Saturday, February 26, 2005

Living Each Moment

Over at So Close, Tertia asked for people to share their regrets about parenting, the choices or non-choices they wish they could do differently. Quite a large majority of people wrote to say that they regretted worrying so much, about everything from toddler milestones to grammar school grades to their own bad days. One person shared with Tertia an article about motherhood regrets published by Anna Quindlen in Newsweek a few years ago. Quindlen made quite a few claims about her own anxieties, her deferral to experts, and her wish that she'd just been more laid back.

Quindlen's take-away line was, "But the biggest mistake I made is the one that most of us make while doing this. I did NOT LIVE IN THE MOMENT ENOUGH. This is particularly clear now that the moment is gone, captured only in photographs." Quindlen presents this regret, this key insight into the value and meaning of motherhood, as if it weren't available to her in the expert testimonies (Brazelton, Spock, Leach) that she read. I'm not sure that Quindlen read her Spock very closely, if she doesn't remember Spock's central message: "You know more than you think you do. Relax." What I do know is that every recent generation of parents has arrived at the bittersweet realization that their life passed them by while they were attending to other things.

Thornton Wilder wrote Our Town in 1938: its dramatic climax comes when Emily, from beyond the grave, tries fruitlessly to get her mother to see her, to be fully in the moment, and not to let life slip by in meaningless small things. Erma Bombeck wrote, by my count, eight books about motherhood, and every single one of them featured at least one chapter laughing at and mourning the passage of time, and regretting the way that children do indeed "grow up!" just as their mothers snap at them to do. Julia at Uncommon Misconception has already succumbed to motherhood's primal grief, the bittersweet embrace of time's passage, and her daughter is all of one month old.

Steven Sondheim never had children, but in Into the Woods, the witch sings: "Children can only grow from something you love, to something you lose."

Parents know that time is passing. Mothers know that today's petty troubles cloud their ability to notice and be with their kids. This isn't a blazing insight of a new generation of enlightened people. The question isn't, why don't we notice that life is what happens while we're making other plans? The question is, why doesn't it make a difference, when we do notice it?

Why hasn't it occurred to anyone that some of the mania of "overparenting" arises precisely from the knowledge that every moment and every experience is both precious and fleeting? Maybe mothers obsess over preschools and fiddle with the paper plates because they know that they were too distracted to sit and read the book, or too bored to play Barbies, or too tired to go for the walk. Too many moments are already gone, so we drive ourselves to create the perfect future moments that will persist, in memory, in photos, in life. Should we recognize that the perfect moments are the laid-back ones, the picnics on the front lawn or the giggles over a silly movie? Okay, yes, we should. But it's hard to work up the energy for those moments, some time. Give us a bit of a break, please.

Can you think of anything that would demand more perfect mothering, than the demand to be truly in the moment as much as possible with your children, when you're with them? Is anything harder than transcending the thoughts and emotions and distractions of our ever-chattering minds, so that we can dwell in the here and now? There's a reason why Buddhists refer to their practice as a discipline, and say that it takes hard medicine to achieve enlightenment.

Sometimes I wish that mothers whose children were grown would stop telling mothers whose children are small to stop and smell the roses. I'll be happy to do that, if you'll come over and mop my floors, cook my meals, and wash my clothes. Unless you're prepared to make that offer, shut up -- because telling me to stop fixating on the irrelevant and live in the transcendent is starting to get on my nerves.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Madness, All Madness

There has been much blogging about "Mommy Madness." While I started out enjoying all the hullabaloo, it's Sunday afternoon now and I'm ready to think about other stuff. I worry, suspiciously, that whatever valid points Warner has made about the burdens and costs of motherhood cannot be made to bear the weight of her policy proposals. I notice that I have nitpicked the particulars of Warner's argument, at the expense of the big questions, both in my own post on the article and my follow-up on the issues. As a new week begins, I am returning to the question of personal responsibility and personal choice again--precisely the trap that Warner advised us to fight against. But there will be, I think, one good result of my immersion in Warner-ease: I haven't mentally composed a single "first blog paragraph" in the last week that didn't immediately seem connected to Warner's concerns.

Here, not for your pleasure but for your ease of navigation, are summaries of some of the blogs I happened upon. I'm sure that there are plenty of other excellent posts out there, but I didn't find them before my interest began to burn away. (A final aside: I wonder whether my rapid burnout is another sign of that learned helplessness that Warner targets in her book.)
  1. Getupgrrl at Chez Miscarriage offers an excellent and succinct set of historical comparisons debunking the possibility that Warner says anything new. The point I most which I had made: "Interestingly enough, the cure for maternal overparenting has also remained the same throughout history: more sex!" Grrl points out that the cylical nature of mother bashing reflects "large-scale social and economic patterns." I think you could also talk about generational conflict, but regardless of that digression, I'm inspired to begin drafting a blog-worthy history of recent American motherhood.

