Mommy Issues: Reconsidering The Mermaid and the Minotaur

Mommy Issues: Reconsidering The Mermaid and the Minotaur

Forty years after its original publication, Dorothy Dinnerstein’s classic study of motherhood still provides a moving portrait of the currents running under interactions between men and women.

Dorothy Dinnerstein. Photo © Freda Leinwand. Courtesy of the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University (Full version)

When activist and psychology professor Dorothy Dinnerstein died in a car crash in 1992, she had only one book to her name, the feverishly praised but largely neglected The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise. Upon its publication in 1976, Mermaid was rarely read outside of women’s studies classes, though it received an effusive review from Vivian Gornick in the New York Times. In the summer 1979 volume of the academic journal Frontiers, Joanna Russ, author of How to Suppress Women’s Writing (1983), lamented the years it had taken her to learn about the book. “Why didn’t [its readers] sing under my pillow, flag my car down on the highway?” she asked. But it seems there just weren’t enough proselytizers to spread the word.

Mermaid went out of print until 1999, when, in her foreword to the new edition, Ann Snitow held both male academics and feminists responsible for letting the title languish. “The book is misread. Or it is not read. Or it is ignored,” she wrote. “[T]his will seem to some a presumptuous claim, but not being able to read Mermaid may well be not wanting to meet its hectoring, threatening, inconvenient argument.” Dinnerstein anticipated that her book would “enrage readers,” and even while nearing its conclusion, the text is peppered with disclaimers and pleas for careful reading.

What exactly are these radical, terrifying arguments? Given the book’s careful and complex execution, distillation is almost criminal, but I’ll make an attempt. Dinnerstein’s thesis is that all of us are psychologically and socially disadvantaged by being brought up under asymmetrical parenting roles, and that most sexist convictions can be traced back to the common reality that fathers (men) are mostly absent while mothers (women) are omnipresent. This in and of itself is not her ultimate concern, exactly; her chief preoccupation is with the ways these peculiar neuroses manifest in an apocalyptically exploitative relationship to nature through rampant fetishization of technological enterprise. In other words: being raised almost exclusively by women encourages humans to overvalue masculine qualities, which include a propensity toward brute “mastery” of external circumstances. “Our male-female arrangement,” Dinnerstein writes, “helps us maintain our ambivalence toward the existence of other separately sentient beings,” which allows us to “go on acting out our compulsion to dominate and manipulate.” And that propensity for dominance has reached its pinnacle in the invention and subsequent profusion of nuclear weapons. If this sounds both epic and ridiculous, well, it is. But so is much of human behavior (and history).

It’s easy to throw up contrary examples to the book’s foundational premise—what Dinnerstein calls “the female monopoly” on child-rearing—especially forty years after the book’s publication, when “stay-at-home dad” is not an oxymoron, and plenty of gay couples have kids. But it would be disingenuous to deny that in cultures all over the world, the work of caring for the young still falls disproportionately to women; if the birth mother is not available, grandmothers or aunts or sisters or (female) hired help fill the role. This is an intelligible, even intuitive state of affairs, based on “longstanding biotechnological functions.” New homo sapiens are wells of bottomless need. It’s taken for granted that the person who attempts the impossible task of satisfying their demands should be the person from whence the baby came and to whom it is so often literally attached—the person with the breast milk, or, failing that, just breasts.

According to Dinnerstein, “what makes Motherhood monstrous, atavistic, is that we force these primitive biological underpinnings” to translate to years of acting as a child’s primary care provider—not to mention that the immediate “biological underpinnings” are proven a flimsy excuse when some other, non-lactating woman, like a nanny or grandmother, is slotted into the birth mother’s place. We continue to believe in a “special and exclusive bond between women and children” while “the father-infant pair” is seen as fragile and less substantial, and that belief tends to be self-perpetuating.

