Dear Mr. Nice Guy,
After being alerted to your, yes, only sort of funny, response to my post about SAHMs, I wanted to open a dialogue, call it Nice Guy vs. Mean Girl, so that I could explain myself better and respond to some of your readers' responses. I should start by clarifying that since my husband, Jake, an artist, and I have only part-time care, I am a part-time SAHM myself. I wouldn't know what goes on in the playground if I were never there. So everything I said about SAHMs of course could also refer to me. I am neurotic. I worry about whether my child is crawling or walking soon enough, talking enough, eating enough fresh vegetables, whole grains, etc. But on days when I am not feeling neurotic I find that I frequently become neurotic from being around other others. And I wonder whether a broader conversation would lead to more meaningful, or at least, interesting relationships than the constant mommy pong, as a friend calls incessantly baby-centric dialogue. She also calls a Bugaboo a "Universal Sign of Suckerdom," another reason I like her.
"only sort-of-funny?" nice guy vs. mean girl? oh, it's ON. i'm happy to give you space to elaborate, but i'm a little worried that a more nuanced discussion might actually break out. it's a risk i'm willing to take. let's start with "mean girl." i don't think you came across as mean at all. i can't speak for my readers, but to me you came across as a little neurotic, yes, but who isn't a little neurotic about parenting? mostly you just sounded ridiculously inclined to over-generalize, presume, judge and over-generalize some more. let's give you some epaulets and call you Generalissimo Generaliza, Inspector General of Generalia. yeah, i know, still "only sort-of-funny."
In my perhaps naive way, I imagine that women talked about more or at least more interesting things during the '70s when my mother was home with me for the first 3 years of my life. Nixon was being impeached right before I was born so maybe they talked about that. My mother was in a cooperative playgroup (a dying concept) in which 3 or 4 mothers took care of 6 or 7 babies for a few hours so the other mothers could either work part-time or get other things done. I asked her what they talked about when they got together and she said, "Probably how jealous we were of the mothers who weren't there." Your more reactionary readers will probably think this quote indicates that I inherited some sort of cold-blooded meanness from my mother but what I like about that quote is that in those days you were allowed to be jealous of the women who were out doing other things. You could joke on some level about the sheer relentlessness and maybe even the boredom (!) of parenting. I find these days you are not allowed to joke. People are too precious about parenting and this preciousness, I believe, is not good for kids, moms, dads, or marriages. This is what I was ranting about on my website.
i have read enough John Updike to know that you're probably right: a generation or so ago women probably were less baby-centric than the moms of today. they were also more inclined to get drunk in the afternoon and screw their friends' husbands. so, yeah, a return to the '70s could potentially be a good thing. and you're right about something else: the cooperative playgroup is dying, but it ain't dead yet. have you checked out, in our very neighborhood, Roots and Wings? sounds like something that might interest you. frankly, i don't think you are breaking any revolutionary ground or committing some terrible taboo when you say that moms sometimes get bored. lord have mercy, i have had days where my only company was the drone of the radio (ever hear Morning Edition twice in a row? not pretty) and my dreams of infanticide when naps were abandoned. flip through my archives some time. as far as the "preciousness" is concerned, i don't think preciousness itself is a problem. i think it's probably only a real danger when there's a preciousness imbalance in a marriage -- a preciousness gap, if you will. if mom is off-the-hook googie about her kid while dad would rather be throwing back cold ones with his single buddies, then we have a problem.
What I miss on the playground is humor. People approach the task of child care so seriously. Even when the kids are funny a lot of times I'm the only one laughing. In early childhood there is a lot of worry so this will change soon, and I am sure parents worried about their kids in the '70s, but at a certain point you really do have to let your kid fall on his ass or face or whatever. Not from a jungle gym, but from the eight inch-high walking bar on the Tot Lot.
i miss humor too. especially mine. i used to be more than only-sort-of funny. so i offer my wife as a counter-example (counter-examples being all i can provide to poke holes in your theory -- i try to avoid sweeping statements about a given population. except albanians. don't get me started on albanians). mrs nice guy, unlike her husband, is a laff riot. her current favorite photo of the baby is a picture of her mid-fall, with a look of "hoooolllly shit!" flashing across her panicked chubby face. it cracks her up every time she sees it, which cracks me up -- so here in one woman you have humor and a willingness to let her baby eat it ... and LAUGH at her on the way down. but i will concede one thing (dude, you're more fun to respond to when you are talking about your tibetan nanny, i'll be honest. you're too damn rational here): there are indeed some moms who just won't shut up about the precious little things sally said/did/pooped. these moms are boring. avoid them. there are moms who definitely hover and there are moms who are terrified of feeding their 3 month-old, say, a strawberry ("wait, is he allowed to eat that?!"). i think the real sad thing is a tendency i've noticed in parents to be unwilling to trust their instincts; an over-reliance on experts and a need to be omnipresent. still, i bet every generation in herstory has had these moms in it. so to say, as you did in your blog, that these people are bad for society? ninja, please. deliberate provocation is as boring as scoping stroller brands.
