Modern women lack the tyrant's touch (National Post, May 10, 2003)

I am a member of the last female cohort in western civilization to accept without rancour or rebelliousness the notion that a mother's place was in the home. I was well-educated, as were all of my friends, many of us with graduate degrees, and some with interesting jobs when we married. But when the first baby arrived, we chucked our "careers" without a backward glance, and became chatelaines of the hearth, tending our wee bairns and cooking for our hunters home from the hills (or the brokerage houses or wherever they spent their days in the swirling mists of the outside world). And who knew or cared at the time about the manifestos the feminists were already incubating in the bitter recesses of their man-hating hearts?

Gloria Steinem and Ms. Magazine got it all wrong! We -- my gal pals with babies and I -- were happy. We even considered ourselves powerful in a hand-that-rocks-the-cradle kind of way, with pots of time to get together in each others' homes, pretending to supervise "play groups" and instill the values of sharing and fairness, but really just hanging out together, using our babies' "need to civilize" as an excuse to bond and schmooze and reassure each other of our importance. Kind of like an all-women United Nations.

It was sweet. Nobody was the boss of us, but we were the bosses of our families. Our husbands, conditioned to think child-raising was a mysterious art given only to women to understand, deferred entirely to our opinions and wishes where the children were concerned. We made the rules. We were dictators! Not the horrible Ozymandias kind that is unloved and forgotten, more like, oh, Pericles of Athens. Benevolent. Yeah, that's it -- I was a benevolent dictator.

What did my children know about democracy? How could they? They had nobody to compare me to. So when I fixed my kvetching kid with a basilisk eye and snarled, "You're whining! Whining is not allowed in this house," or "You're not allowed to say you're bored. Boredom is not allowed in this house," I knew my child had no recourse. To whom could he complain? His father? His father was all about playing games and teaching him hand-eye coordination, but while his father often reinforced the rules I made, he was not the arbiter of behaviour in our home. Who else then? The nanny? There was no nanny. His day care worker? There was no ... well, you take my point.

I had no competition for my children's fealty, and furthermore, because I spent the whole livelong day with them, I didn't begrudge myself the luxury of personal down time. I hadn't a shred of guilt about plunking the babies into the playpen for hours at a stretch (start 'em young and they learn to like it, like crate-trained puppies), then as toddlers on the sofa for quality time with Mr. Dressup, The Friendly Giant, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and Sesame Street while I kept abreast of intellectual and cultural currents. The first complete sentence my kids learned by rote was "Wait until I finish this chapter." Don't believe a word the feminists say. Stay-at-home motherhood was bliss.

But nowadays! All the young mothers work, and they work hard and long hours. Time spent with their kids is so precious, and they feel so guilty about the time they spend away from them, they can't bear to deny them their presence for a single minute when they're home. On precious maternity leave, they breastfeed them non-stop. They don't let them cry! They take them to their friends' dinner parties! They let them sleep in their own bed, sometimes -- egad -- for years, I suppose unconsciously crediting these hours of communal slumber on some atavistic balance sheet to meet a quota they can't achieve in their waking hours.

They seem to think their babies have ... rights. Today's young women are like non-Security Council members: They think they only have a vote. Whereas my group -- like France, and with the same degree of arbitrariness -- was always focused on our right of veto. And, from the deference that rights-oriented moms pay to their kids, you would think they believe their decisions can be overturned by a childish majority vote.

Today's democratic moms -- hovering, solicitous, humbly unselfish -- seem, with their endless patience and good cheer, to be wooing their children like politicians fearful of recall campaigns. Perhaps it's because, unlike my cohort, they do have competition, and comparisons can be made. I imagine that they live in dread of the day that they arrive home to hear the nanny say, "Ashley fell down and I hugged her and she called me 'mummy' ..." Or worse, their child pouting: "Filomena's never tired. Filomena plays with me whenever I want. Why aren't you nice like Filomena?"

I think democracy will be wonderful for Iraq, but I'm just as happy it never insinuated its ever-rising bar for higher performance standards into my household. I could never have ministered so unstintingly to my children as the democratic moms of today. In my benevolent dictatorship, my kids were well nourished on the homemade food I had time to prepare -- they never lacked for "bread" -- and my continuous presence was their "circus," giving me time and license to be selfish. Oppressed, as the feminists claim? Nonsense. I was in fact, as the old song goes, "free to be me."

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