  2. Elizabeth at Half-Changed Life analyzes the independent forces that drive SAHM and WOHM moms to ramp up their "parenting," and what happens when the groups collide. My personal "ouch" moment: "Some at-home parents feel the need to justify their decision by giving their kids every bit of attention and stimulation possible. This is how they prove that they're not wasting their expensive educations." Yes, yes, guilty as charged. Half-Changed Life also picks up on and praises an Elle piece by Warner that puts American superparenting into an international context, where it looks decidedly unique and weird.

  3. Over at Birch and Maple, a pointed question for all of us who worry about doing the right thing by our kids: "Doesn't striving for perfection really just mean you can't deal if you're not in control?" I confess, sometimes I think my entire experience of parenthood, including infertility, circles around questions of control. The author, Orodemniades, compares the subjects of Warner's article (or, more precisely I think, the subjects of Quindlan's column) to an infamous category in the infertile world: Pottery Barn People. Because I've never quite gotten that metaphor, I appreciated Oro's summary: "They have it all, yet they still whine." Hmmm, I think I'm a PBP.

  4. The Mental Multivitam declares Warner's subject to be, not mommy madness but mommy stupidity -- she targets the hand-painted paper plates -- and later adds that "reading, thinking, writing, learning, laughing, living are more worthwhile pursuits than whining." The author approvingly quotes a friend's declaration that "Loving others, especially our husbands and children, is really so much more inspiring." Of course, Warner might be exploring precisely how today's mothers should best love their children (and the husbands, too).

  5. Barbara Curtis also takes up the question of women whining, labelling Warner's topic one appealing primarily to "every narcissistic, infantile and elitist woman whiner." Among her other criticisms of Warner's subjects, Curtis makes a telling point about Warner's proposal of part-time childcare for stay-at-home moms. She asks: does Warner "assume there's some subclass of women who are too stupid to do much other than care for the kids of the more "gifted" working and stay-at-home mothers?"

  6. Curtis's take-no-prisoners approach sparked a debate, inspiring her to follow up with an essay in praise of stay-at-home motherhood -- boredom, loneliness, exhaustion and all:
    "this is a brief season in your life. When your kids are leaving, you will hardly believe how fast it all went. ... As I sacrificed to give everything I could to my kids ... my own life was being stretched and enriched. ... So even though it looked on the outside like my life was consumed by motherhood -- and it was -- inside there was a well of creativity being formed. When it came bubbling to the surface, I began to write. And because of the discipline of 12 years of putting others before myself, I actually had something to say."
    Curtis's final zinger: "the impact [of] all these whiney, negative stories on motherhood must have an impact on [children's] tender spirits, must make them feel like burdens rather than blessings."
  7. Jennifer Lynn Arnold of 4 Boys and a Mom joins Curtis in pronouncing that the years of intensive motherhood are "but a season." She believes that Warner's subjects are correct to feel depressed and overwhelmed, because their attempts to do all things by halves have led them to neglect their most important charge, their children. Arnold echoes many evangelical Christian bloggers when she writes:
    "God designed us to be maternal and to be the helper. We are driven to not fail as a mother as instinctively as we are built to breathe in, breathe out, blink! ... There is not [a] rule that says a woman has to become a mother, but by God if you are going to than you better have your priorities straight. Let me clue you, that means putting your child's well being before your, pride, ambition, goals and self indulgent pleasures. It is when we fight against that and do not have our priorities straight that we feel bad and stressed out."
    I was surprised, though, that Arnold thought Warner's catalog of mommy depression was a condemnation of SAHMs who are happy with their lives. I think this defensiveness arises from Arnold's belief that the modern women's movement is responsible for transforming women from "helpers" into "competitors." One offshoot of this transformation? The types of intensive parenting behaviors Warner catalogued, which Arnold asserted were intended not to improve children's lives but to compete with other moms.

  8. Geeky Mom also targets a culture of mommy peer pressure, and believes that maternal competition makes it very hard to step off the perfect parenting race track. She doesn't think Warner is writing about elitist problems: "I live in a very middle-class neighborhood. No one drives fancy cars or sends their kids to private school, but there's still enough pressure to make some of us (me) feel like they're not doing enough." Geeky Mom refocuses on Warner's claim that working women are responsible for too much of the burden, not just of childcare but of community care. She thinks Warner's proposals are a good place to start.

  9. More on the question of peer group and peer pressure at City Mama. In an upbeat manner, Mama attributes her laid-back mothering style to laziness and a healthy ability to forego judgementalism. She also connects Warner's topic to the rising use of SSRIs, something I would hope Warner herself addresses in her book. City Mama closes with a rousing invokation of sisterhood: "No more living in fear of what others will think. No more judging. No more competing. We are hurting each other by doing that. We are making our sisters feel terrible about themselves and their parenting choices. ... And ultimately it's our children that will suffer." Of course, it's precisely the question of why we do this, why we can't just let it go, that inspired Warner to write her book.
  10. Over at The Bleat, a stay-at-home dad named James Lileks eviscerates Warner. He flat-out rejects any suggestion that society is to blame for mothers' anxieties, and targets instead "the latest set of internally contradictory expectations thrown at women’s heads like a big frozen watermelon." It's a good if infuriating piece, worthwhile if only for the 'I'm outside this debate because I'm a man' attitude, and ends with a slacker dad manifesto: "When it comes to expectations about gender and roles and accomplishments and the latest theories about childrearing, I have a secret mantra: I don’t care." Then again, one of Warner's topics? Why exactly so many women are unable to be the slackers here extolled.

