Mom Blame

Mom Blame

By Katy Read

Screen Shot 2015-05-27 at 8.13.17 AMMy son was a couple of months old when he introduced the nightly practice that we came to call The Board.

It would happen at bedtime. The parenting books all said you should establish a soothing routine. I would sit in the gliding chair, turn the lights down, rock the baby as he nursed one last time. I might whisper a lullaby or run softly through Goodnight Moon (or, okay, flip through a magazine or watch ER). The idea behind this peaceful ritual was to send my son the message that it was time to relax and get ready to sleep.

He got the message, all right.

As soon as the lights dimmed and the gliding began, my son would pop his eyes open, fling back his head, straighten his legs, and arch his back. He would turn his tiny body board-like, rigid as a two-by-four.

It wasn’t the rocking, my singing, or even one of those gory surgery scenes on ER. By day, my son loved—indeed demanded, loudly, often in the middle of a store—to be held and rocked. But at night, he would resist it using the only weapon he had (besides wailing, of course, which he would deploy the moment

I set his board-like body into his crib). My son already was learning how to impose his young but steely will. He would not go gentle into that goodnight ritual.

The Board complicated our evenings. But putting babies to bed is always difficult—everyone knows that. Things would get easier, I kept hearing. Sure enough, a few months and many raucous bedtimes later he began sleeping through the night.

Boldly, I got pregnant again.

*   *   *

A few years ago, I discovered how different my views about raising children had become—different from those of other people, different from those I had once held myself.

I was gossiping over coffee with a group of friends, and the talk turned to one woman’s young nephew, whose recent behavior suggested some kind of problem.

“It’s just what you’d expect,” the aunt said, shaking her head, “the way he was raised.”

The young man, a gifted student, had dropped out of college and moved back home. He had no plans for his future. No job. No friends. Didn’t date. Rarely left the house. Slouched in front of his computer all day.

“No wonder,” the woman continued. “Janet was always so clingy and overprotective. When he was little, she wouldn’t even leave him with a babysitter.”

“Well, but you can’t put all the blame on Janet,” said another family member. “It’s Dave’s fault, too. He stood back and let her smother him.”

I hesitated to add my own opinion. The young man was not my relative. I didn’t have all the facts, and maybe it wasn’t my business. Once, though, when he was little, his family had brought him to our city for a visit. I remembered the parents walking through a hard rain to take their son to a children’s museum.

“Don’t you think it’s possible,” I finally said, “that whatever has caused this behavior, it’s not the fault of either of his parents?”

The faces around the table were frowning, skeptical, perplexed.

*   *   *

At one time, I might have reacted the same way. I used to see a kid with a problem, from a toddler acting up in a restaurant to an ashen-faced teenager begging for spare change on a street corner, and assume that the parents had screwed up. Spoiled the kid or neglected him, been too harsh or too lenient, allowed too much sugar or too much TV.

It worked the other way, too. If a child was cheerful and responsible, obviously his mother and father had raised him right. The parents were often happy to agree. Yes, well, we always made sure we set limits/were consistent/ate dinner together as a family.

I don’t make those assumptions anymore. Or, if I start to do so out of long habit, I catch myself. These days, when I hear a mom or dad boast about some parenting triumph or other, I have to restrain myself from asking whether their supposedly well-brought-up offspring might simply have been born that way.

*   *   *

It’s one of the enduring images of my older son’s early years. My husband and I still secretly chuckle about it, not just because it’s funny and cute—my children have said lots of cute things—but because it’s such a textbook illustration of the qualities that would come to define our son. Our laughter is affectionate, even a little proud, but it is tinged with frustration.

Picture him at three years old: sturdy, round-bellied, the size and shape of an elf. He stands in the kitchen wearing green flannel footie pajamas, curls flopping over his forehead, feet firmly planted like a tiny lumberjack about to swing his ax. He has misbehaved in some way, and my husband has warned him that if he keeps it up, he will be placed in time out.

My son glares up at his father from his knee-high level and points at him with a fierce pudgy finger.

“No,” he replies, his little elfin voice stern. “I will put you in time out!”

Struggling to suppress our amusement, we fail once again to grasp the implications. Toddlers drive everybody crazy, right? It will get easier, we keep hearing. Soon, soon.

*   *   *

Why do we so confidently trace the behavior of children, even of the adults they become, to the actions of their parents? Why are we so certain that fathers and mothers (let’s face it, especially mothers) have control over how their kids “turn out”? It’s a measure of how deeply these assumptions are embedded in our culture that the questions themselves seem almost absurd.

Sure, most people believe, theoretically, in some confluence of nature and nurture. But the nature part is invisible and baffling; even scientists have barely started to grasp the complicated machinations of our genes. Nurture is much easier to sift through for clues.

