Book Review: Catastrophic Happiness

Book Review: Catastrophic Happiness

catastrophichappinessBy Lindsey Mead

Catastrophic Happiness by Catherine Newman is a series of essays, which masterfully combine story and reflection. In the prologue, titled IT GETS BETTER, Newman captures the particular joys and indignities of raising small children – riding in the back of the car with them, distributing string cheese, the way a dental appointment feels like a spa vacation because nobody needs you, the droopy sorrow of a weaned bosom, a toddler inhaling sand at the beach – with her trademark perfection. I laughed out loud several times. And then, in the prologue’s last scene, Newman describes a mother sitting in bed between her sleeping children, “boo-hoo[ing] noiselessly into the kids’ hair because life is so beautiful and you don’t want it to change.” Haven’t we all done that? I know that I have. Newman goes on to introduce the years that come after that sleeping-toddler scene, the messy years of the book’s subtitle, by telling us that “…you will feel exactly the way you feel now. Only better.”

The essays that follow trace this getting-better with stories of Newman’s children, Ben and Birdy. My own children are similar in age to Ben and Birdy, though two years stair-step younger (my older child and Birdy are the same age). I related intensely to this book. Each of the seven chapters in Catastrophic Happiness contains power, sentiment, and visceral emotion.

Newman’s observations run the gamut from deep and profound to hilarious and true. For example, within pages in the first section, she states that “happiness is so precarious,” and that “I don’t always understand the children or what their problem is.” Isn’t this one of the defining features of parenting, the way things can swing from dense feeling to trite confusion in a matter of minutes? The hilariously confounding and overwhelmingly holy coexist, at least for me, in most hours.

Over and over again, the lines of Catastrophic Happiness made me gasp and sigh, underline and laugh, text a friend and say “OMG, read this,” and even email Newman herself and ask: “Are we the same person?” For example:

I am so glad and grateful, I am. But sometimes the orchestra plays something in swelling chords of luck and joy, and all I can hear is that one violin sawing out a thin melody of grief.

Newman’s pieces, just like life itself, touch on, and interweave, the sacred and the mundane. The seven chapters are broken into smaller pieces, each of which revolves around a specific memory of a point in time. These are presented in loose chronological order and all have marvelous “How to” names, like “How to Have Complicated Feelings,” “How to Share a Beating Heart” and “How to Hang On By a Thread.”

My favorite section is “How to See the Light Behind the Trees,” which begins in a damp, unpleasant campground bathroom with Birdy, “her pants pool[ing] around her ankles on the wet cement floor.” What parent doesn’t read that and find themselves immediately thrust back into a situation where they wait for their progeny, if not a cement campground outhouse then in a filthy rest stop toilet stall? This is one of parenting’s universal, largely unpleasant scenarios. Newman and her family visit the same campground every year, which makes it the perfect place to reflect on how quickly time is moving. Her memories remind me of our own annual summer vacation, and of the way that an annual visit to the same place provides a unique lens on both time’s passage and the way that the past is animate in the present. There’s heartache to this experience for me, and Newman captures this brilliantly:

I used to picture time as a rope you followed along, hand over hand, into the distance, but it’s nothing like that. It moves outward but holds everything that’s come before. Cut me open and I’m a tree trunk, rings of nostalgia radiating inward. All the years are nested inside me like I’m my own person one-woman matryoshka doll. I guess that’s true for everybody but then I drive myself crazy with my nostalgia and happiness. I am bittersweet personified.

Yes. Me too. Oh, me too.

In some of Catastrophic Happiness’ later sections my identification with Newman’s writing was even more powerful. When she writes how “privacy and independence come on suddenly, like a sleeper wave of separation, and children experience this with simultaneous relief and dread,” I felt like someone was reading my mind. Yes. With children at 11 and 13, I’m riding that wave right now, alternately grateful to be able to see the horizon for the first time in many years and utterly swamped by seawater.

Newman has a true gift for making the reader feel intimately connected to her family. She draws indelible images that are deeply personal to her family and hugely universal at the same time: Birdy, with unraveling braids, in a doctor’s waiting room; Ben cheerfully helping his mother with a flooded basement, the face of a beloved, well-worn beanbag toy that Birdy sleeps with every night.

In Catastrophic Happiness Newman has trapped lightning in a jar, allowing us all to admire its dazzle. In her book’s short, lovely pages she captures life as a mother, life as a human being, life in general, in all of its gorgeous, complicated grandeur. It’s hard for me to choose a favorite passage, but I’ll try.

Life isn’t about avoiding trouble, is it? It’s about being present, even through the hard stuff, so you don’t miss the very thing you’re trying so hard not to lose.

In Catastrophic Happiness, Catherine Newman both powerfully reminds me of what it is I’m trying so hard not to lose, and helps me stay present to it. In my opinion, there is no surer mark of a great book, or no higher compliment.

Lindsey Mead is a mother, writer, and financial services professional who lives near Boston with her daughter, son, and husband. Her work has appeared in a variety of print and online sources, several anthologies, and she blogs regularly at A Design So Vast.


Never Wish Happiness For Your Children

Never Wish Happiness For Your Children

AdrienneJones1Growing up is hard.

Parenting people who are on the cusp of adulthood sometimes feels even harder.

In my family, it’s been a couple generations since anyone transitioned to adulthood with any kind of finesse. My parents walked in their high school graduation ceremonies, moved on to college the following September, and finished their undergraduate degrees four years later. They married, earned graduate degrees, began careers, and had children in ways and at times that reflected planning.

I didn’t plan my adulthood as much as I flopped and floundered my way into it, graduating late from an alternative high school, grabbing a job here, a few college classes there, and pausing a couple times to have a baby.

