Bringing Up Bébé continues to be fascinating. I don’t know how accurate it is. The book doesn’t even pretend to be some comprehensive ethnographic study (although, actually…it uses pretty much the same methods as a participant-observer study…), but the ideas that it raises are thought-provoking. For instance, the book asserts that French moms have no idea what she’s talking about when she discusses “parenting styles” and “parenting philosophies.” French people don’t have a parenting style, they just parent the way that everyone does it (which consists of a particular sort of severity that I won’t get into).
In America, we don’t really have that kind of uniformity. Everyone has experience with they themselves were raised, but otherwise there’s no cultural uniformity. Television and movies don’t help, since they tend to be about families that are in some state of dysfunction and, thus, cannot give good advice on discipline and other assorted drama-reduction techniques. Obviously, an “American” parenting style has grown up in and it does have its own very particular character, but it didn’t arise very naturally: it’s mostly a product of the influence of charismatic personalities (like Dr. Spock) who rushed in to fill the void left by the absence of grandmothers, extended families, and traditional communities. In America, we have to think about the things that people in other countries take for granted. And there’s nothing wrong with that…except that we don’t actually think that hard about this stuff. Instead, we just let weird pseudoscience take the place of folk wisdom.
I finished Ayelet Waldman’s Bad Mother. Although she’d probably hate that I’m mentioning this in the first line of this blog post, she is Michael Chabon’s wife. She created one of those flash-in-the-pan internet controversies a few years ago by saying that most mothers she knew had stopped having sex with their husbands, and she thought that was because they’d sublimated all their romantic feelings into their children. But she, Waldman, was different. She and Michael still have hot sex because she puts him above their children in her heart. And this is a whole book full of child-rearing stuff like that.
It’s a good book! Very much a manifesto. Another book (like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In) that’s in conversation with The Feminine Mystique. The book is about ignoring all that crazy “good parenting” madness and trying to accept one’s flaws as a parent. There’s lots of fascinating stuff in here, like the chapter where Waldman describes how her newborn nearly starved to death without her realizing it and another chapter where she talks about aborting a foetus because of a small chance that it might be born with mental deficits. Very powerful moments. It’s hard to even describe them without making Waldman sound like an awful mom, but I’m sure lots of moms have similar stories. That’s the point of the book. No one meets the gold-standard for motherhood, because the bar is set unachievably high.
Lots of really smug things to make fun of too, if you’re into that. She constantly talks about how amazing Michael Chabon is and how feminist he is and how much housework he does and how hot she finds him. And she’s always making weird references to how this thing or that thing is no problem for them because their hometown (Berkeley) is so much more enlightened than everywhere else. Yeah…hate to break it to you, but Berkeley is pretty much the same as every other upper-middle-class coastal enclave (albeit with about five times more aging hippies per capita).
Having finished that, I’ve moved on to Bringing Up Bébé, which is about how French parents raise kids who’re better-behaved and less screwed-up than American kids (and how they do it without losing their minds in the way that American moms do).Actually, I was surprised to find that this book only came out last year. It’s been discussed so much and is such a big part of popular culture that I just assumed it’d been out for a decade. I’d assumed that this book was going to be unbearable (because it’s about how France is superior to the US). But it’s not! Like the Tiger Mom book, this is a marvel of narrative standpoint (although in this case the standpoint is the opposite). The author, Pamela Druckerman, is a very typical American mom who is raising typical American kids. She just happens to be doing it in France. And, while there, she can’t help but notice that the kids around her seem to be much better-behaved than hers and that their parents seem much less stressed out. Because the author is in the same position (vis a vis France) as her audience, the book is less threatening and has much more credibility. I’m only a few chapters into it, but I am enjoying it.
Motherhood is fascinating. I’m surprised that I’ve spent so little time thinking about it. But it really is the center of a massive bundle of issues. Every little part of it is so fraught. For instance, in all these books, I can see the tremendous body-image angst that motherhood generates. Many of these mothers hate the way that child-bearing has demolished their bodies. And they feel guilty over the ways that they aided and abetted that demolishment by eating in an out-of-control fashion during their pregnancy. Multiple books have stated that the best part of pregnancy is being free, for nine months, of the constant diet policing that most American women subject themselves to for their entire lives.
It kind of sucks for women that they’re programmed with so much body-image angst, but then, as a rite of passage, they’re expected to do something that takes such a huge toll on the body.