Book Review: The Baby Trap by Ellen Peck

Posted in Book Reviews on March 19th, 2012
by Elizabeth
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My husband just turned 30, and I’m on my way there as well by the end of the year. Sometime during this decade we will probably decide to have children. People who are childfree remind me that this is not my only option, and I want to discern my own desires from the cultural and social pressures that surround me. In part, I have been reading up on the childfree movement. Several times, I heard mention of a book, “The Baby Trap” by Ellen Peck. It’s out of print, but available for free online in several formats.

Published in 1971 – it was one of the first books to advocate not having children as a valid option. For that reason, I understand why it’s considered a classic and revered by childfree people. However, the book is so incredibly sexist that I don’t understand why anyone would encourage women to read it today.

Peck’s argument about the cultural pressures on women to have babies and the vapid consumerism that is selling maternity as much as it’s selling toys and clothes is worthy of praise. It was groundbreaking. But in praising her for that, people seem to overlook the overarching theme and argument she relies most heavily on in her book – directed entirely at women – which is that if you have children, you won’t be able to spend all of your effort on pleasing your husband and he will stop loving you and divorce you.

Other arguments made in the book are about the cost of having children, financially, socially and medically to the parents – and also ecologically. In the 1970′s many people believed that the world was so overcrowded as to be headed for an epic disaster, and so I can forgive her alarmist rhetoric on that topic. Despite that, an ecological argument for not having children is still valid today.

In fact, I think any reason for not having children is valid. People who don’t want to be parents should not be parents. Whether they are concerned about climate change, want to travel or just plain don’t feel like it – I would never impose my opinion on any other person’s reproductive plans.

However, where Peck’s book disappoints me is where she veers off into implying that no one should have children (just as silly as saying everyone should) and that grown men are incapable of adjusting to fatherhood, which is why I found the entire book so distasteful.

Lori is thirty and looks eighteen. She’s fickle, irresponsible, and inclined to fly off to the Azores for weekends, not, usually, alone. She dates married men, because most of the men she knows are married.

The last time I saw her I asked if most of the married men who took her out had children. Her answer was immediate.

“Are you kidding? All of them. In fact, when they pull out the kids’ pictures at a cocktail party, I know they want to get serious for the evening. Lots of times it’s an unmistakable signal. Almost code for, ‘Look, I’m married, honey, I won’t fool you, but it’s just because of these kids; my wife means nothing to me.’

“Sure, it’s the guys with kids,” she continued; “the ones who don’t have kids still like their wives.”

The ones who don’t have kids still like their wives.

That’s not a typo. Peck restated that sentence for emphasis, hoping to make the readers’ blood run cold. She also had an annoying habit of calling women “girls” throughout the book.

In her chapter on the consumerism of modern parenting (probably the best in the book) she included this vignette:

And the salesman was approached by a distraught- looking man, whom I’d seen wandering around the store for some time, come to think of it. In a barely audible voice, and with nervous glances at the other girl and me, he asked the salesman for a “a . . . a . . . do you have … a … a breast pump?” His embarrassment had made the last two words shrill. He glanced over his shoulder at us again, then the salesman led him cheerfully down the aisle.

What was wrong? That man’s wife had evidently needed a breast pump; he’d gone to buy one for her. What was wrong with that, I asked myself. Well, the fact that he had seemed so nervous about it— embarrassed would be more the word— that was what was wrong with it. He looked like a twelve-year-old boy looks when his mother sends him to the drugstore for Kotex. And I think Philip Roth has described that feeling well.

Yes, because the character of Alexander Portnoy is to be taken as representative specimen of healthy male sexuality. Perhaps we should do a case study on Humbert Humbert and responsible step-parenting next?

I wanted to figure this out. Why does a boy or a man feel embarrassed or humiliated at having to buy a woman things like Kotex or a breast pump?

….

They’re accoutrements to female reproductive physiology. In asking a man to get them, is there kind of an implicit subjugation involved? Is there?

A psychologist I’d interviewed the day before, Nathaniel Branden, had said, “To the degree that aspects of reproduction are overemphasized, aspects of sexuality are de-emphasized.” Would that man, that night, see his wife’s breasts as, well, alluring or romantic?

There is no way to tell, of course. But it is possible that wife-as-babynurse is not at all the same as wife-mistress.

Apparently fatherhood is demeaning, subjugating and emasculating to men, and motherhood makes a woman lose all sex appeal forever and ever. That’s why no one ever has more than one child!

