Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Mothers Tied Into Knots

As a preschool teacher, I get to know too many women who are tied into knots over every detail of their parenting. To a certain extent, I suppose it’s always been this way, but I have to believe that modern life has greatly exacerbated and magnified the anxiety level.

Throughout most of human history the job of raising children has been strictly “women’s work,” and like all of the other things that fell into that category (e.g., cooking, housekeeping) it required a set of “job skills” passed down from women to their daughters. Girls were expected to help out with their younger siblings in a kind of generational on-the-job training program that ultimately lead to a societal assumption that all women are naturally gifted caretakers. I’m not going to dismiss the possibility of a genetic “mommy instinct,” but I will assert that this kind lifelong learning at the feet of “the master” lead to more realistic expectations about the job and greater confidence in carrying it out at a younger age.

In much of the world this continues to be the experience of girls. I’m not saying that it makes them better parents. What I am saying that this experience means that they are less likely to get tied up in knots about it.

Parenting is still something we learn on-the-job, but most of us today don’t start learning it until we have a baby of our own. Like any new job, there’s going to be anxiety, self-doubt, and moments of feeling out of control. Add to that the fact that most of us have internalized, at least at some level, the vestigial message that being a “good” mother is an instinctive part of being female. Then subtract the very real day-to-day support of older, experienced women (grandmothers) and the hands-on help of younger women (12-year-old daughters). And finally, calculate in the reality that most young mothers now have jobs outside their home (or the nagging feeling that they should) and husbands who aren’t as fully engaged in parenting as they might be, and we’re looking at an equation destined to produce anxiety.

An enormous industry has arisen to fill the void left by grandmas, one that produces thousands of new book titles, studies, theories and warnings every year. And while I’m sure that each one is issued with the best of intentions, many mothers experience it as a flood of things they should know and do, but don’t.

A few years ago, the subject of parental anxiety was the topic of our monthly parent education session. Mothers voiced their frustration and concern that it seemed like whatever they did they were somehow failing their children. They feared they weren’t patient enough. They were concerned they weren’t providing enough of this or that kind of experience. They worried about diet, exercise, role-modeling, emotions, sleep, television, toy choices, attachment, separation, you name it. It was a tense and somewhat angry meeting.

Finally, our parent educator Jean Ward, a wise, calm, experienced woman, said, “Listen, if you do what the parenting experts say 35 percent of the time, you’re the best parent in the world.” As she let that statement hang there, the release of tension from the room was palpable. I have no idea where she came up with that statistic, or even it’s true (although I suspect it is), but if I could have read the thought bubbles around the room, I’m sure they would have said something to the effect of, I can do that.

A companion phenomenon that I’ve observed as a preschool teacher is that the most anxious women tend to be first-time mothers of 2-year-olds, and they always become noticeably less anxious over time, just as what would typically happen with any new job. And most of them are downright cavalier by they time their child is ready for kindergarten. It’s all about experience. If they’re bringing their second kid to preschool, they come in exuding confidence. And if they have a third, they seem as wise and calm as any grandma who ever lived.

I’ve not written about fathers in this post because, to be honest, it’s very rare to come across one who is tied into knots over every aspect of his parenting, even among stay-at-home dads. Of course, it could be a function of our notorious unwillingness to confess weakness, especially to other men, but I suspect it has much more to do with the fact that we aren’t as burdened with the weight of historical expectations. Men tend to be “graded” as parents almost exclusively on effort and earnestness, which in my view is really how it should be for parents of either gender.

I believe that infants and babies whose mothers give them loving comfort whenever and however they can are truly the fortunate ones. I think they’re more likely to find life’s times of trouble manageable, and I think they may also turn out to be the adults most able to pass loving concern along to the generations that follow after them. – Mister Rogers

Update: In the comments my friend Floor Pie reminded me of a serious omission. I was inspired to write this by a powerful rant over on Offsprung called "Victims of the Mommy Wars". Thanks Toby.

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glassgirl said...

Tom - what you describe is in interesting conundrum which I ponder frequently. What I see is slightly different - I do see that women are lacking their female mentors, aunts & mothers etc. It was in the 1940s that advertisers really ran with that. That was when the population shifted from mostly rural to mostly urban. Young mothers, physically removed from women family members, were encouraged to listen to scientists & doctors about what to feed, how to raise.

But as a mom in these times, my own tensions are not caused by the parenting skills I never had the chance to learn from my own tribe (see PS), but the question of - am I succeeding at giving my child every chance to sample every possible activity & interest that catches his eye, & how can I ever do that, since nowadays opportunities for kids are so plentiful? Such issues are the spawn of these rich times we live in. As little as a century ago, life was on the edge. Children worked on the farm. They ate their biscuit & syrup sandwiches cold at lunch, grateful to have food. They wore patched clothes & made their own games in the dirt with sticks. Parents didn’t give a damn about helping their child “find his bliss.” If he was healthy, respectful, & clothed in clean if not new clothes, fine. Hauling water, building fires, growing food, managing the animals – survival filled the days. Now we have a society that is vastly rich by comparison. My son doesn't have to do any kind of real work. Instead, his work is practice the fiddle, study maps, play soccer, practice archery, sample ballet, act in a play. And if I can’t find the time in schedule for these things, I have a vague fret that I’m depriving him. Because you never know what his genius will be, right? And it’s up to you, as the adult, to navigate thru our newly sophisticated world.

PS- My mother was the oldest of 7 children on a farm, virtually a 2nd mother. Yet she was a flop as a mother. Learning from the tribe doesn't define WHAT you learn.

Maya Catching Butterflies said...

Recommended readings: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. Both contian strong woman characters that parent the best way they know how under the dire circumstances they've been given.

Floor Pie said...

Excellent post. This is so true. And it doesn't help that most mainstream parenting media hypes up the anxiety with their "Top 10 Things You Think Are Safe That Can Actually Kill Your Baby" articles.

I have a friend who writes a blog on feminist parenting over at Offsprung. She had a post recently about the so-called "Mommy Wars" and how that fuels new-mom anxiety and ends up turning us against each other. Good stuff: http://tinyurl.com/lsbpou

Teacher Tom said...

I think you're right Susan (glassgirl). Too many choices can be crippling. I had a German friend visiting the US several years ago and she was sent by her host to the grocery store to buy a bag of potato chips. She came back empty handed, saying, "There were too many choices. I didn't want to make the wrong one." And that was just making a decision about chips!

And Maya, I have both of those books on my shelves. I guess I better get cracking. Thanks.

PJ Mullen said...

I agree with your point that the expectations for fathers in society is different than mothers, hence the reason why we don't outwardly project the same concerns. Despite the generational shift we are experiencing with fathers becoming more involved in our children's lives, we are still not viewed as being capable of nuturing. As a result, less judgment is passed over the roles we play.

Personally, I don't really care what people think of how my wife and I are raising our son. And I don't much care how other people are raising their children. As long as they love, provide for and encourage them, that is all that matters.

I also read the Mommy Wars post and was a little disappointed by the perpetuation of some stereotypes of men. Maybe it was meant to be tongue in cheek, if so, it is much to late for me to pick up on it.

The fact of the matter is every father I know or am friends with thinks the world of their children. Books and parents magazines aren't geared towards us because they think we don't care or are too stupid to figure it out. That is fine, the only persons opinion of how I am doing as a father that matters belongs to my wife. We discuss everything that involves our son and come up with what we both feel is in his best interests. And since I'm the one that stays home with him, it is my job to execute the plan.

Does that mean it is always the right choice, who knows? Only time will tell.