Monday, February 21, 2005

The unreasonable search for perfection

On Sunday I read the Newsweek cover article "The Myth of the Perfect Mother" which is accessible through the post title above.

The article, which I agree with on many points, says that the current generation of young mothers are struggling to survive motherhood because they find themselves unable to meet the expectations they have set for themselves.

Its a stereotype that is based on a great deal of fact today--the harried mother that struggles to maintain her career while reserving that valuable "quality time" for her children. In the process, they are harried at work, exhausted, and unfulfilled. The article author, who wrote a longer book on the subject, Perfect Madness, claims that women living this life are reliving the problems that Betty Friedan described in The Feminine Mystique decades ago, but reversed. It might go something like, "I work and I work; I nurture and I nurture, but what is in it for me? Is this all my life is. So much struggle and so little personal fulfillment?"

Why do they do this? Why didn't earlier generations face this issue? Warner argues that this generation of mothers grew up in the Title IX era and were told they were just like boys and nothing could prevent them from living the outside life that everyone else has. But they also grew up in the age where science tells us that children's brains are malleable--especially at a young age--and are therefore best nurtured into the ultimate childhood state of perfection.

So, these women face the pressures of the career climber and the expectations of society to be good moms--because if they don't then who will? Daycares and schools are inadequate, according to the article, so they must do it on their own. And it seems that men are of no help. I suppose they are too busy living their own career dreams or something.

I know that these women portrayed by Warner are probably living in urban areas on the East Coast and I have watched enough NBC sitcoms over the years to have a pretty good idea what it means to live there. All competitive, gymboree, Pottery Barn, and Gap, Williams-Sonoma cookwear, etc. So, their experiences as a parent are appropriate to their environment.

But, this article seems to ring a bit hollow to me--not the least important reason being that I am not the mother, right? I therefore don't have a good sense of the pressures of being a modern woman. I broached this subject with Tegan and she agreed that environment had a lot to do with the pressures these women felt.

First of all, we put our girls in daycare and while it is expensive, I have never worried that the care there is inadequate. The article says that so much of the difficulties for women is that they can't trust others with their kids. Is care better here in the bucolic Midwest . . . or are they setting standards that are too high? Are men on the East coast too career minded, or is the standard of living too high, or am I the only good father left in the entire nation?

Have Tegan and I set our sights and our expectations for our girls too low? Are we dooming them to educations in horrible public schools, state colleges, and mediocre futures? All so that we can get a decent night's sleep and spend Saturday cleaning the house rather than at neo-natal swim class and nursery age soccer practice?

Yeah, probably. But as Anna Quindlen argues in counterpoint to Warner's article, is that so bad?

I expect the pressures on T and I will rise as the kids get older. The competitions and the comparisons will increase. Their futures will become more real. Their opportunities for activities will expand. How will we handle it then?

I guess I should start worrying about it now, huh?

1 comment:

lulu said...

As I was walking out of Walgreen's with my sick and snotty child the other night, I saw the cover of Newsweek and felt a quick wave of anxiety. Not because I thought "Oh my gosh! AM I the perfect mother?" But because I am SO SICK of articles like this! And so suspicious. Is this just another backlash? Another article meant to make women feel bad about what they're doing/not doing (especially if they are (gasp!) working)? Another article about uptight middle-class conformist suburban moms?

As it turns out, yes! Though the article made some good points about the need for us to work collectively for decent and AFFORDABLE child care (including a living wage so child care workers can afford to be child care workers) and a change in corporate culture, it basically outlined the concerns of women who take themselves way too seriously and who fail to see that their economic condition DOES give them choices--lots of them. Meanwhile, it failed to take into account the dire needs of poor women who have the real--and ignored--problems. I cannot muster sympathy for women who fall into these avoidable traps--avoidable because they have the money and education to know better--and then complain about it.

You know what? Raising children has never been easy! The generations that were able to stay at home did so at an economic, social, and political cost that many women today would consider unthinkable. They worked just as hard. And they didn't have birth control, either. If you want to stay home, bake pies, and watch your little Huck Finns and Anne of Green Gables walk barefoot to the fishin' hole, then move to the country and do it! Just know that you're going to have to give up the SUV, the credit-damaging trips to Target, the stainless steel stovetops. You're going to have to STOP SPENDING. Really. That seems to be so much of what's going on here.

Hooray for Anna Quindlen! Children need parents to be laid back! They need daddies who will spend 5 minutes trying to get a PJ shirt off because you (child) keep sticking your arms back in the holes. And both of you are laughing. They need to know that parents hate soccer and Chutes and Ladders:

"But I really wanted to be reading rather than standing on the sidelines pretending my kids were soccer prodigies. Maybe I had three children in the first place so I wouldn't ever have to play board games."

I am this kind of mom. We get the kid out, we expose him to different things, but really we just have fun, we trust him to keep asking questions and ourselves to answer them, and we have a great time--and he knows we do.

Kids need other people to teach them. I feel fine about leaving Stevie at daycare--those people like children a heck of a lot more than I do, and they have people around to check themselves when they grow impatient! Their job is to teach my kid the things that I can't/won't. And they do a good job. And I can afford it. And I chose to work. And my mother--single, forced to work--had it a hell a lot worse than me. And my grandmothers--one abandoned after giving birth to her third child and forced to make a living, with no higher education, in a small town in the 1950s; the other who woke up to find the house on fire and had to grab up two babies and run outside, barefoot, in the snow, and watch everything she owned burn, with no money and few to help her--well, I'm not jealous.