The three eldest of my 4 children have or will graduate from high school late and in non-traditional ways. College? We’ll see. Careers? They don’t know what they want yet. My 20-year-old son makes a good living after graduating from Job Corps and is saving money to move to a city where he can better pursue a music career. My 18-year-old daughter and 16-year-old stepson are still casting about, frustrated and angry. Their complaints about the neighborhood high school are legitimate (as are their concerns about the job market and economy), but the alternatives we’ve offered have been met with responses ranging from indifference to derision.

In 1998, when I was a young, single mother of two small children, I was concerned (panicked is probably a more accurate word) about how my eldest son, Jacob, was doing in kindergarten. He was spacey, bored, and behind academically. He didn’t have friends and couldn’t stay on task the way most children his age were able to do.  When the teachers laid each of the children down on a piece of butcher paper and outlined them and instructed the kids to decorate their outline drawings, all the other kids drew shirts, shorts, hair, and shoes. My son drew ribs, a liver, heart, phalanges, and where the other children put a face, my son drew a brain and his best approximation of the sinuses.

When I saw that picture on parents’ night I was full of pride. The teachers, however, were less impressed with Jacob’s interest in human anatomy and more concerned with the fact that he didn’t yet read and seemed uninterested in academic essentials, the kinds of things that are learned while seated in a chair, pencil in one hand.

The next day at work, I was wringing my hands about Jacob’s kindergarten experience and I said to my co-worker Mary, “I just want my kids to be happy!” Mary, a retired elementary school teacher, poet, mother of adult children, and gentlest person ever, startled me by grabbing my shoulders and saying, “Never wish happiness for your children. Never! Teach skills.”

In parenting, as in most life endeavors, we look to the results as proof of a job well (or poorly) done. Good parenting will result in children who do well in school, enter successful careers, and live lives filled with wonderful relationships. Poor parenting produces criminality, drug addiction, or whatever bogeyman we have living in our personal parental-results closets.

The trouble with that kind of thinking is, a child is a person, not a soufflé, and ultimately we come to the place where we can’t control everything. Or anything. Our children are themselves. I don’t get to take the credit for Jacob’s amazing creativity, but neither do I have to take the blame for the fact that academics have always been somewhat challenging for him.

I am responsible for all my own parenting behavior: some excellent, some dreadful, and mostly pretty ordinary. The results, though? There really aren’t any. People aren’t products. My children’s lives are not a culmination of my efforts as a parent. Their lives are their own.

What my co-worker recognized when she told me to teach skills to my children was that I had my self-worth wrapped up in my children’s happiness and success and she wanted to set me on a different path. It’s a terrible lesson to learn because it means we’re nowhere near as powerful as we’d like to be. When my children were small, I hoped that if I fed them right, used the best car seats, read them enough books, sent them to the right schools, struck the right balance between helping them and letting them solve their own problems, and so on, that they would grow up to be responsible, happy, successful people.

It ain’t necessarily so. What means responsible, happy, and successful to me is not necessarily what my kids want for themselves, just as what I wanted for my life (when I finally got around to figuring that out) was not what my parents wanted for themselves.

When my children, the “products” of all my efforts, seem to be spinning and struggling and I am busy flagellating myself for the dreadful job I must have done to create so much sturm and drang in these people, I cling to Mary’s words. I did my best to teach skills.

I didn’t know, before children, that the hardest part about loving them would be stepping back. “Some of us think holding on makes us strong,” wrote Hermann Hesse, “but sometimes it is letting go.”

Along for the Ride

By Camilla Medders

summer2008_meddersJon, Chloe, and I are driving home from Chloe’s horseback riding therapy. It’s a forty-minute drive past hilly cow pastures, over brown stagnant streams, and through tiny crumbling towns. Jon is concentrating on the winding road, and I am thinking about the chores that are waiting for me at home. Chloe, who is three, is watching for oncoming traffic. Oncoming traffic is one of her favorite things. If a car is the right shape and color, and especially if it has its lights on, she giggles. A few minutes ago, Jon tried pointing out a truck to her, but all he got was a small polite smile. Apparently, the traffic game is private. Parents are not supposed to play.

We drive out to Horses for Healing every Thursday so that Chloe can spend forty-five minutes lying and sitting on the wide back of an old draft horse named Frank. A teenage volunteer leads Frank around the arena, and the therapist and I walk on either side, supporting Chloe with all four of our hands because she can’t sit by herself. Chloe has cerebral palsy, which means her body is like a wooden puppet without strings, her muscles both too stiff and too weak to allow her to move or balance easily.

While we made our wide figure eights around the ring, Jon was sitting with another parent, the mother of a little girl with spina bifida.

“That other mom said something kind of strange,” says Jon as the car rolls over a hill. From the backseat, Chloe giggles at a red truck.

“What’s that?” I ask.

“When I told her Chloe has CP, she said, ‘Is she, like, happy all the time?’ “

“Uh-huh,” I say. I think I know where this is going.

“So I say, ‘Yes, actually she is.’ And she says, ‘Because we know a guy who has CP and he’s always happy. I wonder if it’s related.’ Isn’t that a weird thing to say?”

“Yeah, it is,” I say. “I’ve heard that before, though. It’s some kind of bizarre stereotype.” Now there’s a long line of traffic coming at us. The first car is unremarkable, a gray lump with its lights off, but the second vehicle is a big, black SUV, and this gets Chloe going so much that she laughs at the next six cars, too. Jon and I smile at each other.

The first time I heard that people with cerebral palsy were always happy was right after Chloe was diagnosed. At least two people told me they knew kids with CP. “And they’re such wonderful people,” they said. “There’s just something about them. They’re always happy.” Of course, I dismissed it. It seemed like such a ridiculous thing to say: Having a brain injury at birth makes you happy. At best, it was some sort of developmental disability myth, like “people with Down syndrome are so friendly” or “people with autism are good at math.” At worst, it sounded like condescension, as if people with CP didn’t know better than to be happy, or as if they were expected to be so unhappy that just making it through the day made them seem extra happy. I decided this was just another strange thing that people say when they find out you have a child with a disability.

