Sunday, November 07, 2010

Fear of Mothering

Two first-person articles ran in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, providing a both-sides-now view of Erica Jong's philosophy of motherhood.

One was by the world-famous author herself of Fear of Flying, the seventies roman a clef that forever changed chick-lit and the public discourse on women's sexuality. The other was by Jong's daughter, Molly Jong-Fast, the sole fruit of her glass-bottomed womb.

Mommy Jong writes an overly-long, often-rambling meditation on a current trend in parenting (not just mothering, actually) that consists of micromanaging all aspects of the child's life to insure maximum enrichment, fearful hovering, a commitment to providing healthful food in the greenest way possible, a premium placed on breast-feeding and general overwhelming devotion to the child one has just brought into the world.

The chronicler of the Zipless F*$% describes an "orgy of motherphilia" that stands in stark contrast to, say, Betty Draper's goyishly hostile style of parenting. She cites the freewheeling, multi-culti families of Madonna and Angelina Jolie as nothing more than media creations where an image of seamless, easy domesticity is falsely conveyed. She slams so-called "Attachment Parenting," a view that advocates complete non-separation between mother and baby. She finds it shocking that 21st century women would want to revert to cloth diapers. She accuses modern moms of treating their offspring like fashionable accessories. She chastises childrearing experts for promoting an ethic of childrearing that only the very rich can enjoy.

In her essay Erica Jong sounds less like a social critic and more like one of those cranky old ladies who ride the M104 bus midday. One gets the sense that, surrounded by attractive, bright and fit former CEOs, lawyers and doctors who halted their professional success to become full-time mothers, she is tearing out her famously tousled hair. Or is rent with guilt over what a crappy mother she was.

Tragically, the kicker of the story reveals her own desire to be exonerated:

We need to be released from guilt about our children, not further bound by it. We need someone to say: Do the best you can. There are no rules.

Um, Erica? There actually are rules governing childrearing. Such as: Thou Shalt Not Neglect Thy Child While Pursuing One's Own Fame. Or, try this one on: Thou Shalt Engage in at Least Some of the Pedestrian Aspects of Parenting That Bind You to Your Child, No Matter How Unglamorous or Boring. Or Thou Shalt Not Be Fooled Into Imagining that Art is More Important that Life. In other words, Writing About Thy Skanky Pursuits is Not a More Noble Activity Than Reading Bedtime Stories to Thy Lonely Child.

The fact that you broke or disregarded the rules of childrearing doesn't negate the fact that there is a contract between parent and child built on the expectation of basic care and devotion. Having evidently disregarded this contract, it does sound kinda bogus when you start ranting about how it "takes a village" to raise a child.

The accompanying essay by Molly Jong-Fast pretty much illuminates the reality, which is that Ms. Fear of Flying sucked as a mom though her adult daughter confusedly half-claims to negate this assessment:

This is not where I dramatically declare "my mother is a bad mother." There is where I say what's true: that my mother was as good a mother as she could possibly be.
At once filled with praiseworthy prose about her mom having done the best she could and being a heroine for going out there to earn money, the voice of a sad little girl comes out every now and then. Admitting that her mother harbored "ambivalence" towards her, the essay paints a woman who traveled incessantly, left her daughter in the care of her "nanny Margaret and Sugo the houseman" and avoided anything resembling nurturing because of her own mother's thwarted ambitions.

Probably the best indication of what Jong-Fast endured is the fact that she became the very kind of mother that her mother is railing about in her article:

Full disclosure: I spend a ton of time with my children, never travel barely work and am a helicopter parent like you can't believe...

You don't need an advanced degree in psychology to note that Jong-Fast might just be reacting to the manner in which she was raised, utilizing her own super-devoted method of mothering as a personal tikkun to the laissez faire love she received.

As illustrated by the following passage:

Famous people, who are often intensely-driven workaholics, are typically not focused on their children. We saw each other, but my mother was filled with the fear of slipping into domestic life and sabotaging her own career.

If one of my kids ever characterized our relationship as "we saw each other but..." I would want to cry for a million years.

Motherhood or fatherhood or any kind of hood necessitates at least a modicum of devotion. Molly Jong-Fast's "but" reveals that her mother's devotion lay -- and I mean lay -- elsewhere.

Getting back to the mothership...while I agree with many of the points Erica Jong makes in her essay, the takeaway is ultimately tragic because it is impossible to ignore her personal investment in slamming today's "motherphilia."

Clearly, she suffers from the exact opposite syndrome: "motherphobia."

Far better critiques of contemporary trends in childrearing can be found in the work of two of my pals -- Lenore Skenazy's book and blog: Free Range Kids and the comedian Jackie Hoffman's biting song, "Woman on the Upper West Side."

The column inches devoted by the Wall Street Journal to Erica Jong and Molly Jong-Fast amounts to little more than a poignant and pathetic public family therapy session.

1 comment:

Rachel Federman said...

This is fantastic. Wondered if you'd read Lenore Sk. and then see she is your pal. I love her & mentioned her a bunch on my blog. (She was even kind enough to guest-post one of my blog entries on hers.) I struggle with this over-parenting thing --the idea of it, finding that ever elusive "balance" (though hate when people simplify every question in life by saying, "You have to find a balance." Ugh) Anyway, I keep thinking about how parents who do that over-the-top thing seem guilty themselves..the ones who truly spend time and pay attention to kids often don't need to talk about it as much or advertise it. But the ones who just do constant PR for their kids and how wonderful they are, it smacks of something missing, to me. I also don't like the entitled kids growing up with "friend-parents" who give them choices in everything. Sometimes it seems kids should be handed a sandwich and told to eat it or wait for dinner. I love "Three-Martini Playdate" which advocates for a bit of a return to boundaries and rules when it comes to parenting. However, I've done a complete turn-around and now finally accept the idea of centering my life around my child --what else could possibly be more important? NYC is not a favorable place to live, I don't think, for that child-centered approach. This is rambling like crazy....