Peggy F. Drexler, Ph.D.

(WOMENSENEWS)–Seeing these mothers say goodbye to their children–many of them pre-school age–stirs poignant and ambivalent reactions in us. We’re proud that these women are answering the call of duty, but we can still be nagged by a primal question: How, in good conscience, can a mother leave her kids and deliberately put herself in harm’s way?

Increasingly, mothers are leaving home to confront the risks normally associated with being male–as we saw recently with theexplosion of the shuttle Columbia. One of the lost astronauts was Laurel Clark, an enormously accomplished flight surgeon and mother of an eight-year-old son, Iain. At a party before Commander Clark went aboard the ill-fated shuttle, Iain asked his grandmother and aunts to take his mother’s place. He didn’t want her to leave home.

Like Laurel Clark–and like those female soldiers shipped to the Middle East–a majority of American mothers do leave their home and children every morning, to go to a job. They go out of economic necessity, a sense of larger duty or the desire for self-fulfillment. Of course, those mothers come home to their families eventually–except for the few who, like Laurel Clark and some of our female soldiers, tragically cannot return. Yet mothers have painfully learned, they often pay a high cost for venturing out into the world and trying to “have it all.” That remains, for all women, a problematic aspiration.

Certain mothers choose not to come back to their kids. They walk out of the house one day and leave their children, often permanently, in the care of their fathers, other relatives, or even strangers. Such women fascinate and horrify us. Whether they pursue an ambition, decide they lack the “mothering instinct,” need to find their identity or save their sanity, society calls them selfish, sinful and sick. Fathers, of course, leave their children all the time. As social news, a fatherless family is a dog-bites-man event. But a mother deliberately leaving her family–that is an entirely different order of event. A non-supporting father is a “deadbeat dad;” a mother who “abandons her children” is a monster.

Several recent high-profile books feature the departure of a mother–an event that offers startling dramatic and psychic import and speaks to our continuing unease with the power and possibilities of mothers. In these two books, the effect of the mother’s departure is depicted in near-pitiless terms as “betrayals.”

In Alice Sebold’s novel “The Lovely Bones,” it takes the murder of her daughter for Abigail Salmon to recognize her own need. For Laura Brown in Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours” it takes a kiss with another woman–one who faces a life-challenging cancer diagnosis–for Laura to start to chart her escape route.

These mothers are not seeking freedom for something–they are not seeking a sexy career as jet pilot or poet, nor are they off to battle for some greater cause. Rather, they seek freedom from husbands and the children they love. For these women, the freedom to find a self is more important than what the ultimate dimensions or ambitions of that self might be–and more vital than remaining a mother at home.

When a father “falls in love with long distance” like the absent Mr. Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” our expectations of fathers are validated. Fathers aren’t genetically programmed to handle complex emotional situations; they are supposed to leave. But the departure of a mother–the great resilient nurturer who offers the milk of her self to child, no matter the cost to her–unsettles us more profoundly. If a mother like Laurel Clark is killed, the tragedy seems somehow greater than the death of a father. And if a mother leaves to pursue her own needs, it seems a cataclysmic perversion of nature.

Interestingly, in the aftermath of the shuttle disaster, the media did not exhibit any preoccupation with the eleven children who were left fatherless by the Columbia explosion. Probably, media coverage of American wartime casualties will follow the same pattern–mourning the deaths of military fathers, but keening over the loss of soldier-mothers. It’s a tragedy, we assume, when a child loses a father, but when a child loses a mother, we call it a calamity. And when the death results from the mother’s willingness to take risks that are still not associated with women–such as flying into space or engaging in direct combat–we can feel that some order of nature has been violated.

As commander of the shuttle Atlantis, Colonel Eileen Collins is slated to lead the next mission into space. Colonel Collins is the mother of a 2-year-old son and a 7-year-old daughter. In the wake of the Columbia disaster, she will be under intense pressure–not only to lead a safe and effective reentry into space exploration, but to answer the insistent question of why a young mother would risk such a mission in the first place. Perhaps she can set aside her own qualms by thinking that she is doing it for her children. Don’t all mothers want their sons and daughters to soar to the stars?

Peggy F. Drexler, Ph.D. is an affiliated scholar at Stanford University’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender.

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