Except that as Chloe got older I realized that she is happier than other kids. She’s always finding things to laugh at: the way a bank teller shuffles papers, her father’s habit of talking with his hands, my imitation of her preschool teacher. As we walk through the grocery store, you can see her smile reflected on the face of every person we pass. She doesn’t even mind when other kids take her toys. In fact, she throws fits so rarely that when she does, I usually assume she’s sick. At first, I worried these were signs that she was less intelligent, that the brain injury that distorted her muscles was clouding her mind. Now that she’s older and able to communicate better, I know that’s not the case.

I’ve decided that Chloe’s so happy because, unlike most of us, she accepts that much of life is beyond her control.

Of course, saying that Chloe or anyone else is “always happy” is an exaggeration. This evening, for example, she whined and whimpered when Kerri, the hippotherapist, rolled her over on her stomach. It’s hard for Chloe to lift her head when she’s prone, and she hates not being able to see what’s going on, especially when Kerri and I are calling her name, begging her to pick up her head and smile at us.

When we were finally done with the prone exercises, Chloe got to sit up on the horse where she could easily turn her head from side to side to smile at Kerri and me. “Yeah!” she yelled, using the only word she can always say clearly. Although the horse is so tall that Chloe’s head is above mine, she’s never afraid. She has no fear of large animals, no fear of falling. She puts her trust in all of us: me, Kerri, Frank, the teenager whose job it is to lead Frank. She knows we’re all here just for her.

Children with moderate or severe cerebral palsy experience their first years differently from typical kids. For most kids, getting older means gaining control. A typical infant learns to grab at toys, then to crawl wherever she needs to go. Soon, she learns words she can use to tell her parents exactly what she wants. Every time a child gains control over some aspect of her life, this control becomes precious. A toddler who has learned to walk cannot bear to sit still in the chair that she loved just a few months ago. A three-year-old who has learned to use complete sentences will no longer be content to watch the world without comment.

And control is addictive. The more we have, the more we want. A child who conquers her toy box now wants control over her meals, the TV, other children, her parents. These parents, determined to guide their offspring from a chaotic toddlerhood into a well-mannered childhood and, eventually, a productive adulthood, struggle to maintain control over her. The child and her parents behave as if control were a commodity they can collect, build up until it safely covers their entire lives. It will take years for them to unlearn this, if they ever do, and in the meantime, every unpredictable event is a chance for them to lament the fact that they don’t have enough control.

Chloe, on the other hand, is developing mentally and emotionally without developing much physically. At two years old, she had the motor skills of a newborn. She could not use her hands, lift her head, or make any sound besides crying. She had to rely on us to move her from place to place, to bring her toys, to decide what she ate. For the most part, that was okay with her. After all, she’d never known anything else, and even though she had little say in the details of her life, she was always cared for. In her first couple of years, instead of learning how to change and control her world, Chloe learned to accept it the way it was.

In his essay “Giving up the Gun,” Andre Dubus admits that he carried a gun for thirteen years—not for his own protection but to be ready in case he came across a rape or a murder in progress. He decided to give up his collection of guns after a car accident left him unable to walk. At the end of the essay, he explains,

I have written all of this to discover why, sitting in my wheelchair on a train, I gave up my guns. But I do not know … My body can no longer do what I want to do, and it cannot protect my two young daughters, and my grandchildren, from perils I used to believe I could save people from. I have not learned the virtue of surrender—which I want—but I have learned the impossibility of avoiding surrender.

The only way to fight the addictive quality of control is to realize how little we actually have, and the best way to do this is to have our control blatantly denied. This terrified Dubus, but Chloe isn’t scared. When it comes to learning the virtue of surrender, she’s a lot further along than anyone I know.

People are always commenting on how “good” Chloe is, especially when we are in public. When I’m in a cynical mood, I want to tell them she’s only good because she doesn’t have a choice. I suspect that by “good,” they mean she’s not doing the sort of things other three-year-olds tend to do in public, such as running around and talking loudly. But Chloe can’t do these things, I want to tell them. If she could do anything except sit quietly in her chair, she would. She just doesn’t have a choice. But then I remind myself that she does have a choice. She has to sit in her chair, but she doesn’t have to sit there so quietly, so happily. Chloe can throw a fit just as well as any toddler, but she doesn’t do it that often, because she doesn’t find many things to throw fits about, especially out in public.

For her, there are better things to do. She watches every person who walks by, trying to catch their eyes and get them to smile at her (she’s usually successful). She keeps an eye on the busboy because, for her, clearing tables is a spectator sport. She laughs at other kids and listens to the conversation and watches people eat. Chloe is almost never bored.

Apparently, neither was Christopher Nolan, an Irish author with severe cerebral palsy who wrote a lightly fictionalized account of his life called Under the Eye of the Clock . Nolan could not walk or speak, and he used a rod held in his mouth to type his poetry and memoirs. In one of the incidents he described in his autobiography, he spent an hour alone in his third-grade classroom, forgotten when the other students went to an assembly. Knowing he was stuck there for a while, Nolan went about finding something to do. First, he imagined himself as a famous Irish tenor. After that, he created his own version of Van Gogh’s self-portrait in his head. Finally, he thought of his sister and remembered every detail of a show she improvised for him, singing and dancing on the stairs in their house. When he heard the class returning, Nolan’s only lament was that his teacher would feel guilty for leaving him, thinking, “I must not appear sad, anyway I’m not.”

In the car, Chloe is laughing again, even though there aren’t any other vehicles around. I tilt the rearview mirror toward me, and I see that she’s grabbed a handful of her own hair. “Look, Jon,” I say, turning the mirror back toward him, “Chloe’s got her hair.”

