Dire consequences and desperate measures

A discussion last weekend at the playground with a creative, lovely, and wicked smart lady yielded the following observation: we’re all desperate to protect and justify our choices. After reading Peggy Orenstein’s Flux and The Atlantic Monthly’s article “The Case Against Breast-feeding,” the glaring truth to me is not that one side of each debate is right or that each side despises the other’s choices, but that we each have a lot at stake in making sure our decisions were at least good, if not the best.

Breast or bottle, nighttime parenting or cry-it-out, stay at home or work and daycare—we all have the same secret fears that the choice we are making is costing us more than it should. Hanna Rosin’s “The Case Against Breastfeeding” really isn’t a case against breastfeeding. It’s a case against the all-or-nothing mentality that has parents segregating into those who chose wisely and those who are ruining their children. And the root of our belief in our own choices and our disdain for any different points of view is the hope that we’re doing what’s best for our families. And if we’ve chosen incorrectly, we risk not only breaking our children, but also having lost all the effort we poured into our choice. Rosin is not arguing that women should not breastfeed. After nursing three children, she’s simply wondering why she felt that was the only choice, why the pedants on each side of the debate swear the others have lost their minds (or feminism or chance at a healthy child). Why the black-and-white thinking? Because we’ve all gone through a lot (a lot a lot a lot) of trouble to do what we’re doing, so it had better be right.

I postponed (at least0 or gave up (at worst) two outstanding careers, one potential career, and a path toward a PhD to stay at home with my son because I thought, given my endless research that confirmed nothing except that I’d eventually have to make a choice, that staying home was most likely to give him what he needed to grow into a delightfully useful member of society. If I’m wrong, and I should have focused more of my daylight hours on myself and my career, then maybe I’ve wasted these years and he will blame his miseries and failures on me. Or, even worse, I will be an empty shell of a person, having subjugated my only self for a person who becomes a serial killer and about whom the history books will only write that I ruined his life and sense of what the world should be and that he stabbed his neighbors.

Conversely, the women I know who work outside the home, who decided that they needed to create a family in which each person’s work is vital, in which attentive, loving care can come from a paid helper as long as it’s consistent and supportive (they hope) made their decision to give their children what they needed to grow into a delightfully useful members of society. If they are wrong, and they should have focused more of their daylight hours on their children, then maybe they’ve missed the most important years, and their children will blame their miseries and failures on parents who worked their children into the margins of their lives. Or, even worse, these parents will be bitter, unfulfilled shells of people, having chosen empty pursuits and subjugated their children’s needs, resulting in a generation who become a serial killers and about whom the history books will only write that their mothers ruined their lives and sense of what the world should be. And that they stabbed their neighbors.

Wait a minute, that’s exactly the same outcome as the other moms! We’re all screwed!

Or we’ll all just fine.

But nobody is going around saying, “I hope I made the right decision so that my children don’t stab their neighbors.” (At least in my neighborhood. But I lead a sheltered life. Maybe your neighbors say it. Maybe about your kids. Wait, which choices did you make? Quick, tell me, so I can judge you.) Instead, we secretly hope that we made the right decision, missing a large chunk of our children’s or our adult selves, counting each mistake, tallying each proud and loving moment, and hoping it’s all enough.

Ah crap, I didn’t nurse long enough. My child will be obese, stupid, and chronically ill.
Ah, crap, I nursed at the exclusion of my own sanity. My every waking moment has been for someone who really didn’t get that much from it.

Ah, crap, I let my child cry it out and now she’ll have insomnia and a sense of abandonment as an adult.
Ah, crap, I lost years of sleep attending to my child at night and now they’ll get to college and cry for me in the dorm every night.

And so on, ad nauseum.

Because if we made the wrong decision, we’ve screwed not only ourselves, but our children, as well.

So we disdain the people who make decisions different than our own, and align ourselves with likeminded people because we need to know that others feel our pain and share our justifications; because, deep down, we suspect it might be okay no matter what we do. And all things being equal, we might like a do-over. Or a medal. Or both.

Flux and another book on the choices of motherhood

I’m most of the way through Flux by Peggy Orenstein, and I have to say, I dig it. And not just because she reiterates in a sentence what I posted months ago: “Ambivalence may be the only sane response to motherhood at this juncture in history, to the schism it creates in women’s lives.” I’m not quite done reading Flux, but I’m struck by the sharp contrast it offers to another book I just read.

