The News tells me all I need to know about the vacillations in the Zeitgeist. And the Zeitgeist is currently into blaming mommies for the deaths of their kids. For this is the lesson of the nanny trial. Louise Woodward may have been 18, inexperienced, drowsy in the mornings and moon-faced at night, but Dr Deborah Eappen was really the one at fault because she worked three days a week as an ophthalmologist rather than staying at home full-time with her baby. Never mind that she came home at lunchtime to breast-feed on the days she worked. Never mind that she pumped out breast milk on the other days. Never mind that she was an MD working a drastically reduced schedule - a schedule no intern or resident would be permitted to work - she is the one to blame for the heinous crime of baby-murder.
In an age when most mothers work because they have to, it is nothing short of astounding that this case has resulted in raving callers to talkshows who scream that Dr Eappen deserved to have her baby die because she left him with a teenage au pair.
So much for 25 years of feminism. So much for oceans of ink, forests of trees, smug commentators who say we live in a "post-feminist age". The primitive cry is still "Kill the Mommy!".
Of course, we Americans already knew that welfare mothers were monsters. Dear Bill Clinton, champion of women and children, signed the most disgusting welfare bill in US history - a bill more appropriate to Dickensian England, basically reinstating the workhouse in millennial USA. But of course we know the American poor deserve nothing. Poverty is, after all, un-American. The US has abolished any definition of the worthy poor (children, mothers, the blind, the lame) and decided that they alone shall pay for the budget deficit run up by male politicians. After all, children have no votes - unlike Savings & Loan officers. Besides, the latter have lobbyists and poor children naturally can't afford them. So we have no worthy poor in the country I so lavishly fund with my taxes, but neither have we any childcare initiatives - let alone childcare.
Even some reactionary countries - la belle France for example - have mothercare, creches, kindergartens; but in the US we rely on nature red in tooth and claw, so creches are seen as "creeping socialism" and nobody's allowed to have creeping socialism except the Army and the non-taxpaying super-rich.
Okay - welfare mommies are monsters, but what about entrepreneurial MD mommies? What about women who delayed childbearing to finish their education, had babies in their 30s and 40s and work part-time? Well, now we learn that they are also monsters. Why? Because they don't stay home full-time. Apparently all mommies are monsters - the indigent and the highly educated both deserve to watch their babies die.
Wait a minute. What happened here? Is this 1897 or 1997? It doesn't seem to matter. Where motherhood is concerned we might as well be in Dickens's England or Ibsen's Norway or Hammurabi's Persia. Mothers are, by definition, monsters. Either they're monsters because they're poor or monsters because they're rich. Where mothers are concerned everything is a no-win situation.
Poor Louise was nice but somewhat incompetent. Maybe she did shake poor little Matty - the medical evidence is inconclusive. After all, she was a Brit and Brits love caning kids; shaking is nothing to them. But Deborah was even worse than Louise. She was a doctor's wife (and a doctor, but who cares?) who chose to work.
Both women have been thoroughly trashed. Nobody inveighs against the other Dr Eappen - the one with a penis - and nobody screams that his baby deserves to die. Nobody talks about Matty either. He's just a dead baby. Dead babies have no votes and no lobbyists. No - what everyone carries on about is which woman is at fault.
The Mommy or the Nanny? The Lady or The Tiger? Women, by definition, are always guilty. Either they're guilty of neglect or they're guilty of abuse. Nobody asks about the father's role or the grandparents' role. If "it takes a village to raise a child" as Hillary Clinton's bestseller alleges, then that village consists of only two people: monster mother and monster au pair. Everyone else is off the hook. (Including a government that penalises working moms in its tax policies, immigration policies and its lack of daycare.)
How must Dr Deborah Eappen feel, first losing her son, and then facing this chorus of harpies (for the women-haters are often women)? Imagine the trauma of losing your baby, and reliving the pain at the trial, only to face the further trauma of trial by tabloid. Dr Deborah chose her job because it allowed flexible hours. So did her husband, Dr Sunil Eappen. But nobody's blaming him. If we have come so far towards the ideal egalitarian marriage, why does nobody discuss the couple? Only the women are implicated. Nanny and mommy face death by tabloid firing squad.
If the trial is used as a litmus test for social change, then we must conclude that very little change has occurred. No wonder Generation Y is full of young women who want to stay home with their babies! They saw what happened to their boomer mothers (who won the right to be eternally exhausted) and don't like what they saw. If all feminist progress is dependent on the mother-daughter dialectic (as I believe it is), then we are in for a new generation of stay-at-home-moms whose problems will be closer to our grandmothers' than our own. Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique will be as relevant in 2013 as it was in 1963 - and our granddaughters will have to regroup and start feminist reforms all over again.
No wonder feminism has been ebbing and flowing since Mary Wollstonecraft's day. We never have solved the basic problem that afflicts us all - who will help to raise the children?
Erica Jong's most recent novel is 'Of Blessed Memory' (Bloomsbury). She can be reached at her website at http://www.ericajong.com
Erica Mann Jong