  11. Childbearing hipster also extols an "I'm lazy and it's wonderful" approach. Hipster's excellent advice? "Find yourself a good solid core of people who love you and your kid, get together, mix up a pitcher of margaritas and let the rugrats go wild. Good. Happy. Take it as it comes. Do what works for your family, and if it isn't working, find out what does. Don't beat yourself up, and don't let anyone else beat you." Hipster lives among an enviable community of supportive and happy families, precisely the environment Warner loved so much while she lived in France. Warner's point, of course, was that while Hipster's community might be attributable to individual effort and luck, in France, the expectation of community support for mothers and family life is treated as a socially mandated right.

  12. Back on the Daddy track, Jim McQuiggen of Patriside complains about Warner's exclusion of Dads, especially SAHDs. McQuiggen writes, "Many of the issues that Ms. Warner identified rang true to me: lack of decent childcare in this country, corporate apathy to the plight of parents, economic stressors, and yep, the thud you hear is my head pounding the wall." Ultimately, though, he labels Warner's subjects "congenital whiners" whose elitist lives are no where near as difficult as his own: he doubts Warner's theses will gain traction in the Heartland. McQuiggen implicitly raises a key methodological question: is Warner correct when she asserts that we are an aspirational people who allow the values and behaviors of the upper middle class to shape our behavior regardless of our own social and economic level?

  13. Middle-Aged Divorced Woman chimes in to report how different her own mothering was, twenty years ago. Reporting on a lost culture of laid-back mothering, MAD Woman explains that "When I was raising kids ..., we kind of all hung out together. We played with Lego's a lot, watched Sesame Street some, but mostly what we did when we got bored was go on a walk. Sunny days, snowy days, cloudy days. Doesn't matter. They've got all kinds of sports and Accelerated learning for kids, but I think going on walks provides the best education there is." Like Warner, MAD Woman encourages today's moms to relax their standards and re-think their goals. Also like Warner, she understands that personal behavior changed as society did: family walks are more difficult when "Developers do their best to bulldoze every last bit of woods and fields so they can build acres of gigantous, humongous, dreary, ugly "luxury Executive Homes." ... Do they leave anything un-built, spontaneous, free, un-controlled? No. Not even a sidewalk."

  14. Suzanne Galante rides to Warner's rescue over at Mother-in-Chief. Galante thanks Warner for validating her blog's subject: the plight of mothers who did believe they would have it all, only to find themselves profoundly "let down." She writes, "My whole family respects what I am doing as a parent, as a writer, as a woman, as a person. They all love and respect me. I wish I could manage the same for myself." Galante pairs Warner's diagnosis of "learned helplessness" with her own experience of "learned hopelessness": "We are so focused on creating the best learning environment for our kids by reading to them, taking them to play group, art class, swim class, the park, Germ-boree [etc] ... it seems impossible to figure out how to change things so that our worlds become a better, less insane place to live." She closes by highlighting and cheering Warner's proposed solutions, although Galante doesn't really explain how the solutions address the problems she identifies.

  15. The RetiKhah at Kol Ra'ash Gadol obviously agrees with Warner's implicit conclusion that today's mothers are oppressed. She invokes backlash theory: "We no longer have the guts to call our society and government to account for inventing new ways to keep us in the kitchen and the home, and then set those working at home against those working out of the home by confusing us about whom to blame." In a very brief post, the question of dads -- where are they and what are they doing -- gets first mention.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Talking 'bout Our Generation

This is a draft! Warning, This is a draft! It's midnight, I fell asleep getting the kids to bed, and I need to write down some of the stuff that's been chasing around my brain before I can fall back asleep. (I hate falling asleep right after the kids. Even when I'm tired, I feel like I've been robbed of the only guilt-free adult time in my day. Why shouldn't adult time during the rest of the day also be guilt-free? Good question. Let's discuss that.)

There's a blog-o-splosion Warner-wise, and I do plan to get it summarized, I do. But I was struck, powerfully, by the first topic of conversation in Warner's interview with American Prospect. Warner's claim:
When I began the research for the book, I was spending a lot of time with stay-at-home moms. Hearing the way they talked about their lives and looking at the effect of not working, so much of it reminded me of Friedan’s observations [from 1963] -- that sort of vague, indefinable feeling of emptiness and unhappiness and anxiety and angst. ... [Friedan] had written about a culture-wide "mystique of feminine fulfillment" that was driving women quietly insane. Today, of course, we no longer worship women who, like the "happy housewife heroine" of Friedan’s day, can find fulfillment in making their floors shine. [Note: Obviously Warner has never spent any time on FlyLady because, oh yes we do.] Yet, while our world has changed so much, why were the women I knew speaking in such a similar way and seeming to feel such similar things? The concrete facts of their lives were different, but the stuff going through their heads -- and the internal struggles -- were so similar.

