By Katy Read
From Brain, Child (Fall 2011)
“We Get It, You Hate Your Kids,” snapped Jezebel, an online pop-culture blog for women, last January. The headline’s sharp tone was startling—somewhat out of character for the staunchly feminist site that often defends women expressing unconventional or unpopular views.
Not, apparently, if they’re negative views about motherhood.
“It seems like nowadays you can’t open a magazine without someone smugly declaring what a letdown parenthood is,” writes Jezebel‘s Sadie Stein.
The post was in response to a London Daily Mail essay in which a writer, frustrated by her difficult three-year-old, confesses (in a tone more guilty than smug) to occasional flashes of dislike for the boy. To Stein, this was merely the latest of “a regular bonanza of reluctant fathers (and) discontented moms.” Specifically, she cites Ayelet Waldman’s 2009 memoir Bad Mother and “every parent on TV, from Modern Family to Real Housewives.”
Enough already, Stein writes.
“[D]oes anyone think parenthood is all roses and sunshine? As someone planning on having kids soon, I feel far more aware of the inconveniences, sacrifices and indignities than the bliss.”
Stein’s annoyance with disgruntled parents appears widely shared. Criticism, especially of mothers who complain, comes not just from traditionalists but from progressives and feminists—that is, people who might normally be expected to support women frustrated with their roles.
“Why are Moms Such a Bummer?” asked Hanna Rosin of Double X, a women’s blog on the left-leaning website Slate, in 2009. Rosin pointed, again, to the example of Waldman’s book, comparing it unfavorably to a more lighthearted memoir by a dad.
“You and I both know that parenting has its joys and agonies, etc.,” Rosin wrote. “So why is it that in the public forum, it’s become routine for mothers, in particular, to self-flagellate?”
Or why, wondered Emily Matchar, can’t more modern mothers be like cheerful Mormons? In an essay on the also left-leaning Salon, Matchar describes herself as a “childless overeducated atheist feminist” who has become enthralled with blogs written by young Mormon mothers.
Unlike typical “mommy blogs,” which “make parenthood seem like a vale of judgment and anxiety, full of words like ‘guilt’ and ‘chaos,'” Matchar writes, upbeat Mormon blogs “help women like me envision a life in which marriage and motherhood could potentially be something other than a miserable, soul-destroying trap.”
Is it coincidence that actual motherhood is still in the future for both Stein and Matchar? In any event, Matchar’s essay struck a chord. Eighteen thousand readers recommended it on Facebook.
As if to counter this morass of motherly moodiness, a host of books have recently popped up to assure readers that, contrary to what they may have heard, raising children can be a pleasant experience. They speak to working mothers (Cathy L. Greenberg and Barrett S. Avigdor’s What Happy Working Mothers Know: How New Findings in Positive Psychology Can Lead to a Healthy and Happy Work/Life Balance, from 2009) to at-home mothers (Rachel Campos-Duff’s Stay Home, Stay Happy: 10 Secrets to Loving At-Home Motherhood, also 2009) to mothers willing to call themselves housewives (Happy Housewives: I Was a Whining, Miserable, Desperate Housewife—But I Finally Snapped Out of It … You Can, Too! 2006), to mothers in general (Meagan Francis’ The Happiest Mom: 10 Secrets to Enjoying Motherhood, published this year).
Written in a somewhat different vein, Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You’d Think (2011) has been getting media attention lately. Caplan argues that parents make their own job unnecessarily difficult. If they’d cut themselves some slack, he insists, raising kids would be more enjoyable—so much so that couples should consider having more children than they’d planned.
At the same time, however, other observers contend that it’s still rare and socially risky for mothers to admit any discontent. Laura Kemp, writer of the Daily Mail essay that triggered the Jezebel piece, presents it as a foray into forbidden territory.
“Among the mums I know, such fierce negative emotion is never spoken of,” she writes.
In last year’s The Monster Within: The Hidden Side of Motherhood, psychiatrist Barbara Almond argues that maternal ambivalence—simultaneous feelings of love and hate for one’s own darling offspring—is quite normal. But it provokes such intense societal disapproval that it remains mostly stifled.
“The negative, or hating, side of maternal ambivalence is the crime ‘that dare not speak its name’ of our time,” Almond writes.
So which are we: A culture in which mothers hesitate to voice misgivings for fear of social reprisal? Or one so inundated with maternal kvetching that onlookers are understandably tired of it?
Either way, the question seems new. Not long ago, the public’s image of parenting must have appeared considerably simpler.
