Are your kids at camp? Did you go to camp? When I was growing up in Michigan, sleep away camp was not a big thing. But now that I’m a Manhattan mommy, I’m surrounded by parents who send their kids to “sleep away” for all or part of the summer. Day camp is popular, too. On my Psychology Today blog, I write about why we send our kids away for the summer.….
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.
Peaches Geldof, beautiful skinny mother of two. Dead person. Coincidence?
Peaches Geldof died, possibly of starvation. Maybe something else was going on, too. But her death, which leaves her family bereft and two little boys motherless, is a springboard for thinking about high pressure, glamorous motherhood and the standards that stress women with kids and even put them in danger. Messing up your electrolytes can give you a heart attack. Did you know that?
Like so many privileged women with kids in Manhattan I know and study, Peaches Geldof was into juice fasts, juice cleanses, juicing, juice as food. I’ve written about the Manhattan elite’s juice obsession before. In major metropoles of the industrialized west like New York, the beauty bar is high, and alpha men and women go all out to look good. They binge on exercise. They count calories. They deprive themselves. They do juice “cleanses.” They say they are “detoxing.” Many of the women I know juice and “detox” for days at a time. Guess what? For many women here, and men too, juicing is nothing more than a socially acceptable way to have and talk about and normalize an EATING DISORDER. It is the newest wrinkle in “disordered eating,” a syndrome particular but not exclusive to WEIRDos (those living in Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic worlds).
Self-deprivation is an expression of privilege in certain rarified circles in Manhattan and LA. But replacing meals with juice isn’t healthy. And evidence suggests that intermittent fasting may be beneficial to men, but presents potential dangers for many women. Eat something. Eat something, because your juice fast diet is making you BITCHY and unhealthy: insomnia, impaired fertility and increased stress hormones and anxiety are just a few of the unwanted side effects of fasting and calorie restriction women have experienced in studies in England and the US. A 2005 study published in Obesity Research of women of healthy weight who fasted intermittently for three weeks found they had zero insulin improvements and worsened glucose response. Meaning the fasting increased their risk of diabetes. And if you take it too far, which might be faster and easier than you think, it could kill you.
The ugliest, most self-destructive form of conspicuous consumption currently on the Manhattan menu is pissing away your health in the name of “health.” Binge exercise, juicing, just not eating. Obsessive calorie counting. Fixating on what you eat, constantly, because you can. Women and mothers here are especially susceptible. The bar is high to look beautiful, youthful and thin in Manhattan as perhaps nowhere else in the US. Just about every woman I encounter in my day-to-day life here is on some sort of diet or regimen pertaining to her eating. Restriction is a way of being, almost as natural as breathing, among the tribe I study. But your kids need you to stay alive, at a minimum. Energetic and happy would be nice, would’t it? And your daughters, especially, need you not to be a neurotic, self destructive, self loathing mess about food.
Do you have an eating disorder? Here’s a quiz that might be the first step in finding out and getting help. There’s no shame in having an eating disorder. In Manhattan, where it’s business as usual, you’re in good company.
Modelling. Ballet. Being a Manhattan mother. Three professions in which anorexia, deprivation and wrecking your body are occupational hazards. Fire your boss. Meet me at Rotisserie Georgette. We’ll eat something. It’ll be delicious. And good for us.
This gallery contains 16 photos
The annual Playground Partners Luncheon took place at the Boathouse in Central Park recently. It was a snowy day, but that did not reduce turnout at this popular event. Like grooming behaviors among female papio cynocephalus (savannah baboons), attending events is an affiliative, pro-social behavior that promotes group and Read more »
What does giving up drinking have to do with billionaires who pledge to give away half their wealth? Or the Kwaikiutl potlatch ceremony in which chiefs set their most prized possessions on fire or give them away for show?
I haven’t had a drink in ten months and ten days. But who’s counting?