The book continues with a much more coherent analysis of media and cultural messages about parenting, and how these pressure people into making choices they otherwise might not have. But these chapters are also littered with anecdotes about how great it is to be child free because you can buy other things with your money and go on vacations. Apparently materialism is okay if it’s not related to parenting. There are several times where this is stated explicitly,

I freely admit that spending nearly all your money on clothes seems a bit unjustifiable in this troubled world. But I would defend her doing so for two reasons. First, I see nothing wrong with self-indulgence if it doesn’t have any negative social consequences for anybody else. (There are, by contrast, brands of self-indulgence that are destructive. In case it hasn’t come across, I think that indulging yourself with a large family is a destructive kind of self-indulgence. But the surface materialism of fashion, while it does nothing particularly good for the world, doesn’t really hurt anybody, either.)

Her environmental analysis is way off if she thinks that rampant consumerism of any kind is okay.

Chapter Six, “Husbands and Babies” is the one where the sexism is the most egregious.

[A] wife who has no children to preoccupy her time and attention can give that time and attention to her husband. She is more of an attentive companion and a loving woman than a mother-of- two-or-three has time to be. And her husband thrives on this attention.

Nearly every man wants this kind of attention from a woman. I don’t think many men have enthusiasm at the prospect of offspring.

The adult male, it would seem, who has a clear and confident grasp on the world and on his life wants to live that life himself, rather than spend most of it “watching his young grow up.”

Now, there are husbands who want their wives to stay home, be “domestic,” have children. In the opinion of therapist Helena Lopata, “Such a husband is either not very wise, or inwardly he does not love his wife very much. Let’s look at such a situation in real terms. He wants her confined to the home, while he is out in the world of work. He gives her limited and routine tasks while he is out growing, learning, creating, being challenged and stimulated by conditions of competition within his field. He is, by asking for such a situation, creating marital incompatibility: first, in terms of conversation; then sexually. And there is virtually no way around that. Such a husband, in long-range subconscious terms, is aiming toward the dissolution of his marriage, denying future possibilities of relating to his wife as a companion. These men, you see, do not feel comfortable with emotional closeness and intimacy. This is their way out.”

I know in the 70′s there weren’t mommy blogs and all, but I’m pretty sure women who were stay at home mothers did things other than stay indoors all day cleaning and changing diapers. And while I am not a psychologist, I doubt “becoming a father is a passive aggressive way to divorce your wife” and “men are emotional children who need their wives to mother them” makes any sense at all as generalizations.

The chapter continues, and Peck gives several examples of men angry that when they became fathers…they were no longer men without the responsibilities of fatherhood.

“I used to break my neck getting home,” a taxi driver in Dallas told me. “I knew just how to get every green light and make it home in fifteen minutes flat after my shift. We’d have a beer; we’d put the steaks on; we’d talk about the kooks that turned up that day… Or go to this bar a few blocks away for a nightcap and dance… It was great. All the guys thought I had the greatest wife around. Now, I get home to a kid screaming, and a wife who doesn’t notice if I’ve come in the door or not half the time, she’s that busy with the kid. I take the longest way around I can find.”

If anyone was reading this book did not know that having children means that you can’t just randomly go out drinking on weeknights, Peck has done a public service. But I think everyone else on the planet who isn’t that guy is left puzzled.

Peck goes on to talk about the financial stresses of having children, and the way it limits one’s career choices. Again, this is something that should be obvious to anyone who thinks about it for more than two seconds.

Then there is a bit on how parents have less sex than they did beforehand. Again, it makes sense that this is a source of stress to parents, but the way Peck frames the argument – we should sympathize with men who divorce their wives for that reason, as if women who become mothers maliciously withhold sex by definition.

As a British husband who had just left his wife explained to me, “There were few occasions when we could be free of the babies’ needs. There were fewer occasions of sex, it was as simple as that. And therefore there were fewer occasions when everything went right and was fulfilling. This led to some trouble in other ways. It was simply not the same. It was not the marriage I had bargained for; she was not the wife she had been before, not responsive to me …”

As someone who is not a parent, I can’t begin to imagine the demands of taking care of an infant. But what did he expect to happen? That all of Peck’s empathy is with him, and not his wife who now must take care of the demands of parenthood entirely on her own is astounding.

The next chapter, about how women change after becoming mothers is not much kinder.