“Good job, Chloe,” Jon says, and she laughs louder. We all know it’s something to celebrate, a major milestone, even if it’s not on any child-development chart. The fact that she can lean her head down and reach her arm up and close her fingers around a piece of hair and pull means that Chloe’s body is working better than it was a month ago. She finally yanks too hard, pulling out a handful. It must hurt, but for Chloe, who has suffered through gastric reflux, stomach surgery, and six weeks of daily shots to stop her seizures, this is nothing. Besides, being able to hurt herself is one more tiny piece of control, and every piece is a gift, not to be complained about or taken for granted.

I’m sleepy by the time we get home. It’s been a long drive at the end of a long day, but there are lots of things left to do. Chloe needs her dinner, which consists of a carefully measured blend of soy milk, oatmeal, vegetables, and flaxseed oil liquefied in a special blender and poured directly into her stomach through a feeding tube. Jon and I eat with her, and she watches our food move from our plates to our mouths, laughing at us as if we’re doing something really odd. She tries a small bite of potatoes from Jon’s plate, grimaces at the texture, then smiles proudly as she wrestles it down her throat. Jon offers to give her a bath, and while they’re in the bathroom, I fold the foam pads that I use for a special massage Chloe gets every evening. Halfway through this task, I hear Jon calling from the bathroom. He’s forgotten Chloe’s pajamas. Sighing, I put the foam aside and walk down the hall to Chloe’s room, where I have to search through her drawer to find the right pajamas for an autumn evening: not too warm, not too cool. I grab a diaper just in case he’s forgotten that, too, and open the bathroom door.

Chloe is lying on her back, kicking her legs in the shallow water. Jon is standing over her, a toothbrush in his mouth.

“What are you doing?” I ask.

He turns to the sink and spits. I’m already kneeling next to the tub, my hand on Chloe’s head.

“I’m brushing my teeth.”

“You need to keep one hand on her. She could roll over and drown.”

“Chill out, Mommy,” says Jon, wiping his mouth on a towel. “She knows not to roll over. And I’m right here. I’m not taking my eyes off her.”

“Remember what happened last week?” Last week, when Jon was bathing her, Chloe kicked up a wave and got a little water in her mouth. I heard her coughing and rushed to the bathroom in time to see Jon sitting her upright and patting her back. Jon was flustered, I was panicked, but Chloe thought the whole thing was hilarious.

“God,” says Jon, lowering himself onto the floor next to me and pouring shampoo into his hand. “Aren’t you ever going to forget about that? A little water never hurt anyone.”

I realize I’ve gone too far, so I retreat, closing the bathroom door behind me. I finish folding the pads, but I can’t relax. I keep analyzing the sounds from the bathroom: Why was that splash so loud? Which of them is doing all that coughing? Was that a toy or Chloe’s head hitting the floor? I go out to the back deck, where I can’t hear anything, can’t do anything, and immediately I feel better.

Admitting we are not in control, being grateful for what we have, learning to be content just sitting still: These sound like spiritual ambitions. “Let go and let God,” Christians say, while Buddhists claim that all suffering comes from attachment, our struggle to find happiness by controlling things and circumstances. After we found out about Chloe’s disability, Jon and I realized how little control we have over what happens to us. Like many people, we’re still trying to accept that, to stop thinking about what might have been or what could be, if we just work hard enough. Sometimes we turn to prayer or meditation, to sitting still with only our wayward minds and our sense of something greater for company. These things are very hard to do, which makes it almost irritating that our three-year-old has always been an expert at them.

I’m not going to start proclaiming the stereotype, though, telling everyone that people with cerebral palsy are happier than the rest of us. Living with cerebral palsy involves huge challenges that could make anyone frustrated or depressed. And people with cerebral palsy deal with the same everyday problems as the rest of us. I’m sure the cerebral palsy demographic has its share of unhappy people. But watching Chloe develop, I suspect she has had a unique opportunity: to learn, early in life, that she can find profound happiness just going along for the ride. As Chloe gets older, she’ll gain more skills and acquire more equipment, and hopefully, someday, she won’t have to depend on other people to control the details of her life. But I hope that she can continue to find strength in surrender.

As I open the back door, I can hear Chloe crying. I check the bathroom, and everything looks normal: the tub drained, the washcloth folded neatly over the faucet, her wet towel still lying on the floor. Apparently, the screaming is just Chloe’s usual bedtime meltdown. She loves being awake, and she thinks that giving up sleep is just a matter of fighting hard enough. Unfortunately for everyone, the one thing she desperately wants to control will always elude her. I can tell from the sound of her crying that she’s exhausted. In fifteen minutes, she’ll be fast asleep. I stick my head through the door and see Chloe flailing in her bed. Jon is standing over her, stroking her head and murmuring in her ear.

“Do you need me to take over?” I ask.

“No, thanks,” he answers without looking up. “We’ve got it all under control.”

I slip back out the door and close it behind me, smiling to myself. Jon is wrong. We have very little under control. But right now that’s okay with me.

Brain, Child (Summer 2008)

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More Than a Feeling

By Jennifer Niesslein

fakesmileCleo, my dog of eight years, died recently. There was one good thing about the day she died: the emotional clarity. We were all sad, and we were all supposed to be sad. There was no disconnect. Why was I driving down the road with tears and snot streaming down my face? Why was I having a beer for lunch on a Thursday afternoon? Why didn’t I answer your email? Because my dog just died. No further explanation necessary, no judgment on whether I deserved to act so wrung out.

It’s rare, in life, to get that sort of blanket approval to be unhappy.

Chances are excellent that, by now, you’ve heard of Judith Warner’s controversial book Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. In it, Warner takes up the issue of unhappiness among American mothers. She asserts that there are many, many middle-class American women for whom motherhood causes anxiety. “The feeling has many faces,” she writes, “but it doesn’t really have a name. It’s not depression. It’s not oppression. It’s a mix of things, a kind of too-muchness. An existential discomfort. A mess.”