This isn't the first place Warner specifically compares today's generation to Friedan's. I'll go find the other references later. For now, though, let's just say that second-wave feminists everywhere are exhaustedly picking themselves up off their yoga mats and wondering, again, if anyone has paid any attention to the world at all since they first went to work. Warner must be willfully forgetting everything she knows about Friedan, the President's Commission on Women, NOW, Ms. Magazine, and the entire decade of the 1970s if she truly believes that the "emptiness and unhappiness and anxiety and angst" of today's mothers has much in common with the same set of feelings felt by women in 1963. Elizabeth at Half-Changed World links Warner's book to one about the tyranny of choices, and that about summarizes the problem with Warner's claim here. We have choices now; compared to us, women in 1963 did not.

I promise to get the real figures for this tomorrow, during my guilty writing portion of the day, but for now, let's just ballpark. The average age that women first married in 1963 was about 21; today it's 26. Most women in 1963 did not attend any college; most women today do. In 1963, a majority of the private colleges and universities that jockey for the top 100 spots on the US News & World Reports rankings did not admit women. Today, I think they all do. I'm not even going to bother cataloging all the careers and professions that were still considered unfeminine and inappropriate for married women and mothers in 1963; if you're reading this blog, the chances are good that you are now or once were or plan to be again employed in one of them.

Another bit of information the popular press manage to forget every time one of these mommy books comes out: the 1950s were in no way traditional when it came to motherhood and family. They represented a pretty radical break with the decades that came before them, on any number of fronts. Warning: I'm about to launch into US History intro mode. I know you know this. But apparently, Warner forgets that one hallmark of the decades that immediately preceded the 1950s was a crisis in marriage and family life. The Great Depression led to record-level paternal abandonment (there's nothing like economic failure to send men scurrying) and for a whole host of reasons, many intact families with unemployed husbands survived on the wives' wages, too. The farm crisis of the 1920s had sealed the fate not only of the family farm but of small towns, too: urbanization throughout the 1920s and internal migration in the 1930s (especially to California) freaked everyone out. Then came the war, and the inevitable explosion in the numbers of female-headed households, because now even the families who had clung to traditional middle-class respectability were divided by war. 1946 had the highest divorce rate in American history, right up until the 1980s, because all those war brides and husbands took one look at each other when the men came home and ran screaming to the judges. (Don't underestimate the role of post-traumatic stress for the men, either.)

Which of Warner's radical proposals for family change was implemented during the war, only to be dismantled in 1946? Government-funded childcare in the workplace. Why was it dismantled? Because 10 million men were returning from the war and they needed jobs and (almost) every economist in the country believed the post-war period would result in a major depression, possibly re-triggering the conditions of the Great Depression, which had only really ended with the ramp-up of wartime industry. Who suffered most from the rollback in wartime women's employment? Working-class women, the great majority of the 19 million women employed during the war, whose wages had risen, whose job status had risen, whose pride in labor had risen, and who were now shunted back into the low-paying jobs they had worked before.

Why were the 1950s the 1950s? Who knows, exactly. I tend to remind myself often not to underestimate cultural warfare: the popular press was filled with messages to women throughout this period to use their family lives to prove the superiority of capitalism over godless Communism. Also, and this is my favorite beef with traditionalist Republicans: for the first time in the 1950s, thanks to unions and massive government expenditures (on that trusty military-industrial complex and the various welfare provisions of the GI Bill), working-class Americans could afford a middle-class lifestyle. Women whose mothers had worked every day of their lives could finally stay home, and stay home they did. They considered themselves damn lucky to do so.

Finally, there's sex to consider. The 1950s were a decade of sky-high teen sexual activity and sky-high teen pregnancy. Why doesn't this register in the national memory? Because all those teens got married. That's what good girls and boys who wanted to have sex did in the 1950s: they got married. Then they clustered their three or four children very close together in age (because the women actually did know that the years of caring for small children are back-breakingly exhausting), they moved to the affordable houses in the new suburbs, and they sank into the depression that Friedan described.

By the 1960s, two things were happening: the oldest of the baby boomers, the late 1940s children of these 1950s moms, were entering their late teens and confronting the message to get married. Most working-class girls did get married, partially for the sex and partially for the economic security, while more and more middle-class girls went off to college and started to reconsider all their parents' rules. (My mom was a working-class granddaughter of farmers so she got married at 19 and spent the rest of her life telling me not to make that mistake.) Meanwhile, the 1950s moms themselves had a lot of free time on their hands, because their youngest babies were in school now, and so the mothers went back to work.

