Caught in the middle
Mother often plays operator in her family's overloaded switchboard
/The Houston Post/Tues., Feb. 23, 1982
BOSTON - The little girl doesn't
A boy in her first-grade class has selected
her as his recess quarry. All week he has pur-
sued her, capturing her scarf, circling her with
it, threatening to tie her up.
The look on her face as she tells us this
story is puzzled and upset. She has brought
home similar tales of playground encounters
since Monday and had laid them across the
My (rlend, who is her mother and amused
by it all, explains again to the girl, "That's because he likes you." But she still doesn't
Finally, the mother turns to me, because I
have been through it before, seen the tears of
another first grader, offered the same motiva-
tions. "Tell her," says the mother in.
I BEGIN TO FORM THE ANALYSIS in my
mind, I will tell her how the boy wants attention, doesn't know how to ask for it, only knows
how to grab for it, confuses aggression with
affection. . .
Then suddenly I stop.
I hear an odd echo from the words inside my
head. What is it? An echo of a hundred generations of women interpreting males to their
daughters? An echo of a hundred generations
of women teaching their daughters the fine art
of understanding human behavior?
All at once I find myself reluctant to pass on
this legacy. I am wary of teaching this little
girl the way to analyze. I am not so sure at .
this moment that we should raise more girls to
be cultural interpreters for men, fpr families.
I LOOK AT MY FRIEND. This wqman is admirably skilled in the task of transmitting one
AT LARQE/Ellen Goodman
person's ideas and feelings to another. Indeed,
she operates the switchboard of her family life.
The people in her home communicate with
each other through her. She delivers peace
messages from one child to another. Softens
ultimatums from father to son; explains the
daughter to the father. Under her constant
monitoring, the communication lines are kept
open; one person stays plugged into the next.
But sometimes I wonder whether she has
kept all these people together or kept them
apart? Does she make it easier for them to
understand each other, or does she actually
stand between them, holding all the wires in
LAST WEEK I WATCHED Katharine Hepburn play the same role magnificently in On
Golden Pond. She placed herself between the
angry, acerbic, viciously amusing husband
(Henry Fonda) and the world. She was his j
buffer and his interpreter — to the gas station
attendants, the postman, the daughter. !
"He wasn't yelling at you," she tells the boy j
who comes to live with them. "He was yelling1
at life. Sometimes you have to look hard at a
person and remember he's doing the best he
can . . . just trying to find his way, like you." I
Her caring was wondrous, inspiring, full of
energy and love. But it was only when the boy
confronted the old man, dialing directly, short-
cutting the switchboard, that the man changed.
IN GAIL GODWIN'S NEW NOVEL, A Mother and Two Daughters, there is another aging
mother, still negotiating between her two
"children" who are now turning 40. She is like
the woman in many of our autobiographies —
the mother, or grandmother — behind the
How many families only know each other
through these women? Some mothers, like the
one in this movie and this bocfr, have been
forced to occupy the shaky fulcrum of family
life, and others have chosen to be the power
broker of human relationships.
Some actually keep people at peace, others
keep them at bay. Sometimes the endless interpretation, especially of men by women, keeps
couples together. Other times it keeps men
from explaining themselves.
I KNOW IT IS A SKILL TO BE able to
understand and analyze one person's motives
and psyche to another. It requires time, attention, emotional dexterity to run these switchboards. Yet it can also overload the operator
and cripple the people from talking across
their own private lines.
Today, anyway, I feel peculiarly unwilling
to explain the first-grade boy to the first-grade
girl, peculiarly unwilling to initiate the 6-year-
old into this cult of communication.
I offer only friendship and sympathy. These
are things she doesn't have to struggle to
Gaadman Is • columnist far tha Bastan Glob*.
4B /The Houston Post/Sot., Feb. 20, IS
The Houston Post
Hormones no deiense, excuse
Some feminists are short-sightedly cheering two recent decisions by British courts
that let two women go free — one after killing her lover and the other after threatening
to kill a policeman — on grounds they were
suffering from premenstrual tension.
One of the women, Sandie Smith, a 29-
year-old barmaid, was already on probation
for stabbing another barmaid to death and
had already been convicted of more than two
dozen other violent acts — all of which occurred just before a menstrual period. The other,
Christine English, 37, smashed her lover to
death with her car while suffering from "an
extremely aggravated form of premenstrual
The decisions are blatantly wrong. It's bad
enough they add premenstrual tension to the
arsenal of unjustified, emotional excuses de-
fendents can try to use to escape responsibility in criminal cases. What's worse is they
give new legal credence to premenstrual tension as- a pretext for keeping women out of
It hasn't been more than a few years since
a high federal official in Washington publicly
said women shouldn't be allowed to hold responsible jobs because of their monthly emotional instability. This same handy canard is
still being used, although far less openly, as a
pretext for denying promotions to women.
Now, the British courts have made the
idea legally respectable.
The issue of periodic menstrual problems
has always been a double bind for women.
The feminists who applaud the British decisions are well aware that for centuries physicians, most of them male, have brushed off
the complaints and symptoms connected with
menstruation as psychological. Since the
problem was all in their heads, women were
patronizingly told, they would have no more
discomfort if they would just accept the fact
ot their femininity, or if they hadn't been
conditioned by female friends and relatives to
expect to suffer, or if they would just stop
trying to get sympathy.
That attitude added psychological guilt
feelings to the real physiological distress millions of women feel and left them with little
recourse except aspirin, heating pads and
Accepting the idea menstrual problems —
and premenstrual tension — are real can also
make women seem like poor employment
risks. There are studies that show, for example, menstrual misery is the leading cause of
absenteeism from work for women, probably
- accounts for the loss of more than 140 million
hours on the job every year and lowers national productivity by at least $5 billion
How can women make claim for equal
treatment in the workplace with a biological
handicap like that?
The way out of the bind, of course, is to
consider the problem real, to investigate its,
origins as objectively as any other medical,'
malady and to look for effective ways to treat
it, just as any other physical ill.
That this obvious tack has been taken only
in recent years Is evidence, many feminists
say, of sexist prejudice against women by a
medical profession that preferred, perhaps
often still does, to assume women were unstable emotionally rather than to take their "female problems" seriously and try to help.
This approach is already showing some
successes. New prostaglandin-inhibiting
drugs now relieve pain and discomfort for
about nine out of 10 women who have tried
them. Oral contraceptives taken to suppress
ovulation reduce or eliminate painful cramps
for many others. Better methods of diagnosis
are finding other physical problems like endometriosis that can often be treated by new
kinds of drug regimens or, if those don't
work, by surgery.
Treatment isn't as successful yet for
premenstrual tension, although several drugs
are now under study.
Dr. Katherine Dalton, who testified for the
defense in both of the British trials, said in
court the hormone progesterone almost invariably prevents premenstrual synfptoms,
although other studies don't give it as clear
an endorsement. Dalton had been treating
one of the dependents, Sandie Smith, who wa& J
described in court as turning into "a raging-
animal each month" unless she takes progesterone. Several other possible therapies — a
drug to inhibit the body's production of
prolactin, vitamin B6, diuretics and others —
are also under study, although results are
Women — even the two British defendants
— aren't werewolves who uncontrollably turn
into beasts in lunar cycles. For the courts to
accept this theory as a successful legal defense not only makes a mockery of justice
and may encourage others, adolescents, for
example, to plead hormonal imbalance as an
excuse for violence. The most serious harm
may be done, though, to women's fight for
equal treatment not only under the law but in
Back It a columnist with tha Chicago Tribune.