* * *
Shortly after my sons were born in the mid-1990s, I became aware that almost everything I heard, saw or read about being a mother failed to mention one important aspect of the experience: Sometimes, it sucks.
My family lived across the country from other relatives and friends with children (local friends, for various unconnected reasons, were mostly childless). With few nearby role models, I looked to pop culture as a guide to my new life stage. What I found was oddly discomfiting.
Everywhere I turned—books and movies, bumper stickers and TV commercials, celebrity interviews and mass-emailed inspirational stories—mothers and offspring appeared to glide through the world wearing beatific smiles and bathed in a pinkish, soft-focus glow. Mothers were generally seen shouldering their responsibilities gracefully, relishing their roles, free of self-doubt or resentment. Children were adorable angels. Caring for them was enjoyable and fulfilling. At worst, the occasional bout of misbehavior might provoke a flash of frustration or annoyance, quickly soothed with a soak in a Calgon bath or vented in Erma Bombeck-style wisecracks.
Huh? My sons were certainly adorable, but “angels” would be more than a stretch. Caring for them was lovely … er, sometimes. As for the other times, I tried to shrug them off with nonchalant Bombeckian humor, but privately the strains of caring for two high-energy, strong-willed, demanding beings often left me with frustration no bathtub would soothe, unless maybe it were filled with gin.
Hard as it is to believe now, the idea that motherhood was not always idyllic was rarely heard back then. As far as I could tell, motherly malaise was practically unknown.?Why couldn’t I achieve seamless contentment? Either something was wrong with me, something was wrong with my children, or I had stumbled into Stepford.
“What about Anne Lamott?” you may be wondering. Lamott’s Operating Instructions, a frank and funny 1993 memoir about her son’s first year, certainly acknowledges the darker side of mothering. Reading it might have gone a long way toward assuaging my insecurities. A friend even sent me a copy as a baby gift. But for whatever reason, I didn’t get around to opening it (too busy reading baby-care manuals, I suppose). Nor was I aware, at the time, of a few landmark scholarly books about the complexities of the maternal experience, including poet Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born (1976), psychologist Shari Turner’s The Myths of Motherhood (1994) and sociologist Sharon Hays’s The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood (1996). These books didn’t get discussed on the playground benches, at least not the ones that I frequented.
My eventual savior was Rachel Cusk. Her A Life’s Work: On Becoming A Mother (published in 2002 in the United States, 2001 in the UK) chronicles “the anarchy of nights, the fog of days” with her first baby. Dry and scathingly unsentimental, the British novelist eloquently captures the deep and complex love she feels for her daughter, but also frankly describes sleep deprivation, alienation from typical motherhood culture, a sense of entrapment, breast feeding that left her “gloomy as a cow.”
It was stark and unusual for its time, and some readers found A Life’s Work bleak. The New York Times reviewed it favorably, yet noted that as “a serious female writer,” Cusk had risked “career suicide” by writing a memoir about motherhood.
To me, the book was cause for celebration. Here was evidence that I wasn’t the only one experiencing contradictory feelings, some of which had seemed unacceptable.
Other mothers—and writers—must have noticed the dearth of three-dimensional portraits of motherhood and decided to do something about it. There began a slow but steady stream of memoir, fiction, journalism and cultural criticism about the demands of childcare itself, about mothers’ second-class social status, about mothers coping with shifting identity. They included Susan Maushart’s The Mask of Motherhood: How Becoming a Mother Changes Our Lives and Why We Never Talk About It (1999). Ann Crittenden’s The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued (2001). Allison Pearson’s novel I Don’t Know How She Does It (2002). Naomi Wolf’s Misconceptions: Truth, Lies and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood (2003). Susan Douglas’s and Meredith Michaels’s The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How it Has Undermined All Women (2004). Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety (2005).
These books are still relevant, insightful, and eye-opening. But it’s hard to convey from today’s vantage point how pioneering they felt back then, how refreshing their messages. Reading them, I could relate for the first time to bored 1960s housewives, setting aside their mops to flip through The Feminine Mystique. We shared some similar frustrations—unrealistic demands, glorified drudgery, culturally enforced conformity, social isolation—except that our focuses had shifted from spouses and households to children. As my foremothers felt socially compelled to pretend not to mind waxing floors or picking up their husbands’ strewn socks, so I felt required to pretend to enjoy playing with action figures on the floor with my six-year-old.
