Paul Simon agrees with us

Appropos of yesterday’s post, Peanut today put in a Paul Simon CD to which I sang along. With gusto.

“Well that was your mother
And that was your father
Before you wuz born, dude
When life was great.
Now you are the burden
Of my generation
I sure do love you
Let’s get that straight.”

Oh, my dear Mr. Simon. Why did I not *hear* you before?

Et toi!

The Loh Down on doing your best

I told you when I posted about Sandra Tsing Loh’s divorce article in The Atlantic that her perspective is interesting and intriguing. Much more so than Waldman’s (or any of the other so-called bad parents out there). Now that she’s posting about the difficulty of being a real parent in the era where all decisions seem judged crucial and the bevvy of “bad parents” are a disappointing group of flawed but decent parents who think it’s somehow funny to claim they’re failing while the rest of us struggle to make it through each day with our selfhood intact.

“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.” Bless you for saying it. I love my child, I’ve said before, but I’m totally not cut out for this work. I’m doing a kick-ass goddamned great job, but this is not the job I want. Thank you for voicing what I’ve been desperately hoping is true: that smart, overeducated, middle class women who’ve hacked their way through the jungle of independence and career to carve themselves a creative niche make for depressed parents.

My favorite quote from the Loh article, in which she returns to second-wave feminism to decide who and what she is in this 1950s MadMen clusterf*ck of a society we find ourselves in:

“The 21st-century Creative Class mom’s life is actually far worse than that of her 1950s counterpart.”

She says in one sentence what I tried to say here and here and here, and Susan Maushart says in The Mask of Motherhood, a text I recommend to all families with or about to have a new baby.

And that prescient, erudite brevity is why Loh gets paid the big bucks.

Mothering and ambivalence; a book review, sort of

I wrote a post a few months ago about feeling torn between intense love of my child and hallucination-provoking frustration of full time motherhood. I felt emboldened that my feelings were neither unique nor damning after reading Susan Maushart’s The Mask of Motherhood. But tonight I was reading What Mothers Do by Naomi Standlen and felt temporarily shamed for those feelings. Give me a minute and I’ll explain what made me re-examine my feelings and conclusions about how experiencing both sides of the spectrum is normal and honest, then the reasons I reject Standlen’s conclusions about the inherent selfishness and destructiveness of ambivalence. (Don’t blink…that was the summary. Save yourself some time and re-read that sentence and go on with your life.)

In examining the writings of mothers (Adrienne Rich, Rachel Cusk, Kate Figes, Rozsika Parker, Jane Lazarre, and Susan Johnson) who address their maternal ambivalence by name, Standlen asks, “Are we talking about a group of women who have picked up a sophisticated psychoanalytic concept—ambivalence—to dress up the fact that they are all so self-centered? Are they too selfish to be loving mothers?”( 202-3) Rather harsh, I think, as a description of women who are giving everything they have to mother their children because that’s what they believe the children need.

In her wording, though,  and her background as a psychoanalyst, we can understand Standlen’s tone. Ambivalence for Freudians is very technically a love/hate polarity that revolves around the same source (here, the child). But for the writers she mentions, ambivalence is a much less rigid term, meaning only existing at two levels, two valences. It doesn’t necessarily mean polar opposites. Standlen explores, for several pages (196-98, et al.), statements from writers about how they get frustrated or angry or resentful about their babies. I’ve only read the full text of half the books she quotes, but none of them talk about hate when I read them. They talk about feeling conflicted because they are angry and frustrated and resentful while being in love. While caring so deeply they sacrifice sleep and health and sanity for a small creature. And that feels difficult and awkward and not at all something glorified. But certainly something real and therefore valid.

Further distancing their mothering multivalences from Standlen’s Freudian definition of ambivalence, the authors in question seem to hint that the contradictory feelings arise from difference sources. Maushart explains pretty clearly that love for the child and hate for the job of full time mothering are daily and hourly occurrences, but that distaste for the job doesn’t mean lack of love for the child (nor that true, deep, unflinching love for the child means lack of frustration with the unceasing work of parenting).

Standlen argues that a baby raised by an ambivalent parent with have an adult-sized case of PTSD. (210-12). A mother who loves you and hates you, she asserts, is like a capricious god who terrifies then patronizes then rewards then punishes. Mothers who get angry and yell at their children apologize, she says. Ambivalent mothers, she argues, yell or withdraw because they think it’s an okay way to parent. And happy chldren are obviously loved, while shy children who don’t warm quickly to strangers are clearly experiencing some ambivalence damage at home.

