The purpose of parenthood

Cover of "Misconceptions: Truth, Lies, an...

Cover via Amazon

We’ve lost the art of democratic debate, says Michael Sandel. He gives a wonderful talk during TED about moral philosophy and justice — and how to reintroduce them into our politics. He paraphrases Aristole’s theory of justice: “Justice means giving people what they deserve.” He says the real questions begin when we consider who deserves what and why, that we have to reason about the purpose of the thing or the activity, to fully provide justice to all.

So, this of course has me thinking. I have thought about the Mommy Myth, which demystified the current state of motherhood, deconstructing the societal forces which prompt women to give everything they have to motherhood, and devote their entire being to supporting their children.

I’ve been thinking about Misconceptions, by Naomi Wolf, which describes a very hetero-normative, upper class view of childbirth and the immediate postpartum experience — but it also talks about that which is concealed from women, in (from her view) a very strange vow of social silence. (And, I might argue, if choices are limited for the rich people — it’s got to be much worse for those in poverty.)

I’ve been thinking about a book I read in college, which I no longer own but was thinking about retrieving via the library system called “The Failed Century of the Child” — a book about the policies that were put into place during the 20th century which attempted, and failed, to remove children from poverty, and to make education a democratic thing.

I’m reading Raising America, by Ann Hulbert, who explores this question in her book: “As children — and just as important, their mothers — prepare to meet the pressures and the allures of an increasingly materialistic and meritocratic mass society, is it more discipline or more bonding that they need at home? the answers to the question have in turn reflected the long-running debate over whether nature or nurture counts most in shaping children’s destinies, which parenting experts across the spectrum and the decades have presumed are decisively cast in early childhood (7).”

So, to go back to the beginning of this post: What is the essential role of motherhood? What is the role of the mother to a child as an infant, a baby, a toddler, a preschooler, etc.? What is the role of the mother to herself during those same time periods? To her partner? To her family, and friends? The “common sense” wisdom seems to be that of primary care giver, and more than that, to be romantically (like “Leaves of Grass” romantic) obsessed with your child, watching their every coo and gurgle.

And, the flip question. What is the role of a father? I think that one is much more cut and dry to the “common sense” — the role of the father seems to be that of helper and bread-winner, and possibly the laughably un-knowledgeable one, as offered to us by sitcoms and commercials.

But is this really the purpose of mothers and fathers? What do you all think?


Third Places and Consumerism

Tim and I went on a little roadtrip this weekend, down to Ohio. I was inspired by a blog I read to investigate and then download TEDtalk audio podcasts to play in our car. We ended up listening to one about retrofitting suburbia. It was a really interesting talk, and she mentioned that there are many ways to make suburbia more inhabitable, more walkable, more appealing to the younger generations, including the Millennial Generation which is growing up and buying houses and finding entry-level jobs and career paths right now.

She introduced a concept of a “third place.” A first place is your home. A second place is your place of work. A third place is where the community gathers.

This morning, Tim went into work early, as he often does on Wednesdays. He tried to call me and text me to help me wake up, but the ringer on my phone was turned down too far. When I finally woke up, I read some less-than-appealing pronouncement on facebook (sleepy minds are impressionable), and grumped through my morning routine. As I headed out the door, I was struck by a craving for a grande awake tea latte from Starbucks.

In my car, I debated with myself. What is the purpose of this purchase in 10 minutes? Well, I would have a tasty hot beverage. What is the purpose of this purchase in 10 months? 10 years? In both cases, the money would just be gone. I turned left, heading both towards the Starbucks and my freeway on-ramp.

Sitting at the light where I would make the decision between going straight to work and going to Starbucks, I realized that what I was really craving from a trip to Starbucks was interaction with the Barista, someone positive in my day, a conversation.

That was a craving that I could honor without reservation.

I went to the Starbucks, where I had a very nice conversation with Dory, who is the older woman who works in the mornings. She recognizes me, and she knows my favorite drink, and how to make it just right. She asked on this Wednesday morning, what my husband and I were going to be doing with our weekend. I told her about our decluttering project, and she was supportive and impressed. I thanked her for my tea latte, she wished me luck with our project, and I went on my way.

Starbucks, more specifically the Starbucks inside of Target, in Fenton, Michigan, has become a third place for me. I’m a regular there; they great me with recognition, they ask about me, they ask about my husband, they tell me if their day is going good or bad. There are four or five Baristas, and they all seem to recognize me and my order.