These new messages were heralded as breaking news. The New York Times in 2002 ran a story headlined “Admitting to Mixed Feelings about Motherhood.”
“After two decades in which boomers managed to make children the raison d’Ãªtre not only of their lives but of the culture at large,” Elizabeth Hayt reported, “another version of motherhood is beginning to seep out, with some mothers speaking up—in the impassioned tones of those breaking a taboo—about the drudgery of child care, the isolation of the playground and their loss of identity.”
Beginning to seep out. Breaking a taboo. That’s how revolutionary complaints by mothers were considered less than a decade ago.
Hayt quotes feminist author Naomi Wolf: ”Motherhood is supposed to be this gauzy, pastel-painted, blissed-out state that has no depth or complexity. That is the socially acceptable picture in the mass market. But women have discovered that the cultural mythology surrounding motherhood has nothing to do with their lives. Women are hungry for the truth. They want to know they’re normal when they feel overwhelmed, lonely, isolated or ecstatic.”
Say it, sister! That’s exactly why I found those books so comforting.
But the books were not universally praised, even back then. Many saw them as exaggerated, whiny, self-absorbed, silly. Some critics dismissed the problems discussed, mostly by middle-class mothers, as trivial compared to those of women in more oppressive cultures or disadvantaged classes, as if no problem deserved mentioning if there was someone else with a worse one.
“[I]t is, like so many ‘problems’ of twenty-first-century life, a problem of not having enough problems,” wrote Elizabeth Kolbert in a 2004 New Yorker review of motherhood books.
Though more familiar these days, motherhood writing is not noticeably more welcome. The difference is that now, in addition to finding fault with individual books, critics complain about their multitude.
Even Rachel Cusk—my onetime hero, author of A Life’s Work—piled on in a 2009 interview. Asked what she thinks of the “slew of mommy memoirs” that followed her own book—once again, poor Ayelet Waldman’s book is dragged in as an example—Cusk resoundingly trashed them:
There’s definitely this strand of “I’m going to be really honest and say I don’t love my children” or “I’m incompetent,” ha ha ha. It’s an old form that repeats itself. I’m sure it’s dishonest in one way or another, although I can’t put my finger on why. People write—”I drank like a fish when I was breastfeeding” or “I didn’t sterilize the bottle,” and of course you know they did nothing of the sort.
There are people who are genuinely in crisis, who are alcoholics, say, and can’t cope with a small baby, or who are truly psychologically vulnerable and are a genuine threat to themselves or the baby. But that’s not who is writing the “bad mother” memoirs. When I wrote A Life’s Work I didn’t just set out to say every single thing or reveal my failures or flaws. I made very strict decisions about the kinds of things I would say so that they had a larger purpose, and got to something bigger, more universal. It doesn’t console anybody to know that Michael Chabon’s wife loves him more than her children [Waldman, who is married to esteemed novelist—and fatherhood memoirist—Chabon, notoriously confessed in a New York Times essay to loving him more than she does their children]. This kind of memoir writing is a toxic, and dishonest form of writing.
Why do you think these memoirs have proliferated?
I don’t know what to make of it. I remember a good writer, a literary person, wrote one of these and it made me so angry. It was so dishonest, and it’s exactly this lack of honesty that makes the culture of motherhood so treacherous to navigate.
Here I’d like to attempt an authorial analysis of Cusk’s vitriol, to try to explain what she means by sweepingly condemning an entire genre into which her own book could reasonably be considered to fall, why she fails to state any objective differences between her book and others, why the interviewer (again, it’s Slate’s Hanna Rosin, the writer who just a month earlier had wondered why mothers are “such a bummer”) doesn’t ask her to clarify.
I’d like to do this, but I can’t. Frankly, I’m mystified by the whole exchange.
One thing is clear, though: Women who write about negative aspects of motherhood open themselves to disapproval ranging far beyond the literary merits of their work. More than with any other nonfiction genre that comes to mind, critics tend to question the validity of the writers’ intentions, their sincerity, the appropriateness of their even expressing their views.
All of which would seem to both contradict and underscore psychiatrist Almond’s point. Over the past decade, maternal ambivalence has finally been daring to speak its name. In return, it frequently is told to get itself back into the closet.
* * *
Bryan Caplan does not slam motherhood memoirs in Selfish Reasons to Have More Kid. In fact, he gives no indication he’s aware of their existence. But he seems to have heard their message, at least in part.
If raising children was once seen as rewarding, in Caplan’s view it is now widely assumed by both mothers and fathers (as well as their still-childless counterparts) to constitute an endless treadmill of hard work, dirty diapers, and sleepless nights.
