– I was frankly surprised to hear the n-word (narcissist) used to describe Sandra Tsing Loh, an essayist whose works on parenting culture
I have adored for years. Like Delia, I'd like to put forth that often, her tongue is practically poking through her cheek
. (She's not suggesting everyone leave their husbands any more than that everyone eat their babies -- although I bet they'd be delicious.)
But I think it's telling that one apparently has to evoke the travails of the homeless and mothers who deal drugs to make Tsing Loh's issues, by comparison, seem unworthy -- because we're still pretty unwilling to hear anything about mothers except, as Lynn puts it, "the sun rises and falls on [a] mother's image. That's the honest-to-god truth about moms."
I live in Jersey City, about as far from a Betty Draper's magnolia petal-overlaid redoubt as you can get. But every morning, I am mildly taken aback when I find myself marching among a troop that is entirely female, women of my age and station, ranging from the harried to the glamorous, all pushing one or two offspring toward the park in an assortment of urban-optimized carriages.
Really? I think. I mean, it's great we have choice and all, and I, too, understand the snackable allure of the baby. (I didn't get this piece done yesterday because my sister-in-law brought my two nephews over for 15 minutes, which, through various stratagems, I stretched into four hours.) But still, it's nearly 2010, a century since suffrage, almost 50 years past the publication of "The Feminine Mystique," 40 years since bra-burnings, and . . . really?
I grew up in the 1970s and early 80s, an early adherent to what one might call the Yatesian view of marriage. Perhaps I'd simply read "Kinflicks" and "Diary of a Mad Housewife" too often, but even at a young age it seemed clear to me that matrimony was not a magical state that occasioned its own benefits simply by virtue of having entered it. Such literature had prepared me well for the fact that a good washer/dryer set and decent schools nearby were an insufficient bulwark against misery, but even if they hadn't, the adults all around me, abruptly faced with the grim realization that getting married might have had something to do more with what they'd like to be than what they were, were suddenly acting in an extremely un-adult manner. Martini and cigarette in hand, they cruelly took our dried-macaroni necklaces, questioned their lives, and told us to go outside. We went outside.
I sometimes wonder if the rise of the Professional Parent -- scouter of nursery schools, researcher of fashionable slingwear, proselytizer of low -VOC paint -- is a backlash against the one, brief era in which women began to officially consider themselves outside the roles of wives and mothers. Because while the antics of the Professional Parent can be dreadfully humorous -- witness the baby consultant -
- there is something disturbingly regressive, and positively fear-mongering, in this idea that yet again
, it all hangs on the mother.
Anyone who wants to see what women have to put up with today should expose themselves to where the bottomless obligation begins: birth. I had a battery of friends bravely step up recently, and at first I thought they were against C-sections for the same reason your average person would be less than thrilled to have someone take a big slice through the layer of skin, fat and muscle at the center of your person. (See: slice.)
But no: their objection had something to do with the fact that with a C-section, the baby is deprived of some hormonal wash he experiences as he goes through the vaginal canal. What this hormonal wash guarantees I could never make out. (Calm? Good skin? Scholarship to Yale?) Who cares? It was better for the baby, and therefore fine to be in labor for 20-plus dangerous hours, tear in three places, and take six months to heal.
Breastfeeding is the next opportunity for punishment. I recently had the happy task of being with my friend in the hospital the week after her birth, and I became positively enraged at the parade of lactation consultants who, with their hinky paraphernalia and grim admonitions on dire consequences to follow if their mysterious protocols were not followed exactly
, resembled nothing so much as a wailing B-movie witch doctor circling the terrified patient. Another friend spent the first few months in a vibrating harness, eschewing sleep to pump, until a mutual friend took to the pages of the Atlantic to make a case for why she could stop, if she so desired. (She did.) Yet a third became so shatteringly depressed at her child's inability to latch I overlooked my general rule of not giving parenting advice -- I save it for columns -- and reminded her that babies do not, in fact, nurse until they are 21.