And, man, we are desperate for clues. Wondering about our own paralyzing shyness or obsessive neatness, we think back to what our parents might have done or said to make us this way. We draw a connection with our father’s aloofness, with our mother’s white-gloved insistence on keeping the bedroom tidy.

The sages who serve as our guides to human nature—philosophers, psychologists, novelists—have compared babies to unmolded clay, white paper, blank slates just waiting for their parents’ chalk. “Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge?” asked seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke. “To this I answer, in one word, from experience.” The importance of family environment in particular in shaping character was touted by early twentieth-century scientists. For those times it was enlightened, if a bit ridiculous, for behaviorist John B. Watson to boast that he could take some random infant and “train him to become any type of specialist I might select—a doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and, yes, even into a beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.”

These days most people, unlike Watson, would consider the difference between an artist and a doctor at least partly the result of talents and penchants. Career choice aside, though, the notion that humans are profoundly malleable—that a model upbringing produces a model child, that a child’s flaws reflect her parents’ mistakes—has taken hold, been culturally internalized, come to seem self-evident. The concept appeals to Americans’ faith in our endless capacity for improvement, in our confidence that hard work—in this case, raising children—pays off. Helping to popularize and legitimize the notion is the ever-growing parenting-advice industry. Desperate parents want suggestions for controlling their children, and a book that throws up its hands is unlikely to rule the best-seller lists.

The idea is entrenched enough to be satirized on The Simpsons. In one episode, Bart gets arrested and sent to jail, and a distraught Marge moans that she’s “the worst mom in the world.”

“It’s not totally your fault,” Homer Simpson consoles his wife. “All these years, I watched you turn our son into a time bomb and yet I did nothing.”

*   *   *

I started paying attention to the way other children acted. At our daycare center, I noticed that at the end of the day most kids simply walked out the front door. They did not have to be slung over their parents’ shoulders as they thrashed and screamed and kicked off their shoes. At the park, I saw toddlers riding serenely in their strollers, gazing at dogs and birds—not straining against the straps and howling to be freed, as if held hostage by a kidnapper. I observed kids quietly sitting on the sidelines at sporting events, kids waiting patiently in line at the grocery store, kids behaving as if they wanted—even strove for—adult approval.

What was especially mystifying was that the parents in these situations were rarely seen coaxing or scolding or bribing or cajoling or threatening or tricking or punishing to achieve this compliance. I concluded that they had already done all that work behind the scenes, using some carefully formulated mixture of discipline techniques to lay a solid foundation of obedience.

Obviously, I was doing something wrong, though it wasn’t clear exactly what. Should I impose tighter limits or pick my battles? Show more empathy or less? Loosen up or crack down? Be a drill sergeant or a therapist? And whichever course I picked, was I following it with unswerving consistency, or were there times—late at night, in the car, at a party—when I might be letting some slight human variability slip into my approach?

Seeking guidance, I combed parenting books, which assured me that my children’s behavior was well within my control.

“But how do you want your child to turn out? What will your child need from you in order to become the person you want him to be?” ask best-selling authors William and Martha Sears in The Discipline Book: How to Have a Better-Behaved Child from Birth to Age Ten.

The books promised to make our lives easier with endless strategies for taming kids, from putting them in time-out to plunking them in soothing baths, from setting strict limits to offering multiple choices, from pasting stickers on a chart to counting 1-2-3, from gentle reasoning to the robotic suppression of my own anger (which many of the books warned would only reinforce the undesired behavior).

I tried the suggestions (except the soothing baths, grasping at once the difficulty of deploying this technique in the checkout line at Target) but could not manage to achieve the promised results. When I offered my son multiple choices (blue shirt or yellow? broccoli or carrots?), he would pick (c): None of the above. When I drew up a chart to reward obedience, he quickly found a way to beat the system—1) deliberately misbehave, 2) obediently stop when told, 3) receive another sticker—until I caught on to his ruse.

I would muster all my self-control, determined not to lose my temper, but my son was equally determined and far more ruthless. Sooner or later I’d blow and hear myself yelling. And that, all the books said, you must never, ever do.

In the books, time-out meant ordering the child to his room and keeping him there for one merciful minute per year of age, during which he would cool down and emerge ready to play nicely. In our house, time-out meant dragging my son shrieking to his room as he clung to walls and banisters, pinning the door closed with a chair or pulling against the knob with all of my weight while he battered against the other side like a starving wolverine. A handful of minutes in captivity would only enrage him further, so that a five-minute confinement for some minor infraction could turn into an ordeal stretching through the afternoon.

I used time-outs anyway, if only for a few minutes of raw-nerved peace and a sense that justice had been served. But they did not produce any detectable long-term change in anyone’s behavior. Except my own. Which was deteriorating.

*   *   *

I switched from parenting books written for the general population to books geared for a particular type of kid, manuals whose titles contained words like “spirited,” “challenging,” “defiant,” “explosive.” These euphemistic terms only hinted at my son’s complex character, which blended the qualities of a particularly indomitable two-year-old with those of a particularly self-assured teenager.

