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 the 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.”