Sunday, May 10, 2009

Of mothers, druthers, and compulsive others.

Consider this both a tribute and a lament.

During my decade as a college professor, 1996-2005, I met a fair number of young women at several different institutions of higher learning who said they'd already decided not to participate in the mothering game, thank you very much. Either they just didn't think they had the requisite skills and interest, or they felt there were other things, notably careers, on which they'd prefer to focus their time and energy. Which is fine by me (not that it's any of my business). The older I get, the more I think that motherhood is one of those activities to which you give a full commitment or you just leave the whole thing alone. Of course, those young college women were, well, young; they may change their minds as they grow older and see their friends have kids. (On the other hand, they may see their friends' kids and think, Jesus Christ, am I glad I decided not to do THAT!) Still, there's something to be said for that level of self-
awareness. I wish more young women asked themselves some very basic questions about parentingAm I cut out to do this? Do I really care enough to stay the course? What sort of environment would I be bringing these children into?because the evidence increasingly suggests that maybe you can't "have it all," and that when women without the requisite skills and interest go right ahead and raise a family anyway, the kids pay a price.

I'm quite sure that one of the very first comments will be something like, "Well what about men? Don't men have to ask themselves the same questions?" Yes. Absolutely. I just don't think it's quite the same thing. We've argued these points before, causing a great deal of animus along the way, so I'm not going to restate everything I've said on the subject. The bottom line is that I think biology "intended" for women to carry the primary burden of bearing and r
aising children. That's just one man's view. And even if we overrule biology and assert our prerogative as thinking homo sapiens, the question remains: Should we overrule biology? And is that good for the kids?

And for the record...in the interest of "equal time"...I promise a similarly questioning post for Father's Day.

===============

My wife is a throwback to a past generation of women. Kathy is what you might call a "mother's mother": She thinks of her kids constantly, and thinks of herself last, if at all. I could overwhelm you with evidence to the point, describing her maternal activities and personal sacrifices chapter and verse, but suffice it to say that there's a current term, "helicopter mom," that doesn't begin to describe my wife. Where the kids (and especially their well-being) is concerned, Kathy is more of a stealth bomber, except usually without the stealth part. She has now extended that manic focus into the next generation as well; one thinks of little things like her nightly phone call to Vegas to ensure that my (39-year-old) daughter, Jennifer, supplied my 8-year-old grandson, Jordan, with some sort of "green thing" at dinner. Just FYI, Kathy also choreographed Jennifer's Mother's Day experience from afar, through a series of phone conferences with my son, Graig (who also lives in Vegas), and little Jordan himself.

To be clear, I'm not necessarily endorsing this phenomenon, in particular when it's taken to the lengths to which Kathy takes it. As I see it, my wife has often gone way overboard in "looking out for" our kids. But that's a separate issue (for the purpose of this item, at any rate). The point I'm building to is that Kathy will tell you she "can't help it," that she couldn't be a less-involved mother no matter how hard she tried. "It's just part of me," she says simply. "They're part of me. I have to do this."

It's funny to me that in some areas of life and/or some of life's pursuits
typically those we agree with or can at least understandwe accept statements like that as their own justification. Oh, that's just how she is. People will say "I simply can't change" and we take it at face valuewhich is how they fully expect us to take it. Trust me: You are headed for a major blow-up if you try to talk my wife out of any aspect of her nurturing/hovering behavior. That discussion is a non-starter, as they say in Washington of doomed legislation.

Fine. The thing is, why are we so much less inclined to accept such statements when they refer to behaviors of which we disapprove?

I was born a pedophile. It's just how I am. I can't see what would ever make me change.

Understand, I'm not saying that we should therefore condone pedophilia in the same sense that we condone obsessive parenting. Clearly the consequences of the respective behaviors are altogether different and should be (must be) treated as such. However, the rationale for the behaviors, the explanation put forth by the person in the grip of that behavior, is identical: I can't help it. It's how I am. In one case we just sort of smile and nod and say, Yes, I know, I've been there. At worst we may tsk a few times. In the other case we quickly reach a level of fury that knows no bounds. Indeed, Kathy, who expects her self-assessment to be taken on her own authority and never challenged, can at times be rather judgmental about others who exhibit behaviors she finds distasteful, even when those behaviors are manifestly compulsive in nature. And I dare say, Kathy is not alone in that foible. She's probably one of the milder examples of the syndrome.

Seems to me that we must learn to assess life, the whole of it, in one of two ways, right across the board: Either we can control our ritual behaviors or we can't. If we genuinely can't help doing it, then it doesn't logically matter what it is. Does it?

10 comments:

Noadi said...

You've nailed it right on the head about why I'm not a mom and never will be. I don't get along well with young children, have little patience, and like to spend time alone far too much. Not that I don't like kids, my brother and his wife are expecting their first baby and I'm really excited to be an aunt and get to spoil the kid so long as I get to give him or her back in a few hours.

I think sometime when I'm older and have the means to do it I'd like to be a foster parent for older kids. My mom grew up in foster care so it's something I feel strongly about and as difficult as teenagers can be at least I can relate to them.

RevRon's Rants said...

