Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Great reading in the new Brain, Child

As promised, here is my article/essay (essicle? artay?) in the new issue of Brain, Child magazine about mothers who complain, and the people who complain about mothers who complain.

Also, check out Brain, Child's table of contents for a couple of really excellent essays. Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser writes about open adoption and her complicated relationship with her daughter's birthmother. Tracy Lynch explores what we mean when we call something "inappropriate," and wonders whether we could all stand to stretch our boundaries a bit.

And of course, check out the whole paper issue of Brain, Child itself to read lots of honest and intelligent writing about motherhood. It's a magazine in which, if you complain about motherhood, people won't roll their eyes. And if you talk about how wonderful motherhood is, they won't give you that pat frozen smile and try to be subtle as they gaze around the cocktail party in search of more interesting conversation.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Trying to explain the paradox of parental happiness

Irin Carmon of Jezebel has written an account of the same screening of the new movie I Don't Know How She Does It—and its Q&A session afterward with star Sarah Jessica Parker and novelist Allison Pearson—that was reported in a Slate post that I wrote about a couple of days ago. Like Slate's Jessica Grose, Carmon compares the event to a group-therapy session, though thankfully she avoids sneering at the other women in attendance.

Also like Grose, Carmon worries that movies like IDKHSDI—and comments by mothers at the screening—make motherhood seem, well, awful (frankly, the movie itself sounds pretty awful, but that's a matter for another post). Carmon writes, as Grose also implied, that hearing about all these problems is a turnoff for young women like themselves, who don’t have kids yet.

Childless young women don't necessarily welcome a bunch of negativity, I’ve come to realize in writing about this issue here on the blog and in an upcoming piece for Brain, Child (link to come, once it runs). They’d rather anticipate motherhood as joyful. Make it sound like a bummer, Caron and Grose suggest, and they’ll want to skip the whole thing.

"So I'm curious how do you balance being really honest about the fact that it's really challenging, with scaring younger women?" Carmon asked the celebrities, during her turn at the mic.

Parker, Pearson and some woman in the audience tried to explain that, however much it sometimes sucks, parenting overall is nonetheless wonderful.

Parker and Pearson discuss "I Don't Know How She Does It."
Honestly, it’s no wonder Carmon and Grose were dismayed.

The hassle/happiness balance of parenting is unquestionably a paradox, one that’s tough to discuss even with another parent who totally gets it, let alone someone who hasn’t experienced it. Just last night, in a conversation in Real Life®, a friend and I were exchanging motherly rants about how our children drive us nuts. We noted that our childless friends lead more serene existences—they get to choose what to do after work, don't have to clean up after anybody but themselves, never are nagged to buy stuff they can't afford, never (or at least rarely) have to helplessly endure the wrath of planeloads of strangers. Yet we also agreed that, despite everything, we’re still glad we have kids. Not only because we love our specific kids, but also because it’s an experience we wouldn’t want to have missed.

But why? Here we grasped for the right words. Because it’s, um, a challenge? Because kids make life unpredictable and variable? Because what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger? Yes, sure, all of those things.

Except that those don't sound all that fun, either.

What parents feel, I think, is not reducible to simple concepts like “happy” or “fun.” Those words are vague enough themselves, let alone when you try to stretch them to cover an experience that, let’s face it, involves its share of heartbreak, worry and swearing. Hence the bewilderment, not only of Carmon and Grose, but of journalists trying to explain all those studies finding that parents are less happy than non-parents.

Maybe satisfaction in parenting is a primitive animal reflex, hardwired in our brains by evolution, enhanced with washes of hormones. Maybe it's some other mysterious emotion entirely, one that exists independently of those modern comforts we usually associate with enjoyable lifestyles—concepts like “plenty of free time” or “adequate sleep." Or maybe, speculates the Atlantic’s Megan McArdle, “we are simply sentimentalizing the whole ordeal to keep ourselves from rooting out our unused passports from the sock drawer and dashing off to Europe, never to be heard from again.”

In any case, try to describe any of this to people who haven’t experienced it and you may sound inane. You may even find your efforts described on someone’s blog as “bizarre baby proselytizing.”

One more thing puzzles me about this episode. Why should anyone care whether Carmon and Grose want kids—or whether they’re driven instead, as Grose suggests, to “consider sterilization”? That is, aside from whatever larger, demographic concerns we might have about building a sufficient work force to subsidize our future Social Security and health-care requirements.

Personally, I’m not desperate enough to sugarcoat things with an eye toward securing my monthly checks. And there’s no point in snaring women into parenthood with false promises of paradise, like 19th century land speculators luring unwitting Easterners west to what turned out to be harsh prairie homesteads.

I say we lay out the realities for not-yet mothers as honestly as possible, then leave it up to them. Having children is an act of faith, its consequences unpredictable. If they have kids, most likely, they’ll be glad they did it, despite the challenges. If they don't, most likely, they'll be content also.

If young women like Carmon and Grose think the risk of dissatisfaction is too great, as far as I'm concerned they should feel free to skip the whole thing.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Why even mothers with beachy hair might have a point

I have pulled myself out of blogging hiatus and its accompanying guilt spiral to discuss this post on Slate's "XX Factor" blog, in which Jessica Grose reports on a special screening of the new working-mother comedy I Don't Know How She Does It. The event included a post-viewing Q&A with star Sarah Jessica Parker and Allison Pearson, author of the best-selling novel on which the film is based. Grose writes that she was so unnerved by the mothers in the audience—their post-viewing questions turned the event into something resembling a 1970s-style "group therapy session/modern consciousness raising circle"—that she fled before she was forced to "consider sterilization" (Grose has no kids, but apparently intends to someday).

