For those of you who will be doing battle at an airport, train, or bus station near you for your holiday travels, pick up a copy of The Atlantic (December 2009) and read Sandra Tsing Loh’s “On Being a Bad Mother.” (Some of you may have read her article in The Atlantic last summer, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” in which she used the occasion of leaving her own marriage to ask some provocative questions about the usefulness of marriage as an institution for the rest of us.) Interestingly, the nominal hook for her “Bad Mother” essay is a review of Ayelet Waldman’s recent book, Bad Mother, and Germaine Greer’s not-at-all recent The Female Eunuch (1970).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Tsing Loh finds the whole fashion of modern self-proclaimed “bad mothers” to be more than a little twee. As she explains,
[t]hen again, my view is biased, as I myself am not just an imperfect mother, I am a badmother. I am bad not in that fluttery, anxious, 21st-century way educated middle-class mothers consider themselves “failures” because they snap when they are tired, because they occasionally feed their kids McNuggets, because as they journal they soulfully question whether they’re mindfully attaining a proper daily work/life balance. No, I am bad because after a domestic partnership of 20 years, when my kids were still elementary-school-age, I fell in love, had an affair, admitted it, and quite deservedly got tossed out of the house on my ass. Currently between homes (my earthly belongings reside in a 10-by-10-foot windowless U-Haul storage unit whilst I alternately house-sit, pool-sit, and cat-sit), I furtively park at the curb of my former home for an extra few minutes after dropping my kids off and, with my laptop, I steal wireless. Approaching 50, I am living a life that is less sunlit [Ayelet] Waldman/[Michael] Chabon than tattered Charles Bukowski.
In short, I am truly bad, in a 1970s way—that decade when women really were bad!
She goes on to review (briefly) Waldman’s and Greer’s books, finding a perfect sentence in The Female Eunuch that describes marriage as “two bewildered individuals trying to apply a contradictory blueprint,” one that is necessarily a more fragile basis for family life than what Greer calls “stem” (extended, multigenerational) families. Think about matrilineal and matrilocal Native American peoples like the Cherokee and Iroquois in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries–their families were very stable because fathers weren’t all that important, and there was none of that European Christian obsession with identifying paternity and “legitimizing” children–as if there is such a thing as an illegitimate child.
Tsing Loh also comments on the kerfuffle on blogs caused by her publication of “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” this summer. (In case you didn’t hear–women aren’t permitted to say that adultery is fun and that leaving a marriage might be a regrettable but necessary decision):
So my two-career companionate marriage—of traveling tag-team parents—was ending. Now we civilly hand off our children much as we’ve always done (my ex is on the road 20 weeks a year). Because our gypsy children seem okay, because I’d been honest about my shortcomings as a wife and mother, because we are more than 40 years after Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, I’d thought mine was a sad but not atypical tale to cite in The Atlantic as a jumping-off point for a discussion about the state of modern American marriage, but … No!!! Oh, the shock, the outrage, the vitriol, the tying to the bumpers of and being dragged behind blogs large and small all across our fair nation! Oh, the plasterings with a scarlet A, the media stonings. I fielded so many horrified condolence calls after one particularly savage L.A. Times profile of me that I found myself plaintively asking a friend, “Don’t you think the word crucifixion is overused nowadays? Do we have to keep using the word crucifixion?” But what particularly surprised me was the ire of some of my own sisters in the chattering class—college-educated, affluent NPR listeners/New York Times readers. In the old days, for better or worse, members of this privileged demographic would have been on female liberation’s front lines. Now they were among the most censorious. “YOU MUST GO BACK HOME!” one girlfriend of mine (56, married, Boomer professional, no kids) typed in block letters. “THINK OF THE CHILDREN!”
Who here is really surprised by the fact that it was her “sister” guardians of class privilege who told her YOU MUST GO BACK because of THE CHILDREN? (I’m not.) I share Tsing Loh’s nostalgia for the bad mothers of the 1970s–at least they’d have friends who would meet them for coffee or let them stay with them, instead of making her poach wireless from her ex-husband or make her way as a social leper welcome only in people’s home to look after cats and/or pools. A friend of Tsing Loh’s comments, “It feels like we’re living in the ’50s.”
Maybe that wasn’t such a bad place to be after all, Tsing Loh argues–instead of today, when “[w]eekends are a manic whirl of Kids’ Science Museums, Baby Mozart concerts, and laboriously educational “craft” days when, instead of dumping kids and going off for a 1950s-style hairdressing-and-martini break, mothers are expected to sit down and glue things with their children for seven and a half hours.” Sensibly, she asks what all of this pasting and worrying and car-seat-installing is for:
And for what? Why do we agonize? David Sedaris is one of the most successful writers of his generation, and his chain-smoking mother is known for drinking herself into a glaze and locking her five children out of the house on a snow day.
Now that’s a role model I can live up to!