My other son, just seventeen months younger, was more cooperative, more even-tempered, more willing to acknowledge adult authority, more eager for approval, more readily repentant, more kid-like. Though they had been subject to more or less the same parental treatment, the boys were developing into different people. That should have been a clue.

But its meaning was obscured for a while by what the two boys, often mistaken for twins, had in common: energy, daring, a sense of adventure. Some kids are content to splash happily at the shore; mine weren’t satisfied unless the waves were lapping at their earlobes. Some kids hide behind their parents when strangers appear; mine would chat up passing pedestrians or the guy repairing the refrigerator. Some kids sit cross-legged and rapt during story time at the public library; mine would become loudly, theatrically bored and have to be taken from the room. While horsing around at a cousin’s wedding reception, they knocked over a potted palm that only a heroic dive by my husband—picture a man in a suit and tie, soaring Superman-style across a hotel party room—kept from crashing onto the wedding cake. I loved my sons, but most days with them were exhausting and exasperating.

This need not be so, people kept suggesting. Teachers, relatives, therapists, friends, and a few total strangers offered advice, solicited and otherwise, on how to discipline my sons, as if the boys were a couple of young mustangs who, in the hands of a skilled wrangler, could be broken. Listening to my stories, friends would ask “Well, have you tried … ?” as if the solution to years of struggle might materialize in a few seconds of reflection. Parents of mild-mannered, compliant children—kids who could be counted on to sit for hours, patiently coloring, while the adults chatted—would give tips for transforming my boys into easy kids like theirs.

The advice-givers were mostly polite, but their words held an implication with which I was already grimly familiar: I was doing something wrong. The proof was in the boys’ misbehavior itself, prima facie evidence that I was screwing up. If I were raising them right, they’d be fixed by now.

“Our kids used to try that kind of nonsense,” my father-in-law remarked. “We got them over it pretty quickly.”

“If you’d just resolve yourself to putting them in time-out whenever they misbehaved, pretty soon you wouldn’t have to do it very often,” a friend advised, as though my sons weren’t already sentenced to their rooms for part of just about every day.

“I see you’ve gotten stricter with them, and I like it!” said a teacher, thinking she was giving me a compliment, on a day when my sons capriciously decided to be more cooperative than usual.

After a while, I began to wonder how many of the advice-givers were really in a position to advise. Sure, most had experience raising kids. But none of them had raised my kids.

*   *   *

Behavioral geneticists—scientists who study the influence of genes on behavior—have for years been defying the philosophers, novelists, and even many psychologists by arguing that parents do not stamp personality on a child. Though in most cases the powers of nature and nurture are impossibly entangled, these scientists have attempted to tease the two forces apart by studying separated twins (who share nature, but not nurture) and adopted children (who share nurture, but not nature). Researchers involved in ongoing projects at the University of Minnesota and the University of Colorado, among others, claim their studies indicate that genes account for roughly half of a child’s personality—and, still more controversially, that the other half, though apparently shaped by the environment, does not appear to be much influenced by parents.

The Minnesota team found that identical twins raised as strangers in separate homes wound up just about as much alike as twins raised together from birth (and more alike than non-identical siblings raised together). In other words, although none of the twins’ personalities were identical, what differences existed did not seem to come from having different family environments. In similarly surprising research on adoptive families, the Colorado team found that adopted kids and the siblings with whom they were raised resembled each other in personality no more than would any two strangers plucked off the street.

This research suggests that whatever similarities we notice between typical children and their parents comes not from anything the parents say or do, but from the genes they pass along. In other words genes—not rules, habits, or role modeling—are why the children of avid readers become bookworms, why the children of aggressive parents become bullies, why the children of neat freaks grow up to keep the floor under their own beds dust-bunny-free. When kids whose parents smoke or abuse or divorce grow up to do those things too, the research suggests, it’s not because they’re mimicking behavior they witnessed growing up, but because they inherited their parents’ tendencies. Same goes for the offspring of responsible, careful, well-adjusted parents.

Many people are resistant to, even offended by, this idea. It seems to overturn everything we understand about families; it makes the hard work of mothers and fathers appear superfluous. Parents don’t matter?! Even many psychologists don’t accept the concept, and when you tell a layperson about it—I can vouch for this—you likely will see her stiffen, frown, and mount an indignant rebuttal.

Not that there isn’t room for argument. Perhaps the researchers’ methods are flawed, their measurement instruments clumsy, their conclusions premature. Anyone who has followed the recent dieting debate over fat and carbs knows that information isn’t infallible just because it comes from somebody in a lab coat.