My decision to stop drinking for “a while” came after a close encounter with a bottle of organic (of course! It’s good for you!) vodka. But it had more to do with the habitual glass or two or three of wine that every single woman with young children I know in Manhattan drinks every single night (except maybe Monday night, when you’ve spent the day juicing because you’re detoxing from the weekend). You will drink more or less, probably, depending on what’s going on. Kindergarten notifications, after a whole fall and early winter of Kindergarten applications, are the main thing going on now. Please pass the vodka. Or in my case, don’t.
Manhattan mommies and other mommies across the country drink, most often wine, because it’s what we do. That is to say, while our drinking may be personal, or physiological, or psychological, it’s also deeply, and to my eye mostly, tribal. It’s nothing, nothing at all, to go out with girlfriends here (and elsewhere) and have three or four glasses of wine at a “mom’s night out.” Particularly if you don’t have to drive yourself home, as none of us do here–we’re a walking town, and a town of cabs and drivers and Uber—it’s virtually comme il faut.
The tribe I study would rather drink than eat. More than one friend who has gone to a nutritionist or holistic MD has reported to me that she agreed to give up X, Y, and Z but refused to give up alcohol. As Richard Kirschenbaum observed in the Observer recently, “I’ll have a couple of almonds” is the new motto of privileged Manhattanites. I might add that, while you will hear a wealthy Manhattanite say “a Martini, no olive” you will never, ever hear the reverse from a privileged Manhattan mommy. Drinking is something we won’t give up, most of us.
So back to not drinking. It seems to go against the grain of my culture to stop. But giving up drinking couldn’t have been easier thanks to what I like to call the New Deprivation. No gluten, no dairy, no soy, no lactose, no processed sugar, no wheat. Deprivation is the new conspicuous consumption. In the same way a group of billionaires have vowed to give away all their wealth, the women I run with have agreed to give up just about everything–except wine. When the good people at the Celiac Center at Columbia Presbyterian told me what would be required of me a couple of years ago, the doctor compassionately observed, “Many people find it very difficult to have so many food categories taken out of their diets and out of their lives. Some people even become depressed.” I told him it was a non-issue for me. He looked really, really perplexed. “My kids go to school on the Upper East Side,” I explained, “I’m already a semi-professional anorexic.” He nodded and said, that Yes, not long ago, another few women had told them essentially the same thing.
It’s not just that the wealthy and uber wealthy are eating less and juicing more. It’s that there’s a new philosophy afoot in town: having nothing is the new having it all.
But this New Deprivation, as exemplified by eating less, isn’t the languid “dieting” our mothers knew, in which you simply don’t have stuff. No, this new deprivation is fueled by an ethos of doing, along with a dash of supersonic entitlement and side of ultra inflated expectations. Now, and here, deprivation is an active state of affairs. You do stuff to your body—Soul Cycle and Core Fusion and Physique 57—and you also have less to eat, yes. It’s not enough for a bite to be merely low cal or low fat—that’s pathetically passé—it has to be organic, nutritious, anti-oxidant rich and detoxifying. Your food has to work very, very hard for you. Your expectations of your super foods are super high. It has to deliver, or you are just going to do without.
At a “class cocktail party” not long ago, servers offered platter after platter of delicious looking canapés, all designed with our pollution anxieties and elaborate rules about food in mind. But we still said no as we chatted and drank, again and again and again, to the point that I started to feel bad for the food servers (the drink servers, in contrast, were mobbed). “We all know the food is just for show,” I joked to the hostess. A good sport, she laughed and so did all the other women. We laughed big, uncomfortable, relieved laughs. It’s not that I’m funny–it’s that it’s titillating when someone has the bad manners to actually speak the deep cultural script that we all live and read from and don’t generally discuss.
Giving it up is way too easy around here. In poverty cultures, curves and flesh are status symbols. On the UES, the opposite belief prevails. Less is more. Much, much more.
What does the New Deprivation mean for our sex drives? Ah, that’s for another post.