My friend Patti pointed out to me that Starbucks explicitly builds its marketing scheme about being the third place in a community, and that they’re clearly succeeding because many people agree with me. I would prefer that my third place wasn’t a Starbucks, but was rather a local coffee shop, but where I live right now doesn’t have that kind of commerce.  Some day, we’ll get to move, and we’ll see out those local businesses; those will become third places, above the local Starbucks.

As for right now, it’s a start. It’s not exactly what I am looking for in a “third place” — it’s not in walking distance, it is not exactly cheap. But I think it’s revelatory that sometimes I realize that what I really want is not so much the coffee, as it is the conversation. It also helps me resist Starbucks as a whole — there is only one Starbucks where they know my order, and it is only in my town.

What is New Momism?

A little note on culture

We walk through our lives performing actions that have meaning to  ourselves, meaning to others, as we are self-directed by the meaning  that we have internalized — which we then act out, in a constant cycle  of action and interpretation and reinterpretation and reaction. This  cycle is one theory about how culture functions in our lives. Culture is  what provides meaning to those actions and reactions.

Some people take this cycle completely for granted. They live an  unexamined life, they take the meaning that is demonstrated to them and  perpetuate it. They continue to use these symbols and meanings until  something stops them, until the meaning that they’ve been using isn’t  enough to explain a situation or a symbol — in other words, sometimes common sense  isn’t enough. Some people walk through life examining the meaning of  everything, or they become cynical to every meaning — both of these  stances, which might be categorized as being “unsettled” — are both  rather exhausting.

Culture defines the world so that we can act with confidence within  it. Cultural systems both teach and express orientations to the world —  they teach moods and motivations. We each have our own cultural repertoire, a mental catalog of symbols, rules, and rituals. Only, the  meanings of these don’t work for all people at all times in the same  way.

Take this one for example:

First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the  baby carriage!

What is this rhyme but a set of instructions — or a rule — for how  to conduct your adult romantic life? Of course, the rhyme says nothing  about boy-meets-girl or pregnancy and delivery, but because our society  assumes hetero-normativity and because the law prohibits (for the most  part) legal union between same-gender couples… you can see how this  common sense rhyme might not be a culture took that is comfortable for  everyone.

It isn’t a cultural rule that I’m completely comfortable with myself.  Maybe if it were first comes education and career, then comes love,  then comes legal recognition of a relationship, and then comes a  community possibly including a younger generation.

But that’s not nearly as snappy.

Somehow, the cultural rules about motherhood didn’t seem all that  contradictory to the reality I knew from caring for other people’s  children. The two were never side by side in my mind. I don’t think I  realized how insidious these “rules” of motherhood were until I read the  definition of New Momism that Douglas and Michaels propose:

[It Is] the insistence that no woman is truly complete or  fulfilled unless she has kids, that women remain the best primary  caretakers of children, and that to be a remotely decent mother, a woman  has to devote her entire physical, psychological, emotional, and  intellectual being, 24/7, to her children. The new momism is a highly  romanticized and yet demanding view of motherhood in which the standards  for success are impossible to meet (4). The ‘new momism’ is a set of  ideals, norms, and practices, most frequently and powerfully represented  in the media,  that seem on the surface to celebrate motherhood, but  which in reality promulgate standards of perfection that are beyond your  reach (5).

But I have a choice, right? I can choose not to have children. Or I  can choose to parent differently. Not so fast, says The Mommy Myth:

Central to the new momism, in fact, is the feminist  insistence that woman have choices, that they are active agents in  control of their own destiny, that they have autonomy. But here’s where  the distortion of feminism occurs. The only truly enlightened choice to  make as a woman, the one that proves, first, that you are a ‘real’  woman, and second, that you are a decent, worthy one, is to become a  ‘mom’ and to bring to child rearing a combination of selflessness and  professionalism that would involve the cross cloning of Mother Teresa  with Donna Shalala. Thus the new momism is deeply contradictory: It both  draws from and repudiates feminism (5).

And the nail on the coffin: “The new momism involves more than just  impossible ideals about child rearing. It redefines all women, first and  foremost, through their relationships to children (22).” Continue reading

The dominant culture of “New Momism”


Praise mothers in rhetoric, revile them in public policy, and make them pay to prove their love.

The Book

The Mommy Myth, by Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels, outlines the trajectory of the rhetoric surrounding mothers in the mass media, the revulsion that mothers are subjected to in public policy, and finally, how mothers and children have become a market. From this rich framework, they have this thesis:  While we have come far from the Feminine Mystique, the problem has a new name (New Momism) that is couched in the rhetoric of feminism itself (i.e. choice).

Douglas and Michaels call this problem the New Momism, for reasons that they astutely and accurately outline in the introduction to their book. I suggest you read it — here, let me link you to a pdf version — because the introduction is quick, to the point, and almost stands alone from the rest of the book.

