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A Conversation with...

First published in the October 1998 issue of Welcome Home.

Catherine M. Wallace:

On Motherhood, Sexual Ethics, and the Moral Development of Children

Interviewed by Elizabeth Kocsis

            Prompted by her children’s questions about sex, Catherine Wallace embarked on a search for a way to explain to them the importance of sexual ethics. In her book, For Fidelity: How Intimacy and Commitment Enrich Our Lives, she documents that search, which led her to see marriage as a “sexually enacted friendship,” the deepest and most intimate of friendships. Ms. Wallace writes, “We are laying the foundation of sexual ethics when we teach our kids not to exploit one another, not to be cruel, not to be manipulative,” when we teach our children how to be good friends. This foundation of friendship, bolstered by an understanding of how to manage their appetites, is critical to our children’s discovery of the necessity and the benefits of behaving with integrity in matters sexual and otherwise. In a time when parents often feel isolated and unsupported in conveying their values to their children, Wallace gives us reason to hope: we can help our children to value sexual fidelity for itself, and we can help them learn how intimacy and commitment enrich their lives.

            As you will see in this interview, Catherine Wallace has much to offer at-home mothers of children of all ages – encouragement, support, and an intelligent consideration of issues vital to all of us. Her wisdom comes via her experience as an at-home mother (her three children are now teenagers), her training and education as a literary critic and former professor of English at Northwestern University, and from her work as a thoughtful writer and theologian.

What compelled you to write about sexual ethics and fidelity?

            This issue, unlike other issues, is a very current one in the culture. The Protestant churches were holding classes and discussions on sexuality, which I found inadequate, moralistic, and doctrinal; they were not very persuasive and not at all useful to me as a parent. Sexual ethics was one of the topics that my friends and I were talking about; it was just sort of in the air.

            When people realized that I had, from my days as an academic, all this cultural history about attitudes toward sexuality, things started clicking. I started getting invitations to do lectures as a cultural historian. It evolved in that way. I was just tinkering along with it as a sort of intellectual exercise when I realized I really didn’t know how to talk to my kids. I thought, What good is all this background if it doesn’t translate into knowing what to say to my own kids? It was an appalling moment. I realized that I know all of this stuff about the history of sexual ethics in the West, and it is no good to me. Because the middle terms were missing and I couldn’t translate it.

When we were growing up, there seemed to be fewer things for parents to manage. Now there’s the Internet, video games, certain TV shows. How does our management of these vehicles of popular culture relate to fidelity and integrity?

            There’s much more information about sexuality available to kids and many, many more attitudes that we might really disagree with that are commonplace and commonly available to kids than were available when I was growing up in the fifties. So it puts much more pressure upon parents to be clear in their own minds and very intentional about how they supervise their children’s moral development. It is hard and it can be very threatening.

             But one way or the other, every grownup has traversed these questions and come to some resolution. We had to reach back into the spiritual resources of our own lives and find what it took to work through these issues. Our kids are maybe facing these questions at an earlier age than we did. I think the difficulties are very real, but you can’t think that you’re going simply to shelter your children. I don’t think that that will work for very long. It’s appropriate to protect them to the extent that you can. I am very strict with my kids about what movies they can rent, or what TV shows they can watch. But I also try to educate them to make those decisions for themselves so that when they’re out from under my control, they’re going to make good decisions for themselves.

In your book you bring up the desire for certain foods and the management of that desire as a way to illustrate how we learn to manage our appetites. We happen to know some kids who have a great fondness for bacon cheeseburgers and the like. They eat them at every opportunity. As their parents, we’re concerned about them eating too much junk food.

            Kids do eat a certain amount of junk food, and I’m sure that they see a certain amount of stuff that you don’t want them to see. Of course I’ve worried about it, and of course they’ve done it anyway. But the foundation is there. My daughter used to walk over to the neighborhood McDonalds with her friends after junior high and use her allowance to buy a hamburger and french fries every day. And I had a fit. But just yesterday, when we drove past that McDonalds she said, “You know, Ma, I used to think that was so great and I had one the other day and it was so greasy and so awful and I just kept burping all afternoon. How could I ever have thought that was good?” And I thought, Yeah!!!