“When asked, ‘Why don’t you have as many kids as [Americans] used to?’ both men and women respond with groans,” writes Caplan, an economist at George Mason University. “To be brutally honest, we’re reluctant to have more children because we think that the pain outweighs the gain.”
Think again, Caplan cheerfully advises. While he doesn’t offer to abolish dirty diapers, he brings news he expects to even more comprehensively alleviate the toil of child rearing. It’s this: Parents can’t really control what kind of people their children will become. All attempts to mold our kids one way or another are bound to be futile, he says, so don’t bother trying. We’re off the hook!
Caplan draws heavily on ideas that Judith Rich Harris presents in her breakthrough 1998 The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, a book Caplan credits with getting him to start “thinking seriously about parenting.” Harris is a former textbook author; like Caplan, she is not a professional child psychologist. That may have helped her think outside the box, since child psychologists (especially those who write books themselves) often have a vested interest in convincing parents that their actions are extremely important. But Harris found evidence that nature, not nurture, explains most family resemblance, a conclusion drawn from behavioral studies on twins and adoptees.
Twins studies isolate the effect of genes; studies of adoptees eliminate it. By doing so, they overwhelmingly indicate that parents’ practices have little to no effect on their offsprings’ eventual health, intelligence, happiness, success, personalities, or values. They challenge the familiar assumption, for example, that if you read to your child she’ll grow up to enjoy reading. In fact, if you like to read yourself, chances are she will, too. Or not. Either way, you don’t have much control.
Caplan fills more than a quarter of his book with support for this theory, detailing study after study. As a bonus, he offers statistics showing that parents need not fret excessively about their kids’ health and safety; childhood mortality rates have plummeted to a fraction of their 1950s levels.
If you can’t hope to mold your children to your liking, and they’re probably not going to die, Caplan argues, then you might as well sit back and enjoy yourself.
“This knowledge should inspire every parent,” Caplan writes. “Raise your children with love, control your temper, and enjoy family time. They’ll appreciate it when they’re children and fondly remember their happy home when they grow up.”
Oh, Bryan Caplan, if only it were that simple.
Let me first state that regarding nature and nurture, I’m completely in Caplan’s camp; with me, he’s preaching to a devoted member of a tiny choir. For years, I wanted to carry a copy of The Nurture Assumption around in my purse so that I could pull it out for anybody—from in-laws to fellow grocery-store patrons—who might question my own parenting approach. I have examined some of those twins and adoptee studies, interviewed scientists involved, written articles about their work. I also have been embroiled in numerous debates on the subject, attempting like Caplan to convince skeptics—i.e., almost everybody—who understandably bristle at the counterintuitive findings, widely perceived as implying that “parents don’t matter.”
Although Caplan presents his case adroitly and supports it with mountains of research evidence, experience tells me it’s an uphill battle. But I applaud him for making the effort, because if parents could relinquish the belief that they have both the power and responsibility to turn their children into brilliant students and model citizens, they’d shed a substantial chunk of the guilt and self-doubt that modern parenting typically entails.
Why do moms “self-flagellate”? Because they’ve been taught that kids pay a long-term price for their parents’ ordinary mistakes. They don’t. Because they think they’re to blame for their children’s flaws. They aren’t.
But guess what. Admitting you can’t control phenomena that nevertheless significantly color your emotional well-being and day-to-day life is not necessarily a ticket to relaxation. Even armed with twins studies and mortality stats, I have not experienced parenting as the carefree romp that Caplan promises.
Sure, much of it has been wonderful. However, not to get all whiny mother on you, raising children remains an often complicated, frustrating, and stress-inducing enterprise, involving many kinds of challenges.
These may include—to pick a random handful— financial strains, sibling rivalry, troublesome content in video games and other mass media, children with disabilities and disorders, children who break rules or laws, children with academic difficulties (even if you don’t hope to mold a star scholar, it’s hard to shrug off a report card dotted with D’s). And even if you understand that kids are safer than they were in the ’50s, just try going peacefully to sleep when your sixteen-year-old has the car, was supposed to have been home an hour ago, and isn’t answering his cell phone.
Caplan often mentions how much he fun he has as a parent. As of the book’s writing, he has twin babies and a seven-year-old. Cynical readers may wonder if he will still be this cheerful when the kids are teenagers.
And I couldn’t help noticing that you don’t hear much about Mrs. Caplan’s take on all this. The author does hint, at one point, that he and his wife aren’t always in total accord.
