Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Mommy Lit

Over my feminist years I have read pretty much every single feminist and anti-feminist book on the politics of mothering and the work-home balance. Some of them were dreadful, some thought-provoking and some excellent, but one characteristic they all seemed to share was a certain...muddiness. Like walking around in a bog after dark, groping for some sort of a landmark and finding it changing all the time. Every step you take leaves your boots more caked with mud and the mosquitoes keep on biting. To finish a book like this brings great relief and a desire never to venture into mommy lit again.

But venture there I must because my inner muse insists on it. He's tiresome as he will never be a mother of anything more interesting than my thoughts. But at least he demand that I only write about one review of such books, by Ruth Franklin in the New Republic, not the books themselves. Sadly, this review is ultimately equally beset with the muddiness and the mosquitoes and the shifting landmarks. Or in clearer terms, beset with anecdotal evidence, an attempt to be all things to all people and a tendency to ignore at least half of the total picture.

Some of this follows directly from the difficulty of the topic. We are, after all, discussing many different mothers, many different life situations. But mommy lit makes the situation worse than this in a way which to me seems purposeful. It's as if the books must end with no solution, because that guarantees that no specific type of reader will be insulted. Even Franklin's review ends like that:

It is time to recognize that there is no inherently perfect balance of work and family, and that no amount of intensive parenting can take away the sadness of not being with one's children as much as one would like. Children's needs and desires, and parents' needs and desires, are constantly in flux. If we are fortunate, we will be able to adjust our lives in accordance with them; and like any contortion, it will require some stretching, some groaning, and some pain. The tension that we feel is not the problem afflicting mothers in America today. It is the solution.

There you have it. The mummy guilt is just something you live with, a sign of things having been solved most excellently. Yet, to get to this admirably short ending, Franklin had to cruise through several non-fiction and fiction books on mothering, slamming each one of them as mistaken in one sense or another. Never did she correct statements like this, though:

Still, Warner's wildly popular screed has obviously struck a nerve for many women. And, in a broader sense, the issues that agonize her privileged neighbors are indeed universal. From "the mommy wars" to "the opt-out revolution," the new debate about American motherhood is really the old debate about American feminism. More than forty years after Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem encouraged women to step out of the kitchen and into the workplace, the implications of this shift, and the resulting tensions between life at home and life at work, are still incompletely understood. Is it possible to "have it all"--in the words of Wendy Sachs, the author of a new book about working mothers, "to have a fantastic career and still be a great mommy"? Or, as Warner claims, has feminism betrayed today's women, who were brought up to believe they could have any job they chose, only to be forced onto the "mommy track" once they had children? Can a mother who stays home with her children defend the decision as a feminist choice? And is the "intensive parenting" that Warner deplores a guilt-induced by-product of the demands of the workplace or an inevitable consequence of society's love affair with consumerism? Mommy's evening cocktail may not actually be poisoned, but it induces a haze of confusion.

"Has feminism betrayed today's women?" When did feminism promise that women can have it all? I thought that feminism was about gender equality, that women could have the same slice of pie as men routinely receive, the same choices, and the same esteem. But of course "to have it all" doesn't mean what it sounds like: a desire to gorge on all life's good things. It just means having what men get. Still, to blame feminism for the society's refusal to become feminist is preposterous, and Franklin does it at least twice in the same review. It's as if she and quite a few other writers in this genre are unaware that feminists haven't been running this country for the last thirty years. As if feminism is something like brand loyalty to Coke or Pepsi, with promises to make you popular or happy.

Franklin's review has many pertinent points, though, just as do the books she reviews. For example, she points out that most of the mommy lit books are about upper and middle class women and their choices and constraints, not about the real lifes of women with low and average incomes and limited education, and this is indeed true. The reason isn't hard to find, either: it's the upper and middle class women who will buy and read these books. Though I don't actually find such books as frivolous as many feminists. Of course we need to have better research on the poor and average women, but it's also important to learn about the lives of women who are close to reaching the positions of power in this society, and these women are mostly from the upper middle class. Besides, it's the "rich" women that anti-feminists try to talk into going back home. I have yet to find a book in which an anti-feminist sets out a plan for poor women to be able to stay at home.

What may be a bigger problem in the books Franklin reviews, ultimately, is the fact that they are not based on proper statistical sampling. This is true of the whole mommy lit field, with few exceptions, and even some of those that appear to be based on proper statistics turn out not to be so (coughSylviaHewlettcough). The normal practice is to get together a bunch of women in some totally nonrandom way, and then ask them various kinds of questions, which are then used to glean answers to flesh out the writer's thesis. (I'm sorry, but this is how most of the books seem to me, like the writer decided what to write and then found opinions to support the thesis.) The problem with the nonrandom sampling is that the data can't be shown to bear any particular relationship to women in general or even upper middle class women in general. It's pretty much useless for any other purpose save for saying what these particular women believe. Yet the practice seems to thrive from decade to decade.

Franklin does point out these problems, though in a few words, and she also passingly notes that the role of fathers gets short shrift in the mommy lit. So does the role of the society and the rules of the labor market. And the traditional expectations we have had inculcated into us by the time we become mothers. And many other things.

But what struck me most about Franklin's review, though, was how similar it is to the books she criticizes. Its approach is firmly in the moneyed classes, it accepts the way the questions are set at almost face value and it brings in all sorts of anecdotal comments as proof or disproof of general patterns. Like most of mommy lit, Franklin flutters over the various explanations for the work-family dilemma like a butterfly, yet alighting on none, until she has traveled a full circle back to the psychological feelings of the mother. Thus, we read a few quick lines on the learned helplessness of fathers or the way firms won't hire or promote mothers or about part-time work as the mommy track where the train never arrives, but we emphasize this:

What is different about the present day is its public celebration of self-absorption. The deluge of "mommy madness" books is just part of it. According to a recent article in The New York Times, there are now nearly ten thousand parenting-themed blogs, most of them by stay-at-home mothers and fathers who in a previous age might simply have kept a journal but now are able to publish their thoughts for all to read. In one extreme example, the stay-at-home dad Ben MacNeil chronicled his daughter's every bottle and diaper change until she was a year old (the diaper total reached well over three thousand). "Parents have been parenting for hundreds of thousands of years, but this is the first time I've ever done it," he explained to the Times. But there is an irony here. What looks like an intense focus on one's baby is actually an intense focus on oneself.

Indeed. But I very much doubt that an intense focus on oneself is anything new at all. Yet another common aspect of the mommy lit: reinventing the wheel, arguing for some sort of a complete change from past circumstances, when the evidence doesn't support this at all.

I'm probably just tired and hot today. Perhaps Franklin's review is useful and enlightening for those who haven't spent the equivalent of one lifetime in the world of mommy literature. But I'd truly love to read one book in this field which sets up the questions sharply, analyzes real data and does it carefully and which doesn't assume that the invisible elephants of society and fathers' roles in childrearing aren't sitting smack in the middle of the living-room couch. And please, could you define feminism and then use it correctly for the duration of the article or book? Thank you.