Warner had lived in France with her husband and two young daughters, and when they moved to the Washington, D.C., area, she was shocked at how different the experience of motherhood felt. While in France, she had enjoyed a leisurely postpartum period, high-quality, low-cost childcare, and a culture that took for granted that mothers work and children grow up perfectly fine without being the royalty of the family. Back in the States, though, she found something else entirely: The mothers here–and she interviewed about one hundred fifty of them for this book–were being driven crazy. In many cases, the mothers themselves were behind the wheel.

Warner makes clear early on that she’s writing about a certain demographic: middle-class mothers born between 1958 and the early 1970s. (And let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the middle class, in this review, includes the upper middle class.) She alternately calls the crazy-making situation these mothers find themselves in “This Mess” or, taking a page from Betty Friedan, “The Mommy Mystique.” According to Warner, you might be suffering from This Mess if you spend an awful lot of time coordinating extracurricular activities for your children, or if you have no interest in getting it on with your husband. You might be suffering from This Mess if you attend PTO meetings at night or feel that “attachment parenting” is the only avenue to help your child achieve her potential. If you wear overalls (childish, Warner thinks), or tend to get caught up in things like throwing the perfect birthday party for your five-year-old, you might be suffering from This Mess. Everywhere Warner looked, she saw mothers crumpling under the pressure–from within and without–to sacrifice themselves to motherhood.

Clearly no one is putting a gun to any mother’s head and forcing her to rent a pony and a moon bounce for her preschooler’s birthday. But, Warner asserts, there are real reasons women make this and similar over-the-top gestures–a mass psychology affecting us, if you will. In Perfect Madness, she sets about figuring out why she and the other mothers she interviewed participate in the sort of lives that make them unhappy.

Her main conclusion is that we feel helpless, so we obsess over the details. “Our baby boomer elders often call us selfish,” she writes, “but in doing so they often miss a larger point: that what our obsessive looking-inward hides is at base a kind of despair. A lack of faith that change can come to the outside world.” She calls us, more than once, “a generation of control freaks.”

How did we get to be this way? Warner floats some psychological and cultural theories.

Among the more convincing: The rise of “attachment theory”–the idea first put out by British psychoanalyst John Bowlby in the 1950s–has worked to mothers’ detriment. Bowlby proposed that the relationship formed in the earliest days of life between a mother and her baby set the stage for the kinds of relationships they’d have with others down the road. Mess up that relationship and a child is all but doomed.

Attachment theory is so mainstream now that we pretty much take it for granted. We call it bonding. We do it until we’re blue in the face. After all, the most widely read parenting experts in the period when we became mothers–Penelope Leach and T. Berry Brazelton–were steeped in attachment theory . . . Bowlby’s theories are now part and parcel of what we call good parenting. Normal parenting.

Bowlby’s research, however, was conducted on homeless children, and its application to the average family seems a little excessive. Warner does a fine job of showing how Bowlby’s theories of childrearing took seed–in the culture and in women’s own minds–when the U.S. was trying to figure out women’s relationship to the workforce.

Another convincing theory: Warner sees the current state of the country as a “winner take all” society, where the very successful reap most of the rewards and the rest “end up, de facto, losers.” Parents want their own children to be the winners. “They want the best for their kids . . . in part because they fear that they cannot do the best for them,” Warner writes. “Often, they cannot give them the best of education, of neighborhood, even of health care, because, for more and more parents, ‘the best’ is out of reach. Yet anything other than the best, all too often, is pretty mediocre.” It’s this fear that the kids will wind up on the second tier of society–scrambling to pay the bills, working an unsatisfying job, worrying about health care, all while in the middle class–that leads mothers to do what appear to be crazy things, Warner says. Why else would a woman find herself driving each week to ballet lessons, SAT prep classes, swimming lessons, soccer matches, music lessons, and her kids’ volunteering spot, all in the service of creating the über-child?

These two theories sound convincing because I personally could see how these pressures could get stuck in one’s head and become internalized. They make sense to me. Some of her other theories? Not so much. Warner tells us on the very first page of Perfect Madness, “This is a very personal book . . . an exploration of a feeling.” I had to keep reminding myself of that line.

For example, in the chapter titled “A Generation of Control Freaks,” she constructs a profile of the modern middle-class mother, growing up in the wake of second-wave feminism. She takes feminists to task for coming up with a kind of girl-power narcissism, which stemmed from the “choice” concept. We thought, she claims, we had the choice to control everything in our lives. And our own individual lives–not the greater good of the world–is where we chose to focus our attention. This looking inward, Warner says, manifested itself in phenomena like eating disorders, a condition she spends a surprising amount of ink chronicling. Then she goes further:

The look of our generation was Ray-Bans and oxford-cloth button-down shirts. The sound of our generation was arrogance and irony. The book of our generation was Less Than Zero. . . What we did believe in was money and our own power to succeed. We voted overwhelmingly to re-elect Ronald Reagan in 1984–ringingly endorsing his “small-government” policies that would, or so it was promised, allow us to pursue success unchecked and reap the maximum rewards for our efforts.

Huh? Yes, I too saw Judd Nelson and friends in St. Elmo’s Fire, but this didn’t at all sound familiar to me. I wasn’t sure which “we” Warner was writing about, although I fall in the tail end of Warner’s age demographic. I spent my coming-of-age years dressed in black and fretting about the Constitutional rights of minors. I fucking hated yuppies.

Reading Perfect Madness, I wondered sometimes if Warner herself knows which “we” she’s talking about. She starts out sympathetically enough, writing, “[T]oo many women in America are becoming sick with exhaustion and stress as they try to do things that can’t be–shouldn’t be–done.” She seems to feel a tenderness for these women who, despite being pretty well ensconced in the American dream, are often miserable.