The Mermaid and the Minotaur is precious to me for two reasons, both of which depend on its sense of consequence and imperative. (There is nothing cynical, careless, or mollifying in its claims—a true rarity in much of today’s political writing.) First, it unequivocally prioritizes releasing women from the tyranny that is unassisted childrearing, an essential project mostly abandoned by present-day feminists and the leftists who would be their allies. And second, while some of its arguments and conclusions are dubious, the way in which Dinnerstein translates the relentless harm of gender norms into an issue of pressing universal concern is commendable. Feminists have tried to get this point across for years, but it’s hard not to center one’s own sense of harm and anger in the process. Dinnerstein’s analysis of male-female antagonism is razor sharp yet astoundingly uncomplaining. She wants to show how women and men are limited, divided, damaged, and even destroyed by gender, not just because of how we regard the Other but because of how we comprehend ourselves, and how we relate to the world at large.

Dinnerstein was a psychologist deeply preoccupied by the inner life of the young. Accordingly, she follows Freud’s lead in imagining that every infant gradually realizes that the person whom it most loves and associates with complete power—the person it relies upon to satisfy its countless needs and desires—is a woman. The baby then begins to regard all women as agents who can bestow profound pleasure, peace, and relief, or malevolently deny the same. The resultant blend of attachment, yearning, resentment, and terror manifests in a lifetime of sexism and muddled misogyny.

This emotional evolution happens regardless of the baby’s gender, though Dinnerstein theorizes differences in process and effect between males and females. Much of the book is devoted to sketching out a blueprint of the ways in which male deficiencies in psychological development are legitimated by distinct but congruous female deficiencies, and vice versa. To give just one example: for a boy, Dinnerstein claims, there is the “sense that the original, most primitive source of life will always lie outside himself,” while girls believe in their own “inner richness,” albeit with an attendant need for “evidence that somebody else depends on access to what she has.” This dynamic explains why women so often tolerate a man’s infidelities and why men are sexually unfaithful in the first place. This isn’t a biological inevitability—these ideas start forming not when children are taught that a woman gave birth to them but through their experience of women as primary caregivers. If babies could see from birth that both male and female participation were integral to keeping them alive and happy, the idea that one gender has greater dominion over life itself would not take root.

Dinnerstein traces male overconfidence and feminine hesitation, men’s authoritarianism and woman’s diminished participation in the public sphere, back to this original mental wound. These states always come in pairs because they’re not inflicted on one gender by the other, but rather uneasily engineered by both, together. As long as women do the vast majority of the child-rearing, men and women stay locked in their dysfunctional and adversarial, yet perversely complimentary, psycho-social collaboration, seeking comfort from and exacting revenge on one another within arrangements that “have always been a major source of human pain, fear, and hate.”

Already, you may be balking. (For starters: “have always been”?) Rereading Mermaid in 2018 is uncomfortable in a way that reading it in 2005, after I bought it on a whim in a used bookstore, was not. I’m better trained to spot or infer all the latent -isms that characterize the work of academic white writers, especially from decades past, and, as I suspect is true for many readers today, I’m often wary and reactive as a rule, not an exception. In one of the book’s few academic treatments, published in Signs in 2002, feminist theorist Jane Flax criticized Dinnerstein at length for her omission of racial analysis, her heteronormativity, and her unprovable speculations about infant interiority. (Mermaid‘s “reductive and universalizing theoretical framework,” Flax writes, “triggers a perhaps all-too-automatic allergic response from my postmodernist sensibilities.”) These complaints are valid, and Dinnerstein’s blind spots will be inexcusable for some contemporary readers. But there’s so much Mermaid does well that most feminist writing doesn’t bother to do at all. More than being merely salvageable, its best components remain urgently relevant in spite of its flaws.

First, any rigorous analysis of the conditions of motherhood as mutable and in dire need of improvement is worth engaging given today’s landscape of degraded inquiry on the topic. Though much is written about the feminization of care in the context of formal labor, there’s a convenient lack of comparable intellectual curiosity when it comes to considering maternal burdens as socially imposed, exploitative, and plastic. Dinnerstein doesn’t fixate on the fundamental unjustness of the childcare imbalance because she believes it’s obvious. Moreover, she’s more interested in conveying the effects of that imbalance: our inclination toward nuclear annihilation. But she is insistent that the situation is man made, and not only can but must be remade.