But when I first heard about this research, I was intrigued. Maybe our belief that parents are responsible for molding their children’s characters is one of those flat-earth-type cultural assumptions that people of future generations will come to see as pitiably flawed. Maybe it will someday seem as absurd as the notion that mothers cause their children’s schizophrenia or autism, as doctors declared in the 1950s (condemning a generation of mothers to wrenching guilt and depriving their children of effective treatment). Maybe shaping personalities is not the most important aspect of parenthood anyway—how many of life’s other important relationships are measured by the degree to which one party unilaterally and permanently alters the other’s personality? Isn’t this, in every other case, usually considered impossible (note to self: don’t mention this argument to spouse)?

Some might see this as a shocking abdication of responsibility, but the thought that I might not be solely accountable for my sons’ behavior filled me with great relief.

*   *   *

Still, I might have shrugged it all off as so much esoteric theory if it weren’t for an experience I had, soon afterward, that demonstrated for me the realities behind the research. My epiphany occurred, of all places, in a shoe department.

I was alone in Marshall Field’s, checking out the sale items, relishing the vaguely guilty freedom of an afternoon with both boys in school and no pressing assignments or chores. My eyes fell on another shopper, a woman accompanied by her three small children. I felt a surge of empathy, knowing how impossible it was to get any real shopping done in the company of even one child, let alone three.

But then I noticed that the woman was strolling nonchalantly among the clothing racks, stopping now and then to hold a blouse up for inspection or to finger the fabric of a jacket. She looked about as carefree as I felt, sans the guilt. The trio of preschoolers followed her through the aisles like quiet little ducklings, the oldest one pushing the youngest in a stroller whose handles were taller than he was. Not one of the kids was whining with boredom, or begging for a snack, or running to hide inside a rack of dresses, or pushing the stroller on a demolition course into other customers’ shins, or scampering over to find out what it’s like to run down the up escalator.

The group reached ladies’ shoes, and without hesitation the mom strode in to check out the footwear. My mouth literally fell open as she began to try on sandals. Without being told, the children fanned out around her to watch. The woman examined one style after another, pivoting her foot this way and that, half ignoring her brood. Which she could easily do, because the kids did not once try to snatch up pairs of stiletto pumps themselves, put them on their own feet, and clomp around. They just stood there.

Ordinarily, witnessing this kind of scene, I would feel stirrings of envy and shame. How did she get them to act that way? Why won’t my kids do that? Is she a better mother than I am?

This time, though, those questions barely crossed my mind.

These children were so astonishingly docile that all at once I knew their behavior was not the result of any clever discipline schemes their mother might have employed. This woman had not coaxed, tricked, threatened, or beat them to get them to act like that. She hadn’t made her children that way. They just were.

And with that I understood something else: No technique or book or tip, no sticker chart or consequence or 1-2-3, not even the world’s most soothing bath, would ever turn either of my sons into that kind of kid. Those children and mine might as well have come from two different planets. They had different natures.

And once I figured that out, I began to comprehend a few other things.

*   *   *

The day my older son was born, I lay on the delivery table and watched his face as a nurse carried him over to meet me. He wasn’t crying. His eyes were wide and flashing about, his head swiveling, his mouth an awestruck O. He was taking in everything his newborn senses could absorb: the lights, the sounds, the cool air, the blurs of color and motion. He had no idea what all this stuff was, of course, but he did not appear afraid of it. He looked fascinated.

His father and I turned to each other, thrilled and terrified. “What do we do now?” we said.

Ten years later, we’re still wondering.

When your kids don’t act like the children on television or in books do—when they are not as fragile or malleable or angelic as you’d been led to believe all children are—you’re forced to shed the idealistic gauze through which you once viewed motherhood, cut the velvet bows, drop the pretenses. You give up hopes of languid picnics, of delicate sandwiches eaten cross-legged on a blanket, and make do with fast food on the fly at the playground. You let your kids pick out cheap Halloween costumes at Target rather than toil over hand-stitched outfits that you know they’d probably refuse to wear. You lose, early on, your high squeaky mommy voice and instead begin addressing your kids in the ordinary straightforward tone you use with adults, because you find that your kids respond best to frankness. You remind yourself, over and over, that the only time the word “good” means “easy” is when it’s applied to children.

Your romanticism dissolves, leaving behind a wintry clarity that, you discover, has a beauty of its own. No longer do you envision every moment of motherhood as rosy and wonderful.

But now, when something genuinely wonderful happens, you know to trust it.

Until my sons were about four and five, my husband and I considered having another child. I was sure raising three children was humanly possible—I had seen other moms do it. Eventually, though, I noticed that those other threesomes were usually the patient, obedient sort of kids. That settled it. My husband and I resolved to stop at two, and we made the decision final with a rummage sale.

On the day of the sale my older son sat with me in the front yard. I had promised the boys I would share the proceeds from their toys, and my son was eager to help move the merchandise. He spotted a small elderly woman gingerly examining an assortment of items from the garage, including the little vehicles that the boys had pedaled around the driveway before they’d graduated to bikes with training wheels.