Of course it matters, Steve. While it might be entertaining to attempt to isolate the obsession from its manifestations, the two are inexorably linked, and must be observed as a whole, rather than as discrete parts.

Kathy's behavior might appear overzealous to one who doesn't share her "obsession," but it is founded in a desire to do something good, or at the very least, to "do no harm." The pedophile's obsession has no such benevolent foundation. As a result, the overprotective mother (or father) might be a PITA to some people within the sphere of her/his influence, but the behaviors do not pose a clear threat to others*. The pedophile's behavior does pose such a threat.

* - Except, perhaps, providing the justification for extended therapy as an adult. Even that can be considered a positive thing, as it provides good material for any number of stand-up comedians. :-)

Jenny said...

Ron, what is a PITA?

Steve, I returned to reading Viktor E. Frankl's book, Man's Search for Meaning, today and was struck by a particular sentence where he describes how concentration camp inmates have been influenced by the various deprivations and humiliations of their experience but that their human liberty and spiritual freedom remained intact in other ways, despite those things out of their control.

He writes: "Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone."

Likewise, in our lives it is that "inner decision" we must continually make that gives us the impetus to change.

Steve Salerno said...

Jenny: But see here's the thing, at least as I see it: Are those inner decisions really "decisions," in the sense that we have any control over them? To me, reasoning like the passage you quote from Frankl is really just circular logic. In effect, he's saying, "Two people may react very differently to the same external stimuli, because they're two different people internally and they're reacting in accordance with the way those internal forces react to certain external stimuli." No duh! I have no trouble at all understanding that a pessimist and an optimist are going to have very different responses to the very same set of circumstances. That doesn't mean that a pessimist can "decide" tomorrow to become an optimist. Does it? This is all the more true when people (like, say, my wife) attach HUGE portions of their self-image and very sense of self-worth to the way in which they look at life now.

RevRon's Rants said...

Jen, a PITA is a type of flatbread, typically served in the middle east. :-)

Its other connotation is as an acronym for Pain In The Ass. That's probably the more applicable to this dialog.

"That doesn't mean that a pessimist can "decide" tomorrow to become an optimist. Does it?"

Sure it does. Not necessarily overnight, but we humans do have the capacity to change the way we look at life, based upon experiences & evolution in our understanding. While it's not uncommon for an individual to place such high value on their current mindset as to preclude any revision to that mindset, we are frequently presented with increased knowledge (and even some profound experiences) that can cause even someone who tenaciously clings to their viewpoint to rethink that viewpoint. Whether that new perspective is accepted and implemented is a big variable, but the potential is certainly there, and I'd venture that most people have altered their way of looking at life as a result.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron: Of course we have the capacity to change. But in any given moment, we are we are. Until we're something different. That's all I'm trying to say.

RevRon's Rants said...

I get it... Acute (as opposed to chronic) determinism! Or, as the old t-shirt slogan goes, " Remember... no matter where you go, there you are!"

Jenny said...

Jenny: But see here's the thing, at least as I see it: Are those inner decisions really "decisions," in the sense that we have any control over them?Yes, but within limits. As an example, I think of breathing. We can hold our breath for awhile but not for very long. Pretty soon, we have no choice but to start breathing again.

To me, reasoning like the passage you quote from Frankl is really just circular logic. In effect, he's saying, "Two people may react very differently to the same external stimuli, because they're two different people internally and they're reacting in accordance with the way those internal forces react to certain external stimuli." No duh! I have no trouble at all understanding that a pessimist and an optimist are going to have very different responses to the very same set of circumstances. That doesn't mean that a pessimist can "decide" tomorrow to become an optimist. Does it?Well, the point Frankl was getting to is meaning in life and being worthy of one's sufferings, an idea I find intriguing.

This is all the more true when people (like, say, my wife) attach HUGE portions of their self-image and very sense of self-worth to the way in which they look at life now.Going back to a previous point you made, that your wife "couldn't be a less-involved mother no matter how hard she tried," I wonder how your daughter feels about her mother's involvement in her life.

My daughter is 18 and living at home, which has its built-in challenges, for sure. We give her the space she needs and yet there are certain things that she just simply won't do, won't even bother asking about because she knows her dad wouldn't go for it. (He's the heavy in our family!)

I was one of those helicopter moms for years. I still get accused (by her) of being a hovercraft at times, but it's usually in a joking kind of way. And she won't hesitate to tell me to get lost when necessary. :) I usually comply with her request.

Dimension Skipper said...

Sorry, this is way off topic, Steve, but I just thought you and some readers might enjoy this latest PartiallyClips comic which seems very SHAMbloggy to me.

Just a little background... PartiallyClips is a comic by Robert T. Balder and the format is always the same in that each of three panels features one particular generic clip art image (from his vast collection). From that starting point he adds his own humorous dialogue and/or narration.

I honestly don't think this one works as well as some others as far as making the text seem like it perfectly fits the image, but the text alone was amusing enough, I thought. Maybe I just like the phrase "weaponized smile."

;-)

Steve Salerno said...

DS: A memorable phrase, to be sure.

And no need to apologize. You always seem to bring your A-game, off-topic or not. ;)