Liberation for mothers is not a trendy topic now, though if you throw “working” into the mix, most Americans at least support paid maternity leave. This silence is made especially egregious in light of technology’s persistent strides toward full divorce of gestation from persons. “Artificial wombs” made headlines last year as researchers in the United States and England experimented with supporting new life outside of mammalian bodies. (The Philadelphia-based team was focused on keeping alive prematurely born lambs, while the Cambridge-based scientists were growing embryos from scratch—a far more legally complex and ethically suspect endeavor.) As has been true for some time, the advent of completely externalized human reproduction is increasingly possible. Once cis women’s bodies are no longer regarded as our species’ sole child-delivery system, what tattered, essentialist lies—and economic, social, and political inequality—will have to stay in place for women to continue to do the lion’s share of parenting?

Sloughing off the burden of traditional motherhood—not just in terms of conception and gestation but in long-term parenting as well—would be a profound, life-altering relief for many, yet women aren’t nearly as mutinous about this matter as one might expect. It makes sense that most men are satisfied with the status quo, but why aren’t women forcing the issue? In Mermaid‘s 1999 foreword, Snitow speculated they’d given up:

[B]y the late 1980s, feminists had long stopped hoping for change at this deep, structural level. In the United States, they sought state support for mothers—but wistfully, as a lost cause, and they were so tired of asking for male help that they had collapsed into their old ambivalence about whether they really wanted men involved after all.

Leftists mainly agree on the political importance of subsidized childcare, but it’s often framed as a service magnanimously provided for mothers, not fathers, and justified as necessary for women’s participation in the workforce. It’s rarely presented as a vital opportunity for mothers to rest, socialize, or engage in the uncompensated aspects of public and civic life. Devising ways to make mothers labor more is hardly a progressive vision.

Moreover, the vast majority of those advocating for such supplementary care likely expect it to be administered by women instead of men. But this would only exacerbate our existing system wherein mothers continually outsource childcare to other, even more overworked and underpaid women, who are often mothers themselves. Dinnerstein advocates true equal distribution of care work because “no fundamental change in the situation of women can be achieved without full male participation in early child care.” Swapping out the mother for a different woman, according to Dinnerstein’s psychological schematics, can have no desirable effect. She also calls third-party compensated care “an emergency measure,” and emphasizes that her chief recommendation is for “reorganizing our primary group life into larger units, so that child care can be shared within stable close-knit communities.” While the notion of the commune has fallen out of favor, the instinct to create nontraditional and extended families can be seen in a variety of small-scale improvisations—such as when lesbian partners encourage their sperm donor to be involved throughout the life of their child.

Second, though Flax is convincing when she doubts Dinnerstein’s power to interpret the minds of babies, the lens can be used for older children, too. It’s highly plausible that kids internalize trenchant lessons about women as a class when individual women provide the majority of their care at home and at family gatherings, in daycare and at school. Perhaps these gendered lessons are encoded even more thoroughly when intensive attention comes from a variety of women instead of the same one. Furthermore, it’s virtually indisputable that the parental servitude expected of women similarly contorts adult impressions of what one’s own life can or should be like.

The familial dynamic has seen some modest improvements since Mermaid was written; enthusiastic fathers are not the unicorns they once were, and men spend almost triple the amount of time with their children now as they did in the 1960s. But the bar was so low then that this burst of energy is only half, on average, of the amount of time mothers now spend with their kids each week. One 2015 study found that even among educated and financially secure couples who professed a desire for egalitarian households, men did less domestic work and tended to engage only in playful time with their children rather than the full gamut of responsibilities. (Mothers are left doing the literal shit work.)