What twisted, monster version of moms do you see in your practice, Ms. Standlen? Sure, unconditional, patient, flawless love (which she calls wholehearted love) is “more straightforward.” My love is wholehearted, madam, and I hate not having one minute of peace to myself.  My love is wholehearted, and I hate the way I feel each day because I choose to sacrifice my sleep to give my child what he needs. And after comforting him gently 12 and 15 times a night when he’s teething or sick or scared, I want to throw him against the wall. I don’t do it and never will, but I’m putting that I writing for the whole world to see because it doesn’t make me any less wholehearted in my love. It means I am human and I get angry and I love a person but loathe a circumstance. (As I write this, Peanut is waking from his fourth nightmare of the evening. He has been writhing and talking in his sleep for several minutes, and just screamed. He might be asleep, he might be waking. I’ll know in a minute. If it is the former, my heart will go out to him as long as he is tormented. If it the latter, my body will go to him, as long as he is tormented. By about 2 am, this will get really, freaking old, and I may get angry—not at him, but at the constant interruptions. I’m not angry with him. I’m angry at whatever keeps his sleep cycles from maturing, angry with whatever demons dare disturb his growth and sweetness. And now I’m even more angry with Naomi Standlen for suggesting that I don’t love the little cacahuete.)

I resent Standlen’s assertion that the women who feel conflicted are bad mothers who are harming their children. She spends a lot of time dancing around her belief that working outside the home when you have small children is not ideal, but won’t really hurt children; and that breastfeeding is ideal, but formula really won’t hurt them. So why can’t she not say that being perfect is ideal, but occasional bouts of self-doubt and frustration and anger and longing for something different really won’t hurt children. As long as we learn to take our ambivalence (not love/hate the child but love the child and hate the intense labor pains of making room for them in your life, when the space they need takes up 99.999999999999% of your existence) and channel it in productive ways, why is she spending a whole chapter calling those of us who haven’t found unfettered bliss, selfish and unloving and confusing and frightening?

Standlen notes that most of these authors who express ambivalence are in a similar position: “These mothers don’t sound easy with their moments of hate. All of them are intellectual women, with careers ahead of them….[Julia Darling] found it difficult to be a mother, but she doesn’t mention hatred or the feeling that her babies were making limitless demands on her.” Did she work outside the home? Did she have a caregiver, either professional or familial to help? Because maybe she didn’t feel limitless demands because she got out of the freaking house and had what Virginia Woolf termed a room of her own. Maybe the women to whom you attribute “chilling” ambivalence are surrounded by yellow wallpaper, the likes of which Charlotte Perkins Gilman knew all too well.

Standlen is horrified by several lines from Maushart, but finds this couplet particularly abhorrent: “We harbour no doubts that mothering our children is infinitely worth doing. It’s only that we’d really rather be doing something else.” I don’t need to defend Maushart’s writing. But it is clear from the rest of the text that she means this about moments of the days and weeks. Not about the entirety of mothering. And certainly not about her children. We’d really rather be enjoying 100% of this job, but that’s simply not possible. (If it was, no mother or father would ever plunk their child down in front of the t.v. to get a moment’s peace.)

When Jon, the father on Jon & Kate Plus Eight expressed frustration at all the damned work of parenting (times eight), he said something along the lines of, “I just want to play with my kids. I don’t like doing all the other crap that goes along with this job.” And full-time parents around the country looked around to see if anyone else heard that. What do you think we do all day, my friend? Sunshine and lollipops and imaginary friends and dancing and games and kisses and stories? Yes, plus tantrums and snot and outbursts and teaching and discipline and meals and cleaning up and redirecting and stalemates and poop and cat vomit and negotiating and avoiding tantrums and planning the next three steps so there aren’t more tantrums and yet more tantrums. There is no “playing with your kids,” unless you’re only home for an hour a day. And even then you’re bound to get in 30 minutes of play and a few minutes of less appetizing stuff. (I’m not knocking Jon. He gets 8 kids dressed each morning before work. I’m just saying there is no time with children that is just fun and games.)

In the end, my anger at Standlen’s book comes from a perceived hurt—this woman who has never met me and has spent eight chapters cheering my every parenting choice now tells me I’m an unfit mother. She says that feeling anything but incessant, unconditional love is just wrong. That there is no room for both frustration and exhaustion and anger and love. You must simply love.

But she isn’t insulting me directly. And her assumptions are flawed. Ambivalence is not simply Freudian love/hate. Women who experience ambivalence are not selfish, and are often staying at home specifically to give their children everything they can afford. The well-balanced mothers she cites are probably working outside the home or addressing their own needs with a care giver or other help, and are therefore a little more, well, balanced. And in the end, these women Standlen criticizes are writers. They intellectualize their every moment of their day, every emotion, high and low. And they need to express what they find. Maybe they don’t need psychoanalysis so much as a community of other mothers to empathize with them. Being the scourge of society and of Naomi Standlen is really quite terrifying.

(We’re on nightmare number five and he’s officially awake. I need to go. But let me say this–my blog will always be a place you can come to feel ambivalent, appreciated, and understood.)