Who doesn’t like Fridays? For many Manhattan parents, Friday is a “partial day” or even a “half day”–because lots of Manhattan private schools have noon dismissal every Friday. At my sons’ nursery school, we used to refer to Friday as “Daddy Drop Off Day” because that practice is so common at that particular school–and so many others.
Many of the families I study have weekend homes and leave as early as they can on Fridays to get there. If you’re staying in town, your kids may have lots of weekend activities and classes and a birthday party or maybe even two to attend. But you’re still likely feeling pretty relaxed about having survived the week of early morning runs to school before working out and work. The idea of “casual Friday”–Friday being a day of the weekend really, with its own, toned-down, comfortable uniform–is one of the few “mass” ideas in fashion and culture that New Yorkers have embraced as their own.
Many moms wear exercise clothes to Friday drop off here, and then might stay in them all day long. Lulu Lemon is the brand of choice by overwhelming consensus. It is extremely form-fitting, almost an exoskeleton or whole-body girdle, and an intrinsic part of Upper East Side mommy body display culture. Manhattan Geishas, as I call them, expend great energy on the maintenance and improvement of their bodies, which are in themselves signifiers of privilege. A Lulu-Lemon sheathed fit physique says “I have the leisure time to do this” and is as coveted a status symbol as the latest Hermes bag. In poverty cultures, curves and fat are valued as markers of health and wealth. On the UES of Manhattan, it’s just the opposite.
Above are some photos of my younger son’s typical school outfit. Obviously his school does not require a uniform. Of course his aesthetic is an extension of my own and also his caregiver’ and my husband’s. But my son has always been something of a free spirit, making many of his own choices. These have included pink princess socks from Duane Reade, Hello Kitty socks, purple flowered socks, and overall mashups of plaids and stripes. Recently he has reported that boys in his class tell him “purple and pink is only for girls.” I tell him to tell them they are WRONG. Obviously those kids are unaware that until the mid 1900′s, pink was STRICTLY FOR BOYS because it was a “stronger and more decided color and so more suitable for the boy. Blue is more delicate and daintier and so appropriate for the girl.” Everywhere you looked until mid-century, boys were in pink and girls were in light blue. Manufacturers changed that up in the late 1940s. Food for thought this weekend, perhaps.
There is so much I love about this photo. As the mother of two boys, I swoon over everything pink, sparkly and girlie. Fortunately my youngest son used to love dress up, including princess attire. And I have twin god daughters. As to this photo, a little context: a Dutch friend was in town and we suggested a meet up at the bar at the Mark Hotel. I love the Mark Hotel. The location on E. 77th St is perfect as far as I’m concerned–the “near east side” is easy for a West Sider and gives the necessary feeling of being out of one’s own neighborhood without ranging really far. I’ve lived at the Mark twice with my kids, each time during apartment renovations. My friend Isabel is the head concierge there, and they always take nice care of our family. (I spent one of the happiest Christmases of my life at the Mark, covered in hives, baking Christmas cookies on trays Jean-Georges Vongerichten let me borrow–the sugar cookies came out smelling like fish, which was entirely Jean-Georges’s fault, but he ate them and very politely pronounced them delicious anyway, as did everyone else we shared them with–but that’s another story)
In any case, my husband and I were surprised and delighted when our Dutch friend showed up with not only his wife, but their three children: a nine year old boy, a six and a half year old girl, and a three year old boy. If you know me, you know I love kids and am not so keen on the way we have created entirely separate spheres for children and adults in the industrialized West. We make such a big deal out of kids and at the same time, banish them to their own tables, schools and kid zones and keep them out of stores and restaurants and so on. In most of the world, that just doesn’t happen–kids are simply part of the fabric of every day social life, going wherever grown ups go, a fact.