In the first chapters of I Was a Really Good Mom before I Had Kids I empathized, felt validated, and could chew on other moms’ struggles as I read. Then came the final chapter. I’m willing to put a small amount of money on my theory that some editor, probably a man, told the authors that they couldn’t just write a book of commiseration for moms, of how tough it can feel sometimes; and that this probably-man told them that they needed to solve the perceived problem, not just relate it. “Give those moms some perspective. Fix what looks like ambivalence,” because heavens knows we can’t be ambivalent about parenting in this culture. And that imaginary editor in my totally unsupported theory ruined their otherwise fine book because the final chapter, in its insistence that a new outlook will make all the pain and self-effacing bullshit of parenting go away erodes the rest of the book’s power. Some advertising guru undoubtedly said, “you can’t sell the headache and you can’t sell the aspirin. You have to sell the great things people can do after they take the aspirin.” Well, the book only worked for me when it described the headache, thank you very much. So go ahead and read it, but stop before the final chapter.

Both IWARGMBIHK (before it’s given a shiny new pair of rose-colored glasses) and Flux (when it gets to the motherhood choices section) articulate what my friends and I have all been saying, “A day doesn’t seem that long when you are working,” says a stay at home father in Flux. “But, boy it’s a long time when it’s just you and this kid that doesn’t speak, and she is always wanting your attention. And when she’s asleep, then there are all these things that have to be done before she wakes up. There’s absolutely nothing I have ever experienced that was always bearing down like that. Nothing even close.” I’ve said before that 114 hour weeks at McKinsey paled in comparison to the energy and stamina needed to stay at home full time, without help, with a young child.

In Flux, Orenstein, allows women to wedge uncomfortably in the cracks between rock and hard place without trying to fix them. Where women find they genuinely can’t have it all, and have to decide between power and childrearing, have to sacrifice something, either kid or self, to exist in our society, Orenstein lets them twist and narrates their ambivalence. Like IWaRGMbIHK, Flux focuses on educated, middle class women, and their problems are small when compared with the realities of moms working three jobs or facing life in which they are virtually powerless—abused and silenced because of their chromosomes. But no matter how high up Maslow’s Pyramid you rise, the problems still feel big. Existential crises are important, even if they aren’t on par with dissentary sans clean water.

Orenstein lays bare, if not raw, the choices career women, single mothers by choice, and women who sacrifice career for children make, and does not shy away from showing that choices in adolescence and young adulthood tend to push women into lower paying, less demanding careers and lead everyone involved to assume that caretaking is a role for the XXs. She puts a voice to the mental vascillations between career and home:

“Now is the time your career will take off…but don’t forget to find a husband. Hurry, have a child, the clock is ticking—but what do you mean, you’re going to become a single mom or need more time at home? Don’t lose yourself in your children or you’ll never find a way back—but if you work too much you’ll ruin them. If you have a daughter what will she say about your trade-offs? Remember how you felt about your mom? What’s wrong with you anyway? Weren’t you supposed to be able to do anything?” (97).

She also notes that stay at home dads, too, say things like we here at this blog have: “Staying at home with [an infant] was really tedious….I was surprised by the constantness of it, the lack of breaks that we so much take for granted in life. By midafternoon my entire mental focus would be on how long until [his wife] would get home.” Women in Orenstein’s text who express this quickly dismiss their own feelings, waving off the frustration with “I’m just feeling sorry for myself.” But theĀ  stay at home dad acknowledges his frustrations are why he asked his wife to stay at home so he could return to work.

I like Orenstein’s insistence that we should demand more of men than simply that they father better than their fathers did; that we demand all parents think like mothers and at least discuss, if not share, the sacrifices equally. Many a squabble in the Naptime household stems from the “why am I the only one who thinks of this” disparity that Orenstein notes in all relationships.

She does gloss over other important sacrifices women make for either career or family. She articulates a difference between being a mother and being a Mother. But she doesn’t explore, really, the shades of grey that color each definition. Overall, though, she makes a compelling case that no matter what you choose, it will feel pretty ugly at times, for huge, painful, sacrificial compromise is the only constant in all her case studies. And her questions about whether it all can’t work out for the best in the end, quite frankly, make it clear she doesn’t have children. Because even sociologists who watch and watch and watch still don’t maintain the never-wavering focus of 24 hour motherhood. We’ll see what she writes if she does have a baby. Until then, she has a pretty good book in Flux.

And her best quotes:

“There is a chasm between the abstract idea of having kids and the three-dimensional reality of what it means to mother.”