Mothers of America, it's time to get a grip.
Over the past few years, we've been snatching up an alarming number of books about the miseries of motherhood -- books with titles like "Misconceptions," "The Mommy Myth" and the latest state-of-the-institution tirade, "Perfect Madness," by Judith Warner.
OK, I'm guilty, too. I've read a lot of this stuff. Like so many women, I struggle with making it all happen, much less making it work. Books about how other mothers are dealing with things fascinate me. It's like walking around your neighborhood at night and not being able to resist looking into lighted windows: So that's where they put the refrigerator. I keep hoping for a revelation, or at least a really good tip on how to get a child out the door before the Metro parking lot fills up.
But then I read Warner's take on some upper-middle-class mothers in Washington who feel pressured to parent to perfection. Who, if they've left or curtailed top-notch careers, apparently believe they're obligated to turn out top-notch children, and to do so with insufficient support from society or their "wonderful" husbands. Who get together to "vent" and say things like "I am absolutely and scarily consumed by rage." Who are described as suffering from "an existential discomfort," a "choking cocktail of guilt and anxiety and resentment and regret." Who condemn their mothering lives as "this mess."
And I thought: Wow, what's wrong with me that I haven't driven myself insane over preschool admissions, classic soccer leagues and color-coded party goods?
No, seriously, what I thought was: No one's going to believe this existential discomfort bunk. Until the book got coverage all over the media. Even "Nightline." Then I thought: Yikes! Is this how we want our children to view motherhood?
I sure don't.
I pretty much fit into the "Perfect Madness" demographic and face many of the same issues as the author's neighbors do. I'm a tail-end baby boomer with a part-time-by-choice career and a full-time working husband, who, like most men, doesn't seem to be wired to multitask. I live in a leafy D.C. suburb full of ambitious parents, the vast majority of whom are more accomplished, more well-off and far more fit than I. I have two adorable daughters with lots of activities, who sometimes get more homework in a night than I used to get in a week and who, being, well, children, occasionally talk back and act entitled. So by rights, I, too, should be wretched.
But somebody has to say it: Motherhood is not so bad! Really.
Of course I've felt overwhelmed. I have an endless, looping soundtrack in my mind, a sort of tinnitus that goes something like "laundry, birthday party present, basketball game, dinner, overdue doctor's appointment, prescription refill, laundry ... ," and no matter what I do, I can't make anyone else in my family hear it. I've fretted about all kinds of newfangled parenting concerns, from preschool penmanship to my inability to plan for summer camp. I alternate between exhilaration and exhaustion, with occasional fits of concern about my scaled-back career. I've been bored and frustrated with the best of them. And if I never had to do another load of laundry, it would be too soon.
Yet most of the time, I think motherhood's a kick. (Come on, I know you've had those moments, too.) I even find some fun in the fretting, in the challenge of figuring out how we want to live -- one instrument per kid, my husband and I decreed, despite the number of budding Perlman-Cliburns around us. To declare my life, exasperating as it might sometimes be, a "mess" would be to diss myself and my family. Not to mention the mothers in this world who have bigger problems.
Where did we late boomers and early X-ers ever get the idea that parenting was going to be easy, all fairy dust and baby powder? After all, we're charting new territory here: postfeminist momhood. Trying to work and raise children at the same time, and in a more egalitarian relationship, is an entirely new frontier. But we've turned out to be about the sorriest bunch of pioneers I've ever seen. We haven't blazed a trail any girl would want to follow. If we'd shown up on the prairie, we would have spent all our time sitting around "venting" about how cold, empty and boring it was. Our kids would probably have been picked off by wolves.
I'm not saying women shouldn't talk about their concerns, or pretend that everything's wonderful, though, frankly, I'd be happy if some would just acknowledge that everything isn't so terrible. But most of the unhappy realities of motherhood, including the disenchantment and the pressure to live up to an ideal, have been outlined before, sometimes even with humor. Doesn't anyone remember Roseanne Barr's "domestic goddess" routine?
It's time to move on. It's time to make our choices and make them work.
If our lives are a "mess," let's stop moaning and clean them up, whether that means changing our workplaces, our schools, our households, our expectations -- or ourselves.
After all, if we can't withstand the forces compelling us to be "perfect," how can we expect our daughters to withstand the forces compelling them to look like Mary-Kate Olsen?
I don't want my girls to grow up thinking their mother and her friends were all swigging cocktails of guilt and resentment. If we run into problems and disappointments, I want them to see us doing our best to overcome them. Most of all, I want them to know that they don't have to buy into society's pressure, meted out in book after whiny book, to be unhappy mothers. That really would be perfect madness.
And it might mean I'd never have any grandchildren.
Chang is a copy editor for the Washington Post's Magazine