I wasn’t sure about the rules, though, regarding kids in bars and lounges. Isabel had left for the night, so I asked another concierge, who smiled and said it was fine as long as the kids didn’t drink. He’s French, so what do you expect? When I told my Dutch friend’s wife that it was ok, she laughed and said, “I’m Dutch so I just presume it’s okay.” I think it may have been the first time there were ever three kids at the Mark Hotel bar, which that evening was full of hipsters and fashion industry types. We all had a lovely time. My friend’s six and a half year old daughter wore this sparkly pink dress, because she felt like it. Her mom looked hipster cool and comfy, and reminded me of what I love about Amsterdam and Dutch style. As one Dutch woman put it in this video about style in Amsterdam, “In Amsterdam you don’t feel pressured to dress in any one way.” Can you imagine anything further from the truth for us here in New York City, where are uniforms are so rigid and so neighborhood-specific?
On other topics, the snow is gone. We’re into what I call “the Difficult Period”–the holidays are over, it’s dark early, and city moms are their kids are feeling cooped up and a little crazy. We are tired of museums and Make. Now what?
Over the past weekend there was some tremendously sad and upsetting news. Nine year old Cooper Stock was killed by a cab while crossing the street with his dad on the Upper West Side. The cab driver was driving too fast, not paying attention, and now a mother and father have lost their child forever. Friends and family remember Cooper as “spirited, beauty in motion.” Three NYC children have been killed by negligent drivers in crosswalks in the past year. This is not the first time a cab driver was at the wheel. Unbelievably, in all cases, the driver got off with a misdemeanor slap on the wrist. The man who killed Cooper Stock got a summons and drove away from the scene. All the parents I know had the same response–”That could have been my child” “We’ve almost been hit by cabs in the crosswalk so many times” “I’m tired of insane, incompetent, unqualified cab drivers making life more dangerous than it has to be.” David Yassky of the TLC has his work cut out for him, and he had better do something right now. Has he ever been to London? Maybe he should take a page from their book–maybe those who drive a potentially lethal object for a living should be more closely regulated, tested and quality controlled. In Manhattan our cab drivers by and large suck. The cabs are filthy and many of the drivers have no idea how to get you where you need to go, let alone how to do it safely. Enough already.
If you want to ride it down, you have to pull it up!
We had a snow day in Manhattan. That is to say, there were a few inches of snow, and the Board of Ed declared it a day off for New York City public schools, to the jubilation of many boys and girls.
Meanwhile private and independent schools had not yet opened after the winter break. And anyone who was planning to leave early Friday to go skiing for the weekend or to their weekend homes heard weather predictions varying from a dusting of snow (Manhattan) to blizzard conditions (on Long Island) and decided to stick around town for the weekend.
That means one thing: lots of people who would otherwise have been away were here and the hills in Central Park were jam packed with kids and parents. And sleds.
There are two things that really stuck me about these kids (and moms, dads and caregivers) on a hill. First, gravity imparts lessons you just can’t fight. Unless your mom, dad or caregiver is really indulgent or you are really little, if you want to ride it down, first you have to haul it up.
It seems like a small thing and an obvious point. But it is a huge lesson for kids in a town where we tend to hover, curate our children’s every experience and do just about everything for them. What these kids learn from sledding, other than that it is really fun, is that the fun comes from the hard work of trudging up the hill with your sled. And that the work is actually part of the fun. Worldwide, this is the way most kids live–most kids contribute to their households in relatively meaningful ways, help care for younger siblings, and find their own fun. Only in the industrialized West have we made childhood an idyll of no work, lots of play, lots of toys, and formalized education. While sledding, kids are having a hybridized experience, if you will, a mashup of what childhood evolved for (working, helping out and helping oneself) and what it has evolved into here (playing around).
In addition to the gravity and the mix of work and fun, there’s the cultural mix. There are people from everywhere living in Manhattan, and the sledding hills are a place where it shows. Many adults I saw were obviously sledding with their kids for the first time (one kid was wearing sneakers without socks. A nanny from the West Indies almost got taken out by a sled because she was walking up the middle of the hill rather than the sides). Others were just obviously out of practice, forgetting to scurry out of the way once they’d reached the bottom of the hill.