Fact is, throughout the twentieth century, very few women of any economic class remained unemployed for the full 22 or 24 or 26 years that they had dependent children in their homes. Some of the social change that happens in the 1960s is just boring old sequencing, and if the whole homeschooling movement doesn't short-circuit the process, we'll see it again with these folks like myself who've opted out. Granted, quite a bit of the labor of moms with teenagers still wasn't being paid in the 1960s and the 1970s. We're still suffering the fallout of the loss of volunteer hours that middle-class women used to provide, and while I admire Warner's touching belief that Americans want to replace that volunteer labor with government expenditure, I think if we're realistic, we'll set out to recruit retirees instead. But the real revolution in women's work wrought by second-wave feminism was the revolution in work by mothers with young children. And given that household wages have stagnated since 1973, even though moms with young children now work, it's possible to argue that that wasn't a cultural revolution but simply an economic necessity. When American families can afford to keep one parent at home with their young children, they do so.

Which leads us, of course, to the reason why I think mothers today feel "emptiness and unhappiness and anxiety and angst" and why the blogs on Warner's book are divided between those who think she's fear-mongering and those who think she's dead to rights. It is, sigh dammit this again, the men. It's the husbands and the fathers and the brothers and the sons, who still don't do their share of the housework and who still don't do their share of the childcare and who still don't do their share of anything other than the employment and the commute. Not that those things aren't crucial, they are, but let's get real. Caring for children and keeping a home is, along with everything else, hard physical and emotional and intellectual labor, and women bear the disproportionate share. Throw in enormous status-anxiety, the direct result of those thirty years' worth of stagnant household income, and you have a recipe for -- mommy madness.

Warner's answer is to emulate France (and France does sound lovely), because she thinks we'll have more luck changing our government than our men. This woman, I don't know what to say, is she an optimist or a pessimist or what? Because the men, they vote Republican, and the history, it's not encouraging on either front.

Tomorrow morning: an interesting comparison to Germany, where supposedly women have so internalized the message that children should be raised at home for the first three years that the country is now suffering a massive demographic crisis. According to some German politicians, their women, having gotten the message that you can't raise kids and have a job, have chosen -- the jobs.

The proposed German solution? We should be more like France.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Straw Horses

Yesterday, the latest Newsweek arrived, the one with the cover story about Mommy Madness. (Side note: last year, because I subscribed to Salon, we received US News & World Report; now, because we donated to the local public radio station, we receive Newsweek. I guess that tells you everything you need to know about advertiser-driven publication, doesn't it.) Calder dropped it down on the counter and said, guess I've lost you for the night. And it's true, I hide in the bathroom until I've devoured a magazine, when the subject matter doesn't piss me off.

Now, I'll grant you, the first thing that pisses me off about any cover story about mothering is the irritated conviction that someone else has stolen my book idea and will now reap fame, fortune, and a long career writing self-centered drivel not half as intriguing as the drivel I could write, if only I were given the chance.

But the second thing that pisses me off is the overwhelming banality of these stories. Rachel Byrne, one of the mothers featured in the photo essays that accompany the "Mommy Madness" piece, claims that "motherhood isn't anything like she imagined. 'It's stressful, lonely, and tiring.'" So now I have to ask, what did Bryne read during her pregnancy? Was she the only middle-class pregnant woman in the United States who didn't hear a single recommendation for Child of Mine or Mother Shock or Operating Instructions? Did she never browse through even one issue of American Baby while waiting at her OB's office? Stress, loneliness, and exhaustion are the trifecta of mothering articles in America. You don't need a subscription to Brain, Child to have at least a small clue as to what's coming. You might believe you'll be the exception, the glowing supermom whose tireless efforts Anna Quindlen so casually shoots down, but to have not the faintest inklings in your imagination as to what labors motherhood entails? That blows my mind.

There hasn't been a cover article about motherhood in a mass circulation newsmagazine for the last twenty years that hasn't claimed to rediscover the remarkable truth that mothers--especially working mothers--can't have it all, even if their (obviously ever-shifting) generation was sadly, tragically raised to believe otherwise. There are currently 2,959 titles categorized under Motherhood at and two of the current three best sellers are books about how crazy difficult motherhood can be -- and about how no one ever talks about it. Forgive me, but I think this is all we ever talk about. I won't even apologize for that. I think women have been justifiably complaining about how hard motherhood is ever since they left the farms and factories and starting having the time to do the complaining. I wouldn't take any bets that the church foyers and market squares of the sixteenth century were free of harangues and whispered fears about motherhood, either.

In fairness to Judith Warner, whose book Perfect Madness was the inspiration for Newsweek's cover story, the story wasn't supposed to focus on overworked, perfectionist, privileged mommies whose very concern for being good moms is ruining their children's lives. Anna Quindlen was the one to run with that angle. Warner intended to point out that
"Women today mother in the excessive, control-freakish way that they do...because, to a large, extent, they have to. Because they are unsupported, because their children are not taken care of, in any meaningful way, by society at large. Because there is right now no widespread feeling of social responsibility--for children, for families, for anyone, really--and so they must take everything onto themselves. And because they can't, humanly, take everything onto themselves, they simply go nuts."
Warner advocates for corporate tax incentives, government-mandated child care standards, better provisions for part-time work, and a change in the economic climate that requires so many two-parent families to be two full-time-working-parent families.

