The Cult of Motherhood
[This post started out as a response to this article, which was taken apart by James Lileks before I could take it apart myself. See here. It turned out to be something else, though the base of it lies in all the same aspects of the article that James pointed out. And because I'm putting it up here so late in the evening, you're getting tomorrow's post today!]
Soon after my daughter was born in 1990, I was encouraged to join a local mother's group. I did that and then was encouraged by some of those mothers to join various other groups - I think one was called Our Babies are Better than Yours and another was Face It, You Are A Lousy Parent. They were loose groups of a couple of women each, and they would force their way into your home once a week to regale you with stories of how practically perfect in every way their children were and how your kids could be more like that. And you, more like them.
I was assaulted on all fronts. On Tuesdays, Grace would drop by and chastise me for using disposable diapers instead of cloth. On Thursdays, I got Mary and her desire to get me to make all of my baby's food from scratch. Friday evenings, Jane would drop by for Impressionist Art Flash Card Hour, and we'd watch Natalie drool and fall asleep as another Degas was held in front of her. Ballet School. This one is called Ball-et-schoooool. Nat was five months old. I told Jane that I didn't think the cards were making an impression on her (ha ha, get it?) and Jane informed me that children just absorbed information like sponges. Osmosis, baby. Renoir. Ren waaaaaaah.
The other days of the week I was visited by a stream of well meaning career mommies. This was at the height of the mommy wars. Stay at home moms and working moms were rumbling in the alleys, knives drawn and guns loaded. It was an ugly time to be a new mother, as you were constantly pressed upon to choose a side. The working mothers would attack you from one side: You'll lose your sense of identity if you don't continue your career! You'll spend your days with formula spit on your shirt and strained pees in your hair and some day you will resent your children for making you live the life of a slave to their childhood and you'll end up an old, bitter hag with a dysfunctional family! And the stay at home moms would counter attack: Your child will grow up with a sense of abandonment! You'll be too tired to help her with homework or read to her! She'll look for love everywhere else besides home and eventually she'll end up on a street corner selling herself for crack!
I just wanted to be. You know, learn the ropes on my own, just like my mother did. But I had people throwing all kinds of books at me, whipping out names of experts and filling my head with theories about family beds and weaning. I was being drilled on the proper way to teach an infant how to count and speak in three languages while simultaneously learning how to make organic mashed sweet potatoes and raise a family of goats for their nutritional milk and really, the only thing I wanted to know was why the hell was my daughter spewing vomit across the room at 90 mph? Oh, sure - the perfect mommies will teach you how to clean the house using non toxic, home made cleansers, but when it comes to projectile vomiting, they are completely useless.
I realized about six months in to this mothering thing that there was a Perfect Mommy cult and half of the members lived within shouting distance of me. My kid shouted, they came running. Pick her up immediately, or she'll feel like she can't trust you! Ok, but my mother said to just let her cry if she's not hungry or dirty and.... NO! Never let the baby cry, it causes irreparable damage!
Damn. Everything I did was wrong. Every move I made was somehow harming my daughter. Every wrong food fed, every pair of pajamas not washed by hand with organic soap, every diaper rash not treated with secretions from the pancreas of a rare breed of llama - I was inching my baby closer towards mental ruination. She was still an infant and already my failings as a mother were destroying her life. Help me, cult of motherhood, you're my only hope!
And so it went. By the time Nat reached toddlerhood, I was being instructed on which classes to sign her up for, which nursery schools to look at, which sports should she play and musical instruments she should master. The cult mommy's kids were scheduled from morning until night, seven days a week. Gymnastics, Karate, pee wee soccer, Spanish, art class, dancing, learning center, computer center, French, etiquette...these kids were THREE!
And all the while I was stuck in a game of tug-of-war between different parenting groups vying for my attention. When I say some of these women were batshit crazy, I am not exaggerating. They followed trends like some people follow sports teams - with this undying devotion. I half expected to show up for the "How To Get Your Baby To Sleep" lecture and walk into an auditorium filled with face-painted women wearing Ferber t-shirts and holding up "Let Her Cry It Out!" posters.
I was finding new motherhood stressful not because being a mother made it so, but because dealing with the other mothers made it so. I could never be sure if what I was doing was right. My values were constantly called into question. My skills were tested. I spent half my time with other mothers defending myself and my parenting choices. When another mother would come to my rescue, two more would pop out of the woodwork to enter the fray.
Why do so many otherwise competent and self-aware women lose themselves when they become mothers? Why do so many of us feel so out of control? And—the biggest question of all—why has this generation of mothers, arguably the most liberated and privileged group of women America has ever seen, driven themselves crazy in the quest for perfect mommy-dom?
And why do they want to drag everyone they know into their world of perceived perfectness? Because it justifies that world, of course. Karen, my super mom friend, was constantly trying to get me to go back to work full time. When she wasn't harping on that subject, she was throwing pamphlets at me for sports schools and dance schools. If I would just join her lifestyle, if I would just assimilate, then maybe she wouldn't feel quite so crappy over the life she was living. If all her friends jumped off a bridge....well, you know how that goes.
