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.


Moxie said...

Please marry me. Our minds are already joined.

"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."

And you hate Caitlin Flanagan, too! I thought Andi Buchanan and I were the only ones.

At the very least, the Warner thing (which just won't ever cross my path, since I never encounter Newsweek unless I'm at my in-laws) sounds like it's moved past the "women who choose to work vs. women who choose not to work" and understands that it's not a true choice even for middle-class women. But I still think authors like Warner are all trying to write a non-fiction Nanny Diaries. All the scandal and schadenfreude but without the dirty taint of plot.

Elizabeth said...

Sing it, sister!

I'm planning on writing about the Warner articles (she also has one in Elle, and an op-ed in the NY Times) sometime this week. But you've hit the big points.

(And Moxie, EVERYONE hates Caitlin Flanagan.)


Anonymous said...

I don't even bother reading articles like that. They're a waste of my time & brain cells. So really, motherhood is hard? No $hi#, Sherlock!!! Tell me something I don't already know, something I didn't intuitively know before I even got pregnant, before I even got a husband. And all the nonsense things these mothers do to lead an enriched life? It's all fluff. Fluff and nonsense. For the privilged class, I might add. You know, I ran my own business before becoming a mother, I dare to assume that I'm every bit as intelligent & educated as these other women. So why is it that I know better than to fall for all these fluffy activities that just waste time and produce NOTHING? Come on, making paper? PUH-leeese. I'm probably not even making sense, but that's my own flaw showing because I cannot abide these kind of stupid articles, they make my mind spin. Just about everybody has it hard in one form or another. Just about every generation finds that things weren't quite as they thought things should be. That's Life.

Know what ticks me off? Women/Mothers like me are NEVER talked about, we are assumed to be a myth or in denial.

Anonymous said...

Oh, in case it matters, I'm the one that just wrote the little anonymous thing... As usual, I screwed up. Tulip

barbara curtis said...

I'm traveling around to see other blogs on this -- the most irritating article I think I've ever read -- like nails on chalkboard.
For another take, please visit mine at

Anonymous said...

You are so very smart, and so very well spoken.


Anonymous said...

You are so very smart, and so very well spoken.


Anonymous said...

a - men SISTER!

I cannot read that crap about the middle class perfection. I'm middle class and I got it pretty good (day costs what my MBA did 5 years ago at a top tier school).

We got a BIG problem with the working poor in this country.

You DO need to write something because I'm sick and tired the overachieving mommy crap. I want to hear real solutions and real issues for real mothers. Not ones who are creating their own problems at Gymboree class.