But what I find really interesting about the book is that it outlines, very precisely, the cultural “rules” surrounding motherhood. Of course, they’re critiquing it, and they’re using it as a call to activism, but the rules that they put together for being a celebrity mother (the pinnacle of motherhood in the media, they argue) are not all that different what I’d imagine a list of rules for being a good mother would be — or at least what makes a good mother on television, in the movies, in advertisements, and in our heads.

The rules are (From pages 126-130):

  1. The mom is gorgeous, in clear control of her destiny, and her husband loves her even more once she becomes pregnant and the baby is born.
  2. They are always radiantly happy when they are with their kids.
  3. They always look and feel fabulous — better than ever — while pregnant, because they are nutrition experts and eat exactly what they should and have the discipline to exercise regularly.
  4. Whatever your schedule, whatever institutional constraints you confront that keep you away from or less involved with your kids, it must be clear that they are your number-one priority, no matter what.

And, to be honest, this is how I have imagined motherhood. I have imagined that Tim and I would conceive, which is a word that is imbued with strange magic, that he and I would be joyous and in love, that there would be no ambiguity as we prepared for the birth of our child. I would be a joyful and attentive mother, and Tim would be a doting and remarkable father, and we’d all live happily ever after, at least until the kids became teenagers.

I’m cringing as I’m writing this, realizing how hopelessly naive I probably sound to someone who is a parent. And I think I knew it was hopelessly naive — I was 9 when my little brother was born, I helped take care of him as an infant. I spent my middle school and high school careers babysitting. I know how much attention and care infants need, how their older siblings get jealous, I know about toys being flung across rooms, and trying to stop children from hitting each other and making them go to bed. I know how big of a mess they make, and how boring it can be to play games about a bajillion developmental stages below yours.

So, mothers out there, and aspiring mothers out there… have you ever bought into this ideal?

There’s much, much more to this review, but I’m trying to keep it bite sized. So, for now, the common conception of what a good mother is in popular culture.

Control of the other

I once read a polemic against marriage about a month before I got formally engaged. It argued that part of the reason that marriage was outdated, and unable to be separated from the patriarchy from which it originated was because of the way that we perform marriage, and we perform our roles as husbands and as wives.

The main example that was given was that of the husband: Suburban Wage Earner, commuting home from the city, and entering his household where he is immediately claimed by his wife, and no longer able to have friends. Since reading that, seeing the wisdom of its antidote in the eyes of both my father and my partner’s father — both of whom seem to have no friends — I began to worry.

I began to worry about how I was seen in the eyes of Tim’s friends, and worrying that Tim wouldn’t keep his friends, and worrying in general about what it meant to be someone’s wife and partner. One of the most telling and poignant things I learned in our premarital counseling is this adage: one person cannot meet all of your emotional needs.

I can’t meet Tim’s need to play D&D, but I am a pretty kick ass partner in Super Mario. His fraternity brothers can’t meet his needs to dance, for that he needs me. But he is responsible to our relationship, and I suppose that’s where I want to start the story I want to tell you all.

Tim’s buddies wanted to go sky diving. Tim wanted to go sky diving, because it’s something he’s always wanted to do. Knowing that I did not want to go sky diving, and knowing that I could not meet his need in this way, and wanting to be supportive of him fulfilling one of his dreams, I told him that he should go.

I arranged to be busy the day of the jump, because I didn’t want to know when it was happening. I would have actually preferred to be there in person (though I am told it was dreadfully boring) because I would have preferred the illusion of being in control and able to help when my husband was falling out of the sky. But as luck would have it, I actually had a work thing that weekend, and I couldn’t join the intrepid group as they went to Wisconsin to jump out of a plane.

As the jump got closer, I implored Tim to be safe, over and over again. He tried to assure me with statistics about how landing a plane is the most dangerous part — so why shouldn’t he jump out before that bit? He tried to assure me with statistics about how driving a car back and forth to work each day was more risky than jumping out of a plane.

Before I put my phone in a safe place to ignore it until Tim was safely on the ground, I texted him, “Don’t die. I’ll never forgive you if you die.”  When I was done being busy for the day, I retrieved my cell phone from where I had left it.  It was supposed to have been after they jumped. But, there was no message from Tim. I began to panic.

I performed as a wife. I called the significant other of another one of the jumpers and demanded to know if he had heard from his girlfriend. He had, and they hadn’t jumped yet. Oh.

I spent the rest of the afternoon fretting about Tim jumping out of a plane — fearful. I was afraid and I was having a hard time expressing it, and when he got back on the ground and let me know that he had fun, I demanded to know if he was ever going to go again because I didn’t think I could stand it and I would take drastic measures to prevent it. (Run on sentence purposeful, in this case.)