But by the end, you can feel Warner’s exasperation with the mothers. She distances herself, and the sisterly “we” becomes the tsking “them.” In her chapter on husbands and not having sex with them, she writes, “There was something sinister in the fact that the very same women who would tell me how wonderful their husbands were would, in the next breath, let me (and a roomful of avid listeners) in on the most awful humiliations of their mates’ private moments.” Maybe, although probably not as sinister as a writer who publicly judges the revelations shared by the very women who were kind enough to go on record with her. (Too much information, ladies!)

And when writing about the state of modern parenting, Warner nearly shrieks with alarm. In Warner’s estimation, parents who, for instance, arrive late to a birthday party so as not to upset the nap schedule of their baby will damage their kids. Depression, suicide, anxiety, narcissism–all conditions that could await our children if we keep putting them first in the family. Really? I thought. Generations of Americans have grown up with beatings for discipline, no hugs from their parents, and child labor and they’ve turned out fine–but this is what’s going to ruin our kids? Hyper-parenting?

Warner ends with a rallying cry for mothers. (In what I began to think of as Warner’s trademark move, she rallies with uplifting prose, all the while giving the finger to the media, many in the mainstream feminist movement, Republicans, big business, and mothers’ movement organizations.) “This is not just a problem of individual women and their privately managed psychological pain,” she writes. “This is a problem of society.” She argues for a “quality of life” politics. She maintains that the government needs to create a set of pro-family entitlements. (She’s vague on the specifics, but you get the sense that universal childcare and paid leave are part of this vision.) She acknowledges, “It could be said that making an argument for a set of middle-class entitlements is obscene when the conditions of working-class and poor families in this country are so dire . . . But I believe that [these] kinds of quality-of-life measures . . . are potentially helpful for everyone.”


Everyone had lots to say about this book–and/or Warner’s Newsweek article that came out about the same time–partly because the book itself was reviewed and covered and analyzed so extensively. The responses tended to fall into one of two camps: Thank You, Judith Warner or Stop Whining, Whiner. (I got these from Amazon, but they seem pretty representative):

A Thank You, Judith Warner: “This book has struck a chord with me and many of the women I know balancing a family and work. The author has some great points about the lack of a public support system (or even a private one in today’s world) and my generation of control freaks. I recognized myself and many of my friends in bits here and there throughout the book.”

A Stop Whining, Whiner: “Here is a line from the book: ‘It was the day before the Iraq war started and our au pair had fled back to France. If I was going to keep working, I might have to take out a home equity line on my house.’ Oh, boo hoo.”

A Thank You, Judith Warner: “I loved this book! As a mom of six children, I have read my share of parenting books and Perfect Madness is now at the top of my list! Warner has braved the waters to write about this ‘mess’ we are in trying to do it all and do it all ‘perfectly.’ We need to give ourselves a break! This book also opens up communication on a subject we don’t often broach–competitive parenting.”

A Stop Whining, Whiner: “I have a great cure for mommy madness and a terrific new reality show all wrapped up in one! We will take all of the rich, urban white women suffering from mommy madness and have them swap places with poor mothers in exciting locations such as inner-city Detroit, Harlem, South Central L.A., Little Havana in Miami and under the local interstate overpass . . . Another thing, can we please ban the word ‘stress’ from the English language? It now seems to mean ‘made up problems by someone who has too much free time.’ “

There was also a smattering of Stop Blaming the Mothers responses as well as some You’ll Spend My Federal Dollars on Universal Childcare When You Pry It from My Cold, Dead Estate Tax responses.

Me, my first instinct was one of mild dismissal. Really, how many mothers get worked up over this sort of stuff? And why can’t they figure out what seem like obvious solutions? Don’t like the endless hours spent in extracurricular activities? Don’t do them. Can’t get Junior into that perfect school for little geniuses? Pick another school. Didn’t have time to bake cupcakes for the second-graders’ holiday party? Two words: grocery store.

My co-editor Stephanie and I went round and round on this. It seemed to me that these were problems affecting just a tiny segment of the population–not nearly enough to justify all the buzz surrounding this book.

Stephanie, meanwhile, was getting a little frustrated with my inability to see beyond my own life. “I don’t think that Judith Warner is lying when she says that she interviewed a hundred fifty women for this book,” she’d say. “Maybe where you live, or among your friends, not everyone has their kid in a million lessons, but maybe in other places, everyone does. Sure, you might be able to resist peer pressure, but other people really might be feeling miserable and caught. What’s wrong with helping them out with pro-family policies?”

She was kind enough to resist pointing out that I’d never actually parented in one of these high-pressure suburbs.

Still, I couldn’t muster much interest. Perfect Madness was the latest in a string of big serious books on motherhood, and the others seemed to be built on more solid ground. Ann Crittenden built hers on the venerable field of economics in The Price of Motherhood. Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels built theirs on the interplay between media and public policy in The Mommy Myth. Katherine Ellison, we knew, was just about to come out with The Mommy Brain, a book based on neuroscience. Money, policy, science. These were things you could prove affect people’s lives.

And then there was Judith Warner with her book on happiness. No one has the right to happiness, I thought–only the pursuit of it.

I kept thinking this until a month or so after Cleo died. The day was windy, and fat pouffy clouds moved across the sky. On a day like this one a few years earlier, my then three-year-old son and I lay side by side in the grass–his hand, soft and still faintly dimpled, was warm on my arm–and we watched the clouds blow by. I see a pig! Doesn’t that look like the letter C? There’s a dinosaur footprint, Mama! Inside, I had jambalaya cooking in the crockpot, and the last load of laundry was in the dryer. Eventually, though, the wind got colder and colder and Caleb got cranky and the happiness of that day disintegrated in a matter of hours. I hadn’t added enough water to the crockpot and the jambalaya burned. I can’t remember now what his big tantrum was over, but it was a typical one, irrational and crazy-making. I remember that afternoon, it rained hard, and I sat agitated in front of an Elmo video, feeling desperately unhappy for no reason I could really articulate. While I was sad when Cleo died, it was a good sad, a noble sad. On that windy day years earlier, it was a maddening sad.