My son sprang forward to assist. The woman told him she was shopping for something for a grandson. Polite but determined, my son guided her along with helpful questions. How old was her grandson? What colors did he like? Would he fit into this little blue convertible? Or maybe he’d prefer this fire engine? Did she notice that the ladders were detachable? Would she be interested if the price were a dollar lower? The grandmother beamed at the suave five-year-old salesman and asked him questions right back. They chatted amiably for a few minutes, and when she settled on the fire engine, my son offered to help her put it in the trunk of her car.

“Oh, he’s marvelous,” the woman said, glancing back at my son as she handed me money for the truck. She turned to me with twinkling eyes. “You must be a wonderful mother!”

Had I been honest, I might have told her I could no more take credit for my son’s ability to charm a stranger than I could for his capacity to drive his parents crazy. I might have confessed that his personality was unfolding in directions that, like it or not, I could only watch with helpless amazement. I might have held forth with my views about nature and nurture and parental influence or lack thereof. But just then, gazing at this smiling grandmother, I felt a blurry tingling in my eyes and a tightening in my throat and for a few long moments I could not speak at all.

Author’s Note: For years, the discussion of raising “challenging” children has been dominated by so-called experts, who have helped sustain the myth of a disciplinary panacea. Meanwhile parents, myself included, have hesitated to speak up, partly out of reluctance to publicly criticize our children, partly out of shame or confusion over our own presumed failures. The first turning point, for me, was realizing how many traits associated with the challenging child—determination, assertiveness, energy, curiosity, self-assurance, vitality—are prized when exhibited by an adult. The second was coming to see that, under the right circumstances, those traits can actually be pretty great in a kid. Recently, when interviewing the author of a particularly reprehensible parenting book, I mentioned that my sons were often difficult. “Would you like some help changing them?” the author asked patronizingly. “No thanks,” I said. “I’m not interested in trading them in for different kids.” The remark left him sputtering, but I meant it.

Katy Read’s essays, articles, and book reviews have appeared in Salon, Working Mother, Real Simple, Minnesota Monthly, Chautauqua Literary Journal, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the New Orleans Times-Picayune and other publications. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and two sons.

Brain, Child (Winter 2005)

Glass Half Full

Glass Half Full

By Katy Read

From Brain, Child (Fall 2011)

fall2011_read“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’être 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.

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Mama Wants a Brand-New Job

By Katy Read

winter2010_readIn unexpected ways, the Great Recession has been good for Amy Stone. Oh, not the fact that her family has had to slash expenses: downscaling the cable and cell-phone plans, cutting back on restaurant meals, dropping their dental coverage. And certainly not the fact that her husband was laid off and, though he has a new job, is now making $50,000 less than he formerly earned.

But for Stone, the hard times have presented an opportunity to build a business doing work she loves to do: creating handmade baby gifts, ceramic baby hand and feet impressions, murals, jewelry, pottery—basically offering her artistic talents “to anyone who has an idea.”

Stone, a former FedEx executive who took a buyout to be a stay-at-home mother—she now has two daughters: one four years old, the other eighteen months—has an art degree. She put it to use about four years ago, when she began cutting, painting and renting out wooden stork-shaped “new baby” yard signs (having been inspired to improve upon a sign she received for her older daughter’s birth that was “absolutely ugly”). The venture grew slowly at first, by word of mouth. But after her husband lost his brokerage job, Stone decided to get more proactive. In January, she launched a website advertising her creations and offering an expanded line of merchandise.

“Now I’ve got so much work I can hardly keep up,” says Stone, forty, who lives in Byhalia, Mississippi. “I have people from all over the United States calling me asking me, ‘Can you do this,’ ‘Can you do that.’ And I’m one who has a hard time saying no, so I usually try to accommodate everybody.”

She doesn’t make nearly what she used to make at FedEx, but as a tradeoff for being home with her children and homeschooling her older daughter, “it all breaks even to me.”

For the chance for a parent to stay home and care for the children—to take them to playgrounds and the beach, to be there when they get home from school, to avoid the frantic schedules and frustrating compromises involved in balancing full-time work and raising children—many families willingly make sacrifices. Plenty of single-income families cheerfully forgo new cars, fancy vacations and other luxuries. But in the current recession, the worst in recent memory, those measures may not be enough. What once seemed like a reasonable and rewarding choice has forced many single-income families to rethink their decision.

Not all stay-at-home mothers are as lucky as Stone, able to monetize their talent and ideas in a pinch. But many are casting about for ways to improve their earning power. With spouses’ jobs threatened, investments and home values clobbered, and household budgets straining at the seams, mothers who have spent years comfortably at home have started brushing the dust off their résumés, or looking for ways to make extra income on their own.