Meanwhile, motherhood continues to be regarded as life’s pinnacle for women in a way it’s not for men. I’ve never met a man wrestling with angst over whether or not he’ll have children, but it feels almost obligatory for women of eligible age to at least put on the show, even when everything inside themselves tells them they’re baby-averse. (For an exhaustive record of this, consult Motherhood, Sheila Heti’s recently published paean to years spent consumed with ambivalence about whether or not to conceive.)

Lastly, there is Dinnerstein’s prose, which, like poetry, reaches beyond itself to evoke impressions and experiences that are (still) integral to gendered experience. Here is one passage in which she probes the folds of male misogyny with chilling precision, noting that it includes

fury at the sheer existence of [any woman’s] autonomous subjectivity . . . a deeply ingrained conviction that she is intellectually and spiritually defective; fear that she is untrustworthy and malevolent . . . an assumption that she exists as a natural resource, an asset to be owned and harnessed, harvested and mined, with no fellow-feeling for her depletion and no responsibility for her conservation or replenishment. Finally, [it encompasses] a sense of primitive outrage at meeting her in any position of worldly authority.

I specify male misogyny because one of Dinnerstein’s enduring triumphs is how she indicts women, too, as accomplices in the world’s predicament. For her, our loss of will is explicable (naturally, it’s traceable to the formative impact of being raised by women) yet debilitating. In a 1988 interview, she said, “It’s easier for women than for men to see what’s wrong with the world that men have run. Not all women who see this, however, are ready to understand their collusion in that process.” For Dinnerstein, women are exemplary enablers, failing to advocate for themselves as individuals and as a group, accommodating men’s worst instincts with their own behavior: “What stops men from being our brothers also stops us from being each other’s sisters. . . . What we ignore or deny at our peril is that women share men’s anti-female feelings.” But the shortcomings of women and men are treated with a generous amount of sympathy, since in Dinnerstein’s worldview, we are molded by our earliest upbringing in ways that practically guaranteed we would end up where we are. She’s not interested in blame, only analysis.

Here is another evocative segment, one that points to the poignant damage done by gender norms:

Both sexes want something that neither sex has, something that we know . . . is potentially available to both: free use of all those capacities for thought, feeling, and action that men and women have in common. But the partial humanity of women includes awareness of its own incompleteness, while the partial humanity of men can on the whole function as it does only by denying its own incompleteness. Men manage to acknowledge their emotional need for women without allowing themselves to feel lacking in any important way . . . [and] they project this sense that something is wrong mainly onto women.

In moments like these, lucid wisdom transcends the limits of her weaker assertions. Although Dinnerstein is prone to overstating the male and female predicaments, Mermaid provides a moving portrait of the currents running under interactions between men and women even today, and not only for heterosexuals. Distrust and animosity can characterize an encounter without sexual tension as the spark. Misogyny is hardly reserved for straights.

When Dinnerstein wrote Mermaid, and for all of her life after, she was pessimistic verging on fatalistic about the West’s predilection for weapons of mass destruction and indiscriminate murder. She was convinced we would eliminate ourselves and, worse, nearly the whole of nature with nukes, because we were driven to do so by the neuroses and pathologies embedded in us during our women-dominated upbringings. Her attempt to convince a wide audience of the same is not perfect, but it is original, haunting, and passionately felt. I wish more people had examined her work while she was alive, thereby giving her a chance to expand and refine her ideas through the reception of good-faith criticisms, because I find it so easy to endorse her core claim, and wish it were nearer to the heart of feminism now: “The harsh truth is that no societal compromise which changes the other features of woman’s condition while leaving her role as first parent intact will get at the roots of asymmetric sexual privilege.” We shouldn’t need the threat of nuclear annihilation to care about that.


Charlotte Shane is a co-founder of TigerBee Press, an independent publisher based in Brooklyn.

Correction: Due to an editing error, Freda Leinwand’s name was misspelled in the photo caption for the print version of this article. We regret the error.

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