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« Law Profs on the Tiger-Elen Confidentiality Divorce Settlement (Joe) | Main | 2nd Annual 3 QD Prize In Science »

May 25, 2010


Well, for Lessing, Bergman, and countless others, it's just a slight change in order from this peroration of mine on Mother's Day:
"What does Mom truly want? And not just only on Mother's Day.
Happy Kids. Healthy Kids. Successful Kids.Happy Me.
In that order.
If we can't have it all, as happens so often, we'll take 'Happy Kids' over everything else."

Perhaps their ordering went: "Happy Me. Successful Me. Healthy Kids. Successful Kids. Happy Kids", or something like that.
That doesn't make them martyrs or villains, just human.
Maybe I will switch my order to that someday, as I get farther from the oxytocin years and closer to the Mists of Menopause. It brings out the drive to achieve something other than just Happy Kids, in a woman's life.

I appreciate the unsentimental view of motherhood in these writings, as I am surrounded by Sanctimommies and Daddys here in the Bay Area, where the race to be a better parent sometimes seems like yet another form of conspicuous consumption (i.e. my kid got into a prestigious day care...Well, my kid got into a prestigious day care where they speak French and Mandarin).

That said, it is unfair to kids to put your work before them -- but also necessary if you want to be successful in many fields, including writing. That is why many people sentimentalize children so much, as a way to reward themselves psychologically for sacrificing their time, energy, money, and personal development to be parents. And yes, Ruchira, this privilege has traditionally been a male one, which makes women like Lessing and Bergman shocking to some, including, no doubt, pious Bay Area yuppies.

Sujatha & Andrew:

I am with you both up to a certain point. Just last night, my daughter and I were marveling (with some derision) at the cult of child worship that is nauseatingly prevalent these days among a certain section of society. I guess educated "yuppies" is probably a good descriptor.

But I hesitate to go as far as to admire the choices made by Lessing and Bergman. While I don't think that a mother is always the best caregiver, an attentive mother is priceless in a child's upbringing, if the child is lucky enough to have one. For those who would want their career (or leisure) to take precedent over child care all the time, ought to seriously think about not having a child. Childlessness is an option too - and not a bad one, in my opinion.

By the way, from my own experience in India where my parents were around during the birth of both my kids, there is no more supportive network around for childcare than a bunch of older relatives who will happily pitch in.

There is no single good answer to the conundrum of motherhood in particular or parenhood in general. Each set of parents must make up their minds how they will bring up their children and what economic, social and emotional compromises they must make to accomodate the birth of a child. Most important, don't listen to other people too much. Common sense uber alles.

Consider that while there are women who would prefer their career or leisure to take precedence over child-rearing, they may not have had the luxury to postpone or not have children. This is true of several in the previous generations, to which Lessing and Bergman belong. These days, it is much simpler to do so, thanks to the availability of contraception. I don't admire their choices, but I don't stand in their shoes either, so cannot judge them.
I would like to point out that the Sanctimom syndrome is closely related to hormones. The same oxytocin that bonds the mother to the child has also been shown to trigger a different emotion : jealousy. Does that explain the intense urge for one-upmanship that occurs among competing parents to prove their parenting is superior above their peers?

When my wife and I started hunting for local Berkeley preschools, we attended an open house at an attractive and reputable bilingual school. The teachers were pleasant and informed, as were most of the parents, but one parent's comment crowded out all the others': "How will my child's experience here improve his chances of getting into a respectable institution of higher education?" At that point, I lost interest in the school, and it may very well have been due to an anticipation of jealousy. Yet I have a hard time being entirely critical of Lessing, whom I adored during a formative time of my reading life. Her honesty, at least, is admirable: "There is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children." But I happen to think she's wrong, assuming for the sake of argument that I have a modicum of intelligence, although nothing remotely comparable to the creative force her career demonstrates. I find children--my own and others'--fascinating and friendly, eager to exercise their senses of humor, happy to learn. An intelligent woman or man could easily occupy her or his time more boringly than spend it with kids.

Regarding the Lessing quote:She spent more than a few years as a nursemaid soon after she left school at the age of 14. Imagine the 'mindless drudgery' of having to mind kids you are not remotely interested in, either from the biological bonds or the novelty of interaction with them. Wiping porridge off little faces and snot from noses of children for the sake of earning a living is hardly conducive to letting the creative juices flow. I suspect that it might have even accounted for her running away from her own kids, abandoning them to the fate of disinterested nannies and nursemaids, once she was able to do so.

You make a good point, Sujatha, regarding the role of compulsion both in ambivalence toward having children and toward taking care of them for women of an earlier generation (and many women today). Choosing to sing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" for the 50th time in a row with one's own toddler is far more entertaining than doing so with one's employer's child rather than be fired for failing to keep him entertained, or with one's own seventh child because she needs to be distracted while one tends to the other six children.

I also think it's important to ask who was taking care of the children of Lessing and Bergman while they pursued their careers. In some cases, passing on responsibility for raising the children to others-- whether those eager older relatives Ruchira mentioned, a nurturing father (hopefully, like any single parent, with help from a network of friends and family), or a professional with a real interest in and aptitude for child-care-- might be the best decision for the child. I've known families both professionally and personally, in which a child found far more happiness once his or her mother made the difficult decision that for whatever complicated reasons, she would not care for her child as well as someone else would (usually grandma and grandpa). For all of their bravado, and while they weren't willing to give up on their careers, Bergman and Lessig may have found the decision to leave their children for such long periods of time harder than they let on. Certainly Bergman's comment suggests that.

