Mom's the Word
At the turn of the millennium, Bridget Jones and the Sex and the City girls heralded a new era of fun, fearless singledom. Chick lit, accompanied by memoirs and anthologies about single womanhood, made it whimsical for an otherwise-capable woman to be vain, proud of her missteps and mistakes, and heartbroken over her inability to find a man. Now, what happens in the next chapter after Ms. Adorably Quirky has found Mr. Right? She manifests new neuroses and fears as she enters the brave new world of motherhood.
As these formerly maligned single women are pairing up and settling down, the media has turned its attention to how the former chicks are parenting. Journalists have tried to shed light on the much-publicized “mommy wars,” pitting working and stay-at-home moms against one another. In sociological texts such as Naomi Wolf’s Misconceptions, Susan J. Douglas and Meredith Michaels’s The Mommy Myth, and Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness, writers have tried to untangle the complex web of mistruths and myths about modern motherhood. In such a spotlight, motherhood has become less about childrearing and more about the mother herself; motherhood has become a role that further forms and completes a woman’s identity.
In 2006, the New York Times published a front-page article trumpeting the news that 19- to 22-year-old college women were more interested in settling down than in careers. Based on a tiny sampling and a small number of answers to hypothetical questions, the article claimed that given the choice, well-educated and ambitious women who should have been the dream daughters of second-wave feminists would love to become stay-at-home moms. Though outlets like Slate and Women’s eNews were quick to note the story’s shoddy reporting and methodology, the article nonetheless seemed like the apex of a media frenzy hell-bent on perpetuating the myth that motherhood is integral to a woman’s identity. At its crux was the idea that even if a woman isn’t a mother yet, she should have a very good idea of what type of mom she plans on being—just as a single woman should know exactly what type of spouse she is seeking.
This new focus on parenting as an extension of self-identification, coupled with the fact that reproductive technology now allows affluent women to go to extraordinary measures to conceive, has created an uneasy trinity of parenting literature. There are how-to books (ranging from the stalwart What to Expect When You’re Expecting to the irreverent The Three-Martini Playdate); sociological texts that untangle the mess the media has made of motherhood (running the gamut from Ann Crittenden’s stern The Price of Motherhood to Linda R. Hirshman’s revolutionary Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World), and a slew of new fiction, memoirs, magazine columns, and blogs that help define these new parents.
In the past, the most significant parenting books either told parents what to do (hello, Dr. Spock) or advised them to laugh a little when they got it wrong (thanks, Erma Bombeck). Judging by the new glut of parenting lit, contemporary parents—and though fathers do pop up, parenting is still assumed to be chiefly the mother’s role—don’t want to be told how to do it, only reassured that their choice to have children is the right one. Today’s mom is part of a global community where she feels the constant pressure to buy the right organic food, push the safest stroller, and shield her growing bundles from the ills of toxic off-gassing, global warming, and network tv. She must also compete with moms ranging from Angelina Jolie to Britney Spears to the Prada-clad models who frolic with their faux children in Cookie magazine.
Author Judith Warner postulates in 2005’s mommy-myth deconstruction Perfect Madness that “most of the post-baby boom generation learned their feminism through going to school and through the popular media. The watered-down, power-through-control vision of female selfhood we imbibed became the backbone of identity.” That is to say, women growing up in the 1970s and 1980s identified reproductive control as their primary means to empowerment. This identification has formed the bedrock of literature for today’s modern mom: If anything, these books are all about choice. Are you a Mother Who Thinks? A Mommy Who Drinks? A Bitch in the House? An Alternadad? Are you Searching for Mary Poppins? Do you Not Know How She Does It? Whatever their orientation, these books transform parenting from the act of nurturing to a means for parents to get the most out of their own lives.
Indeed, for a certain group of upper-middle-class writers, like Ayelet Waldman, Pamela Kruger, Jacquelyn Mitchard, and Susan Cheever, anecdotes about kids provide a steady supplemental income. With the ability to manipulate and find meaning in the mundane, these writers have defined what’s being described in the media as a motherhood movement, rather than revealing it as a carefully constructed literary conceit.
What’s in it for me?
At the center of each one of these books and essays is a supermom figure; each mother invokes her in lengthy ruminations about who she is or wants to be as a parent. The supermom is a mysterious archetype who keeps on top of her children’s development, provides age-appropriate life lessons, spends just enough time with her children, and has a fulfilling life outside of her family (but not to the exclusion of her children). In general, she is smart, sexy as hell, cool as a cucumber, and can effortlessly coordinate her work and home life from anywhere on her pda. But none of these works’ protagonists are supermoms themselves; instead, the purely imaginary archetype is bemoaned, railed against, and idolized.
