I have an eye twitch as I write this.
I usually focus on the ways the tribe of Manhattan women with kids I study is different from other moms across the country and around the world. But in June I am reminded of the many similarities between contemporary privileged Manhattan childhood and motherhood and regular old childhood and motherhood in the midwest where I grew up several decades ago.
When I was a kid, women with kids who didn’t work outside the house were called “homemakers” or “housewives.” Today in New York City, a highly competitive ecological niche where certain resources–spots in elite schools and in the practices of excellent pediatricians, for example–are scarce, motherhood has been “professionalized.” Women with MBAs, women who have had high powered careers, women who went to very competitive universities and did exceedingly well, bring all that focus to the job of advocating for their children.
And this has changed up motherhood, and childhood, in remarkable ways. When I was a child, a good mother, per Dr. Benjamin Spock’s explicit directive, did her own thing in the house for part of every day. It was believed to foster independence in children. Spock urged mothers, in earlier editions of his Baby and Child Care, to play bridge, talk on the phone or watch a soap opera (yep, it was the 50s and early 60s!) for an hour or two every day. Kids could play in their rooms or the basement or the backyard. They could, Dr. Spock said, amuse themselves. And they should. And a good mother left them alone to do just that.
Fast forward to today, when failing to nurture your child on every imaginable measure and enrich him in every possible way is considered neglect. Many of the women I know taught their own children to read; take them to enriching museums and libraries and art exhibits after school; take them to more museum art and science classes and bake with them to teach them fractions on the weekend; and on and on. Is it bad for kids? I will concede that it’s probably better for them than being on an iPad all weekend. But is it extremely depleting for mothers to be adjunct or even primary teachers, OTs, coaches, art consultants and more for their kids? You bet. The sociologist Sharon Hays calls it “intensive motherhood”–a gendered ideology that dictates that women should spend enormous amounts of time, energy, and money on childrearing, and that failing to do so is failing to be a good mother. This cultural shift prompted Jennifer Senior, author of All Joy and No Fun: the Paradox of Modern Parenthood, to observe that children, who once worked for us, are now our bosses.
You feel it here in June. If you have more than one child, you can count on at least a dozen end-of-school year events in the weeks leading up to the end of the school year, usually in early to mid June. There might be an end of year concert, an end of year potluck lunch, an end of year field day, an end of year dance recital or play and an end of year picnic, all in addition to the graduation or “stepping up” ceremony.
I feel I understand my mother a little better when I go to all these things. It’s fun and a privilege to watch one’s children grow up and fledge from one grade to another. But like all things in Manhattan, the way we do it is excessive, and it’s draining on parents–usually on the mommies who attend most of the events if both parents can’t. Q: What’s the difference between a housewife of the 1960s and a “professional mother” today? Or a mother who has a profession and is also a professional mother? A: One feels guiltier than the other.