Throughout their travails, I couldn't help thinking of the scene in "The Group" in which the physician husband forces his wife to try to breastfeed, an act he has deemed more "nutritious" and "natural" than the scheduled formula feedings offered by the nurses. The wife is so ashamed at her failure that she's reduced to tears. But the true shame is being made into an experiment, an object whose sole purpose is for the benefit of someone she's barely had an opportunity to hold in her arms. "The Group," like "The Feminine Mystique," was published in 1963. Why are my friends still weeping?
I have been equally mortified by the women who seemed to dig into an Eisenhower-era plate of self-abnegation with the gusto I might an excellent brioche. How to regard the Kitchen Cabinet,
who proudly left off baking apple pies and sniffing downy crowns to balance the Michigan budget? (Hey, I have common-sense, homey values too. Can I
be an honorary Mom?) What to make of the Slate series, Freaky Fortnight,
in which two of my collegiate peers blew the lid off what happens when Mom
goes to work (like Dad!) and Dad stays at home (like Mom
!). (Hey, you know what you could try if you want to know what it's like to work? Getting a job
But my absolute favorite soupcon of smug authority comes from Caitin Flanagan, Tsing Loh's reactionary foil in the Atlantic, a stay-at-home mom given to acid pronouncements on single girls, working moms, teenage girls, Kim Basinger and, really, anyone who is not a stay-at-home mom. She recently offered this crinolined wisdom to the childless: "Until you've [had a child] you're just guessing about love, gesturing toward it, assuming that it's the right name for a feeling you've had
." Good to know my shadow dance of guessing, gesturing, and assumption can finally be put to an end by a good shot of sperm.
That's why I was relieved to have Tsing Loh, temporarily removed from home and hearth because of a -- gasp! -- affair, remind everyone that we might all back away from the Baby Mozart and remember that mothers are people, too:
But what particularly surprised me was the ire of some of my own sisters in the chattering class-college-educated, affluent NPR listeners/New York Times readers. In the old days, for better or worse, members of this privileged demographic would have been on female liberation's front lines. Now they were among the most censorious. "YOU MUST GO BACK HOME!" one girlfriend of mine (56, married, Boomer professional, no kids) typed in block letters. "THINK OF THE CHILDREN!"
"It feels like we're living in the '50s," said Janet. At which point she downed her prosecco and exclaimed: "For God's sake! When did people get so timid? In the '70s people wouldn't give a damn! Doesn't anyone read Germaine Greer any more?"
I guess not -- they're too busy reading Babble, and that's too bad. Because childhood is like the holocaust of reasons -- you can invoke anything in its name. If you're supposed to give up everything for a baby -- if the sun rises and sets on a mother's image -- well, when does it stop?
After all, there's not a big difference in Betty Draper believing a starched skirt and hash make a happy marriage and today's mothers thinking their children will lose brain points without breast milk. Whatever the talisman, you're still swapping the accoutrements of the state for the state itself -- and neither has anything to do with what makes a happy child, or a happy marriage. (Confidently said the childless, grumpy single lady.) If you're Caitlin Flanagan and you get off on self-abnegation, so much the better. But if you're a normal person, with normal needs, forgetting about yourself is a pretty dangerous game. You might wind up with pretty little to give anyone else.
That's why I have a hard time worrying that Tsing Loh's having a homeless moment. Okay, she's driving around, stealing wireless. But she's also taking her daughters to Sizzler, pulling over by the side of the road to read with them, contentedly drinking soda. Frankly, that sounds like a hell of a lot more fun to me than a mother-daughter reading group.
Recently, my own mother, far from a professional parent, still got annoyed that I'd written someplace she'd given us formula. "You never had formula!" she said huffily. "Never!"
"Well, what did we drink when you were at work?" I asked.
"Oh, I don't know," she said, suddenly musing. "Apple juice?"
Guess what? I don't care. Can we go to Sizzler?