Experts aren’t certain exactly how many stay-at-home mothers have returned to work, or where, or doing what. And although economic cataclysms can bring about long-term changes in social, economic, and political behavior, it’s not yet clear what the consequences will be this time around. “You can never be in the eye of the storm and know what’s happening,” says Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard University and the author of Understanding the Gender Gap: An Economic History of American Women (1990). But the logical assumption that hard times might push at-home mothers back into the workplace seems to be supported by federal statistics, Goldin says. The number of women in the labor force, which includes women actually working as well as those just looking for work, has inched upward, suggesting that some women who had previously kept themselves out of the labor force (including at-home mothers), are at least trying to get back in.

“This recession has brought home to huge numbers of women that opting out is just too scary from a family finance point of view,” said Joan Williams, a legal scholar and director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California. “It has been a rude awakening and has dramatized for people the true economic consequences.”

Women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, now hold about half of all jobs. The recession, sometimes called a “man-cession” or “he-cession” because about three-quarters of those who have lost jobs are men, has battered male-dominated industries, such as construction and manufacturing, whereas jobs in female-dominated professions like healthcare and education are stable or growing.

Though still digesting what women might gain from this new strength in numbers, some observers hope that it will finally prompt long-sought changes in both homes and workplaces that could potentially improve mothers’ lives. A national study of women’s status published in October, titled A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything, examines various issues that complicate the lives of working parents—particularly those of mothers—and floats the idea that women’s increased representation in the workplace could spur dramatic societal change. Spearheaded by California First Lady and Kennedy clan member Maria Shriver, along with the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington think tank, the report argues that government and businesses should adjust policies to meet the needs of their women employees. The report also suggests that men are seeing, or at least at some point will see, the need to do their fair share at home, becoming equal partners with their co-breadwinners in household chores and childcare. Some commentators, including feminist leader Gloria Steinem, have noted that women’s mere presence in the work force may not be enough to spur these changes, but applaud the report for putting the conversation on the table.

Most mothers want to work, even if many would prefer part-time. A 2005 poll by the Institute for American Values demonstrated that, if given the choice, more than two-thirds of women would opt in to working, at least part time, while their children were young. The good news is that their contributions seem to be welcome; in a recent study conducted by Time magazine and the Rockefeller Foundation, majorities of both men and women said mothers are just as committed to their jobs as women without children, and just as productive at work as fathers. (However, the respondents seemed conflicted about how this might play out at home: Fifty-seven percent of men and fifty-one percent of women agreed that it is better for a family if the father works outside the home and the mother takes care of the children.)

With more women bringing home the bacon, families and employers may better appreciate the importance of women’s earnings, said Heather Boushey, a senior economist at the Center for American Progress. “Policy makers are hopefully going to start taking seriously the need for workers to balance work and care—not just women but all workers.”

That would be great news for mothers who’ve felt unwillingly squeezed out of the workplace by policies that don’t accommodate the needs of families, according to Pamela Stone, author of Opting Out?: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home (2007). In her book, Stone (no relation to artist Amy) interviewed mothers who “actually loved their jobs, wanted to stay in their jobs” but eventually left them because they found their demanding schedules made staying at work and raising children too difficult.

Much as mothers might need and desire more workplace options—flexible hours, part-time work, telecommuting—in tough times some employers conclude that they can’t afford to offer those things, possibly becoming even more inhospitable to parents’ needs, Williams, of Worklife Law, says. And employees, thankful to have jobs at all, are more afraid to rock the boat. So at-home mothers returning to work may find the workplace more hostile than it was when they left.

Indeed, Pamela Stone says, the recession might have changed the outlook of women like those she interviewed, forcing them to find ways to stick it out at work, a decision she says would probably be for the best. “Because it’s too perilous a time,” she says. “Based on where things are now, and what I know about some of the difficulties about returning to work, if you’ve got a job that you can make work, make it work.”

But there are some indications that workplaces are already becoming more flexible, not just to make moms happy but also to control businesses’ own costs. A study conducted in 2009 by the Families and Work Institute in New York found that eighty-one percent of employers have maintained the level of flexibility they offered before the economic meltdown, and thirteen percent have increased it, offering perks such as telecommuting, compressed workweeks, voluntary reduced hours, and phased retirement.

“Workplace flexibility is one of the hidden, strategic workplace management tools that has allowed employers to respond to many different ups and down,” said Lois Backon, vice president of the Institute.

Turns out such measures aren’t just a boon to parents and others employees who’d like to work fewer hours: They also help businesses cut costs, not to mention hang onto valuable employees rather than lay them off, Williams says. “One of the great problems in managing a recession is gearing up once it’s over. If you give everybody the opportunity to flex their hours and reduce them if they want … once the demand returns, you already have the people you need on staff.”

