Monday, November 16, 2009

Back from Chicago, and Already Thinking Too Much

I've often wondered, since becoming a parent five years ago, if I'm a total stress-case freak for finding mothering (or, probably more accurately, full-time at-home mothering) simultaneously the best thing that's ever happened to me (because, hello: my two amazing daughters who give meaning to my life) and the hardest, most aggravating, most challenging endeavor I've ever experienced (hello: toddler who cried at bedtime for hours on end every single night for 17 months straight. AS JUST ONE EXAMPLE).

My dear friend Mnmom has frequently reminded me that there's a real reason it's so hard: that humans aren't meant, nor did we evolve, to raise our children alone in a nuclear family unit, far from extended family with generations of advice-givers, helpers, partners in parenting and running a household. And yet I always forget this fact, and ponder repeatedly why in the world I find parenting so difficult and my SAHM days such contradictory combinations of drudgery, anxiety, contentment, and joy. How can you adore being a mom AND dread every crabby-toddler morning at the same time? How can you love being at home with your children but simultaneously lose sleep (and hair) over not having enough money to pay the bills, not enough sleep to feel rested, not enough patience to be the one who does everything all day long? Sometimes I forget how, exactly, that math all adds up.

Over the weekend I read the latest issue of The Atlantic. Regular Atlantic readers will know that famous mother-writer Sandra Tsing Loh writes a regular book-review column for the magazine. She's a bit of a loose cannon--for example, she famously announced her unexpected divorce in the July/August issue, which was sort of odd and riveting at the same time--but I like her and her writing, in that sort of can't-tear-myself-away manner of car wrecks and cable-TV episodes of Keeping Up With the Kardashians. (Gah.) And this month's column is a good one: in between unsettling descriptions of her current, mid-divorce, rather homeless state, she reviews two books related to mothering, and discusses the strangely difficult state of modern motherhood, in all its Creative-Class, overly-educated, anxious, isolating glory. Or, rather, the opposite of glory; what would that be? Ingloriousness? Yes.

Ms. Tsing Loh quotes Germaine Greer's classic The Female Eunuch, in the chapter called "Family," discussing how extended, multigenerational ("stem family") households (how we were meant to live, and how we all used to live, long ago), are inherently stable in comparison to modern two-parent nuclear families, because they don't rest solely on the shoulders of just two adults, trying to juggle multiple and competing demands of daily life. And Tsing Loh identifies immediately with this idea, and goes on to write:

"Bingo. What better phrase to describe marriage among those of my own bewildered demographic slice—parents of the Creative Class? We start with the best of intentions. In her 20s, the Creative Class female carves out a cool Creative Class career, like Writer. She meets a man with an equally cool Creative Class job...In their 30s, the baby comes...

After kissing her husband goodbye, the Creative Class mother now begins to care for their baby, alone, in New York, or Los Angeles, or whatever cool city they’ve moved to. She’s isolated from her stem family—the grandma, aunts, and in-laws (who all love children!) have long been left behind in notoriously un-Creative Lompoc, Fort Lauderdale, or Ohio. She can barely maneuver the stroller down the four flights of stairs to get to Gymboree ($20 for 45 minutes, and you have to actually
stay with your nine-month-old and drum). Result: the 21st-century Creative Class mom’s life is actually far worse than that of her 1950s counterpart. Her husband works as many hours (and travels more), but life is uncomfortable on his salary alone, and the isolated mom has no bingo-playing moms’ group to ease the unnatural, teeth-chattering stress of one-on-one care of her child..."

Wow, does THAT ever describe my experience parenting Julia as a newborn--my first baby, my first experience leaving a career world of offices and co-workers to stay home all day long with no one to talk to, no one to help me, no one to answer questions about what to do about all the parts of mothering I was completely unfamiliar with (read: pretty much all of them). Sure, I called my mom a lot, but she was 250 miles away, and, living in a less-than-intimate urban environment, I didn't meet my first fellow-SAHM friend until Julia was 11 months old. ELEVEN MONTHS, people. With a baby who had colic as a newborn, had zero capacity for self-soothing, and who didn't really sleep for the first seven months of her life. It was a long, desperate year--even while being a wonderful, incredible year. (Hence my confusion, above.)

Even now, with two children, five years of parenting experience under my belt, a home in a friendly, family-filled small town, and a social network of other mom friends, parenting small children remains, well, much the same: a puzzling combination of The Best Thing Ever and Things That Make Me Want to Poke My Own Eye Out With a Stick.

Is this normal? Well, perhaps not back in the "stem family" day, but now? Sandra Tsing Loh--and, before her, Germaine Greer--would say yes.

It's nice to know that you're not just a total stress-case freak. Or, at the very least, that if you are, then most other nuclear-family, isolated, full-time stay-at-home moms probably are too.

Am I right, moms? Go read your Atlantic. Then tell me what you think.

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