But Warner suffers from the usual weakness of all these books, a weakness that afflicts most popular sociology in the United States. Warner lacks a decent framework for understanding, describing, and discussing class differences. She flatly declares that the purpose of her proposed change sis to makelife "less expensive and stressful for middle-class families so that mothers (and fathers) could work less without risking their children's financial future." Having just done our taxes, and boggled at the $3000 child tax credit and the uncapped mortgage tax credit that are coming back our way, I disagree with Warner that the problem facing families in America is the lack of support for the middle class. What's lacking is support for the working class, and we'll never get there if we don't even admit that such a thing exists.

Most of what Warner describes to support her argument is, I'm afraid, the luxury consumption behavior of the privileged classes. Women who hand-paint paper plates for a class party, who harrass the other mothers for not painting the plates the proper color, who compete relentlessly for the best ballet classes and summer camps and piano teachers -- they are making choices about how to spend their spare time. Whether the mothers who do those things believe that their children need these herculean efforts to ensure their future membership in the privileged classes has nothing to do with subsidized childcare or corporate tax incentives. I know it seems so obvious that it's pointless to declare, but women who join internet chat groups so they can advise other mothers about the proper age at which to watch Pooh movies -- we're using our free time, or stealing time from work, to do that. Our obsession with our parenting has become a type of luxury good.

My blatantly working-class cousins in rural Minnesota, the ones working low-income, no-benefit jobs while their husbands farm and drive snowplows and pick up seasonal work with the county? They don't have time for a lot of the stuff Warner and Quindlen target, and they'll tell me so, at length. The type of language Warner mentions overhearing on the playground, the supposedly empowering child-speak that concludes with an "Is that okay with you, honey?" -- I never hear that around my family back home. As often as not, there's a quick smack to the hand and a sharp "stop your crying" and the kids are back out playing while their parents sip beer, talk baseball, and replicate the supposed idyllic, balanced parenting life we've lost in our quest to Do It Right.

This all reminds me, powerfully, of a post about money management that I found via Half-Changed World. Over at In Favor of Thinking, I read
The people I know who are trying to manage their money and curb expenses are already living pretty carefully. I'm not saying that my partner and I can't tighten our belts somewhere -- in fact we've been working on that recently. You can always cut out something. But when you're already bringing a thermos of homemade coffee with you to the office and packing your lunch, it's really irritating to hear how you could shave off $100 a week for your debt if you were already spending your money that way.
That's how I feel about these articles about my mothering. Don't tell me to slack off on the competitive sports and the obsessive craft projects or remind me that I need to have more sex with my husband. I already know these things. I'm already doing them, thanks, to the best of my ability anyway. So are all the other mothers I know. In fact, quite a few of them aren't even trying to do it all, but secretly wondering if they're the only mothers regularly ordering take out for dinner and hating housework and generally making it up as they go along. So all these articles about learning to relax? They're just behind the curve, and also irritatingly self-important. Please, I'm begging you already: tell me something new.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

A Limited-Resources Ecology

There's another depressing article about triplets published in the latest issue of Pediatrics: "Does a Triplet Birth Pose a Special Risk for Infant Development? Assessing Cognitive Development in Relation to Intrauterine Growth and Mother-Infant Interaction Across the First 2 Years." The authors' take-away conclusion? "Without organized assistance [financial and social support], it cannot be expected that the mother will form the unique, sensitive, individualized relationship that is necessary for these high-risk infants."

These types of articles tend to spark indignant protest among triplet parents. The study group was too small; the comparison groups (twins and singletons instead of large families) was skewed; the authors unfairly focused on the drawbacks without mentioning that hallowed sibling bond. I don't tend to have a lot of patience with these responses, partly because I think a less self-serving critique exists. For example: child development theory overwhelmingly emphasizes the importance of the mother. Fathers, other family childcare providers (i.e., grandparents), and non-family childcare providers all might as well be invisible. To the extent that assumptions about maternal-infant interaction in singleton families are flawed, their applicability to triplet families is minimized. Furthermore, child development research relies overwhelmingly on researcher observation of interactions at home and in laboratory settings, and while there's continuous emphasis on "objective coding," I don't even have time to begin outlining the inherent problems in this, the entire field's baseline methodology. Finally, the statistical correlations are often much weaker, and the differences between groups much smaller, than the broad generalizations of the authors would suggest.

And yet....This is a peer-reviewed article; it conforms to the state of the art in the field. We dismiss the authors' conclusions and recommendations (which are, after all, in favor of increased support for triplet parents) at our peril. Do I enjoy hearing that my family situation correlates with negative environments for my children? No. I hate it. I hate it. But how are my children well-served by the ostrich approach, denial and deliberate refusal to engage with the research? I might feel better in the short run, but what if the authors are indeed correct? Isn't it better to be inspired to prove the research wrong through careful attention to the questions raised?

Do any of us have sympathy anymore with adoptive parents who claim that adoption "doesn't matter" for their child? Being born as part of a set, especially a large set, matters--the body of research isn't large, but it's consistent--and we parents of high-order multiples have an obligation to attend to how it does matter. Our children deserve that.