Of course for the vast majority of people, none of this is a choice. Most parents work and leave care of their children, at least in part, to others, out of economic necessity.

The group left out of this discussion, for whom I have a great deal of sympathy, are men who would like to be primary caregivers. I can definitely think of families (thinking mostly of childhood friends, here) in which the fathers were the real nurturers by temperment, the ones a child would seek out for comfort or care, but the mothers were at home while the fathers pursued a career they loathed, fulfilling their traditional roles. I doubt even now such fathers would trade roles, because of the enormous stigma attached to fathers who stay home and care for children while their wives work. That stigma, which attaches to both parents, and to which I attribute at least some of the results of studies showing that working moms in dual-earner families tend to shoulder more household duties-- affects men's parenting and career choices at least as much as it affects women's choices (probably more).

But while Baird's choice of role models is provocative, I suspect that she comes from a social milieu much like that enjoyed [?] by Andrew and Dean and me here in the Bay Area, and interpret her bigger point as: parents should have a life. We can love and be devoted to our children and still spend time with adult friends and discourse when we do so on a variety of topics, including but not limited to children and work. When I compare my parents and their peers to my own peers, I do think-- perhaps in reaction to the hyper-individualistic indulgences of the 70s/80s-- that my generation has struck a balance that doesn't get it quite right.

I think that parents or just mother taking care of the children is a fairly modern phenomenon and I remember Sarah Hrdy (in 'Mother Nature' and other writings) writing about it. A recent book which I have not read, parts of it appeared earlier, is 'Mothers and Others'

I agree and I have said it before that just because motherhood is put on a pedestal doesn't make all mothers the best caregivers. I don't know about the west so much but in tribal and even urban communities over large parts of the world, child rearing used to be a multi-generational task. A child identified not just as the offspring of "so&so" but the grandchild, niece, nephew, cousin etc. of many other members of the family. Those arrangements had their own problems also, but parents did not feel either so guilty or so trimphant about their child rearing skills.

José Del Solar left the following comment on my Facebook where I have linked the post. (I am copying it here with his permission)

As an aside, Baird doesn't hesitate in pointing out that Lessing left behind two toddlers in pursuit of her 'communist ideals'. One doesn't see this kind of directness or even a discrete acknowledgement that there are millions of mothers in the world who leave their children behind, usually for many years, in the pursuit of 'capitalist ideals' (e.g. the American Dream, etc). All you have to do is talk to a nanny. Does Baird mention this as part of the same issue or does she ignore it?

As I said, it is complicated. Perhaps even more so than religion. At least with religion, people assume they have the correct (but unverifiable) answers.

One other thing. Whatever has been the role of mothers in actual hands-on child rearing, both physically and emotionally, the idea of "motherhood" itself has always been glorified and feted as a unique privilege as well as special responsibility, in all cultures for a very, very long time.

Motherhood, apple pie, baseball, libraries: each is adored, each is wielded for rhetorical effect, each (except for the apple pie and baseball) is marginalized. Although we haven't affirmatively pursued it, my wife and I--well, speaking for myself, I--esteem the communist ideal of sharing the responsibility among neighbors and generations. We had our son here in Berkeley, remote from family on either side. But we did rely on our landlords at the time, with whom we are great friends to this day, for advice and care. (Conveniently, the mother in the couple was also a nurse/midwife.) And there's no question that the attention given our son by teachers and student assistants at his preschool is a critical component of this broader notion of parenting. Anna laments the difficulties men have assuming the primary caregiver role. Similarly, I'm disappointed with the dearth of males among the daycare, preschool, and nanny corps. Fortunately, there is one young male student assistant at my son's school. I myself worked for part of a year in a preschool shortly after graduating from college. It was a joy, even the cleaning up after the bed wetters part.

I'm in full agreement with your post title. There most certainly is... can we call it a "sweet spot" without sounding tacky?

I think it's a mistake to make any expectations normative for every case. My own parents reared my sister and me to become responsible adults but they themselves were driven more by a sense of duty than love. They were better at rearing young adults than children. But thank God for small favors. Others have had it far worse. I'm not prepared to be judgmental about anyone's parenting style, mothers or dads.

Our newest grandchild is the result of a deliberate decision on the part of her single mother. Ask me anything about the brave new world of IUI (which is not the same as IVF), picking out the right donor and sibling registries. I can tell you that traditional genealogy research will become very complicated in coming years. We are certain, if nothing else, that this child's mother is not doing anything accidental and is proving to be an excellent mother.

Tangential to your topic, the mention of Ingrid Bergman made me recall one of my favorite memories of her tribute to Hitchcock. Amazingly, someone put it on You Tube.
She speaks of acting but I think her point may be broad enough for all of life, including motherhood.
Absolutely worth four minutes of your day.

Yes, John - the "sweet spot." More than anything else in life, finding that is vital for the joys of parenthood, motherhood in particular. And every mother must find her own. There is no prescribed formula. Otherwise things can get frustrating, guilt ridden and unnecessarily tiring.

Best wishes for your newest grandchild and best of luck to his/her mother!

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