Would I have been whining then, had I tried to articulate what was wrong? Would some mother of a six-year-old, as I am now, have been so dismissive of how I felt? Is one’s personal happiness important in the scheme of things?


In the past decade or so, psychologists have started to study positive emotions, including happiness. Two recent books have taken some of this research and tried to put it to use.

Gregg Easterbrook’s 2003 book The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse takes a long, global view. In it, he catalogues all the ways in which life is good, especially for Westerners, on nearly every front.

Public health is improving by nearly every measure, including rising longevity and falling rates of most diseases; even many forms of cancer are in decline. Doomsday claims to the contrary, environmental trends are nearly all positive, with all forms of pollution except greenhouse gas in steady decline in the United States and the European Union. Drinking, smoking, and most forms of drug use are declining. Teen pregnancy is declining. Welfare rolls are shrinking without increase in poverty. Women, immigrants, and minority group members are acquiring ever larger slices of national pies. The divorce rate has stopped increasing. Personal freedom has never been greater. Book sales hit new records almost every year. Movie and television may at times be excruciating, but otherwise art and culture have never been more active, interesting, or diverse. Nearly all forms of death due to accidents are declining. Crime has declined so rapidly that the fall has almost been eerie. Education levels keep rising, while test scores and public-school performance show guarded improvement . . . Global democracy is rising, military dictatorship and communism are on the run. Each year, the number of nuclear warheads in the world declines. The single worst threat to the world–the Cold War–has ended, with complete victory for the West and the hand of friendship extended to former adversaries.

Oh, man, is there a lot to quibble with in Easterbrook’s assessment. But, as he points out a few times, almost no matter where you are in the social structure, this is the best time to be alive. Today’s average Americans and Europeans, he writes, live better than most royalty of history. Easterbrook invites his readers to think of their great-grandparents’ lives: Whose life would you rather live–theirs or yours?

It gives you pause. But, despite the gains the West has made, the percentage of Americans who report that they’re happy has not changed since the 1950s. The percentage who say they’re “very happy” has actually gone down from 7.5 percent in 1950 to about 6 percent today. And, Easterbrook says, “The decline of the ‘very happy’ continues, while the big action is the increase in the depressed class.” (“Depression,” he writes, “is thought not to be a physical disease; something within our society, or within our own minds, causes it.” Another idea open to debate.)

Easterbrook has some ideas as to why we haven’t gotten happier, including “choice anxiety” (too many options actually cause us stress, particularly for women), “abundance denial” (basically, it feels good to play the victim), and “collapse anxiety” (we feel that the good times can’t last). He doesn’t deny that many Westerners feel unhappy, and he would say that our happiness is important. It’s just that we’re barking up the wrong tree by complaining.

He identifies three things that Westerners can feel justified in complaining about–three things that we should work to change. First, it’s an outrage that the United States has no universal health insurance. Second, Americans should work for wages that they can actually live on. Third, we should not stand for “the greed at the top,” the morally reprehensible CEOs and other public officials who steal–and then get to keep the money. (This is an example of Warner’s “winner-take-all” society at its extreme.)

We not only need to take care of these things; we also have an obligation to help the poorer nations of the world. Suffering? Easterbrook, who’s traveled extensively in developing nations, can show you some serious suffering. For relatively little money, he argues, we can solve the world’s problems, which are vast and heartbreaking. Easterbrook begins this chapter describing how, in August 2001, the frozen body of a young Nigerian man fell from the wheel well of a jetliner as the plane landed in New York. He had stowed away in the unpressurized and unheated wheel well, that desperate to reach the United States.

In the face of this sort of tragedy, it feels incredibly indulgent to complain about anything American and middle class, anything that might fall under the umbrella of Warner’s “This Mess”–which, of course, is Easterbrook’s intention. To solve our own happiness problem, he argues, we need an attitude adjustment: “Psychological research is beginning to show that taking the positive view is in our self-interest.” Forgiveness and gratitude–mainstays of a lot of religions–will, he says, save us. “Studies [suggest] that increasing a person’s sense of thankfulness could lead to both lower stress and better ‘life outcomes,’ meaning success in career and relationships,” he writes in the chapter titled “Selfish Reasons to Become a Better Person.”

“To be happy is not an exercise in self-indulgence, rather, one of the primary objectives of life,” he writes. He says that it’s hard work to be an optimist, to practice gratitude and forgiveness, to find some meaning in life. (To Easterbrook’s credit, he manages to write about seeking spirituality and a greater meaning without swerving into religious dogma, goofy New-Age-speak, psycho-babble, or philosophical mumbo-jumbo.)

One is tempted to wonder through all this, however, whether Easterbrook would characterize any problem besides the lack of universal health care, a pitiful minimum wage, and corporate greed as legitimate–or just a whine. And while he isn’t quite a proponent of Stop Whining, Whiner, he does address head-on the issue of whining, in the form of false victimhood. “The We’re-All-Victims worldview,” he writes, “only serves to deter men and women from asserting control over their own psyches.” If you’re unhappy, you need to check yourself, he seems to be saying.

And this, in my opinion, is probably the sorest spot anyone writing about happiness can poke at. No one wants to be a caricature, the whiny American, the victim feminist, the mommy who doesn’t really want to get her shit together. It reminds me of a scene in David Foster Wallace’s short story “Good Old Neon,” in which the narrator is contemplating killing himself for being a “fraud.” He’s watching an old Cheers episode:

Lilith says, ‘If I have one more yuppie come in and start whining to me about how he can’t love, I’m going to throw up.’ This line got a huge laugh from the show’s studio audience, which indicated that they–and so by demographic extension the whole national audience at home as well–recognized what a cliché and melodramatic type of complaint the inability-to-love concept was. And, sitting there . . . I suddenly realized once again I’d managed to con myself, this time into thinking that this was a truer or more promising way to conceive of the whole problem of fraudulence.

