A baby-book author called me this week to ask if I'd collaborate on an article for Mother's Day, because, "we both revere motherhood."
I begged to differ. Modern motherhood takes a toll on women's well-being, strains parents' relationships, weakens families, and certainly doesn't do children any good. My heart goes out to mothers, but I don't "revere" motherhood.
I'm not the first person to say this, nor am I an impartial observer. As co-author of four "whispering" books, I have contributed to the "overabundance of advice" that, Ylonda Gault Caviness claims in a recent New York Times op-ed piece, "has turned mothering into a hot mess of guilt, confusion and hard labor." I have benefited from or, depending on your perspective, unwittingly fueled mothers' anxiety. (Ms. Caviness, it should be noted, has her own book coming out, extolling old-time wisdom over modern advice.)
I am also a mother myself and a good friend to many mothers. I've spent most of my career listening to mothers. They constantly wonder whether they're doing enough. My peers and I, looking back on how our generation "mothered," worry about our adult daughters (mine has three sons). We wanted freedom; they want control. Both are impossible goals.
In varying degrees, many women are still victims of the "perfect madness" Judith Warner identified in her 2003 book: "this widespread, choking cocktail of guilt and anxiety and resentment and regret...poisoning motherhood for American woman today." The mandate is to make your child, if not perfect, at least better than other kids. Give him or her an "edge."
This is a complex phenomenon, the result of a decades-old trend to "shape" children and protect their fragile egos even as their mothers began to work full- or part-time jobs outside the home. It has been perpetuated by media portrayals of motherhood and exacerbated by the stress of living in harried, uncertain times. But high-stakes mothering is also propelled by child-centered marketing.
Lots of companies get rich pandering to mothers' fears. If you "invest" well in your kids, advertisers promise, they will be safe, happy, and successful. Fathers are less often targeted because in most families, Mom is the Designated Doer. The pitch is more effective among the affluent, but mothers on tight budgets also buy in: the gadgets, toys, lessons, elite teams, and enriching travel experiences. And in case your child can't keep up, legions of tutors, coaches, therapists are ready to help.
Some mothers reject the notion of all-in mothering and the idea that every moment of your kids' childhood must be savored and programmed. "Why is it that the second a mother admits that it's hard, people feel the need to suggest that maybe she's not doing it right?" asked Glennon Melton, mother of four, in "Don't Carpe Diem." Her 2012 post went viral, shared 127,000 times on Facebook (and effectively put Huffington Post Parents on the map, according to editor Farah Miller).
The fact is, no one way of mothering is "right." The Anthropology of Childhood is the only baby book new parents need, says linguist and journalist Michael Erard, because the author, David L. Lancy, "demonstrates something that American parents desperately need to hear: Children are raised in all sorts of ways, in all sorts of cultures, and they all turn out just fine."
We adapt to what our culture expects of us. But it behooves to remember that we also have choices. What if we broaden the spotlight to illuminate the whole family, not just the kids? Put energy into all the relationships, not just mother and child. Reimagine your household as a place where everyone is responsible, not just Mom, and where everyone benefits, including Mom. Most important, what if we let our children participate in running the family?
Over the last 100 years, children have gone productive to priceless. I'm not suggesting we repeal child-labor laws or pull the kids out of school, and force them to work in factories as my grandmother did at nine when she emigrated from Russia (alone, mind you). Nor should you give your eight year son a baby camel to care for, unless you're a member of the Touaregs, a nomadic people in North Africa. But there is a practical middle ground.
Being a "successful" mother does not have to be about making your child "better." As counterintuitive as this might sound in this age of "irrational parenting," it is neither necessary nor effective to micro manage. Instead, see yourself as a conscientious, loving guide. Teach empathy, fairness, cooperation, flexibility, and self-control by your own example. Show your child how to sew on a button or clean out the hamster cage and then step away. Be there if she needs help or he if makes a mistake. And in lieu of lecturing and monitoring and constantly tweaking and checking in ("You okay, Bud?"), let your children be.
Granted, it's a tall order to, as Kipling put it, "keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you." Of course, we want our kids to be okay -- to be more than okay, in fact -- and to achieve more than we did. It feels risky to leave their future to chance. But here's the rub: This version of motherhood is both wrong-headed and dangerous. A mother's dreams do not influence her child's destiny.