Although nonfiction books like The Price of Motherhood attest to the fact that mothers still struggle with a work-family imbalance unchanged by public policy and corporate culture, when fictional mothers strive for the supermom ideal, their problems and neuroses are invariably turned into a series of madcap missteps. In Allison Pearson’s 2002 novel I Don’t Know How She Does It, protagonist Kate Reddy seems to have it all: She is a smart, successful hedge fund manager with two kids and a sweet, slightly clueless architect husband. However, as Pearson depicts Kate’s frantic notes to herself, jealous thoughts about her nanny, and terrible trip to Disneyland Paris, the reader realizes that Kate doesn’t know how she does it either, or, more importantly, why she does it. Kate is, on the one hand, professionally successful, but finds herself desperately trying to measure up to stay-at-home mothers she knows. (The book’s opening scene, in which Kate desperately crushes store-bought pies in an attempt to make them look homemade, has become such a recognizable image of mom-lit that Warner uses it in Perfect Madness to illustrate the similarities of the fictional Kate to the real subjects she interviewed for her research.)
Is fictional pie-crushing more or less depressing than an anecdote in Perfect Madness about a fortysomething professional reduced to tears over planning her child’s fourth birthday party? More important, why have both come to seem so unremarkable? Warner uses such incidents to illustrate the skewed perspective of modern motherhood, in which the mother’s success is paramount. In mommy-lit, their absurdity replaces plot structure. Either way, the result is that such despair is posited as the norm for mothers.
Evident in both madcap fiction and earnest essays is the idea that today’s parents expect their offspring to validate the choice of parenthood. Both fictional and real parents feel that they need something in exchange for the martyrdom of parenthood. In 2007’s Alternadad, one of the few daddy-lit books in recent years, Neal Pollack recounts how he chronicled his son’s biting phase in Salon. The article, he recalls, inspired a barrage of insults on the website’s message boards. One anonymous comment on their parenting skills angered his wife so much that she exploded with anger, saying, “I gave my body over to him for 18 months—so he could have a good start! I gave up everything! And it was all for him—I gave up my painting!”
By writing about the misadventures of his preverbal son in a public forum, Pollack opened himself up for criticism. But when his parenting skills are criticized, the criticism becomes a below-the-belt attack because of the sacrifice of parenthood. The contradiction of parenting as a privilege and a sacrifice is a common thread through parenting lit. It also places an enormous amount of pressure on kids. Elisha Cooper, a columnist for hipster parenting site Babble.com, recently recounted how frustrated and close to snapping he feels when his daughter won’t stop crying. The title of the essay—“Face Off: Fights I’ve Had With My 3-Month-Old,”—and Cooper’s need to micromanage his daughter’s emotions are things that wouldn’t have existed in Bombeck’s era. The humor of Cooper’s essay comes from the fact that the idea of getting into a fight with a 3-month-old is inherently ridiculous, but that this concept can even be explored illustrates that, no matter how self-aware, these parents feel their child should be both complicit and cooperative in the parenting process.
Childbirth, whether all-natural or medically engineered, is an increasingly expensive undertaking, but commercialization in the parenting sphere is most evident in the newer writing on it. And for many, it seems that getting the most out of parenting means buying the most. The childhood celebrated in the pages of a new crop of parenting literature is borne from perfectly groomed, white, heterosexual nuclear families with more than a fair amount of discretionary income earmarked to lavish on their children.
In the 2007 mommy-lit entry The Yummy Mummy, readers are introduced to Amy Crane, a West London woman who could easily have palled around with Bridget Jones 10 years prior. The title phrase “yummy mummy” has already crept into popular jargon as a polite alternative to milf (“mother I’d like to fuck”) and is used to describe not only inexplicably toned celebrity mothers like Victoria Beckham and Denise Richards but any woman who retains—and displays—her postbaby bod. In the book, Amy meets a group of unemployed, well-off Yummies and sees them as a way to reconcile her own ambivalence about parenting. If she recasts herself as a Yummy, complete with an overhaul that includes Seven jeans, Tod’s shoes, a restrictive diet, Botox, and a near affair with her Pilates instructor, she will have some sort of identity that’s preferable to the loneliness and confusion she feels as a new mom.
Naturally, Amy loses herself and almost loses her boyfriend in the transformation. She ends the book by renouncing the Yummies and realizing that, sigh, “Life doesn’t always conform to expectation, and it is possible to choose a happy ending.” In other words, she’s still a mom, but now she’s a little bit sexier. Amy hasn’t reached any deep self-understanding, she has only careened from one identity to another.