Sarah Jessica Parker and Allison Pearson speak at the screening.

For what it's worth, I haven't seen the movie (and didn't finish the book). Judging from the trailer, it doesn't look very good, and I suspect my own reaction will resemble Mary Elizabeth Williams' review on Salon. But that's probably beside the point here.

I have an essayish article coming up in the fall issue of Brain, Child (I'll link to the actual piece once it goes online) about the phenomenon of feminist, progressive writers—people you’d normally expect to support women's choices and viewpoints—turning critical and contemptuous when the women in question happen to be mothers expressing some discontent with their lives. Surprisingly often, writers trivialize mothers' complaints, casting them as excessive or overwrought or whiny or merely First World problems of privileged women.

My essay offers a handful of illustrations (including, sad to say, a couple from "XX Factor"). Grose's blog post, having just appeared yesterday, long after my deadline, isn't one of them. But it could be.

Let me interject that I respect Grose as a writer. And that we've all been in groups whose aesthetics, opinions and so forth didn't match our own. And that it's possible there's something she's trying to convey in the post—some truly eye-roll-inducing aspect of the event she attended—that I'm just not grasping.

But. Come on.

... (T)he crowd did not look much like journalists: It was almost exclusively women (I counted two men), and almost all of them had the perfectly set "beachy" waves that are meant to look tousled but clearly took at least an hour with a curling iron and various products to create. When the heavily made-up moderators (one in fetching leather pants) got on stage to announce the movie, I realized that this was an event for mom bloggers ...

Could we feminists agree to avoid pointing to the scarcity of men at an event to implicitly undermine the event's seriousness (when the real reason might have to do with the nature of the event itself, or possibly even with men's obliviousness to a legitimate issue)? Could we, further, declare a moratorium on discrediting what women say based on their hairstyles, makeup and clothing? Is it really all that odd for women to spend some time on their appearance before sitting on a stage next to celebrities, including one who is famous for her stylishness? Please bear in mind that I am a person who has never owned leather pants and whose hair would only be described as "beachy" not in the “curling iron and products” sense but in the "she obviously spent all day at the kids' swimming lessons and hasn't been near a comb since" sense.

Grose's description of the session is laced with implicit contempt. The woman introducing SJP "squealed with delight." The moderators' questions were "somewhat coherent." Audience members engaged in "bizarre baby proselytizing" and spoke of their lives in a "groovy '70s emotional mode." The actress and writer "did their best to relate to the women, to soothe them" (not, Grose suggests, because the stars genuinely empathized or agreed, but because SJP has good people skills).

As she listened, Grose found herself "saddened" because the attendees "were clearly in need of some outlet for their discontent." And because the poor things were deluded enough to think they'd find "a satisfying answer" from ... well, an actress who starred in a movie on the subject and frequently publicly discusses her own family life, and an author who wrote a whole book about it and has undoubtedly talked to thousands of mothers since then.

As for the attendees’ actual statements, I have read through Grose's post numerous times and still can't for the life of me figure out what she found so ridiculous or out of place about them. A stay-at-home mother of five said she often feels trapped and envious of working friends (and vice versa). Another woman feels guilty about leaving her son with his grandmother rather than taking him to play dates. Another is annoyed at friends who wanted to bring their children along on a group trip.

These are individual predicaments, but they touch on some of the very real problems that many mothers experience: isolation, envy, guilt, the often-thwarted need for respite.

Instead of making fun of these squealing women in their overdetermined hair and makeup, I think it makes sense to consider the extent to which their feelings might be shared by many other contemporary mothers, including those with suitably unstyled hair and pants made of cloth, and to wonder whether these potentially widespread problems just might be of interest from a feminist perspective.

Take the at-home mother who feels trapped. One wonders whether 21st century mothers are particularly subject to this sort of isolation, restlessness and envy, as well as to cultural pressures that would lead an intellectually active woman to choose staying home over a career in the first place. Might there be structural and institutional causes for—and possible solutions to—this dilemma?

Grose's post links the term she herself chose—“consciousness raising"—to a Wikipedia entry defining that dated-sounding phrase. It describes groups, common in the '70s, in which ordinary women discussed problems in their own lives and learned the ways in which these represented more universal issues. They're one of the ways feminist ideas initially spread from writers and intellectuals to women across the country. From Wikipedia:

Early feminists argued that women were isolated from each other, and as a result many problems in women's lives were misunderstood as "personal," or as the results of conflicts between the personalities of individual men and women, rather than systematic forms of oppression. Raising consciousness meant helping oneself and helping others to become politically conscious. Consciousness raising groups aimed to get a better understanding of women's oppression by bringing women together to discuss and analyze their lives, without interference from the presence of men.

The term is a good fit here. Grose describes an event in which women discussed and analyzed their lives, by chance without the presence of (more than two) men. But she missed its real significance in this situation. Instead, she categorized her subjects’ problems as personal rather than political, the "sad" needs of overdressed "mom bloggers" rather than potential evidence of systemic forms of ... well, some might consider "oppression" too strong a word, but you get the point.

It's too bad Grose didn't take her own analogy more seriously.