Since a mother is with a baby all day rather than with her husband, she is more aware of that baby’s needs than she is of her husband’s needs. She knows the baby’s schedule for feeding, changing, cuddling, and check-ups. How can she possibly know that her husband has had such a terrific strain at work today that he needs one hour of complete silence between 6 and 7 p.m. How can she know that he just lost an account at 3 p.m. and could really use a night out as an ego boost? The baby’s needs are simpler, and she’s in more direct touch with them, and the baby is small and helpless, so it’s almost inevitable that baby’s needs come first.

Or perhaps if the husband needs something from his wife, he can open his mouth and ask for it, given that he is a grown man, and not an infant?

A husband can see his wife’s devotion to the baby, and it’s pretty for a while. (Usually for at least one month.) His wife exhibits new qualities: concern; motherliness; responsibility; maturity.

But there’s a catch. These new qualities may not be adding on to the qualities that attracted him to his wife in the first place. They may be displacing those prior qualities: freedom; humor; impulsiveness; youth. Before a husband’s eyes, the girl he married gradually disappears and is just as gradually replaced, by a mother.

Peck continues on, with examples of more men cheating on their wives because they became mothers, seemingly seeking to validate the madonna/whore complex of every man who has ever had one. She does give examples though of women who cheat on her husbands out of boredom – but these have a much less understanding tone.

I know that this book was written a long time ago, and I tried not to come down too hard on it for being dated. I concede that at the time, academic feminism was in its infancy. I have mixed emotions about criticizing so harshly the work of a woman who put so much effort into her marriage only to get divorced anyway and die alone. But that does not make this book a good one, and I cannot understand why childfree activists continue to recommend this book when so much other more egalitarian and coherent writing has been done since. There have been studies that marital happiness decreases after children are born. But suggesting that the only reason a man would want to be a father is because he wants a divorce is ludicrous. And fear mongering about divorce, based solely on an assumption of immaturity on the part of men, is not an argument.

6 Responses to “Book Review: The Baby Trap by Ellen Peck”

  1. Lexie Says:

    I’ve been told to read this book too but hadn’t gotten around to it yet. I didn’t know it was so sexist. It is dated but that shouldn’t entirely excuse it from referring to women as girls and implying that it is somehow okay or understandable for husbands to cheat on their wives.

  2. MissCherryPi Says:

    Hi Lexie, I was surprised too.

    In parts that I did not address, Peck refers frequently to Helen Gurley Brown. That kind of “fun feminism” has it’s place, but we no longer direct women to “Sex and the Single Girl” when they ask “Can I be a feminist and wear lipstick?” I’m sure Bust, Jezebel and The Hairpin will look dated in 40 years as well, but they have a niche that works for now. Similarly, I hope that Childfree people will update their resources!

  3. Sheri Says:

    Almost every man who is a father I know would be extremely offended by that book. They behave exactly opposite to how the author described men.
    Have things changed that much in 40 years? How are there any happily married grandparents around now if her views were correct? By her logic they would all be divorced or miserable because of their children. I find it very hard to believe that more than a small number of men every behaved the way the author describes them, and like you said, it’s really dated now and strange that it is still recommended!
    And I know studies have shown that you are less happy after having children, but my experience is the opposite. Despite all the stress, hard work, and lack of sleep, I’m much happier now that I have a child :) Maybe that will change when he’s a teenager haha!

  4. MissCherryPi Says:

    Sheri – I considered adding a bit of sociology about the way fatherhood has changed over time, but decided against in in favor of only writing about this book and also brevity. But while the roles of father has changed over time, the idea of a loving father finding joy in his children has been with us forever. To suggest they are all fictional is baseless.

  5. Sheri Says:

    Yeah, that’s why I’m shocked that it is still recommended. It just seems like that book will just make people mad!

  6. Adam Lee Says:

    Interesting to note – the psychologist Nathaniel Branden, who’s cited in one of the quotes from the book, was Ayn Rand’s chief disciple, and also her lover for some years, despite the fact that both of them were married to other people at the time. (Their explanation was that they were the two most intelligent people on earth, and therefore they had no choice but to fall in love with each other.)

    Given Branden’s heavy involvement in Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, which exalts selfishness above all else, it’s not surprising that he’d support the childfree movement. It’s rather difficult for a worldview based on self-interest to explain why anyone would ever do something as altruistic as having a child.

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