Sometimes I read an article or blog post and my internal response is so visceral and fierce, it scares me a little. Quite often that fierceness is attached in some way to an anger, a deeper frustration that wants out. If I am feeling very disturbed I may post a tweet of inquiry — “Did this rub anybody else the wrong way?” or DM a friend for a more personal take on the topic at hand. My intellectual instincts tell me to go back and reread the article in question. What might I have taken out of context or misunderstood? How have others responded so far?
And yet, in some cases, rereading only confirms my frustration and underscores my difficulty. Something is not right and before I can move on I need to address the issue head on.
I read one essay on motherhood that was written in response to an initial essay on motherhood and something about both of them made me want to say “Just stop it!” And that is a response I find problematic for many reasons. What would drive me to want to silence others? What could I possibly find so offensive that would lead me to deny these authors their right to share their perspective. Or at least symbolically cover my ears like a toddler and pretend that I can’t hear them. What’s up with that?
I was directed to Sarah Menkedick’s essay, In Defense of Motherhood as Art, by an author friend I follow on Twitter. And this essay was in response to a think piece by Kim Brooks which raised the thorny question: Is domestic life the enemy of creative work? Menkedick’s essay resonates through the nuance that she seeks to bring to the conversation around motherhood and art. Brooks’ essay seems a bit more pointed and designed to provoke a particular response from readers — a ‘love it or leave it’ kind of sentiment.
Here’s an example of Brooks’ reasoning:
I don’t want to believe it — that parenting itself makes art hard, that you must always sacrifice one for the other, that there is something inherently selfish and greedy and darkly obsessive in the desire to care as much about the thing you are writing or making as you do about the other humans in your life. What parent would want to believe this?
And in contrast, Menkedick points out the false assumptions to which Brooks appears to have fallen victim:
Maybe if we had more examples in literature of motherhood liberated from the pot pies and sparkling countertops of the traditional, or maybe if we examined our derisive and supercilious attitudes towards the domestic and the realm of care-giving instead of assuming it pathetic, female, and sentimental, then it wouldn’t seem that art exists in such a rarefied realm. The assertion that it does, and that mothers may never be able to fully exist there or, if they do, will cease to be good mothers, impoverishes both art and motherhood.
While both authors wrestle with the not-new conundrum of attempting to balance parenting with writing/making art/leading an intellectual life of acceptable challenge, their respective conclusions (And I paraphrase loosely here: ‘Parenting is an art form’ (Menkedick) or ‘No, you can’t be the ideal parent and still expect to create high art.’ (Brooks)) left me shaking my head because they seemed like so many other forms of hand-wringing white middle class privilege (or CEO swagger) so widely circulated in various media. (See Sandberg’s Lean In, A. Huffington’s Thrive) It’s all the rage literally, literarily and figuratively. Both authors have books on tap which explore these topics more thoroughly.
At first I thought I was feeling alienated because of race. Then, maybe race and class (which would be worth a further and different post). I think both of those are at play, although in many respects I likely have much more in common with both women than our outward identifiers might indicate. I, too, enjoy a certain degree of middle class privilege. In fact, I can and do relate to some of what they convey about the tensions between parenting and what I will refer to as “responding in full to our callings” be it in writing, creating art, healing, teaching, training, or any work which often demands more than we can give at any one time.
The more I read and re-read both essays, I realized that part of what was bothering me had to do with how both women frame parenting and motherhood as a sort of competitive undertaking. Or, as an expression of some bizarre societal accountability scheme which seems to apply exclusively to highly educated and artistically inclined women. So much of what both women report revolves around how they perceive themselves and imagine they are perceived by others. There seems to be this constant need to measure themselves and their commitment to one thing (parenting/domestic life) and/or the other (art/creative pursuits). Along with this measuring comes, of course, the ongoing judgment, again, of self and others —bad mom, good mom, better mom, best mom in the flavors of I, she, and they. Oh, it is and must be exhausting!
This seems to be the trigger for “Just stop it!” and on the same level, “Get over yourselves!” I asked myself if women athletes write about the challenges of parenting and competing with the same kind of tortured back-and-forth. Do entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, academics do a similar dance regarding this widespread dilemma of parenting to the max while producing beyond the norm? And that indeed is the crux — the exaggeration we take on when we paint the options as extremes, as unforgiving binaries between which so many women of a particular demographic appear to stretch themselves in an endless quest to finally be pronounced “perfect.”
Parenting to the max while producing beyond the norm. Here’s that fatal flaw. Remember Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon “…where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average”? This is that mentality on steroids. In our attention economy I suppose this all makes a lot more sense. Parenting our kids through exquisite childhoods becomes a far more intense and public project; larger, subject to greater scrutiny and attention, of both the solicited and unbidden varieties. Given the resources, some families are absolutely inclined to whatever seems necessary to insure that their offspring gain liftoff and land spectacularly in some secure haven of untold professional and personal fulfillment. At the same time, however, these devoted parents should also be amassing their own landmarks of immortality: writing books, opening restaurants, seeding influential networks, building micro empires on the tender vertebrae of the ‘long tail.’
This whole scenario wears on me even if I do not subscribe to it. I work, I write, I have children, I have ambitions and really, who cares? Parenting as a show cannot be the point. Parenting as an ultimate demonstration of worth cannot be the point. Parenting is a piece of a big puzzle; a slice or more of a much larger cake. It can never be the whole puzzle or the whole cake, so why do so many folks (particularly of the white, female, middle class variety) continue to behave like it is and must be? And why does this sell so many books?
‘Parenting to the max while producing beyond the norm’ — magnifies individual aspects and obscures the wider context in which each of us is operating. In these two essays, precisely this ‘mindset as lens’ emerges as the thing that is getting under my skin. Parenting as a prospect is such a ridiculously long haul — an ultra marathon, not a sprint. By a similar token, growing into one’s art or craft or talents also takes time and benefits from fertilizing experiences which both authors acknowledge. If we dare to pursue such inclinations as more than passing fancies, we learn to speak of seasons, phases, stages, periods, and always in the plural. Looking back on my life to date, I can praise or decry as much banality in it as most other folks, yet that same time span appears also rich beyond belief with tremendous highs and moments of absolute wonder. Some of that had to do with my kids and plenty of it did not.
That is perhaps the truth that I most needed to voice. Parenting is a piece and not the whole. Pathways to art and a fulfilled life are multiple, varied and not dependent on having or not having children. Extremes and absolutes tend to generate more clicks and views but they do not serve us or our mental health well, regardless of race, income, education, gender or other tag.