Thursday, October 10, 2013

Mommy Wars in the 1920s

I started reading a novel which may be familiar to some of you, but is new to me:  Dorothy Canfield's remarkable The Home Maker from 1924. This is one of those novels that feels very ahead of its time.  Canfield writes of a woman who goes out to work when her husband has an accident, and her husband  becomes the primary caregiver when he is home in a wheelchair.  Both thrive.  Ultimately -- spoiler alert -- when the man is healed, he pretends to still be crippled so that he can maintain his homemaking role and his wife can continue to work out of the home.The kids are better off and so are both parents.

I am only a little ways into it, but already find the description of the mother very resonant with today.  The mother makes "healthy" muffins for her food-sensitive boy and scorns friends who give their kids store bought cookies and buy dinner from the deli rather than make it from scratch. Canfield renders the mother's desire for perfection, her frustration with her kids, who are not perfect, her frustration with her husband whom she feels undermines her work and does not have enough ambition through the horrible honesty of passages like this: "These were the moments in a mother's life about which nobody ever warned you, about which everybody kept a deceitful silence. . . moments of arid clear insight when you saw that your children would never measure up to your standard..."  countered by "Her children! She must live for her children! And she loved them she did live for them!"  I am not sure what kind of a parent the dad is, or how he will manage homelife differently from the mom, but I am eager to find out.

More than the narrative itself, Canfields' preface sounds very contemporary as she maps a 1920s version of the Mommy Wars.  One one side, she sees people who think the only way to be married is to have a house in the suburbs, a lawn, material possessions and a "Ford in the garage," "kept in order by a woman with long hair who spends most of her days in the home, and paid for by a man with short hair who lives most of the time out of it."  On the other side, she sees people who view the first position as tyrannical and claim that "the only self-respecting combination for two human beings is for both of them to be short-haired and latch-keyed, and for both of them to work outside the home, leaving the children to specially trained experts, to pay whom the short-haired parents work in offices like decent twentieth-century folk."  Canfield refuses to pick sides or even limit the options to these two.  Instead, she writes: "We could realize that every human being is different from every other, and hence each couple of human beings is different from every other couple: and within the limits of possibility decency we could leave people free to construct the sort of marriage that is best for their particular combination."

What I like about this is that it is not about "choice," in a context in which the choices are limited to two -- stay at home or work.  It is more about diversity and difference and making things work as you see fit, working together.  I am not sure if "possibility and decency" would allow unmarried couples, gay couples, single parents by choice, or other groupings for Canfield, but, to me, she opens up a range of options and urges us to respect them all. I know I am a better mom because I  work outside the home (or really at home in my office much of the time).  And I also know that I can fall into the trap of thinking that my way is best and being snobby about moms who stay at home.  Canfield reminds me that what works for me may not work for everybody and also, I hope, opens rather than closes down options for people who think they need to choose a side.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Almost Girlfriends

My daughter is now old enough -- 12, in seventh grade -- that we can sometimes be almost girlfriends.  She sits in the front seat of the car and fiddles with the radio, choosing music she likes. A few weeks ago, before school started, we went and got mani-pedis together, and watched the movie Date Night on the salon TV. I took her to my hairdresser and we both got haircuts.  She has started wanting to try caffeinated drinks -- she likes Refreshers at Starbucks, tried a decaf pumpkin latte but barely drank it, has started bringing tea to school (fancy flavors from David's Tea, more chocolate flavored than tea, with lots of milk). She has some interest in clothes and we go shopping in the Juniors and Ladies sections at places like Target, Express, or Urban Outfitters -- no more kid stores for her.  We talk about our crushes on actors -- Benedict Cumberpatch is a shared favorite. She tells me about her fan-girl activities and favorite shows.

It is tempting, then, to talk to her like a grown up.  We have never baby-talked her or hidden much of the reality of the world from her.  She knows that there are freaks with guns, and wars, and poverty, and that mom does not like the TeaParty, and she knows that mom and dad have had friends die, and she knows about sex and drugs. I don't mean that.  I mean it is tempting to bitch and gossip.  It is tempting to talk to her in the worst ways that girlfriends do.  When she talks about middle school, it is tempting to say what I think -- who among her friends is a b**ch, who is anorectic, who will sell her out when boys come to call, who will be pregnant by high school, who is not very smart. 

Instead, I have to remind myself that I have to talk to her AS a grown up and remember that she is not one, that I am not her peer but her mother.  I have to walk carefully through the minefield of middle school and let her find her way.  Rather than name a girl as a mean girl, I have to ask if anybody is making her feel bad, or how she felt when so-and-so said something rude.  I have to remind her that she has two years more in this school with these kids and that she has to maintain cordial relations.  I have to ask her what her role is in various encounters, if she is to blame for any awkward interactions, or animosities among friends.  I have to help her be mindful of her own behaviors and comments and make sure, as best I can, that SHE is not a mean girl.

My best strategy is to treat her as I treat friends after a break up.  After a few gaffes, I have learned to be sympathetic, but noncommittal.  Never say "Good, I hated that guy/gal," or "Good, that guy/gal was cheating on you," or "that guy/gal hit one me," or "I thought that guy/gal was mean to you" or "that guy/gal was weird" or anything else that will come back to bite me on the hiney when my friend reunites with that guy/gal.  Now, I try to stay within "how do you feel about the break up?  Are you happy or sad? Relieved? What can I do to help you get through this?"

Middle school is a series of wounds and break ups, large and small -- friends abandoned then rediscovered, friends drifting apart, friends being mean one day and wonderful the next, friends trying on new roles as boyfriends and girlfriends, and friends jostling for placement next to certain boys and girls at the expense of others.   All we can do is be available and open, to listen to their complaints, to guide them to avoid as many pitfalls as they can, to protect them from their own worst impulses, and to let them know that these wounds are not as big or deep as they seem in the moment.  We have to talk the best ways that girl friends do, as girls who have your back and lend you support, and model ways of being girls without there being mean girls or victims.