I wasn’t sure whether it was real or a satire – it sounds like the plot of a badly written film. Plenty of stuff written about parenting these days implies that there’s some sort of goal of Perfect Motherhood out there for which we should be aiming, and plenty of other stuff deplores this attitude (and some stuff even manages to do both simultaneously, but that’s by-the-by). But I’ve never previously read anything that flat-out in-your-face states that perfect motherhood is a desirable and achievable aim, and, by god, did it sound like a satire, from one of the this-is-the-hell-that-the-world-of-parenting-is-heading-towards-so-tremble-in-your-boots brigade. However, this doesn’t seem to be a satirical journal, so, no matter how much this woman might sound like an anthropomorphic personification of a stereotype, it looks as though she’s actually for real. Bloody hell.
As you can hopefully deduce from my blog title and rather garbled summary (I keep meaning to rewrite it so that it actually sounds a bit more coherent), my attitude towards parenting is pretty much the antithesis of this mother’s. The extent to which we’re on different pages here is nicely summarised in my reaction to her business partner’s quote on the subject of the whole striving-for-perfection issue: ‘If not to become strong, for what should a modern mother strive? “Soft and mushy mom?”’ The possibility of not actually striving for anything seems to be a concept beyond her ken.
As for me, my parenthood style just isn’t really about the striving. Admittedly, I’ve had my strivey moments – there was the whole tongue tie saga and the subsequent breastfeeding problems, which meant I really had to strive to make the breastfeeding work. So, for that one, I strived. Um, strove. And I do feel that that was worth it. But, on the whole, when it comes to motherhood, I just don’t do strive. My mothering is a strive-free zone. That is how far apart I am from this woman.
Reading the article, I realised I was having two rather contradictory reactions – “Why do people make so much fuss about how to mother when their kids are likely to turn out fine pretty much whatever they do?” and “How the hell can she get it so wrong?” My firm belief that most children can deal perfectly well with a range of almost any form of childrearing without suffering permanent damage was sorely tested by this article, and, yes, my initial reaction was that this poor child was being Damaged For Life. I still think that that possibility is fairly high on the cards, because I don’t think it’s healthy to grow up being the litmus paper for your parent’s sense of achievement. Still, after further thought, I have had to conclude that this boy’s future breakdown and disintegration aren’t actually the given that I at first thought they were. This child has a mother who genuinely loves him and lets him know it, even if it is in a rather scary manic back-away-closer kind of way; a father who seems to have the calm instinctive approach to parenting that’s just what his mother lacks; and a village, albeit a hired one, watching out for him and helping out. I suspect he’s actually in with a reasonable shot at doing OK.
The other thing that initially really concerned me about her method of bringing him up was that she seemed to be raising New York’s answer to Verruca Salt. On further thought, I’ve realised that this may not be the case. The acerbic comments I planned to make about how odd it was that her extensive reading on the subject of parenthood had somehow missed any half-decent text on basic issues of toddler discipline dissolved into a realisation that, actually, yes, that was odd, and it was actually less odd, when I thought about it, that a journalist might have simply got something wrong. The paragraph about Isabel giving Ryland everything he wants to make him happy comes right after a paragraph about her seeing limit-setting as one of the crucial parts of parenthood, and one that she feels she gets right 80 – 90% of the time. Which is probably better than a lot of us poor saps manage. So, maybe the things she’s described as giving in on are things that she genuinely feels don’t matter very much (the occasional cookie is not going to doom the child, and so what if he wants to take his shoes off in the car?) and the idea that she’s giving in on absolutely everything is either a genuine misunderstanding or a deliberate misrepresentation on the part of the author of this article. So, one “She’s putting too much pressure on that child” on rye, hold the “She’s spoiling him rotten”.