In her novel Tales from the Crib, Risa Green finds humor in the fact that main character Lara is the only mom in her Mommy and Me class with a Snap-N-Go stroller instead of the pricier Bugaboo. Although Lara derides the other “mommunists” behind their backs, she still feels left out and awkward at each subsequent playgroup. Indeed, the recently published This Little Piggy Went to Prada (subtitled Nursery Rhymes for the Blahnik Brigade) is an odious illustration of how buying power has trickled down to the smallest set. Favorites like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” are reinterpreted as “Front Row for the show/With the Harpers Team/ Head to Toe in Moschino/Mummy Looks a Dream.”
This focus on attaining the accoutrements of motherhood sanitizes the concept of motherhood and removes the danger of exposing hidden, subconscious parts of oneself. If everything can be solved with the best stroller, the right nanny, or the perfect Mommy and Me yoga class, then the appearance of perfect motherhood is attainable. More than anything else, motherhood’s commercialization accounts for the change in its portrayal since Adrienne Rich’s seminal 1976 text, Of Woman Born, or Anne Lamott’s later classic, Operating Instructions. Neither book attempted to simplify, summarize, or commodify motherhood’s necessarily messy contradictions; in Lamott’s book, a memoir of her son’s first year, she writes, “One of the worst things about being a parent, for me, is the self-discovery, the being face to face with one’s secret insanity and brokenness and rage.” These feelings are out of place for the millennium parent because they are messy, inconvenient, and altogether avoidable with the right support staff in place. In the anthology Searching for Mary Poppins, for example, essay after essay chronicles a new mom reaching an existential crisis of not knowing who she is anymore. Then she realizes salvation and reclamation can be had for about $8 an hour—the wage of a woman without a green card struggling to earn a living as a nanny. This literature seems to say today’s moms have no excuse to feel scattered or overwhelmed, because sanity can be purchased through the right people, classes, and accessories.
Everything she does is magic
Both fiction and nonfiction show a need for external validation and acquisition, suggesting that for today’s overeducated, overthinking, and overspending parent, simple faith and self-confidence in one’s ability to raise a child is no longer enough. Rather, every potential action must not only be documented but also confirmed. From Maybe, Baby (an anthology of essays about conception) to The Empty Nest (an anthology of essays about dropping kids off at college), every moment and transitional stage of a child’s life is examined, probed, and molded into an Experience that proves and pinpoints the meaning of parenthood.
Parenting lit places hopes, dreams, and desires on the small shoulders of the preverbal set—unfortunately, it’s usually their parents’ hopes, dreams, and desires. Unlike the fun, fearless female heroine of chick-lit memoirs and fiction who is determined to seek true love and adventure, there seems to be no concrete goal of parental navel-gazing other than documentation itself. In today’s hypercompetitive culture, superior parenting must be proven by intellect, not instinct. Proof of successful parenting does not come from action, but from reason and logic. Salon’s “Mothers Who Think” column and subsequent book posits an alternative to an imaginary default “Mothers Who Don’t Think.” However, it’s safe to assume that these mothers are thinking pretty much exclusively about mothering, and the book preaches a leave-no-stone-unturned examination of parenthood’s daily minutiae.
Furthermore, in this new world, where merely being a parent is a license to write, kids are invariably drafted into service to showcase their parents’ lifestyles and tastes. Babies couldn’t care less if their onesie bears a picture of Joey Ramone, but their parents sure do. Parents who turn their noses up at Raffi and The Wiggles can brag, as Neal Pollack did in a New York magazine article, of their spawns’ preference for Wilco. A recent Cookie magazine article profiles a couple who runs their own business and spend weekends antiquing with their 6-year-old son, Atticus. A particularly alarming passage reads, “Atticus is savvy enough to see the value of items outside his toybox as well. He grew so attached to his parents’ collection of landscape paintings that he appropriated the lot of them for his bedroom.”
Anecdotes about games of Hungry Hungry Hippos gone awry have their place in the literary world, but the problem with parenting lit is that it conflates and muddles the identities of parents and children. At its most banal, it makes parenting seem like an endless series of Herculean tasks that can never be achieved successfully. At its worst, it gives further credence to the idea that a mother’s or father’s identity relies on the way they parent and that they should be able to parlay every second of their offspring’s childhood into overarching conclusions about their own lives.
And then there’s the question that should be at the heart of parenting literature: What about the kids? In taking every moment of childhood so seriously, there isn’t very much room for moments that aren’t anecdotally transcendent, let alone private moments of giggly family time. Moms might not be able to find meaning in the monotony of pushing toy trucks back and forth on the rug. Maybe the meaning, in the end, belongs to kids—not to be defined, analyzed, or blogged about, but just to exist.
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