On Being a Bad Mother

True confessions

Unlike Sanford, though, I wasn’t clinging to my governor’s mansion. Unlike some Republican heads of the Christian right, I wasn’t aiming to both confess my affair and appeal to Jesus’ mercy in order to somehow remain, weirdly, a head of the Christian right. So my two-career companionate marriage—of traveling tag-team parents—was ending. Now we civilly hand off our children much as we’ve always done (my ex is on the road 20 weeks a year). Because our gypsy children seem okay, because I’d been honest about my shortcomings as a wife and mother, because we are more than 40 years after Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, I’d thought mine was a sad but not atypical tale to cite in The Atlantic as a jumping-off point for a discussion about the state of modern American marriage, but No!!! Oh, the shock, the outrage, the vitriol, the tying to the bumpers of and being dragged behind blogs large and small all across our fair nation! Oh, the plasterings with a scarlet A, the media stonings. I fielded so many horrified condolence calls after one particularly savage L.A. Times profile of me that I found myself plaintively asking a friend, “Don’t you think the word crucifixion is overused nowadays? Do we have to keep using the word crucifixion?” But what particularly surprised me was the ire of some of my own sisters in the chattering class—college-educated, affluent NPR listeners/New York Times readers. In the old days, for better or worse, members of this privileged demographic would have been on female liberation’s front lines. Now they were among the most censorious. “YOU MUST GO BACK HOME!” one girlfriend of mine (56, married, Boomer professional, no kids) typed in block letters. “THINK OF THE CHILDREN!”

“It feels like we’re living in the ’50s,” said Janet. At which point she downed her prosecco and exclaimed: “For God’s sake! When did people get so timid? In the ’70s people wouldn’t give a damn! Doesn’t anyone read Germaine Greer any more?”

I had not—but clearly now was the time. Few books today are truly helpful regarding the dilemma of modern women. On the one hand, there are the “anxious mother” books, for the inadequacy of which, see above, while on the other hand, there is Eat, Pray, Love, which will get you only so far if you’re not a footloose world traveler (and now even Elizabeth Gilbert is married—married!). Yes, surely now was the time to drag my giant, sparking scarlet A down into the crypt and blow dust off some Old Guard feminist texts. I admit that, except for that Gloria Steinem T-shirt (woman/man/fish/bicycle) (and even Gloria Steinem got married—married!), unlike Janet, I was unfamiliar with 1970s feminist arguments. Born in 1962, I’m of the bland generation ’tween Baby Boom and Gen X whose college required-reading lists did not include such Difficult Women’s Material.

I locate Greer’s The Female Eunuch at the public library, and discover that Jennifer Baumgardner’s 2001 intro is both welcoming and forgiving. Baumgardner begins by allowing that second-wave feminist texts can literally be hard to find (she found 16 editions of The Communist Manifesto listed on Amazon.com, but no editions of either Greer’s Eunuch or Shulamith Firestone’s TheDialectic of Sex). She allows that Greer’s stances have flip-flopped over the course of her career; after proudly embracing the ways of a rock-and-roll “star-fucker” and “super-groupie” in her youth, “she later dropped her call to have a ton of sex and began chiming on about the pleasures of celibacy and fine food.” But I admit, when suburban-raised girls like me begin to review the bios of 1970s feminists, theirs are Gitane-scented footsteps in which we’d think twice about treading. (Although I probably shouldn’t talk, given that at age 47, I myself am living out of my car. Then again, it is a Volvo—safety first!)

Baumgardner also allows that Greer’s books may have self-contradictory elements, and I must admit that as a 21st-century reader, I’ve found that they can be choppy and manifesto-like, with off-putting wild generalizations and quasi-magical terminology. (Of course, this can also be said of third-wave feminists’ writings, e.g., Naomi Wolf’s.) Shulamith Firestone deems motherhood “a condition of terminal psychological and social decay, total self-abnegation and physical deterioration.” And Greer veers off in some directions that left me nonplussed (the taste of the menstrual blood of myself or others is something I’m happy to leave to the imagination). But then I turned to her chapter called “Family,” in which she argues that “stem”—or extended, multigenerational—households are inordinately stable; as opposed to today’s two-parent nuclear families, stem homes can never be “broken,” as their success does not “rest on the frail shoulders of two bewildered individuals trying to apply a contradictory blueprint.

Bingo. What better phrase to describe marriage among those of my own bewildered demographic slice—parents of the Creative Class? We start with the best of intentions. In her 20s, the Creative Class female carves out a cool Creative Class career, like Writer. She meets a man with an equally cool Creative Class job—say, Devoted Documentary Filmmaker of the Obama 10-Year African Kiva Water Project. In their 30s, the baby comes: the Creative Class mom is pitched into hormonal bliss (at least at first); the very same week—argh, the timing!—Gates Foundation money suddenly comes through for the Obama-kiva-water-project documentary. Clinking champagne glasses, both spouses agree that Dad must fly to Africa for two months to finish filming while Mom cares for the baby. (The last thing she wants is be a 1950s nag—and how rarely does Gates money come through, how important is drinking water for Africa?)