* * *
Although The Monster Within was published just last year, author and psychoanalyst Barbara Almond does not agree that complaints about motherhood have reached a cultural tipping point and have now become excessive, obvious, old hat.
On the contrary, she contends they’re still very much taboo.
“The concept of maternal ambivalence and its forbidden quality has been explored by various writers but still remains highly unacceptable in our culture,” she writes. “It is one of those societal problems that fill us with outrage and horror, even as some part of us secretly understands its normality.”
By “maternal ambivalence,” Almond means simultaneously loving and hating your child. Though that might sound shockingly aberrant, she assures readers—based on her clinical practice, her research and her own experiences as a mother—that it’s a normal emotional state, usually harmless, universal and pretty much unavoidable given that the legitimate needs of mothers and their children are often in direct conflict. You want five minutes alone in the bathroom; your three-year-old feels abandoned. You want to relax with a book; your nine-year-old needs posterboard for the science project due tomorrow. In fact, maternal ambivalence can actually serve constructive purposes, she says, leading mothers to closely examine their relationships with their children and helping children understand themselves as separate individuals (therapist talk, perhaps, for “Get your own damn posterboard.”).
But contemporary culture exacerbates normal ambivalence, Almond says, placing higher demands on mothers even as it dismantles the support system on which we used to rely. Modern mobility has geographically separated parents from relatives who once helped with child care; divorce generally leaves a larger burden on mothers.
Yet standards for adequate parenting have not relaxed—on the contrary, they’ve increased.
“[A]s the conditions of mothering become more difficult, more is expected from mothers, and mothers, in turn, expect more from themselves,” she writes. “Perfectionistic standards of child care in every area—feeding, sleep, play, emotional and intellectual development—prevail.”
No wonder mothers are ambivalent. But the biggest problem isn’t the ambivalence itself, in Almond’s view, it’s the guilt and shame that stem from society’s prohibitions against expressing it.
“I believe that that today’s expectations for good mothering have become so hard to live with, the standards so draconian, that maternal ambivalence has increased and at the same time has become more unacceptable to society as a whole.”
More unacceptable? Well, you wouldn’t know it, would you, given all those books and articles by disgruntled mothers? Or wait—does the fact that those books are often met with scorn and skepticism simply prove Almond’s point?
It’s tempting to see the backlash against parental complaint as some sort of cultural correction, to assume that the pendulum has culminated its decade-long swing in one direction and is now heaving back the other way.
But maybe it’s more accurate to say that both trends—the original backlash against Stepford mothers and now the backlash to that backlash—are happening simultaneously, feeding each other, continually bouncing off each other. Cultural constraints lead mothers to complain, which draws societal condemnation, which makes mothers feel even more stifled, which provokes further complaint … Even this article itself could be seen as complaining about complaining about complaining.
So maybe a more accurate metaphor is not a single giant pendulum but a Newton’s cradle, one of those mesmerizing desk toys from the 1970s. It consisted of multiple small pendulums, a row of metal balls dangling from separate strings in a frame, in which a swing and strike on one side causes a swing and strike on the other and back again. Get it started and the two sides clack back and forth, back and forth, feeding off each other’s energy, endlessly clacking away.
Author’s Note: If I were the conspiracy-theory type, I might imagine a sinister plot behind efforts to keep mothers from complaining. After all, mothers perform the lion’s share of unpaid housework and child care—and pay a steep economic price for doing so, on average making less money than fathers or childless people and suffering from a higher rate of poverty. What better way to keep mothers from rebelling against those circumstances than to discourage them from voicing any objections? It’s ingenious: convince women through cultural conditioning that mothers are blissfully content—or ought to be, anyway—and penalize those who contradict that image by lashing back with criticism dripping with contempt.
Luckily, I’m not a conspiracy nut. So of course I don’t seriously think that the writers and publications I quoted in this piece, whom I respect, are in cahoots with opponents of reforms that would make mothers’ lives more manageable (universal health insurance that would make part-time work more feasible, for example). Still, it’s worth asking why the reaction is so swift and harsh—why the outrage? where’s the threat? what deep, dark fears are being tapped?—when a mother dares to mention the empty half of the glass.
Katy Read’s essays have appeared in Salon, More, Real Simple, AARP The Magazine, Working Mother, Minnesota Monthly, the Chicago Sun-Times, the New Orleans Times-Picayune and other publications. She lives in Minneapolis with her two sons.
Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.