Wednesday, February 16, 2005

I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and gosh darnit, my kid likes me

The cover of Newsweek right now proclaims: "The Myth of the Perfect Mother."

In the cover story, Mommy Madness, Judith Warner writes about how moms are falling all over themselves trying to be supermoms, using lots of anecdotes about friends of hers--and about Warner herself--who are all frazzled, harried moms. It very much reminded me of a popular book I really did not like at all, I Don't Know How She Does It by Allison Pearson. The protagonist of that book was a crazily busy career woman with two kids, a nanny, and a sweet husband. She felt like she was always in a competition with the other moms--the Martha Stewarty moms, with the kids who were always clean and polite and perfect. I read the book when I was pregnant, but even then, I knew I would never be able to relate to this woman.

Don't misunderstand me. I am one competitive woman (while drinking, I've been known to challenge my girlfriends to an arm wrestling match, and you'd best not mess with me during Jeopardy! or I will hurt you). But for some reason, I never saw motherhood as something to get all competitive over.

Anyway, I was speeding along through Warner's article, until I came to the inevitable social critique:

Most of us in this generation grew up believing that we had fantastic, unlimited, freedom of choice. Yet as mothers many women face "choices" on the order of: You can continue to pursue your professional dreams at the cost of abandoning your children to long hours of inadequate child care. Or: You can stay at home with your baby and live in a state of virtual, crazy-making isolation because you can't afford a nanny, because there is no such thing as part-time day care, and because your husband doesn't come home until 8:30 at night.

This is where I always have a problem with these types of articles, the ones that purport to show how hard it is for us moms, because we're left with these two alternatives, neither one good or healthy for all parties invovled. But the reality is, life is not an either/or. The vast majority of us are not limited to two choices. There's a lot of gray in between these black and white contrasts.

Which is not to say that I don't have major problems with how American society treats mothers. Hell, treats families. It certainly doesn't help that folks in the media perpetrate this notion of a zero-sum game. That we can be successful professionally, or that we can be supermoms, but that we can't be both, can't "have it all," because then we're all frazzled and crazy and we go without sleep and the only way out is to maybe one day write a book about it that sells hundreds of thousands of copies so that other harried moms can see themselves reflected and so that the zero-sum idea can be reinforced in our entertainment choices and ha ha ha isn't it funny how the main character purchases cookies from the store for her kid's bake sale--just like me!--ha ha ha ha....

Whew. Later on in the article, before delving into the practical, legislative changes that would certainly help the state of the American family, Warner writes:

For while many women can and do manage to accept (or at least adjust to) this situation for themselves, there's a twinge of real sadness that comes out when they talk about their daughters. As a forty-something mother living and working part-time in Washington, D.C. (and spending a disproportionate amount of her time managing the details of her daughter's—and her husband's—life), mused one evening to me, "I look at my daughter and I just want to know: what happened? Because look at us: it's 2002 and nothing's changed. My mother expected my life to be very different from hers, but now it's a lot more like hers than I expected, and from here I don't see where it will be different for my daughter. I don't want her to carry this crushing burden that's in our heads ... [But] what can make things different?"

And it was this woman's sentiment that made me realize why, perhaps, I just can't relate to any of this. Maybe the big difference is that I don't think my mother expected that my life would be much different from hers. A few key differences, I'm sure she hoped for (she probably hoped that, if I did get married, I wouldn't subsequently divorce as she had). But on the whole, I think my mom was happy with her life, happy with how she was raising me. Of course she must've had periods of doubt, but it was likely triggered by me and my moods, not by the comments of other mothers. I never had the sense that she even cared what other moms did in raising their kids. I know she put a lot of hours into her job, but I also know that she genuinely liked her job (she still does, in fact). She also put a lot of hours into spending time with me: taking me to movies, plays, baseball games. But, importantly, she always made time for herself. She joined a soccer league for women. She took dance classes. Naturally, that meant she wasn't spending her spare time keeping the house spotless or making fancy dinners. But what child would prefer a clutterless home and chicken cordon bleu to a happy, healthy mom?

Which leads me to the other mommy articles: Meet the Slacker Mom by Peg Tyre and Anna Quindlen's The Good Enough Mother. Both of these describe motherhood scenarios that I can more easily relate to. Honestly, after reading I Don't Know How She Does It, I thought, "Well, maybe after I have a child, I'll feel different and I'll suddenly be so concerned about being perfect at everything." And then, when I had my baby and still wasn't like that, I thought, "Well, maybe once my son is in daycare with the other kids, and I see the other mommies..."

Well, it's been a year and a half. I still feel like myself. I still don't give a crap if complete strangers (or even close friends, really) think I'm a subpar mom. I still don't feel the need to put on some show, to make believe I can be a hard-driven attorney, putting in long hours at work, and also be the June Cleaver of my street, baking pies and steam-cleaning the drapes.

I'll let y'all know if that changes, but I doubt it.

3 Comments:

Blogger barbara curtis said...

I enjoyed your take on this irritating article. I found Judith Whiner and her demographic to be narcissistic and elitist. Life isn't perfect for anyone -- including fathers and the children of women who have such ambivalent feelings about raising them. see my take at http://megamommy.typepad.com/mommylife

10:33 PM, February 17, 2005  
Anonymous Blogbelle said...

I agree with your take on the article, but I'm also confused. Being a 25 year-old law student, it's hard for me to imagine the possibility of having a child and having it NOT change the way you run your life, as you've said it hasn't changed you. And I tend to agree with that woman in the article, saying that her mother wanted more for her, but I think you've interpreted it differently than what she meant. I think the woman was saying that her mother had hoped the entire family wouldn't be dependent upon her (the daughter), and that she wouldn't be the primary one who is actually *running* the family. The quandary I face, and I'm sure you did too, is how I'm going to manage a family and a career, when I can barely manage myself. I don't know. I apologize for the incoherence of these thoughts, it's just that motherhood scares me, and losing my sense of self scares me even more. Clearly I'm not ready for any of that.

12:49 AM, February 19, 2005  
Blogger Angry Pregnant Lawyer said...

Blogbelle, maybe I wasn't clear in my post. You're absolutely correct in that having a child will change your life. You have to take your child into account in almost every decision you make (where to go, what time to eat, what time to see a movie, what food to buy at the grocery store, ...). But what I was trying to say in my post--maybe not successfully--was that it hasn't changed my filter: I've always kind of filtered out other peoples' notions of what I should be. And now, I don't really look to other people (OK, except my mom) for confirmation that I'm a "good mother," whatever the hell that is. I think many of the moms Judith Warner talked to (only 150, mostly in urban centers like DC and NYC) care too much about what other mommies think about them, and get caught up in the mommy competition.

I also agree with you that motherhood is scary--this notion that you are completely responsible for this little human being for the rest of your life, the sense that it will never end! It can definitely be overwhelming. And one thing I didn't mention in my post--one thing that makes a world of difference--is that I have a husband who is also invested in this family, this home, and in parenting. I would definitely be harried and crazy--and, as you put it, would lose my sense of self--if not for him and all that he does.

1:23 PM, February 19, 2005  

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