S O C I A L S T U D I E S
solutions in other parts of the world, including China, where relatives help a mother for the first month after a birth. In the Netherlands, women often give birth at home, without pain relief, “but a maternity nurse provides home care for a week after the birth, doing everything from changing nappies to cooking and cleaning”.
We could, suggests Glaser, radically extend initiatives such as Home-Start, a community network of experts and trained volunteers that helps parents around the world. We could provide free, highcalibre childcare. It would be expensive for the public purse, but could save money on social problems further down the line: “These human solutions are messier than an app or a pill, but ultimately more effective.”
We could also learn to tune out some of the experts who stalk those early years with advice on every last detail of child-rearing. Alan Kazdin, a professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale,
suggests, for example, that you should reward a child for putting his shoes in the right place with a hug, a “big dumb smile”, and perhaps by waving your hands in the air – “you have to say, in a very high, cheerful voice, exactly what you’re praising”. Such specific instruction patronizes both child and parent; surely our relationships should be more instinctive, even if it means sometimes getting the tone wrong. When Marianne Levy, in a chapter entitled “Bad Mother”, scolds herself for not bending down to talk to her children at eye level, I felt like scolding the busybody who came up with this rule.
Glaser wonders if such parenting books invite a kind of narcissism, making mothers too aware of how they are seen. While social media can help connect lonely parents, there’s a risk of paying too much attention to your “frenemy’s sourdough”, worrying that your version of motherhood doesn’t look as perfect as the one in everyone else’s feed.
For Motherload: Modern motherhood and how to survive it, Ingrid Wassenaar interviewed a range of mothers and found, like Glaser and Levy, the desire for perfection complicating too many lives. “There’s the competitive thing”, one woman tells her, “because you have sacrificed your career to stay at home, then you have to do the Mum bit well, otherwise you have stuffed everything”.
Middle-class “affluenza” is part of the problem, Wassenaar acknowledges, with ambition diverted from the workplace into the home. If everyone else has a private tutor for their child, shouldn’t you get one too? “We worry and spend money, and feel angry, and put pressure on those children.” Children who might once have spent a cheerful afternoon playing games and learning about their civic duty at Brownies or Cubs nowadays can choose from flamenco classes, chess club, taekwondo or circus skills. Too often they don’t have the choice. They are (literally) driven to take part in an exhausting round of enriching activities. This holds particularly true for middle-class families, and it would be good to have published accounts of mothers from other backgrounds, and indeed fathers.
Those of us lucky enough to have had (and been) imperfect mothers can console ourselves that they are often remembered more fondly than mothers who got everything right. There’s quite a selection of imperfect mothers in The Baby on the Fire Escape: Creativity, motherhood, and the mind-baby problem, Julie Phillips’s absorbing and often gripping study focusing largely on writers, with chapters on Doris Lessing, Elizabeth Smart, Susan Sontag, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Penelope Fitzgerald, Angela Carter and the painter Alice Neel (once accused of leaving her baby out on the fire escape while she finished a painting).
Phillips originally hoped to identify a pattern to the way these women lived and worked. Finding none, she concluded that interruption and disruption were themselves the “conditions of maternal creativity”. That’s an interesting, even useful, response to the loss of self feared by so many women. With reference to the research of Lisa Baraitser, professor of psychosocial theory at Birkbeck University, Phillips suggests that the unified self is an illusion: “To recognise that well-boundaried self as a retrospective fantasy, rather than an indispensable writing aid, might help writers and artists cope with the ‘attack on narrative’ that they suffer in caring for a child”.
How would that work in practice? For Ursula K. Le Guin it meant approaching childcare and writing as “two distinct projects that happened to occupy the same place and time”. She thought about work when she was doing childcare; she kept the baby close while working. Le Guin was also lucky in having a supportive family. When she became pregnant by a fellow student at Radcliffe College, her parents paid for an illegal abortion, her father arguing that a termination would be less unethical than sacrificing Le Guin’s training and talent. When she married, her
SEPTEMBER 16, 2022