Monday, November 1, 2010

A Review of Leslie Steiner's Mommy Wars

This review of Mommy Wars: Stay-at-Home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families was written by my brilliant sister who, unlike me, is not at all wordy. :-)
... I was going to keep my baby safe. If I had to build a fortress with my own flesh, I would.
If you had to guess who wrote this and under which circumstances, what would you say? A mother of a starving infant in WW2? A victim of abuse still living with her abusive partner?

Whatever your guess might be, I doubt that you would imagine a healthy young woman living in a well-to-do neighborhood of the US. Why the hysteria, you ask? I keep wondering the same thing, not only about this particular writer but 26 others who submitted their essays as part of a book called Mommy Wars. As a recent mother myself, I am curious about the different decisions parents face and what prompts them to take the paths they do. Erroneously, I thought that this book might give me interesting insight into other families' situations and their thinking process as far as child rearing is concerned. Well, I was wrong. The mom, whose quote I put at the beginning, was trying to justify her choice of staying at home instead of working. A tad dramatic, though, I would say.

Out of the 28 women who wrote for this book, only one was sane and came across as a truly happy individual, perfectly content with her life. The other 27 were scary, dramatic and painfully negative. To be quite honest, if I had read this book before becoming a mother, it might have scared me into never ever having children. I was really surprised to see that regardless of the writers' employment status, they all (minus one) shared one thing in common - a dramatic conclusion that a woman cannot achieve balance in her life and must sacrifice something. The word 'sacrifice' was used more times than I could count. Here is a quote from one of the writers that echoes the sentiment of the rest: "Once you're a parent, you can figure you'll be out of whack for the rest of your life". What does this mean? Why are these women out of whack? My daughter is now eleven months old. Should I be out of whack too? Or not yet? Or maybe I am but do not notice it yet? I do not understand how so many different women from seemingly different walks of life (at least to an extent), all arrive at the same odd conclusion.

I love non-fiction and enjoy immersing myself into another person's life, as far from mine as it could be. I've read stories of women from plural marriages, Middle Eastern countries, criminals and drug addicts. At some level, I could understand their stories and relate at least remotely. Here, however, I was lost.

What does it mean when a housewife proclaims that she "needed to be a round the clock mother"? Am I magically not a mother when I am at the office? I am trying to grasp the meaning of it but I fail. I laugh imagining sitting in an interview and being asked if I have children (it is illegal, I know, but just for the sake of an argument). "No", I would say. "I am not a mother. Let me check my watch. In two hours and thirty minutes I will be, but right now I am childless".

A working mother observes: "On the sidewalks of the college town in which I live, young mothers push strollers around (...). These mothers are not having fun". How does she automatically know which woman works and which doesn't? And whether or not they are having fun? By observing their stroller-pushing skills? I was not working during my maternity leave but am now. I am trying to envision myself pushing the stroller now and a few months ago and cannot help but wonder if my technique has changed.

What is wrong with these women? Or is it me? Why the weird attacks? And why does anything need to be viewed in terms of a sacrifice? If I go for dinner with my sister instead of my husband, am I sacrificing my time with him for the sake of being with her? Should I be torn? Or does it only apply to children? I don't understand why these women are so gloomy. Having a baby is far from dramatic. You open up some space in your life to welcome a new member of it, but life is never a constant and you always enrich it by adding new experiences, new emotions, new layers of complexity. Why is it impossible to have a great bond with your son or your daughter but also work, while he or she is with a dear to them family member or in daycare making new friends and forming new connections? My sister and I are as close as could be, yet we both have lives of our own and, alas, even live in different countries. Why is it that we are made believe that bonding only happens if your baby is breastfed and more specifically latches on in the first 60 minutes postpartum, or only if you hold him or her immediately after birth, or only if you carry them around on your body non-stop, or only if you co-sleep, or only if you are there 24/7? Why can't we look around us at all the people we love who loves us back, with whom we have precious bonds, and who (hooray) still do have lives of their own and respect ours?

What is wrong with being happy, enjoying life and this new human being we are privileged enough to meet and see grow, all the while continuing to enjoy the person we grew to be before becoming a parent?


eric said...

Great review! This is only my conjecture, but members of "Generation X"--those born in America during the '60's and '70's (and of which my wife and I are members), statistically witnessed historically high divorce rates amnongst their parents. There was also the phenomenon of the "latchkey kid," where children were coming home from school to house that was empty because both parents were working for the first time in American history. So many of our generation overcompensate for this perception of neglect by being way, way overprotective of their own kids. My wife and I avoided the angst we witnessed amongst our peers, by simply opting out of parenthood--which invites a host of other problems, chiefly the taboo status of non-parenthood here in the states.

Z said...

I think the US is particularly conflicted about children and motherhood and I am not sure why. Elsewhere it seems it is OK to have children and also a life, but here there is this whole ideology of sacrifice...? Am I right on this in some way or is it just a weird observation?

eric said...

Z said "but here there is this whole ideology of sacrifice..."

That's true. My parents had a life, and my brother and I were no worse off for it. I think a lot of the "ideology of sacrifice" is perpetuated by the media (the "baby mania" we witness in tabloids), a general anxiety about whether today's kids will be "competitive" in a perceived world of dwindling resources (either material or in terms of access to education, health care, jobs, etc.), fear of "the other' who are a potential threat (especially post-9/11), and Gen X parents feeling the need to compensate for their parents having a life, by micro-managing their kids' play time and social interactions, most often at enormous personal expense.

It's also a class thing--from my casual observation, working and upper class parents have a life, while middle class parents display the most anxiety, probably because their own prospects are are felt to be so precarious.

Cartoonist Chris Ware once replied to the charge that America had 'no culture' by replying that America indeed has a culture--the strangest culture there is.

V said...

The problem is that competitiveness is mistaken for happiness and fulfillment. And even speaking of competitiveness per se - having some set of skills is just part of it. Otherwise competitiveness is reduced by the experience of somebody (parents) constantly deciding for the child what child has to do.

Anonymous said...

"It's also a class thing--from my casual observation, working and upper class parents have a life, while middle class parents display the most anxiety, probably because their own prospects are are felt to be so precarious."

Unfortunately parents (mothers especially, it seems) tend to be judgemental of others regardless of their social class.