whom worked regularly. Her father appeared in movies and her mother in television. She and her sister were given all the usual upper-middle-class advantages: they attended private schools, and were asked only to excel at whatever it was they chose to do. Even the divorce of her parents, as she describes it, was comparatively pain-free: “My parents . . . divorced with rare grace and we were never batted around between them or made pawns in any leftover business of theirs.” After the divorce, each of her parents continued to dote on her, to encourage her, to help her grow up.
The young Anne Taylor tanned herself at the beach and, like many quasi-intellectual girls of her class and generation, wrote “rebellious” poetry in school. Some of this pathetic stuff she quotes here, as she does many of her other writings, quite without irony. Of one such effort, she says in all seriousness:
I submitted a love poem to the school literary magazine about a white girl and a black boy being forced apart “by those all-knowing people, those omnipotent bodies of society, who would not let me be of him or him of me.”
When she was sixteen, Anne Taylor met Karl Fleming, a married writer twice her age and the father of four sons. Before she had even begun to make her way in the world, he had divorced his wife and swept her off her feet with a declaration of undying passion. After she graduated from high school in 1967, they shared a bed in various spots up and down the California coast while she went to college in Santa Cruz, and then married shortly after she graduated. This period coincided with the social and political upheavals of the late 60’s and early 70’s, but for her these were filtered through a husband’s loving and indulgent care. Unlike most of the women of her acquaintance—unlike, indeed, a great many women of her class and generation—Mrs. Fleming married (and remains married to) her first and only sexual partner.
Nevertheless, she eagerly lapped up the words of the revolutionary women writers who rose to prominence in this period. As an aspiring writer herself, she had been laboring, she now says, under constraints imposed by authors of the opposite sex like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, “who could put an elegantly tight-lipped spin on their monstrous male sentimentality, leaving women authors, it seemed, in the sweet domestic dust to write about tea parties and village romances.” (So much for Jane Austen and George Eliot.) Eventually, though, she discovered women who could speak to her. One of them was Simone de Beauvoir: “I wanted to follow her into the sunset,” she says of Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique compelled her just as much:
That’s where my friends and I were adamantly heading—beyond biology, away from the home, that comfortable concentration camp, away from motherhood and dishes and diapers. . . . Not for us the traditional wifely role. No way were we going to be buried alive. We would sign on and help shape the future with our new licensed ambitions.
Fortunately for the young Mrs. Fleming, there was a whole slew of these writers, of whom Beauvoir and Friedan were actually the primmest. Even the outrageous Germaine Greer, who called “normal” girls “female faggots,” was sedate by comparison with the contributors to a 1970 anthology, Sisterhood Is Powerful, which Mrs. Fleming hails as “vibrantly vitriolic” and which contained chapter titles like “Media Images 2: Body Odor and Social Order”; “The Politics of Orgasm”; and “Notes of a Radical Lesbian.” She smiles indulgently over some of this now; but, she adds,
it was dazzlingly potent stuff back then, exciting, daring, conscripting—if you were young and female and well placed, by dint of economics and education, to take advantage of all these feminist exhortations.
And yet, and yet. Such, it appears, is the universal pull of biology that even Simone de Beauvior at the end of her life bitterly regretted her childlessness, and Betty Friedan, too, who after all had had three children when she sat down to repudiate motherhood, eventually inclined to a more temperate view. And so, around about the mid-1980’s, Mrs. Fleming, by now in her middle thirties, commenced to notice that, try as she might, she too was unable to resist the impulse of nature. “I began to flirt with the possibility” of children, she writes,
began to relax toward it, toward the idea of creation and procreation and family and the feeling that a baby might just be a balm to my frazzled, divided, angry, Reagan-era female soul.
The words are preposterous, but Mrs. Fleming’s desire for pregnancy was genuine enough. Yet it was not to be. A variety of conditions, including difficulties she may have inherited from her mother, some sexually transmitted disease she may have contracted from her husband, and maybe even the simple fact that she had waited so long, seems to have conspired against her becoming pregnant through the usual means. And so began a tortuous period of regular intercourse with medical equipment.
For the reader, the story of Mrs. Fleming’s increasingly desperate submission to a series of fantastically high-tech interventions are of passing interest; after a while, these experiments with their various acronyms begin to run together on the page. Yet every encounter with a syringe, a petrie dish, a scanner, and a stirrup, each drop of sperm in the seemingly endless stream supplied by her obliging husband, then washed and counted and mounted via laparoscope, every failure of every mechanically fertilized embryo to implant itself in her uterus, Mrs. Fleming faithfully, one is tempted to say lovingly, records.
To the inevitable question, why not adopt?, Mrs. Fleming answers that she did not, does not, want a baby she has not produced herself, and bearing her genetic code. In her fantasies, her offspring is an adolescent girl bearing an uncanny resemblance to her own lovely, California, sunstreaked, lithe, adolescent self.
Is there something more to all this than simple narcissism? In a revealing passage, Mrs. Fleming remarks:
So having a baby wasn’t just having a baby. It became a major healing. That is part of the reason I felt so bereft when pregnancy continued to elude me. I was denied that particular kind of healing, and so set me out on this literary kind instead.
But what ill is it, exactly, that she needs to heal? Throughout her narrative, Mrs. Fleming threads the life histories of some of her friends: women who have experienced pain, or difficulty, or even tragedy. She bleeds for these women, yet, astonishingly, she sees no difference between their lives and her own—the pleasant, rich, easy life she describes in this very book. To the contrary, she reserves her densest and most breathlessly girlish prose for her own story, and sheds her biggest tears over her own pain. The fact that she is able to dismiss the love and devotion lavished upon her by her parents and her husband as so much smoke and ashes—and as typifying the tragedy of a whole generation—suggests a mindset for which narcissism seems altogether too narrow a term.
As the self-appointed standard-bearer for her cohort of well-heeled, well-groomed, self-absorbed, self-obsessed, dissatisfied, unsatisfiable women, Mrs. Fleming gives away a lot. In their youth, she writes, “we were the golden girls of the brave new order. We would do it differently, redefine the gender, fly free of our very own sex.” Such, at any rate, was the fashion of the day. But now there is a new fashion. Where once the goal of life was to shed the old conventions, now the goal has to do with “healing.” Everyone is doing it; and so Mrs. Fleming and her friends, too, will heal, if not by having babies (a “particular kind of healing”) then by writing books (“the literary kind instead”). Whatever.
Only, do not force them to rethink. At one point, Mrs. Fleming pauses to ask herself:
Could I in good conscience blame feminism for my long abstention from motherhood . . . those angry, childless and unmarried ideologues of yore who had played their part in my long resistance to motherhood?
But almost before the question is raised she has already answered in the negative. “I knew in my heart of hearts that they had also given me a life, washing me out into the world on the tidal wave of their rage.”
Needless to say, neither here nor anywhere else in this book does she trouble to ask whether, “in good conscience,” she can blame herself. And so, when she comes to tender her apologies—“Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.”—to all those “station-wagon moms with their post-partum pounds who felt denigrated in the liberationist heyday by the young, lean, ambitious women like me who were so intent on making our way,” somehow it is hard to believe she means it. It is even more difficult to accept her apology.