Those flexible options may be great for many parents, but mothers reentering the work force after years away may be reluctant to take advantage of them, for fear of seeming less than fully dedicated. New employees often feel they first need to prove themselves, said Melissa Stanton, author of The Stay-at-Home Survival Guide: Field-Tested Strategies for Staying Smart, Sane, and Connected While Caring for Your Kids (2008). Stanton, who has three children and lives in suburban Washington, D.C., is job hunting herself these days. She applied for one contract position that would have required her to commute into the city five days a week. When she asked to work from home twice a week, the employer declined, and she didn’t get the job. Now she feels she should have taken the job as it was offered, proved her value, and then asked for a partial telecommuting arrangement.

“That’s advice that was given to me by a woman who’s got a really great job that she can now do at home,” Stanton said. “You go in and you work your butt off, and for a year or two your children and your spouse need to know you may not be at home until eight o’clock at night, the kids might be in bed by the time you get home.”

But that kind of full-throttle work commitment is a pretty tall order for many mothers, still burdened with more than their share of housework and childcare. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, even employed married mothers of young children do two-thirds of the household work. Men have started doing more around the house, but still far from half, said Dianna Shandy and Karine Moe, authors of Glass Ceilings & 100-Hour Couples: What the Opt-Out Phenomenon Can Teach Us About Work and Family (2009). Despite all that women have gained in the workplace, the division of household chores can sometimes seem “like a page ripped out of a history book or something,” Moe says.

One woman the authors interviewed for their book, a woman who held an MBA from an Ivy League school (as did her husband), said that after becoming a mother she noticed all of the changes she had made in her life to accommodate her new role.

“And she looked at her husband, and he had not made one single change,” Moe says. “She said, ‘We’re like this 1950s couple, and I don’t know how that happened.’ “

Kathy Pape of Las Vegas has been frustrated with the division of work in her family. Pape left a job as a television reporter in Monterey, California, to stay home with her two small sons. But since her husband, a photojournalist for a television network, had his pay reduced, cutting the family’s income by hundreds of dollars a month, Pape has been helping make ends meet with freelance public-relations jobs. Now she works about forty hours a week (her husband works about fifty), but she still does all of the cooking, cleaning, laundry, and shopping.

“I love my husband, but he doesn’t do any of that stuff,” says Pape, thirty-five. “He gives me the old, ‘I go to work every day, I’m tired.’ He has no clue how it is, none.”

Meanwhile, the recession also is limiting the extent to which families such as Pape’s can pay for conveniences and outside help with domestic chores. For example, Pape has had to cut back on both ready-cooked deli meals and babysitters. Lately, when she’s at the computer in the daytime her sixteen-month-old has started “pulling the bottom drawer of my desk out, standing on it, trying to hit the mouse, hit the keyboard,” so she does most of her public-relations work at night, when the kids are in bed.

Yet she’s glad to have the chance to be home with her kids, she says. “You only get that shot once, and then they grow up.”

Could the recession mean the end of the so-called helicopter parent, who feels obliged to monitor his or her child’s every move and schedule the child with wall-to-wall classes, sports and activities intended to ensure his success in school and later life?

Logic suggests that strapped parents are less able to spend either time or money on their kids. Indeed, Pamela Stone suggests, at-home mothers who have felt obliged to sacrifice jobs and financial gain on behalf of their kids might eventually decide that providing financially for one’s kids is also part of caregiving, and that financial decisions that jeopardize mothers put their kids at risk, too.

“I think that there’s so much in our culture that really puts pressure on working moms to quit—the guilt trip and the like,” Stone says. When it gets tough, it helps to “keep remembering that the vast majority of moms are working.”

But hyperparenting may not die out so easily, says Hara Estroff Marano, author of A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting (2008). After all, overprotective parents usually act that way out of anxiety, and a recession certainly doesn’t help to allay anxiety.

“Anxiety doesn’t follow logic,” she said. “Anxiety has been ratcheted up in the recession. Parents are even more worried about the future of their kids. … It filters into a style of parenting that you have to be more vigilant, you have to monitor, there’s no room for a mistake. Perfection becomes the goal.”

Marano said that when she speaks to groups of parents, people in attendance seem more anxious than ever. For example, she says, some parents feel it’s even more important now for kids to get into competitive colleges. So they are “hiring tutors for this, tutors for that, are much more eager to see their kids on travel teams so the kids could get onto the varsity team.

Even in the best of times, re-entry in the job market can be tough for mothers who have been at home for a while. Experts say they already face various stigmas and assumptions, from ageism to the suspicion that they’re not sufficiently committed, dependable, ambitious or capable. In a 2007 study by psychologists at Northwestern, Princeton and Lawrence Universities, researchers measuring public perceptions of different groups found that “housewives” were perceived to be approximately as competent as elderly and mentally retarded people.

