Motherhood. Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t.

Yesterday was quite the day for catching up on reading. Not just any reading – aggravating reading, provocative prose, applause-worthy words, and sputter-inducing commentary on the state of affairs in Parenting Land.

First, there was Lori Gottlieb on The Atlantic, offering her observations concerning our current fixation on doing everything for our kids – and apparently, how that lands them in therapy. An excellent article, I might add.

Lisa Belkin reinterpreted and summarized portions of Gottlieb’s article, on Motherlode, and the discussion that followed (in comments) rankled me no end.

To top it off (I’m cutting to the chase), there was a nifty NY Times article reporting on a study that shows single middle aged mothers report poorer health than those who bear children while married. (Stating the obvious?)

That’s another discussion though related – and I’ll save my tirade on that for another day. Meanwhile, might we muse on modern-day motherhood?

And by the way, where’s my T-shirt? You know the one – “It’s All My Fault” is emblazoned across the chest, in red of course.

Mommie Dearest

Sure, I have my own mother issues, and over the years they’ve proved to be relatively significant. “Relative” is relevant; I’m an adult, and not 20-something. I’ve had plenty of time to come to grips with decades of odd (and damaging) maternal behavior. But I also recognize my part in my life choices, the work to move beyond my upbringing, and the skills acquired at my mother’s side along with aspects of parenting that I have taken from the way I was raised – not the least of which is the importance of learning.

So what do we think of the current pop cultural preoccupation with mothering styles, and our tendency to condemn one in favor of another? And I dare to say mothering because it remains predominantly women who raise the children – and some might say – over-raise them at that.

But why are we damned if we do and damned if we don’t? Why does one (20-something) commenter on Motherlode find fault with her happy childhood and equally happily married parents, explaining that she was unprepared for the world as a result?

Since when is an adult child not expected to learn a few things on being out in the world – about being out in the world?

My Kids, My Selves

My own sons were fortunate in many ways. With multilingual parents – both of us – despite divorce and friction for a decade since, diversity (not to mention travel abroad to see family) has played a role. My elder took to it early; he is – by nature – extroverted and gregarious. He pursues adventure in the world with a vengeance. And relish.

His brother? He’s come later to that sort of tendency; he is by nature more creative and more introspective.

As the Mom?

I catered to each – as much as I could. I overcompensated in some areas (I see now), in part due to single parent guilt, and in part out of demons from my past that I continue to wrestle with. But it’s my baggage and not theirs; I’ve quelled those problematic voices each time they’ve threatened to suck me under – and my parenting effectiveness, along with me.

So when is enough enough? When will we “zoom out” as I suggested the other day, and stop micromanaging our parenting ad infinitum?

(Dis)owning Our Mistakes?

Look to improve? Of course!

Look to our own mistakes in order to learn from them? That, too.

But only up to a point.

Parenting is not an exact science. Each flavor of parenting carries its own struggles – solo parenting, adoption, gay parenting, co-parenting, raising a grandchild, a sister’s child, being an older mom, a teenage mom. And apparently – the traditional two-happy-parents-family-unit is now increasingly problematic.

Consider this comment from the Motherlode reader I mention above, concerning her parents making life a little too pleasant:

… I’m in my mid-twenties and have two wonderful parents who unwittingly did this, with the best of intentions. They raised me in a warm, supportive home in an idyllic town, and looking back, I realize I was insulated as much as possible from the hardships of the real world. Yes, I had discipline (I remember being spanked), no, I wasn’t sheltered from mean classmates or the logical consequences of not preparing enough for an exam (they left me to sink or swim on these things), but on the big things, oh my goodness, there was a vacuum. “Death” was an abstract concept, as I only remember attending one funeral in my childhood. “Scarcity” was a suspect theory, since I don’t remember an occasion of having asked for something (a toy, a dollhouse) and not having received it within six months…  “Failure” was an impossible idea – I had always succeeded at everything academic, so the idea that I could fail at anything was ridiculous.

Obviously, I now know better!