My main reaction, though, was that I didn’t know whether I felt more sorry for the child or his mother. Having thought about that one again, I decided it was, in fact, reasonably obvious that it should be the child. He has rather less say about any of what’s going on, and he is not currently making programmes that, however well-meant (and, yes, I do believe they’re well-meant), are destined to send countless mothers spiralling into gloom and despondency.
But while Ryland wins out in the sympathy stakes, Isabel does come in a close second. This is obviously a desperately insecure woman. She doesn’t ever seem to have learnt how to rely on herself for validation. What invisible, faceless Parenting Authority does she fear is going to come along and grade her, on what scale? She is constantly trying to measure up to some nonexistent benchmark, because she simply doesn’t know how to say “We’re all happy with this way of doing things, so sod whether it scores appropriately on the GoodMommyommeter.”
If this child’s life does indeed go seriously wrong in any of the clichéd and expected ways, then she will not only be devastated in the way that any of us would be devastated to have a child go off the rails. She will also lose a huge chunk of her soul, her identity, because it’s so tied up in her achievements, and Ryland is one of those achievements. She will, in her own eyes, be a Failure and a Bad Mommy from that point on.
It’s slightly disturbing how many of the commenters on Julie’s blog seem positively to relish this thought. A minority of them also sympathised with her, but the prevailing reaction seemed to be that of dieters offered calorie-free chocolate. Hooray! We get to have all the fun of being judgemental about another mother! Even though that’s normally a Really Bad Thing, it’s quite all right in this case, because the bitch deserves it! Just as she deserves the devastation that will fall on her family, because it’s All Her Fault! It’s a witch! Burn her! Burn her! Burn her!!
I’m being hypocritical. I love a good judgementing as much as the next self-righteous bitch. I just didn’t feel moved to take that line in this case. Which got me thinking about why my reaction differed from that of so many others.
I think most of it comes down to that darned Perfect Mother channel she’s trying to set up (or whatever the hell she’s calling it). I totally agree that this is a terrible, ghastly idea that is going to do considerably more harm than good, but somehow I don’t see it as what Grrrl labeled a ‘mommy drive-by’. Which led to a whole new and interesting train of thought – what is so totally obnoxious about mommy drive-bys? Why, the implication of “You are doing a Bad Job of parenting your child, and need my sage counsel in order to do a Good Job”. And I think that’s the message a lot of people are getting from the existence of Isabel’s parenting channel.
Except that I somehow didn’t hear it that way. I don’t think that Isabel actually is judging her target audience and concluding that, in the absence of her needed input, they are doing a Bad Job. I doubt if she has enough mental energy left over from her own dread of doing a Bad Job herself, and her efforts to do a Good Job, to have much of an opinion about what all those other mothers out there are doing.
What I think is that her mental picture of her audience is of women who are going through exactly what she went through – passionate desire to Do It Right, panicky terror that they’re not managing that, and a desperate need for some support. Which is, in fact, completely realistic. If anything, it’s laudable that she wants to help.
Her fatal error, of course, is her belief that what these women most need is someone to come along and tell them how to Do It Right. When, in fact, what they most need (apart from sleep) is to a) realise that there just isn’t a Right, and b) find their way to whatever parenting style works for them, their children, and anyone else in the immediate family without actually having dire long-term consequences. It’s Isabel’s tragedy that this is a concept that she just can’t get. And it’s the misfortune of New York’s mothers that she is, with the best of intentions, rushing in with a solution to the problem that is, in fact, set to perpetuate it.
And yet, as convinced as I am that this channel is a disaster in the making, I can’t find it in myself to be angry with her rather than sorry for her. She genuinely is trying to help other women out, by supplying them with what she really felt she needed at her time of crisis. (Which is, of course, why the Golden Rule is a frighteningly dangerous idea.) Given the amount of harm done throughout history by people rushing in with that attitude, I’m not even sure why I don’t feel as disgusted by her as the people on Julie’s blog. But, right now, I just can’t stop myself from thinking – if people who get it wrong with the best of intentions can’t be cut a little slack, then heaven help the lot of us.