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By Arlene (Ari) Istar Lev

The Mother Dance

Posted By on June 30, 2009

The Mother Dance: How children change your life
by Harriet Lerner,
Harper Prennial 1998


I must confess I enjoy Harriet Lerner’s "dance" books a lot.  As a therapist I find her books excellent explanations of complex therapeutic theories that are written clearly, with descriptive clinical narratives that people can identify with.  As far as "self-help" books go, she is the person I most often recommend.

As a relatively new mother, I opened up the mother dance with enthusiasm and without resistance.  I, however, found myself disappointed.  The most obvious criticism I have of this book is that it is too personal, too self-disclosing, more about her and her vulnerabilities as a parent than universal experiences of parenting.  I want to be clear that I am not critical of her for her self-disclosure; her honesty is refreshing in world where therapists often talk down from some high perch of expertise.  My disappointment is more in the balance between personal experience and more generally useful knowledge; I craved advice to not fall into the same pitfalls she admits to.  She admits that she wrote the book just as her own children were being "launched," and owns the therapeutic "coincidence" of revisiting her career as a parent, while her children were leaving home.

Lerner discusses her confusion and ambivalence about becoming a mother, opening her book with the statement, "Being a mother comes about as naturally to me as being an astronaut."  She discusses her fears and worries about her sons’ development, the difficulty of not falling into traditional sex roles for heterosexual couples, and the uselessness of guilt.  She opens up a discussion of many "unmentionables" including anger and hatred towards one’s children, concerns that children’s behavior reflects on the self-worth of the parent, and the challenges of raising gentle men by risking raising a "mama’s boy."  She talks honestly about her husband’s cancer and the effect that had on her son and she tackles complex issues like dealing with food and sex in parenting children.

I was particularly impressed with her coverage of these last two issues.  She talked about how parents pass down their "emotional reactivity" regarding food to their children, and — in a non woman- blaming way — acknowledges that women are usually responsible for feeding their children, as well as carrying around many socially induced issues around food.  She encourages parents to stay away from "good" versus "bad" food concepts and encourages parents to help their children learn to read their internal messages about hunger.  She does not shy away from difficult questions and mixed messages about sexuality within our culture.  She encourages open communication and honest information.  She says, "…your child’s sexuality and erotic energy are areas as unique as his or her fingerprints; it is too powerful and life-affirming a force for you to control, mold, or stamp out."  However, she does not flinch from setting appropriate boundaries that honors parents’ right to be in charge of the rules within their own home.

Her theories are firmly grounded in a family systems context specifically focused on the intergenerational modalities of Murray Bowen.  She infuses this knowledge base with a feminist sensibility, a wry sense of humor, and compassion for the difficulty of this task of parenthood.  She illustrates her book with clinical vignettes as well as personal narratives.

Exciting for me as adoptive lesbian mother, is that she normalizes both of these issues of family diversity, using inclusive language and including stories about different types of families.  My disappointment was that it often read as an "exception" despite her — I believe — honest attempts not to do this.  Although she mentions single mothers, and lesbian families, there is an assumption that fathers are a part of children’s lives.  Although she mentions adoptive families, she continues to refer to mothers as people who once had babies inside their body. 

Early on the book she mentions Dorothy Allison’s story about surviving the horrors of a dysfunctional abusive family, and then becoming a lesbian mother.  Her intent here is clearly to validate Allison’s ability to be a good mother despite her past, as well as to infer that lesbians can be good parents.  Lerner is willing to color outside of the lines to validate a controversial family form.

Yet, a few pages later she withdraws back into what is most comfortable, rendering another family form too far outside of the box.  She tells the story of a client who is heterosexually married and wants to have a child, but her husband does not.  Her husband is willing to let her have the child, and will economically support the child, but does not want to be an active parent.  Lerner is opposed to this, for what appears to be good reasons: the child is not agreeing to this contract, the child will need things from his or her dad, and what if something happens to the mother.  Lerner ignores the the reality that most children in America, if not the world, are raised by mothers almost exclusively, that children are adaptable to different family forms, and that all parents need to make "what if " arrangements for their children.  What I found unusual about this case was the husband’s honesty about his position.  I found the wife willing to accept her husband’s limitations, and unlike Lerner, thought this could be a valid family form.  Instead of encouraging the woman to "make a choice" between her husband and her child, I think she could’ve validated yet another unique family constellation.  Lerner is open to diverse family forms in theory but yet shies away from empowering this family.  She tells the woman that she should choose whether having a child is more important than her partnership creating a double-bind for this woman.

Despite these limitations, I find Lerner extremely readable.  It is about time that somebody is discussing the "downside" of parenting, the failures, the ugliness and the hardship.  She is critical of the assumptions about maternal/infant bonding, and the universality these feelings.  She says, "All generalizations about maternal feelings are problematic when they tell what is normal, right, true, or "almost unanimous" for new mothers to feel" (p.47).  In a classically paradoxical way, I suspect that the more mothers talk about what is hard, and what is unnatural about mothering, the better mothers we will become.