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 parenting—Am 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 raising 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 understand—we 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 value—which 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?
Sunday, May 10, 2009
Consider this both a tribute and a lament.