Before the American invasion of Iraq, a friend and I watched a TV interview with a new mother about to be called up for war duty and whose husband was already in Iraq.
My friend was horrified: "How can she go to Iraq when she just had a little baby?"
I admit, the question wasn't far from my mind either.
More than any previous American conflict, the war in Iraq has been a war fought by women: 1 out of every 7 American military personnel in the war is female - and many of these women are mothers.
When mothers leave their children for any reason associated with life-threatening danger - to pursue ambitions that might be dangerous - many of us ask not so secretly if they're being selfish. Fathers, of course, leave their children all the time for such reasons - as social news, a fatherless family is a dog-bites-man event. But the departure of a mother - the great resilient nurturer who offers the milk of herself to her child, no matter the cost - unsettles us more deeply.
We were moved - and disturbed - by images of servicewomen crying as they kissed their young children goodbye before shipping out to Iraq. Then we were gripped by the fate of the nation's female prisoners of war: Spc.Shoshana Johnson, the single mother of a 2-year-old girl, Pfc. Jessica Lynch, andPfc. Lori Piestewa, a divorced mother of a 4-year-old boy and 3-year-old girl. When a Special Operations team rescued Lynch from an Iraqi hospital, they also retrieved the bodies of nine other American soldiers - including Private Piestewa's. So it was a mother who was the first US woman soldier killed in the war.
Add to these dramas the death of a mother in another dangerous realm of endeavor - space. In February, flight surgeon Laurel Clark, the mother of an 8-year-old boy, was one of the seven crew members killed in the breakup of the Columbia shuttle.
It is clear that American mothers have taken on the mortal career risks long associated with men. But we're torn by this progress in women's advancement. Most of us applaud the risks such women take. And in the next breath, we ask how, in good conscience, a mother could leave her kids and deliberately put herself in harm's way: What are they thinking? They're mothers!
Mothers pay a high price for our ambivalence. A woman who chooses to pursue a dream or duty that could leave her children motherless can be accused of being heartless. (The language we use is a clue: A nonsupporting father is a "deadbeat dad"; a mother who leaves home "abandons her children.")
While such women are sometimes celebrated for their daring, mothers have painfully learned that venturing into the world and trying to "have it all" remains a problematic aspiration.
Society in general perceives the presence of the mother to be so essential to a child that when a mother dies, the tragedy seems somehow greater than the death of a father. Interestingly, in the aftermath of the shuttle disaster, the media exhibited less preoccupation with the 11 children who were left fatherless by the Columbia explosion. Nor have there been lingering mentions of the children whose soldier-fathers died in Iraq. We think it's a tragedy when a child loses a father, but when a child loses a mother, it feels like a calamity of a higher order. But when the death results from the mother's willingness to take risks still not typically assumed by women - such as flying into space or going to war - we can feel that some order of nature has been violated.
Most American mothers leave their homes daily to go to a job, and many face physical danger. They work as police and construction workers, fly for NASA, and serve in the military - like Maj. Rhonda Cornum, aflightsurgeon who was the mother of a 14-year-old girl when she was one of two servicewomen captured by Iraqis in the 1991 Gulf War. Women such as Johnson, Piestewa, Clark, and Cornum value their roles as mothers and cherish their children as much as any mother. But - as for so many women - having kids isn't their only life purpose any more than it is for men.
Women have always needed purpose beyond parenthood, just as much as men do. But because of what has come to be expected of mothers, women have paid a higher price to pursue it. Historically, mothers have been condemned for seeking their identity beyond parenthood, and even as gender barriers have dissolved on many levels in recent decades, women still battle remnants of the social stigma associated with wanting something more than simply motherhood. This struggle is seen in the popularity of two influential recent novels in which mothers leave their families to save their sanity - and are treated pitilessly. In Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones," it takes the murder of her daughter for Abigail Salmon to recognize her own needs and leave her husband and surviving children. In Michael Cunningham's "The Hours," 1950s housewife Laura Brown chooses escape from her family instead of suicide.
Both women's departures are perceived as the ultimate maternal betrayal. (Yet their children were far from orphans; both mothers "abandoned" them to loving fathers.) Driven beyond distraction by limited options, they made such a radical choice because nothing in their lives encouraged them to reconcile personal opportunity with maternal responsibility. Treated like the very children they loved, they felt they had no choice but to leave home.
That two celebrated contemporary novels force women to make lose-lose choices shows how easily we still pathologize what we should embrace: the challenging range of possibilities open to today's mothers. Even today, mothers who take risks can be pathologized - as unloving, cold, or even crazy - by the very social structure that set up the terms of their dilemma in the first place.
For all the misgivings stirred in us, mothers in risky professions are establishing new roles for women that we must finally accept and even embrace. In a recent interview, Brig. Gen. Mary Ann Krusa-Dossin, the first mother to receive a US general's star, counsels other mothers in Glamour magazine not to "shy away from trying to have both." General Krusa-Dossin, the mother of a 22-year-old daughter, "wouldn't have it any other way."
It is the right of all women - mothers or not - to leave home and take risks. Only when we accept that the mothers can keep the home fires burning and fight oil fires in Iraq will we truly honor motherhood. Only at that point will we accept servicewomen - mothers included - in their rightful roles in combat.
Mothers like Col. Eileen Collins will continue to lead us in that direction. On what is to be her fourth foray into space, Colonel Collins is scheduled to command the next shuttle mission, which has been postponed indefinitely while the Columbia disaster is investigated. As the mother of a 2-year-old son and a 7-year-old daughter, Collins maintains a mutually sustaining balance between pleasures of home and the risk of her work.
"When I go home in the evening, I have lots of energy," she said in an Elle magazine interview. "Because I love being a mom. When I go to work in the morning, I have lots of energy because I love what I do."
She and her husband don't hide the risks of their work. "You have to be honest with your kids. My husband is a pilot for Delta. He talked to our daughter about 9/11. After Columbia, I told her there was an accident and that it's going to be a long time before mom can fly again."
Collins will undertake perhaps the riskiest public mission a mother has ever faced. She will be charged not only with showing that the shuttle can safely fly, but with answering the persistent question of why a mother should risk such a mission at all.
I hope that she'll challenge society's inevitable ambivalence - and perhaps a little of her own - by declaring outright that a woman has a duty to herself, her country, and, yes, her children, to fly as high as she can.
• Peggy F. Drexler, a research psychologist, is a scholar at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at Stanford University. Her current book project is 'Mothers Make Men.'