It wasn't enough for Karen's schedule to be filled. She had to fill her kids' schedules as well. Her day was occupied, every block filled, from 6am until midnight. Work, clean, iron, laundry, dance class, baseball, dinner, PTA meeting, then home to spend an hour on the living room floor, cutting and pasting construction paper for her son's science project.
Every once in a while, we would get out for coffee. We'd meet at the diner and Karen would look absolutely haggard and I knew what I was in for. Two hours of her non-stop whining, crying, complaining and bitching. She has no time to herself. Her kids leave her exhausted. She practically lives in her car. The family never eats together. She never spends time with her husband. Nobody, but nobody lifts a finger to help her out. She. Is. Just. So. TIRED.
I would stare glassy eyed at her and repeat the same thing I said to her the last time we had coffee. So pull Katie out of French class. She's five, she doesn't need to be bilingual just yet. Tell Jason to choose one sport instead of three. Make them do their own homework. Get a freaking babysitter and go out once in a while.
She would balk at every suggestion. Shuttling her kids off to a dozen different place every single day was her way of showing them she loves them. She signs them up for these thing to make them better people.
Jobs—and children—were demanding. And the ambitious form of motherhood most of us wanted to practice was utterly incompatible with any kind of outside work, or friendship, or life, generally.
But it only had to be that way if you made it that way. I worked. I had friends. I had a life. I had two kids. But I didn't over schedule my kids and I didn't take on more than I can handle just so I could turn around and bitch about how much I had to handle. Martyrdom, anyone?
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.
Ah yes, the virtual isolation. I felt that, too. For about five minutes. And then I went to the library and found other stay at home mothers. I went to the park and made friends while pushing my daughter on the baby swing. I knew every Burger King with a ball pit in a five mile vicinity and frequented them all, where I found other moms (and sometimes dads) and we would sit and have coffee while our children bounced around the play area. Oh, sometimes a parent or two would stop over at our table and admonish us for letting our children play in that filthy ball pit where kids peed and vomited and spit up orange juice. We'd tell her to lighten up even though we knew she never would. I pitied those mothers, the ones with the ideas of perfect parenting that they were so sure of, they wanted to force them on every other parent in sight.
I ran into every fringe group of moms in my first few years of motherhood. The organic moms. The craft moms. The "dump your child in day care and run for your life" moms. The guilt moms. The No TV moms. The over protective moms, the self-esteem moms, the non-toxic moms. They're all out there and they are all armed with books and pamphlets and the sure knowledge that they know best what's right for your child and your family.
I was discussing this post with a friend as I was writing it and she asked, about Super Moms:
"Are they too dependent on experts and the media to think and parent independently, or do they merely resent YOU for thinking and parenting independently?"
That's a great question and I think it's a little of both. When I was pregnant with Nat, it was boom time for parenting books. A new one hit the shelves every day and new mothers were eating them up. And they all had contradictory information, so if you were going by the books, you never knew which one to follow. So most of the moms went into groupthink mode. Well everyone I know says this is best, so it must be best, etc.
Then there were the women who were astounded that anyone would not follow along with a book or an expert. Fly by the seat of your pants? Parent on instinct? Unheard of! And they hated me and moms like me when our solutions worked out right or when our kids appeared to be just as bright/charming/well fed as theirs. And they lorded it over us when we made mistakes.
Motherhood was a competition, I found out. A brutal, cut throat competition that puts any reality game show to shame. Whose house is cleaner? Whose kid is smarter? Who has the biggest SUV? Your daughter had a 101 fever? HAH! Mine had 102! And chicken pox! How many activities does your kid have in a week? I remember being in a gathering of mothers once where we were trying to set a date to go pumpkin picking together. It was a blur of pencils and calendars for about ten minutes. One mother looked at me - what does Nat have on Thursdays? Nothing, I replied. Heads swivelled. Gasping ensued. Nothing? A day with...what do you call that...free, unscheduled time? They then proceeded to bury me in the ground up to my neck and then took turns stoning me. Metaphorically, of course. =
The article ends on this note:
We are simply beating ourselves black and blue. So let's take a breather. Throw out the schedules, turn off the cell phone, cancel the tutors (fire the OT!). Let's spend some real quality time with our families, just talking, hanging out, not doing anything for once. And let ourselves be.
Thanks, hon. I've been doing that for fifteen years without benefit of your self-realization and subsequent book. It's what most of us have been doing. Had you not been hanging out on the fringe, hell bent on hanging yourself on the Motherhood is Hard cross, you would have come to that conclusion ages ago. Without the government funded caveats you suggest. It's called reality. Some of us live in it, some of us choose to live in alternate hells of our own making, replete with cloth diapers (no time for your husband when you spend the night washing strained carrot poop out of diapers!, empty platitudes (this scribble you made is the best scribble ever!) and home made baby wipes (it's cheaper to just buy the box at the grocery store).
I never have to worry whether I’ve sold out my gender because I’m not standing in a meeting room explaining a pie chart. Raising Gnat is the most important thing I do. But she’s a child, not a project. I don’t get a bonus if she exceeds quarterly projections.
You don't even have to be a mom to get it. It's that simple.