With a bit of coaching from the sidelines (some of us grew up in Michigan and don’t mind telling others how to sled–”Hey, walk up the sides, not the middle where the sleds are coming down!”), newbies, the rusty and kids got the hang of it quickly. All were having a blast when we left in the late morning. The kids and grownups formed a small, temporary community on a sledding hill, then went their separate ways for lunch. Perhaps the most talked about artifact of contemporary, metropolitan parenting and childhood on the sledding hill was a bright blue plastic device–The Snowballer–that helps you make snowballs without actually touching the snow with your mittened or gloved hands.
No matter where they are and no matter where they’re from, when kids land together in a community, they all do pretty much the same thing. First, they find each other. Then they form a rangy mixed-age group (a universal preference among kids). And then, they play. Their play will often resemble some type of “work,” with an industrious edge or a theme of struggle and overcoming. If the group is big enough, they might form teams and work together or at odds on some imagined “task.”
At the resort where we’re staying in St. Lucia I have enjoyed observing the different parenting styles of couples from Germany, England, Iceland, France and the US among others. My highly unscientific conclusion is that I hover too much and don’t give my kids enough freedom. My kids’ European counterparts range far from their parents, show up for breakfast alone on the resort’s shuttle service, introduce themselves to others, and resolve their own disputes quite nicely. They might even have a tiny sip of a grown up’s cocktail at dinner. Wow, so much of that would not happen in the tribe of affluent Manhattan parents I study!
Being at a family resort with parents and kids from many countries, you see that what counts as “good parenting” varies widely from culture to culture. What’s consistent is that, when ecological circumstances are right and they are able to do so without compromising their own well-being, parents invest heavily in each and every child. This is a real rarity in the long evolutionary view of parenting and childhood; for many millennia, just keeping oneself and one’s offspring alive required incredible effort, canny social and environmental calculus, and utterly unsentimental strategic skills, as it still does for many animal species today (invest in this brood now, or wait for a year when weather and other ecological conditions are better? raise them all, or let this one peck the other one to death? let this not-quite-experienced pre-reproductive watch my unweaned babe so I can forage a bit? a nap would be nice. but what if she drops him? etc) Today, many of us who live in the industrialized West are relatively unconstrained by such concerns and considerations. In fact, it’s arguable that nothing better exemplifies what it means to live–and parent –in a state of ecological release than a “family vacation” at an upscale Caribbean resort.
From my lounge chair perch, I have had lots of opportunities to watch not only parents and kids, but kids at play. The kids are remarkably resourceful, overcoming language barriers and cultural differences to get down to the business at hand, whether it’s a spontaneous soccer game or an afternoon of sandcastle building. The boys, particularly the English ones, like “a bit of rough fun”–”Piss off!” “Pass the ball, you, pass it!” and “You’re an idiot!” are frequently heard–and their parents tend to let it go.
The group pictured above formed and reformed itself every day for nearly a week, with other kids joining and peeling away spontaneously. These kids range in age from six to 12. The 11-year-old girl, who is German, tended to my six -year-old in true alloparental style. Like so many other juvenile female primates, she was not just being a help to me and thrilling my young son with her attentions. She was also improving her parenting skills and perhaps, eventually, her own reproductive fitness down the line. Mostly, I think she was capitulating to the charms of my younger son. Just beyond toddlerhood, he retains many of the features–chubby cheeks and arms, big round eyes, a protruding tummy, and an attention-grabbing natal coat (he wears a hot pink, vivid purple or bright orange scuba shirt many days)–that Sarah Blaffer Hrdy has observed render the littlest and most vulnerable primates, be they human or non-human, irresistible to potential caregivers.
AV Bell, K Hinde, Newson, L, “Who Was Helping? The Scope for Female Cooperative Breeding in Early Homo”
S Blaffer Hrdy, Mothers and Others: the Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding, Bellknap Press, 2011