Jennifer Piehl has faced this uphill re-entry battle firsthand. For more than eleven years, she was a mostly full-time at-home mother to her three children, taking a few jobs as a tutor but rarely working more than a few hours a week. Being at home gave her the flexibility to get extra help for a son who has a hearing impairment.

Now, though, she is getting a divorce. Although she and her husband jointly made the decision for her to stay home, it is Piehl who is paying a steep and personal price for it. At thirty-eight, she has little means of supporting herself aside from whatever she winds up with in child support and alimony.

The financial inequities between Piehl and her soon-to-be ex-husband are stark. He earns more than $100,000 a year as a project manager for a large company, and hopes to buy out her share of their 3,100-square-foot house. Piehl earns $60 a week (at best) when she can get private tutoring jobs, plus whatever child support and spousal maintenance her husband winds up contributing. She will have to pay for her own health insurance. Her husband has urged her to buy a condominium, but she doesn’t want to do that because she can’t count on a steady income over the life of a mortgage. “My spousal maintenance doesn’t last thirty years. My child support doesn’t last thirty years,” Piehl says. “When my oldest turns eighteen, which is only seven and a half years from now, I start losing money. I can’t bank on getting remarried.” Instead, Piehl has moved in with her parents in a suburb outside Milwaukee.

Piehl has begun looking for a job, but having sent out more than fifty résumés, she’s been called for only a handful of interviews. Though she has a master’s degree in education, she has never taught full time, which she fears makes her appear simultaneously overqualified (teachers with post-graduate degrees get higher salaries) and underqualified. There’s no question that her years out of the full-time work force have placed her at a serious economic disadvantage.

She is hardly alone. According to recent numbers, getting hired is more difficult than ever for almost everyone. According to Boushey, the economist, thirty-six percent of unemployed workers have become so discouraged that they’ve dropped out of the job market altogether for at least six months, the highest percentage since World War II. (The previous peak was twenty-six percent.) The employment picture varies from one industry to another, Boushey says, but statistically speaking, for every available job there are 6.3 people actively seeking work. In other words, someone applying for a job can expect, on average, more than five competitors—particularly dismal odds for those with gaps in their work history.

“For mothers, with that kind of competition, it kind of makes my stomach drop a little bit,” Boushey says.

Meanwhile, some mothers have found themselves opting out involuntarily. Margot Diamond, once a fast-track executive has been an at-home mother since she was laid off a year ago. Although she has made the most of her chance to take her two girls to activities, help with their homework and fix healthy meals, she wants to go back to work. So far, she can’t.

“I graduated college in 1987, and I have never seen an economy like this one,” says Diamond, a former product-development executive in suburban Dallas.

She has been laid off before, but other times she was able to get back to work fairly quickly. Recruiters courted her; big companies flew her around the country for interviews. This time, the phone isn’t ringing; the two hundred and fifty or so résumés she has sent out have generated only a handful of interviews.

“Somehow, whatever worked before is just not working this time, because no one’s hiring,” she says. As time goes on, she worries that employers will question her absence from the work force. “I know it’s more understood now, the way the economy is. Still, a year is a year.”

She’s willing to take a pay cut. In fact, Diamond, who once made more than $90,000 a year, has applied for unskilled retail jobs at the local mall—at Coach, J.Crew, Ann Taylor—without any luck. Which might be just as well, she acknowledges, considering that those jobs entail less-than-ideal hours and wages.

“Do I want to work on Saturdays and Sundays and not see my husband and kids, for eight dollars an hour, which is going to get taxed?” she wonders. “Or should I be providing value for my family?”

Author’s Note: I’m recently divorced after working very part time for many years. So I’m looking for a steadier paycheck, and can more than empathize with the women in this story facing their own financial predicaments. Much as I’d like to have found better news for all of us, it still seems too soon for much optimism. Frankly, in many professions, it sucks out there these days. But I’m inspired by people like Amy Stone, and other women I talked to, who look at the tough times as an opportunity to remake their lives—maybe even in a way that suits them better than what they would have chosen under easier circumstances.

The other great thing about looking for work in a recession is that you don’t feel lonely. It’s yet another reason for mothers—working full time or at home with children or somewhere in between—to stick together. Whatever our employment status, we all know the difficulty of trying to squeeze in all of our responsibilities, and maybe find a shred of time here and there for ourselves.

Brain, Child (Winter, 2010)

About the Author: Katy Read’s essays, articles and reviews have appeared in Salon, Brevity, River Teeth, Chautauqua Literary Journal, Literal Latte, Minnesota Monthly, the Chicago Sun-Times and other publications. She has been awarded a 2013 Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Art Board to work on a collection of essays. She has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize and been honored in literary competitions including theChautauqua Literary Journal Prize for Prose, the Literal Latte Essay Awards, the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition and the Mid-American Review Creative Nonfiction Competition. She is a reporter for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, where she lives with her two sons.