            Think about it as sort of the education of taste. If you feed them properly, if they see you eating and enjoying appropriate things, the real patterns of eating habits are those that happen in your own kitchen. Even though you may experiment when you’re out with your friends and eat other stuff, as an adult you wind up eating pretty much what your mother fixed.

            Parents have an abiding influence on their children, and we need to have some confidence in that influence. Have a little faith in your kids, have a little faith in life. There are always limits to what we can do as parents. You can only do your best. After that life is complicated, and you have to go at it with some resilience.

That gets to another question. It seems to take these sorts of experiments with food or whatever to realize the wisdom of, well, even our parents. So if it takes life experience to value these virtues we have been explicitly or implicitly teaching, how can we expect our children to value something like sexual fidelity sooner, before experience teaches them in maybe a very harsh way?

          A certain amount of experimenting may still happen. Some kids more than other kids always need to see it for themselves. If we have made the ethics of relationships a very clear part of the values of the household all the way along, we have done what we can do. Life doesn’t come with warranties. We’re not in control. It’s tough. But just because our success is not assured doesn’t mean that we should roll over and play dead.

Do you see any positive cultural models of fidelity? Much of literature and many movies seem to have adultery as the driving force. You get the sense that you need to have that drama in the book and in your life and if you don’t, then you are resigned to living on the fringes.

            Yes. Well, what started the Trojan War? Helen, the face that launched a thousand ships, ran off with some other guy. That’s how as an English professor I got all this background in the history of sexuality: because the love triangle is one of those plot basics. So often when people get involved in that sort of thing it proves very destructive in the end. Although it’s often portrayed as glamorous, it’s not often portrayed as happy.

            The models that you have to turn to are of two kinds. One is to look to life around you rather than to Hollywood or to contemporary fiction to see people whose marriages are happy. Look for people who’ve been married for a long time and seem very contented with one another. We can draw strength and courage from their example in the same way that mothers home with kids turn to one another for support and advice and so forth. Realize it’s OK to be a little counter-cultural, it’s OK to be a little bit nonconformist. We want our kids not to conform to Hollywood standards of sexuality. We have to be a little bit nonconformist ourselves.

            The other thing is to look to what is said about the importance of integrity, about the importance of -- in a very deep and central way – being true to yourself, being true to the commitments that you have made. There’s no question that in the West integrity and duty have a very high price. We do have a fundamental understanding of integrity as important, and we need to realize that this is a central part of our personal and interpersonal integrity. If you go around betraying other people casually, the first person you’re betraying is yourself.

            But it’s complicated. In literature, it is very difficult to portray day-to-day happiness and make it engaging. What drives a plot is conflict.

Yes. What was it Tolstoy said?

            Happy families are all alike; unhappy families are unhappy in their own way. So the conflicts that we’re experiencing are in fact what makes our lives interesting and not what makes them dull. If the conflict is not in our households, like husbands and wives betraying one another, but is in our courageous confrontation with certain currents in our own culture, then we can say, “That’s what makes my life interesting. Look at what an independent-minded woman I am.” We are, aren’t we? Independent-minded women? Yes, of course we are! Absolutely!

You’ve spoken and written about how much you’ve changed in your twenty-five years of marriage. What do you think have been the primary agents of that change?

            Certainly the biggest single thing was my decision to stay home with the kids. It gave me an opportunity, once they were bigger, to read much more widely than I would have been able to read if I had stayed in the English department at Northwestern and to have all manner of very substantial conversations with other women home with kids as I got to find them. Sitting around on park benches, more or less bored, can be a great setting for really sustained and critical conversation on all sorts of issues. It was a whole second education for me. That had an enormous impact on my competence and my willingness to get up and speak. I realized I am really speaking for a substantial community of women all across the country. Then by golly the bigwigs in New York really listened. I thought, Great! Look at this: Here I am, a mom home with my kids for all these years. I know what it takes to talk to teenagers and to have teenagers who will listen because I have been doing this. My friends and I have been talking about it on park benches while you have been off with your leather briefcases earning money.

            There were all sorts of people cheering for me and with me, like the day I was on the Today show. Women with teenagers, who’ve also been home for fifteen years or so, said: “One of us is up there saying to the nation, ‘There are ways to do this, ladies and gentlemen. It just takes a lot of time with your kids.’”

            I don’t make that explicit in the book.