I also miss the opportunity to talk about other things besides mothering. I ran into a college acquaintance on the Tot Lot a few months ago and we were talking about working at home versus in an office, Ditmas Park vs. Park Slope, some old friends we had in common, and I realized how refreshing it was NOT to be talking about our babies. It seems interactions like that are very rare. Yes, I knew this woman, but not well, and I felt a kinship in that neither of us felt a need to talk about what our children were up to, even though we were very capable of watching them carefully to make sure they didn't hurt themselves.
word. my favorite neighborhood mom right now is a little older -- has a 12 year old and an 8 year old. on mondays, my day home, we occasionally meet up and drink too much wine on the stoop while her 12-year-old watches my 1-year-old inside. we talk about our kids as little as possible, unless her kid accidentally runs the dishwasher with mine in it. i really and truly don't know many moms who talk exclusively about their progeny. they tend not to be people i'd enjoy hanging out with. i do have momfriends with whom the conversation usually tends towards parenting, but that's because these moms are my peers, going through similar things, with similar questions. it's one thing to get the official line from dr. spock or whatever, but often it's in the trenches that you learn the dirty truth and awesome parenting hacks.
I mentioned on my blog a new book by Linda Hirshman that basically takes SAHMs to task for setting feminism back. She thinks the way to insure that women work is for them to a) marry older or much younger because older men are more settled in their careers and younger men are unsettled enough thatthey can put in time at home, b) have one child, and c) make their husbands do a lot of the housework.
i honestly have no opinion on the state of feminism.
I am not sure I agree with her that SAHMs set back feminism but I do think that choice feminism is a big, whopping failure, the idea that all choices that women make are equally valid. I don't think the choice to sleep your way through New York City is empowering. I know because I did it and at the end I wasn't empowered. I was just tired and maybe a little swollen. I don't think the choice to be a SAHM is empowering, on a personal level, because I get too much empowerment from my work and would never want to give it up completely. I feel sorry for people who don't love their work and I think the solution is to find different work instead of quit to care for a child. I also feel like it's a waste of a college education to become a SAHM. If I sent my 18-year-old daughter to an Ivy and fifteen years later she was taking care of a baby all day, I would feel disappointed and angry, like I threw away $100,000 which is what my college education cost although now it is much more. I think it's good for women to have career ambition, many interests and many kinds of responsibilities. There was one study in the Science section of the New York Times that found working women in England to be healthier 30 years later than women who just stayed at home.
me? i have no qualms with sleeping my way through nyc -- do you have any idea how awesome it is to be married to a hot slampiece like my wife ... who earns 62 times what i earn? it's like the holy grail of awesome, made out of chocolate and filled with scotch. but really, what's wrong with raising a smart, thoughtful daughter who has weighed all of her options and decides that she'd be most fulfilled raising her children at home? i think we should applaud that. or would you rather have an illiterate, incurious oaf raising your grand-kids?
So feminism has to find some other way to deal with this whole SAHM/WOHM issue than talking about choices. This is the same reason the pro-choice movement has so many problems. And yes, I am pro-choice. Just as there has got to be another way to talk about women's right to abortion besides "choice/no choice," there has got to be another way to talk about working vs. stay-at-home women besides "two equally valid choices."
no one here said they're equally valid choices. that's my whole point. it's all about context and what works for you. parenting is like drinking wine: if it tastes good then it's the right wine for you; who cares what robert parker rated it? i am, probably to a fault, a relativist. you don't want to stay at home all the time? that's totally cool. ferchrissakes, though, don't tell moms who do stay at home that they're destroying the fabric of society. (and don't tell moms who don't stay home the same thing either; i might be looking at you, caitlin flanagan.)
And oh yeah, I think SAHDs make better full-time parents because they are allowed to fail, forget the milk or the play date or shower shield. SAHMs don't allow themselves the luxury of failure and they should because it lets you see firsthand that your kid will be all right anyway.
whoa, dads are allowed to fail? will you please have that statement notarized and sent to my bride? you may not be setting feminism back, but you're sure doing your part for chauvinism. again, Generalissimo, it depends on the dad, right? and, to an extent, the kid and the mom. as it happens, both mrs nice guy and i were a little stunned to discover that i am waaay more uptight and hover-inclined than she is -- a total flip of our personality types. i also know a semi-cliched dad who didn't spend a single day alone with his baby until the kid was a year old! he didn't know what the hell was going on. it was kind of cute, actually, but mostly just sad. i know another dad who's been home for three years. he's a musician who gigs on nights and weekends, but he's home with his boy every minute of every day. i've run into him on days where he just wanted call it quits -- told me he was a little jealous that i had an office to return to. statistically, we all have kids who will turn out just fine. you can't just make sweeping statements about us. of course, that reluctance to generalize is why i will never have a book deal.
oops, was that a generalization? any agents out there interested?