Are you kidding me?

Damn the Mothers! Full Speed Ahead!

In all fairness, the commenter goes on to point out that she wasn’t taught to face fear or to resolve conflict. But honestly, I couldn’t say that my sons have been taught those skills in our home either. Does sibling rivalry count? Does weary single motherhood hone everyone’s ability to negotiate and deal with conflict?

She is also married to a man whose upbringing was dramatically different, filled with hardship which she describes. She is now living in another country and culture (his) – something which would cause discomfort and require a host of new coping skills from anyone.

We certainly don’t have enough information in a blog comment to surmise what other issues may be at work, but by her own definition, this young woman recognizes that she had a happy childhood. At what point is she going to cease blaming her malaise on the sort of family unit that most of us would give an arm and a leg for? That she only attended one funeral as a child?

Um… this is a problem?

Incidentally, I will point out that my sons have never attended a funeral – and I’m glad of that. They have experienced loss – when my own mother passed away, as they processed their feelings and stood by me as I worked through mine.

As for how we “parent” and what we call it – helicoptering and attaching and any other name (that would smell as foul), I say we go for whatever feels right at the time, and whatever we can reasonably manage. And I say this while most heartily agreeing with Lori Gottlieb that our happiness culture is out of hand – happiness for the mothers, happiness for the children, and all too little sense of proportion or perspective.

Yes, this from the woman who insists that parenting is a profession. And I stand by that, sounding the horn for the skills that women (especially) bring to the task. They are mighty indeed. We are mighty indeed.

If only we would value what we furnish and stop apologizing for it. Stop expecting it to follow a specific path. If only we were compensated in some way – (health care? flexible employment environments?) – we might not neglect our own health, lag behind in our earnings, and fall so far back in energy stores as to struggle simply to keep going, not to mention – contributing. Maybe even happily.

The “Happiness” Industry

Now that we’ve moved into Happiness Territory, might I add that Ms. Gottlieb’s (intelligent and thoughtful) article addresses this very issue – and its role in our own measure of discontent, which inevitably plays out in how we raise our kids? Its role in what she refers to as parental overinvestment?

She writes:

My parents certainly wanted me to be happy, and my grandparents wanted my parents to be happy too. What seems to have changed in recent years, though, is the way we think about and define happiness, both for our children and for ourselves. Nowadays, it’s not enough to be happy—if you can be even happier… The American Dream and the pursuit of happiness have morphed from a quest for general contentment to the idea that you must be happy at all times and in every way.


Could we consider setting aside our obsession for all things busily gleeful, and possibly return to appreciation for options occasionally meaningful? Or a less nonsensical expectation that would recognize that life offers challenges, opportunities, and a wide range of emotional states – and maybe that’s a positive?

Might we consider disassembling the Happiness Industry, or if that’s too radical, recognizing that its prominence in contemporary discourse is potentially harmful? That its trickle-down effects on relationships, marriage, and parenting are part of the growing problems of narcissism and entitlement?

Parents Rule, Kids Drool?

My sons don’t possess all the skills I wish they did at this stage, but they’re armed and ready – as ready as I can make them, and as ready as they have made themselves.

I wouldn’t characterize their childhoods as happy or unhappy; I would say they’ve known love, a firm hand, and challenges to overcome.

This includes living through adversity I wish they hadn’t had to endure. But even if there had never been conflict or financial hardship, even if there had never been acrimonious divorce, even if they had never lived my stress as it rippled through our household, my sons would not have been raised into entitlement, but into hard work, respect, and the necessity of thinking beyond themselves. Feeling part of a community. Various communities, in fact.

In parenthood – as in all things – we learn as we go, there’s no better teacher than experience, and there’s also no do-over.

Unless of course you count the time when our own children will be raising their kids, and come to understand that parenting well is not an evil legacy. On the contrary, it’s an asset, albeit a matter of trial and error, good instincts, a bit of luck, a village if you can manage it, and a great deal of common sense.

Might I also add – an open mind?

© D A Wolf