Luckily, I have access through Calder to the full texts of these articles. So here, for your consideration, are a few provocative and uncomfortable excerpts.

First, an excerpt describing the behaviors studied:
Maternal sensitivity was based on 10 items ... acknowledgment of the infant’s interactive signals, elaboration of the child’s vocalizations and movements, warm and positive affect, affectionate tone of voice, fluency of the interaction, consistency and predictability of style, resourcefulness in dealing with the infant’s negative states, appropriate range of affect, and adaptation to the infant’s state and signals. ... Child social involvement was calculated from 5 items at 6 months and from 7 items at 12 and 24 months. These included child initiation of interactive bids, child positive affect, child vocalization, child alertness, and child-led interactions. At 12 and 24 months, 2 additional codes were included, ie, child symbolic-creative play and child competent use of the environment. (Pages 445-446)
The study also measured infant cognitive development, using the Bayley Scales, and maternal competence and satisfaction, measured using the Parental Competence and Satisfaction Scale, "a 17-item instrument assessing the levels of parental anxiety, frustration, motivation, competence, and problem-solving." (Page 446)

There were several pages of graphs and regression analysis, and finally the authors concluded:
Triplets as a group showed lower cognitive skills, compared with singletons and twins matched for gestational age and fetal growth parameters, at 6, 12, and 24 months of age, which suggests that the triplet situation itself constitutes a separate risk condition for infants’ cognitive growth, independent of the effects of other known medical risks to infant development. ...
Infant cognitive development is based on 2 central factors, ie, the infant’s disposition and neurologic intactness and the mother’s sensitive support of emerging skills and timely introduction of new and appropriate stimulation. The development of maternal sensitivity requires the mother’s full investment in the well-being, communicative signals, and growing capacities of an individual child. Mothers of triplets were found previously to report higher levels of parenting stress and lower investment in the formation of a unique emotional relationship with each child, and the present findings underscore the role of lower maternal competence in the parenting role as an important factor in the slower cognitive development of triplets. The data demonstrate that, when mothers need to attend to the specific interaction rhythms and growth needs of 3 infants simultaneously, the level of sensitive parenting to each child is significantly reduced. These findings were persistent at 6, 12, and 24 months of age, across the period when infants move from initial manipulation of objects in their environment to interactions that involve symbols, words, gestures, social participation, and initiation. We observed that the decrease in maternal sensitivity among mothers raising triplets was not a transient phenomenon but rather a stable maternal interactive style. This maternal trait was related to the mothers’ decreased sense of self-efficacy and was predictive of the infants’ cognitive outcomes at the toddler stage, beyond the infants’ medical risk and multiple-birth status, which points to the strength of the association between maternal parenting style and infant developmental outcomes.
Similar to the mother’s reduced sensitivity, the infant’s social involvement during mother-child interaction was lower in the triplet group. The present findings, consistent with previous reports and theoretical formulations, indicate that the degree of infant social participation, including child alertness, communicative initiation, vocalization, competent use of toys, and creative-symbolic output, is closely linked to the mother’s sensitive handling of the interactive flow and the timely presentation of new stimuli. The findings demonstrated that infant social skills predicted cognitive outcomes, beyond neurologic intactness and maternal behavior, which highlights the associations between child curiosity, social competence, and creative dyadic play and the ultimate cognitive development of the infant. (Pages 449-450)
And finally, here are some of the hypothesis and theoretical constructs the authors relied upon, and were testing, as they performed their research:
Authors of triplet studies have underscored the potential negative impact of a triplet birth on the development of cognitive skills, as a result of the mother’s limited capacity to provide adequate attention and stimulation to each child. ... Parents admit to a situation they have long desired but have difficulty managing competently once the infants are born. Because triplet pregnancies are associated with increased medical complications for mothers, life at home begins with maternal physical and emotional exhaustion. Interviews with parents indicate not only that parenting of triplets is more difficult than parenting of twins but also that the 1 additional child makes the difference between a manageable parenting situation and an unmanageable situation. Mothers of triplets reporthigh levels of stress, anxiety, social isolation, and fatigue and a significant decline in the marital relationship. Most importantly, mothers of triplets complain of having no energy to develop a unique bond with each child and of emotional detachment from the children.
Because cognitive development in infancy is based in part on the mother’s provision of sensitive, age-appropriate parenting and adequate stimulation of the infant’s growing cognitive skills, the enormous parenting stress and lower sense of competence caused by the triplet situation is likely to interfere with the infants’ cognitive development. Moreover, the effects of the mother’s lower sensitivity on the infant’s cognitive development are likely to be more pronounced during the second year, a period when infants become more mobile and verbal but are still highly dependent on the mother to make sense of their environment, especially because their access to care-giving adults outside the family setting is still limited. Therefore, it may be postulated that, within the limited-resources ecology created by the triplet situation, triplet infants are likely to receive lower levels of maternal sensitivity. (Page 444)
Any thoughts?