So, on top of unhappiness, you get self-loathing. And while it’s no good to be unhappy, it’s infinitely worse to feel your unhappiness was judged and deemed unworthy of anyone’s consideration but your own.


Like Judith Warner and Gregg Easterbrook, British economist Richard Layard takes personal happiness seriously. Unlike Warner, though, Layard bases his book–Happiness: Lessons from a New Science–on more than a feeling.

Layard draws from the sciences, economics, and philosophy, particularly the work of Jeremy Bentham, the eighteenth-century philosopher who put forth the idea that we should aim to maximize happiness for the most people. Layard starts out with the same premise that Easterbrook does in The Progress Paradox: We’re richer and better off, but we’re still not happy. He then lays out the terrain of happiness as he sees it: how we measure it, why it’s important, what prevents us from getting it, how we–as individuals and as a society–can get more.

When people–like, for example, the middle-class mothers Warner interviews–say they’re unhappy, it turns out that we can believe them. “When people experience positive feelings, there is more electrical activity in the left front of the brain,” Layard writes. “[When] they experience negative feelings, there is more activity in the right front of the brain.” EEGs, MRIs and PET scans all show this. Layard also catalogues studies that show links between physical well-being and happiness.

What’s more–and he cannot stress this enough–mental health counts. Big time. “Clearly, mental health is a key part of health, but it is more than that. It is central to our overall happiness,” he writes. “For example, we might ask, What causes much more misery: depression or poverty? The answer is depression.” Needless to say, he thinks that stigma against illnesses of the mind is ridiculous and advocates for medication for those who are suffering through life instead of living it.

What prevents us from happiness? Layard is nothing if not blunt. Divorce causes unhappiness; he actually goes so far as to promote a sort of public shunning of those who would tempt a married person and to suggest that would-be parents be required to take parenting classes. A lack of community–common in mobile areas like the ones Warner’s interviewees live in–causes unhappiness. Always having someone else’s successes trumpeted before us–even (or maybe especially) fictional ones like we see on TV–causes unhappiness. Lack of job stability (the result, Layard argues, of the push for higher productivity) causes unhappiness, as does unemployment. In short, Layard has taken a look at modern life in the West–where workers are not guaranteed stable employment, where marriages are not necessarily forever, where families move wherever jobs take the breadwinners, where we tune in every night to see what we don’t have–and has seen a recipe for widespread unhappiness.

Layard, a member of Britain’s House of Lords, winds up in the same territory that Warner does, advocating for the government and businesses to do more to increase happiness on many fronts, including work, community, and mental health. He sums up the happiness of families neatly:

For the happiness of our children, we need more family-friendly practices at work, and high-quality child care, priced in relation to income. Flexible working practices are an essential investment in a happy society, as are entitlements to parental leave . . . [The] general finding of social science research is that once children are over one year old, they will flourish equally well whether both parents work or only one. So each family should feel free to make its own choice.

For all his odd-bird social conservatism, I nearly wept at the matter-of-factness of this statement.

But Layard’s biggest goal for the West is this: “We desperately need a concept of the common good. I can think of no nobler goal than to pursue the greatest happiness of all–each person counting.” Each person, I thought. The desperate Nigerian man contemplating climbing into a jet’s wheel well, the middle-class American mother grinding the minivan’s gears on the way to another baseball game, the rest of us.


So, here we are, back to the same idea: We–as a society and as a government–need to band together and get cracking in fixing what ails the world, all three writers conclude. Judith Warner says we can fix structural problems that directly affect our lives. Gregg Easterbrook says that both affecting change and finding meaning in life are necessary. Layard says it’s a paradox: the more we help others, the better we’ll feel, too.

Is mothers’ happiness a personal issue, a public one, or a combination? I don’t know. The United States hasn’t taken the family-friendly measures that Warner and Layard tell us will increase happiness. For us, it’s an untried experiment. Scandinavian countries have taken these measures, and their happiness ranks higher than ours. But France has taken these measures, too, and its happiness is actually lower than ours. It’s a complex thing, happiness.

I do know that the idea that happiness is a personal issue, and not to be attained through public means, is a deeply entrenched one. Anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with a twelve-step program knows that no one can be responsible for anyone else’s happiness.

On the other hand, I think it’s a terrible thing to say essentially: I don’t care. You’re miserable, and I don’t care. In fact, that seems like the most terrible thing in the world.

Part of the problem could be that there isn’t a consensus. We’re not all unhappy, at least not all at the same time. And there’s not good language to describe happiness or unhappiness anyway–there’s a reason that Judith Warner calls her dissatisfaction simply “This Mess.”

How are you doing?

Well, maybe your kid is at a good stage, funny and fun and not much trouble at all. Maybe you’ve miraculously gotten to the point where money-making doesn’t feel all-consuming. Maybe your social circle is one that doesn’t promote extracurricular activities and chichi schooling. Maybe it’s been a couple months since your beagle girl died, and spring has finally warmed up, and the days are getting longer, and your happiness is something you haven’t had cause to think about for a while.

And even if none of that is true, chances are good that you’ll still say: Fine.

Author’s Note: If you want family-friendly change and can’t get hyped up about happiness, I think there are other good reasons–moral, economic, health-related–to agitate for it.

Brain, Child (Summer, 2005)

About the Author: Jennifer Niesslein is a writer and editor who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. She’s the author of Practically Perfect in Every Way and the co-founder of Brain, Child magazine, where she worked for thirteen years. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, The Nation, NPR’s “Morning Edition,” and online at Virginia Quarterly Review and The Morning News, among other places. Her website is:

Art by Gina Kelly

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