It is underlying and implied in the book.

Yes, it is underlying if you know the issues. When your third-grader comes home from the basketball game right after school, in tears and distraught, you’re there to listen. It’s a crucial moment. Anybody who’s home knows that there are moments like that all the time with kids. That is where values get transmitted, whether it’s cheating or whatever came up in the grade school that day.

Did you write much when your children were small?

            No. I went three years without even reading a book. I went from reading at least four or five books a week to not reading a single book for three years. And then somebody loaned me a copy of Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and it took me six months to read a 225-page novel. I wondered, What has my life come to that it takes me six months to read a novel?

            As the kids got into early grade school, I worked at home writing for educational publishers, not more than maybe eight or ten hours a week. Then I did some medical editing the same way, in my spare time around the needs of the household. Bit by bit that turned into other things. I’m glad that it has.

            But there’s no question my life still revolves around my responsibilities at home. As the children get bigger there really is time to do major work around my family’s needs.

Many women have found that their kids need them more and in different ways as they get older.

            Yes. Absolutely. You’re not fixing their lunch, or changing their diapers, or mediating arguments about blocks. The issues change as the children grow, but the need is undiminshed and as their awareness of themselves becomes more sophisticated, their needs become more sophisticated. The issues that a sixteen-year-old is worried about can include anything that’s in the newspaper, and you have these really quite substantial discussions. But that can only happen if there’s not too much else on the agenda.

            Lots of people just can’t imagine why I still feel that I need to be at home with adolescents who can drive, who can fix meals on their own, who can do their own laundry, who are such competent people. But it’s amazing. They still do have all kinds of conversations with me about what’s going on in their lives and how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking. There is a lot more opportunity for input into their thinking about themselves and their moral and intellectual development, if you’re there to give them the time.

            I think as kids move out into the world and become more aware of the varieties of opinions and values that people have, they have a greater need to figure out for themselves what they think and we have an opportunity to be a sounding board for that. It’s very important, if you want to have a say in what kind of people your kids are as adults, to be that sounding board. Because they’ll work it out with you or they’ll work it out with their friends or they’ll work it out by watching television.

What sort of reaction have your children had to your publicity as an author, and on such a topic of sexual fidelity?

            They’re proud of me. They think my having been on the Today show is really cool. There was an article about me and a picture in a couple of local papers here in Chicago, and their friends saw it and they thought that was really neat.

            They don’t like it in other ways. They’re jealous of the attention in the ways that kids are always jealous of mommy being busy with something else. I just had another book manuscript accepted so I was working really hard for about a week just cleaning up the manuscript and getting it ready to go off to the copyeditor. When I said over dinner, “Well I got that manuscript mailed off this afternoon,” my son Mark said, “Oh good. Does that mean we’ve got mommy back again?” This kid is eighteen, 6’1”, has a full beard, but can still say things like that.

            Timmy, who was the one who asked the question about condoms, has been at times very embarrassed and has taken a fair amount of teasing from his friends about that question. There was a big poster with my picture on it in the bookstore right across the street from the high school all during spring break. That was a low point. But it’s tough, I think. It has to be tough, given the delicacy of the issues involved, to have your mother doing something like this. But they’re secure enough in who they are and willing enough to presume that the world actually revolves around them and not around me in a sort of good adolescent way. They know that they’re the center of the universe, not me.

Do you worry about your children trying to establish their independence from you in a way that directly contradicts your publicized opinion – perhaps by engaging in casual sex?

            No, I’m not particularly concerned about that. As I explain in the book we’re working with our kids on these issues from the very beginning. So you can see that they are learning to be responsible friends and they are learning to be considerate of others; they are learning not to exploit others and not to allow others to exploit them. And I’m confident of their basic judgment in these matters by now.

            I’m confident they wouldn’t have sex without thinking. And I’m confident that no one would push them into it if they didn’t want to do it, and that they feel the connection between the attitudes and practices that we’ve upheld as appropriate sexuality and what we’ve always taught them about how to be a friend. But it takes a great deal of time, all of these little conversations that you have to take the time to have with your kids. You don’t have time for all those little conversations if you don’t have a lot of time with your kids. I think it’s much more difficult. It’s all happening when they’re really little.