(And no, I didn’t type that while he cried. I typed it after I got back. I’m not a selfish monster. I’m an ambivalent, attachment co-parent. )

Parenting ambivalence

One of my friends expressed great distress at a discussion the other day, wherein many moms detailed their children’s latest adorable moments, and I asked if we could please, please talk about something other than children. Had anybody read a good book or seen a good movie or disagreed with a politician’s stance on something? I got a few muted shrugs and one dirty look. (Yes, I need new friends. We’re moving. I’ll fix that part of my isolation soon enough.)

I’m often the mom at parties and in email volleys who brings up The Mask of Motherhood by Susan Maushart; who warns young couples talking excitedly about becoming parents that they are in for the best and the absolute worst time of their lives. Nobody seems to appreciate the warnings, or the realism, or the honesty. Well, they can go jump off a Hallmark-stacked bridge because the smarmy, simpering, rose-colored glasses crap does not help make you a better parent.

Here’s the thing: the parenting gig can be amazing. I love running, and I have never had more fun running, never felt so completely tickled with head-to-foot silly happiness than when Peanut and I are playing chase. I have never particularly liked the beach (or, more specifically, getting dirty and sandy and salty and seaweedy at the beach), but experienced top-ten delirious HOURS of joy one morning with Peanut and Spouse, running and splashing and wandering the tidepools. I have never felt more moments of pure, warm bliss than I do sprinkled throughout every week with my little family. And I genuinely relish them, bask in them, luxuriate in them. I process every nanosecond of joy with the small person and the large person, because those moments feed me. They have to. The rest of the week is a big bunch of physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausting bull puckey. (Hi, grandpa. I miss you.)

Because as intense as the radiant joy can be, I have also never been more frustrated in my life than I am every single day. I’ve never been more angry at a small person than I am each time I gently, calmly, supportively offer two options for the eighth or ninth time. [Time number ten and your head will be forcibly removed, my little friend, so f*#&@g choose.] I have never wanted so badly to hurt a person as I have when Peanut willfully ignores a reasonable request or when Spouse sleeps through Peanut being particularly trying. They both need a good shaking. (I will never, never think it’s okay to strike a child, but I think it’s really very much okay to fantasize about it. If sex experts say it’s healthy to pictures others while with your monogamous partner, parenting experts must think it’s okay to picture throwing screaming your kid against the wall while you try to comfort her.) I never had to give myself timeouts in my professional jobs. I took a deep breath and reasoned with whomever was wrong. But there are often times now that my reaction needs to be managed, and it’s easier to just leave the room and announce that mommy’s in timeout because she needs to think and breathe. “I have to go…or I’ll beat the crap out of you,” I think as I press myself into a tiny corner.

I have never wanted so badly to just do some freaking dishes in peace. I don’t even dream of reading or write or having a job where colleagues respect my contributions. I crave just performing some mindless, productive, useful physical labor. It scares me how low my expectations have become. I find Zen moments of meditative stillness and presence in prepping green beans for the steamer, if there is a safe and self-entertained Peanut in another room.

So ambivalence dominates my parenting. That doesn’t, oh lady who wants to tell me everything about her kid’s funny snot and poop stories, and is horrified to hear that I’m all cute-kid storied out, make me a bad parent. I have given over every moment of my day, every drop of my energy for two years to helping Peanut become a good, decent, responsible, useful member of society. (It hasn’t worked yet, at least not the useful part, but I’m willing to brave the long-term gratification gamble to hope one day the President will call with a Supreme Court nomination. Or that some band will need a drummer. Or that some sweet neighbor lady needs a dog walker. I don’t have parameters within which I define productive member of society. Remember that part about my low expectations.)

If parenting was all playing and tickling and teaching I’d be ALL over it. But it’s not. It’s planning and patience and cleaning and cooking and lovingly getting up several times at night and staying intently focused all day and ignoring impulses to direct energy into personal needs (sleep, bathroom, showering, exercise, quiet, books). And I don’t like that. I just don’t.

And this phase ends, sure. The intense neediness of very smallness is already sunsetting. (That’s tomorrow’s post, unless the house sells.) Eventually children are more self sufficient. I’ve given myself over entirely because that’s what the Peanuts of the world need to be secure, reasonable, well-adjusted adults. But even if all the work pays off, they won’t do stuff my way, so why the heck bother with all the attachment parenting? (Because we wouldn’t have it any other way. Every time I complain about not sleeping, someone tells me I can let my child cry. But that is not a real parenting option for us. Why in the name of all that is nurturing would we do that? When said child can get up to use the bathroom by himself, get himself a cup of water, and use soundly developed coping skills to get back to sleep, he will. Until then, any kid at my house who wakes from a deep slumber screaming in fear and sadness gets his mom. End of story.)

You know, ambivalence isn’t apathy. Maintaining a really passionate stand at two ends of a spectrum does not even slightly resemble meh. And while holding on so tight might be counterproductive, I’d rather struggle fiercely to control the pendulum than let go and founder in the fair-to-middling of just getting by.