After kissing her husband goodbye, the Creative Class mother now begins to care for their baby, alone, in New York, or Los Angeles, or whatever cool city they’ve moved to. She’s isolated from her stem family—the grandma, aunts, and in-laws (who all love children!) have long been left behind in notoriously un-Creative Lompoc, Fort Lauderdale, or Ohio. She can barely maneuver the stroller down the four flights of stairs to get to Gymboree ($20 for 45 minutes, and you have to actually stay with your nine-month-old and drum). Result: the 21st-century Creative Class mom’s life is actually far worse than that of her 1950s counterpart. Her husband works as many hours (and travels more), but life is uncomfortable on his salary alone, and the isolated mom has no bingo-playing moms’ group to ease the unnatural, teeth-chattering stress of one-on-one care of her child.

Greer argues that what the shift from stem to nuclear family primarily serves is capitalism, as single-family units represent, first and foremost, a “controllable pattern of consumption.” How much would industries suffer, she argues, if three families shared a washing machine? But of course, today’s hip, educated middle-class mother requires much more than a washing machine. A starter list would include:

• lactation consultant, and lactation gear (in the absence of the knowledgeable grandmother);
• all-weather shock-absorbent stroller;
• stylish post-pregnancy recovery wear;
• Gymboree/toddler classes;
• $150 therapy appointments for redrawing work/self/family boundaries;
• $25 hardbacks on finding a woman’s work/life balance;
• Mini Dove Bars (only 60 calories apiece) to absorb the stress of being wait-listed at the expensive developmental preschool

Because what my class of mothers consumes most is education. We know how precarious our world is, and how easily our children can fall out of it. We see the invisible line down the middle of the street that separates the good school district from the bad. We see the line that separates our Prius, hovering silently at the crosswalk, from the corner, where 50 lower-middle-class children wait for the bus. We see, at our Creative meetings, the line that separates state-college folk from Ivy alums. Clearly, the solutions for overwhelmed working mothers include either moving in with some kid-loving older relatives (but they’re Republicans! from Ohio!) or kicking it 1950s style by just letting their kids play with the other kids on the block. In my part of Los Angeles, this means going over to the Mexican-gardener neighbor’s house and jumping on an illegal trampoline with 11 children, five chihuahuas, and three chickens, as we did often enough when my kids were toddlers. But the gardener’s children were English learners, who would gradually (I was told) leach the vocabulary from my English-speaking childrenand then my daughters would never test gifted, never have academically motivated peers, never get into the good college-prep classes

So, like other Creative Class mothers in big cities, we band together with our fragile tribe of geographically remote, like-minded mothers (who, while friends, are also competitors for community resources—the last magnet application, spot No. 102 on the charter-school waiting list—resources of a dire, frightening scarcity never dreamed of in the 1950s). Weekends are a manic whirl of Kids’ Science Museums, Baby Mozart concerts, and laboriously educational “craft” days when, instead of dumping kids and going off for a 1950s-style hairdressing-and-martini break, mothers are expected to sit down and glue things with their children for seven and a half hours. (I remember decorating Easter eggs with the help of art-history books depicting glamorous Fabergé eggs. The refreshments, though, were still depressingly kid-focused—Domino’s pizza and juice boxes.) Today’s Professional Class mothers are expected to have, above all, the personalities—and the creative aspirations—of elementary-school teachers. But if you’re like me, you can’t compete with those seasoned professionals for whom child education is an enthusiastic vocation. My daughter Suzy’s kindergarten teacher, Lori, was the type all children fall desperately in love with. We are talking the high flutey voice, fluffy cotton-candy-like blond hair, pink glasses on a chain, hugs, rabbits, treats, prizes, songs, games, fun. (For God’s sake, I want a Lori!) Suzy devotedly made Lori love cards throughout the year (even for Mother’s Day), although truth be told, the next year, Suzy’s new mission was winning a sleepover with (and then leaving our family and simply moving in with) her first-grade teacher, Heather. And—yikes—it makes sense that kids bond so tightly with their teachers, as these are the women they spend their quality time with. I pick them up after four, when they’re collapsing into crankiness, and ferry them home—because what mothers do nowadays, most of all, is drive their children.

And for what? Why do we agonize? David Sedaris is one of the most successful writers of his generation, and his chain-smoking mother is known for drinking herself into a glaze and locking her five children out of the house on a snow day.

Which causes me to wonder gloomily: except as consumers and chauffeurs and anxious guardians of the middle class, why are mothers, today, needed at all?

It’s an honest question in light of my own tale of chthonic terror, the very opposite of Borchard’s happy-ending-ed duck-pond jaunt:

My 38-year-old sister-in-law, Judy, was a stay-at-home mom of a particularly imaginative nature. A former teacher, she built her three children a fantastical wooden playhouse; she hand-painted Beatrix Potter figures on their walls; for her eldest’s fifth birthday, she staged a pirate-themed birthday party, complete with a dragon that, when his mouth opened, shot talcum powder. Then one Saturday, around nine in the morning, while folding laundry in the playroom in front of her children, ages 6, 5, and 2, Judy turned blue and fell forward into the laundry basket. My brother sprinted up the stairs while dialing 911. Within minutes, the paramedics arrived, cleared the room of the curious youngsters, and administered shocks to their mother’s chest. But those few minutes that Judy’s brain had been without oxygen had been too much. In barely the blink of an eye, the perfectly healthy Judy entered a permanent vegetative state. The person my niece and nephews had known as their mother was transformed into a wide-eyed, slack-jawed thing that did not recognize them.

Presented by

Sandra Tsing Loh is the author, most recently, of Mother on Fire.

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