It must have been difficult for you making the decision to be at home in the early eighties. There was a lot of social and economic pressure then for women to be out there working.

Right. Time or Newsweek, one of those, had cover stories on the new two-career family and how wonderful it all is. I was home in the suburbs with three kids under three years of age, and I didn’t have a car. There were miscellaneous mom-and-tot kinds of programs, but they wouldn’t let me come with twins. They said, “Every child has to be with his own mother.” And I said, “I am their own mother.” That might have been a way to meet people but it didn’t work out.

So what did you do?

I gardened. We went for lots of walks. And I did eventually meet a woman in the neighborhood with children about the same age as mine. We were together day after day at her house or at my house if it was raining or at the park if it wasn’t. We were the only people for blocks around who were home.

Your upcoming book, due out in March of 1999, is Dance Lessons.

            It’s being published by a small Episcopal press, a theological press. It is about the decision to stay home, and about the spiritual dimension of that decision. I had to decide there was more to life than earning money in order to stop earning money. You know, what’s the most important thing in life? How do you cope with really big decisions of that kind? So there’s a real spiritual dimension to the book, but it’s basically about the whole complexity of the issues involved in staying home.

            It’s mostly stories about figuring out that I wanted and needed to be home and then finding myself at home and completely clueless. And outnumbered three to one by people who wore diapers and did not speak English. All of my life I had dealt with people through language. And I couldn’t deal with this by being a hot shot intellectual. Lost and clueless, you know, but working it out in the way that we all do. And realizing as I was doing it what enormously important issues were involved in it philosophically and culturally. We’re all doing it and we all know how important it is. But do we all know how to explain to ourselves and to others what’s important about it? [That’s where my training has been useful.]

It must be tremendously satisfying to bring together those parts of your life – your education and training as a professor and your experience as a mother.

I’m thrilled out of my socks! If, fifteen years ago, I could have had just a two-minute visit forward in time to know that it would work out like this, it would have been a lot easier. Yes, it is extremely gratifying.

What about your next project?

            My next trade press title would attempt to do for the work-family conflict what I do for the question of sexual ethics. In For Fidelity, I do come to a single normative position towards monogamy and away from casual sex. For the work-family issue, I don’t think we can say across the board every woman ought to be home with kids. There are too many very legitimate variables to say that all women ought to do x, y, or z. Our lives are too different. That diversity creates confusion because people have trouble sorting through the issues for themselves. Everyone does have to decide for herself. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t still good decisions and bad decisions. But you are the only one who has a full deck of cards in terms of knowing all the ins and outs of your own situation.

            So much of the public debate on the issue has been still quite committed to the idea that women need to be told what to do. There are books that tell us sternly we have to stay home and there are books that tell us sternly we have to continue working. The culture has always felt it has to tell women what to do because we can’t be trusted to think. I’m going to try to sort through the ethics of it and the decision-making process in a much more sophisticated way: to say “Here’s how to analyze the variables as they exist in your own life” and sort through some of the developmental psychology, some of the women’s history issues, some of the ethics, and some of the realities. To try to sort through it and say, “Here are the decision nodes, here are the places where you have an active decision to make that no one can make for you because you’re the only one who sees all the data.”

            We need to be confident in the decisions we are making. And know that we’ve thought it all through carefully so that when we run into difficulties, know that difficulty is a part of life. It doesn’t mean we’ve made a mistake. It’s just that life is tough. So that people are not always looking over their shoulders and feeling guilty and threatened and uncertain. I think that will contribute a lot to calming down some of the flame-thrower rhetoric and letting women balance their lives in whatever way their lives work best, which includes their kids.

[Editor's note: see Selling Ourselves Short: Why We Struggle to Earn a Living and Have a Life (Brazos, 2003)]

Judging from the topics of your books, you seem to have found that the two roles – mother and writer -- balance and enhance each other.

            Yes. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m very impressed with the extent to which all of the really major philosophical and ethical questions in Western culture are perfectly evident in the ordinary household with children. I’m interested in exploiting that, in saying all of this fine, complicated stuff is really part of our daily life. So the training that I have and the history and background in philosophy and ethics is useful here. There are people who are struggling to get through their ordinary week with their heads on straight and can make use of what I have come to understand about the complexity of daily life at home.

Thank you.


For more information, please see Catherine Wallace's website.