We got into a fight then, about being bullies, about control of your significant other. My old fears about being the wifely ball-and-chain returned, and amplified my fear — and we got into an even larger fight about perception and intention and why we were even fighting at all.

What I did, telling him that I’d never forgive him if he jumped, that I’d take drastic measures to prevent him from jumping out of a plane again — that was bullying, that was attempting to control him. I don’t want to do it, but I return to the pattern of behavior again and again. And I can’t deny that it’s something I see validated in RomComs and SitComs — the idea that the wife should prevent her husband from doing things she’d rather him not do.

It gives me a lot to think about — what does it mean to be a wife? A committed partner in a marriage, an institution that is tinged with all sorts of ways of acting that people expect? Culture is partially about performances, and we perform.

I don’t have anything to teach with this post. Fellow married feminists, if you’re struggling with this, with this method of communicating, know that you’re not alone in trying to figure out how to relate to your partner, when society says you should do your best to control them and their behavior.

Book of Love

When I first began to date Tim in college, I took to emailing my younger sister to get her advice. (You see, she is the emotional one, and I am the logical one. We’re better balanced now, but four years ago, less so.) In discussing our respective love lives, it was that word exactly that came up — love. What is love?

I just finished a book called Talk of Love by Ann Swidler. I found out about it from a post on Sociological Images. Ann Swidler conducted a study about the way that a narrow population of white, suburban, heterosexual California couples and how they talked about love. She took their comments and framed two cultural models of love.

Mythic Love

  1. Love is a clear, all-or-nothing choice.
  2. The person you love is unique, and idealized.
  3. Your choice to love is made in defiance of social forces.
  4. The choice to love permanently resolves an individual’s destiny.

In other words: “They met, and it was love at first sight. There would never be another girl (boy) for him (her). No one could come between them. They overcame obstacles and lived happily ever after.” (113) This is easily identified as the mythic love that appears in books and movies, the kind of love that people like to scoff at.


  1. Real love is not sudden or certain. It grows slowly and is often ambivalent and confused. Love does not require a dramatic choice but may result from circumstance, accident, or inertia.
  2. There is no “one true love.” One can love many people in a variety of different ways.
  3. The kind of love that leads to marriage should not depend on irrational feeling in defiance of social convention, but on compatibility and on practical trains that make persons good life partners. The fewer obstacles that people have to overcome, the happier they are likely to be.
  4. Love does not necessarily last forever. Love and marriage do not settle either personal identity or social destiny. Rather ‘than guaranteeing that one will live ‘happily ever after,’ love requires continuing hard work, compromise, and change.

This is the kind of love that, as the Sociological Images post states, drives both the psychological and religious self-help industries. It is the kind of love that I identify in the day to day struggles of being married.

So What?

Swidler goes on to argue that the two concepts of love are used differently by the same people, that both are coherent cultural constructs that help us navigate our confusing  world.

What I mean to say (and Swidler argues) is that people use the “realistic” view of love to manage and interpret ongoing relationships, and struggle with the day to day realities of being married.

However, the mythic formula is used to formulate arguments on whether or not to marry or stay married. The mainstays of a “decisive choice” and a “unique other” are available because one is either married or they’re not, and one is only married to one person at a time. The institution of marriage is governed by this mythic understanding. The mythic understanding upholds the instution of marriage, and the institution of marriage upholds the mythic understanding.

For me, this has all sorts of implications.

As a writer, it means that romances in the modern sense has to have several dimensions to be realistic — one where there is a lot of certainty, and one where there is potentially a lot of ambivalence. If characters want to get married, it means that they will convince each other and their families of the certainty of their love. If they don’t want to get married, they will probably be a lot less certain, and conflicts with their friends and family may arise.

As an LGTBQ Ally (As an ally, I am always in training. Feel free to correct me, those who self-identify), it puts a whole new spin on the fight for equal marriage rights. For one, there is a school of thought within the movement that marriage is not radical enough. On the other hand, there is a school of thought that says that without marriage, love relationships will never be legitimate in the mainstream heterosexual understanding of love relationships.

As a married person, I recognize that the growing uncertainty of marriage in our society contributes to the need to understand love differently. (Oh, the books that I have read and will continue to read on the self-help marriage subject!) But, as Ann Swidler says, as long as people want to believe that love lasts forever, the mythic love ideal will last.

What do you think?

What is love? Do the visions of love that Ann Swidler put forth make sense to you? Are there other understandings that you would propose? (Ha, pun unintended!) Continue reading