Edited to add emphasis on the key assertions.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Resonance, Attunement, And Presence

An outdoor restaurant in summer: A young couple with two children, one about three, the other about four months. The mother nurses the baby, snuggled in her lap. For the longest time, the baby's face is buried in the breast and under parts of her mother's blouse. But her hand is playing with her mother's the whole time. Later, her head surfaces, and she sits on her mother's lap, gazing at her. The mother makes cooing noises, and tilts her head slightly. The baby opens her mouth, making a perfect circle, her blue eyes wide open too, drinking in her mother's face. Her eyes are so open, her mouth is so open, her face is so open, she is an incarnation in this moment of pure presence. The eyes are radiating presense. The mouth is quivering with presence.

The mother puts her head down and touches it to her baby's forehead, then moves it back. The baby smiles. There is a complete force field connecting these two. This baby is in the orbit of her mother in this moment, and the two are speaking in a thousand ways, on a thousand wavelengths, across their bodies where they touch, across the air between them.

...As her older sister sits at the table, I can feel that she too is at home in her body and in the force field of her family. It is not even that they interact that much. They don't. But they form an inseparable whole in which she is completely at home.
--Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn, Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting, page 189

There is an ideal of mothering* that assumes that babies are born one at a time. This isn't a medical ideal --although the medical ideal exists and is, in fact, more easily asserted, defended, and accepted -- but a psychological, even spiritual, ideal. It is an ideal of infancy, the elevation of an idea about what mother and baby create between themselves in the first hours, weeks, and months of a newborn life. It is the ideal of the singular gaze.

No mother, not even the mother of a first-born singleton, achieves the ideal. Colic, sleeplessness, hormones, employment, mealtime and laundry, they all conspire to muddy the flow between baby and mother, to fracture that heart-locking gaze across a thousand distractions. Yet the ideal exists and persists, not just as a weapon to bludgeon imperfect women but as a spiritual attainment that most mothers and babies approach and breathe upon, if only for fleeting seconds. It is this spiritual ideal of mothering, of infinite and boundless and all-encompassing love, that causes infertile women so much pain. It is this ideal that hovers out of reach as cycle follows cycle, paperwork confounds, and pain multiples over years.

For mothers of multiples, it can seem that the ideal becomes a thing forever out of reach. Just as the ideal, the madonna image, the vision of perfect oneness, hovered over our infertility, it goes right on hovering over our lives with multiple newborns. In every second spent holding one infant, drinking in one infant, falling in love with one infant, another infant waits, filled with the same longing for mother love, filling mother with the same longing for the singular gaze. The mother is always and forever divided, not between children with different needs and infinite varied desires, but between infants whose needs and desires coincide, overlap, entangle, and confuse. It is heart-wrenching. It causes physical pain.

Losing my chance for the ideal filled me with rage. My fury and my grief were boundless, the bitter apex of my infertility, the achievement of a vision forever tainted by what would never be. This was my theme and my refrain for months after the babies were born: look at the world we have lost. Look at what we will never have, and never be.

Other parents of multiples turned their backs on me in the moments I dared to confess my grief and my rage. I heard so many platitudes, so many dismissals, so many admonishments: How dare I feel grief when my babies were happy and whole? Don't you love your children? Think of the special bond they'll have among themselves.** The advantages will outweight the drawbacks, and don't you dare believe anything else. For God's sake, grow up and get over yourself.

Well, the children grew up, and I have mostly gotten over myself. But I refuse to believe that minimizing my pain helped me overcome it. Denying my loss didn't help me feel it less. When I held one baby at the breast, when I settled one baby close upon me, my eyes immediately sought another. The baby nearest me was the baby least in need of me in that moment, and my gaze was forever divided. I wrote that I held my babies enough, that I had enough time alone with each of them, but I lied. It was never, ever enough, and I forever felt divided. I see a friend with her newborn singleton and a tiny piece of my heart still aches.

What brings me comfort is this: the mothers of singletons, unlike the mothers of multiples, admit my loss. They know what they have, and they know the magnitude of not having it. The simple admission, "I can't imagine having to share this time with another baby," soothes my soul.

*I hate making nouns into verbs through gerends. I hate the term "mothering" especially. But it's the only word available that brings this particular experience of mine into sharp relief. I typically want to include Calder and use the word parent, but this ideal is an ideal by and of and for mothers, and I don't want that to be lost.

**Obviously my frame of reference is incomplete, but I don't believe that the bond between multiples is better than the bond between singletons. Undoubtedly it's different, but it's not better. For every mother of multiples who marvels at the laughing voices of her babies babbling to each other in their cribs, there's a mother of two singletons marvelling as her oldest child teaches her youngest child a new word. Is the delighted laugh of a baby discovering her twin any more delightful than that of a baby smiling back for the first time at his older sister? Special bonds between siblings are precious and delightful and I'm grateful not to face the pain and sorrow of secondary infertility, wanting as I did more than one child. But special bonds between siblings are more than, different than, bonds between mothers and infants, and one does not replace the other.