I stood in front of the new books shelf at the Waterford Public Library in Connecticut. And two books jumped out at me: Homeward Bound: Why Women are Embracing the New Domesticity and Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink.
They were not too far away from two other books that caught my attention: Papadaddy's Book for New Fathers: Advice to Dad of All Ages and Captain Dad: The Manly Art of Stay-at-Home Parenting.
My first thought was: "Wow, a lot of new parenting books." Then I was struck by the contrast between the cavalier jokey-ness of the dad books and the anxious tension of the mom books. The dad books had cartoons, for crying out loud. I lugged all four of them up to the checkout counter and started reading as soon as I got home. The contrasts remained striking as I cracked the spine on these four books published in 2013.
Clyde Edgerton's Papadaddy's Book for New Fathers was the first one I picked up. Edgerton teaches creative writing and lives in North Carolina with his wife. They have three kids, and he has an older daughter. He describes himself as a "C.O.D.: Considerably Older Dad" of the three younger kids, who range from the age of six to nine. It is -- as the title suggests -- an advice book, so he gives a lot of advice: How to figure out what sort of diapers to use, how to swaddle and soothe a baby, how to childproof your home, how to install an infant car seat. The answer to the latter: "Get a neighbor father who now has a baby to install your car seat under a bartering system. In exchange, consider offering to remodel his kitchen."
He is self-deprecating and wry, and he writes lots of letters to his little kids. When his son Nathaniel was three and a half and struggling to get used to his new baby sister, Edgerton wrote a letter that concluded: "You're bunches of fun and you helped me blow leaves the other day and also put together a bookcase kind of piece for the back porch. I love you, Papadaddy."
Captain Dad is written by Pat Byrnes, a cartoonist for The New Yorker. After establishing his work ethic and manly credentials, Byrnes confesses: "Being a stay at home parent is the toughest job there is. For a man or a woman." He has been "Captain Dad" for eight years, caring for two daughters and cartooning while his wife serves as Attorney General for the State of Illinois.
In his book, which is studded with hilarious cartoons, he holds forth on various topics, such as how men don't have hips to carry children, how men should wear cups around their kids to prevent collisions in sensitive areas, how public men's rooms do not have changing tables, how hard he tried to keep Disney out his daughters' lives and how Disney came with a vengeance despite his best efforts. It is a sweet book. It is not full of anguish or soul searching or angst. He is comfortable being a stay-at-home dad -- happy and fulfilled.
According to Byrnes, "Testosterone is for boys the way coolness is for kids. Kids need to define themselves by something when they have yet to do anything significant ... Like raising kids. Not just spawning them."
These two books are fun. They keep it pretty light. They speak to dads (and moms, too). They educate, inspire and provoke -- but only a little. The mom books I picked up, however, are cut from a different cloth.
Homeward Bound is written by Emily Matchar, a young woman who splits her time between Chapel Hill, N.C., and Hong Kong. While her book is not only about motherhood, she expends considerable ink on the phenomenon of cool stay-at-home moms. She writes: "The yummy/ mummy/ boho domestic goddess has become an enduring icon for the 2000s, the double-wide stroller a signifier of urban affluence." She cites The Daily Telegraph, which, in 2005, crowed, "The old-fashioned full-time mother at home is being celebrated -- as fashion icon, as status symbol, as sex symbol." Now on some level, this is what I aspire to in my stay-at-home mom-ness -- but in truth, I am too old, too wooly and too cheap to really get there.
Through a combination of observation, interviews and research, Matchar explores why women are choosing to stay at home and cultivating a do-it-yourself ethic about parenting and home-making. She posits that DIY homemakers could be the third (or is it fourth?) wave of feminism. I am not so sure. But a lot of the women she spoke with said yes. One, who blogs as Hipster Homemaker, sees herself as part of the revolution, saying, "This is the new wave of feminism. Women who grow their own food and make their own diapers. Women taking back the home. This is my domain."
I read that and thought, "Sure, that is all great stuff, but taking back the home from whom?" If it is from corporations that assure us that there is a $100 made-in-China solution to every problem we face, I can get behind that. But I am not sure that was what she meant.
In her chapter on DIY parenting, Matchar talks to a woman who plans on homeschooling her kids. I am all for homeschooling. Those kids are super cool, interesting and fun to be around. You can really develop a personality and a body of knowledge when you don't have to sit at a desk filling out bubbles with number two pencils for eight hours a day. But this woman's reasons for homeschooling really stuck out as misguided.
"I'd worry about what my son was eating at lunch and the advertising at schools and the pop in the vending machines and the cleaning solutions they use on the floors," she said. "I kind of want to opt out because it's easier to maintain a little bit of a bubble at home."
The bubble. It is a theme throughout Matchar's book. A lot of the women featured in the book are intent on creating a bubble for their kids -- a bubble that includes cloth diapers, glass bottles, breast milk and then raw milk, organic food, no vaccinations and homeschooling. They have the best of intentions, I am sure. But can you create and control a danger-free zone for your kid? I don't think so. They are trying to put their kids into an eco-bubble where the world --with its mercury, exhaust, Freon, BPAs, fecal matter, radioactive waste, communicable diseases, unpleasant people and so on -- will not touch them.
Matchar does a great job addressing this point. She argues that the very people who are opting out of the system today -- "parents with resources and education" -- are the very same ones who in the Progressive Era at the turn of the 20th century pushed for the creation of institutions, systems, policies and norms that made life safer and more secure for all infants, children and parents. Activists and advocates established, reformed and strengthened public education and public health institutions, got the ball rolling on professional social work, pushed for the passage of laws against adulterated foods and drink. The list goes on and on. Today, we have the bubble: parents (mostly moms) as individuals trying mightily to protect their kids from all that is bad in the world. But they are working so hard at all of this and spending so much money on it, that they don't have the time or resources left over to work for the kind of systemic change that would make a difference for more than just their own kids.
No wonder Katrina Alcorn is feeling stressed out. She wrote Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink. It is truly a tale of a mom on the edge, despite having a supportive partner, a well-paying job and a functional support system. Thoughtful, intense and honest, the West Coast web designer shares and reflects on her own experiences as a mom who starts work at a bustling and growing company when her daughter is under a year old. She tries to balance being a mom and a wife with being a team player and leader in a dynamic and intense field. She weaves into her personal story notes and observations on trends in mothering (and parenting) in the United States.
Alcorn struggles to be a perfect mom. When I first started reading, I thought, "Sure, me too. Don't we all struggle to be the perfect mom?" But as I read more, I came to the conclusion that either I struggle less hard or that my definition of perfect is a little looser than hers. She struggles in a full-blown, panic-attack, pull-the-car-over, I-have-left-my-body kind of way. Alcorn seeks out therapy, medication and finally a 10-week class to overcome her panic attacks. Things seemed to be holding together until she and her husband had a second child four years later.
She writes affectingly about mommy judgment -- an almost universal phenomenon of not getting it quite right. Women breast feed too long or not long enough. They stay home (waste their educations) or go back to work (abandoning their children). They don't vaccinate (dangerous) or do (maybe dangerous). They feed their kids Fritos (fattening) or organic soy butter (gross).
"Maybe we judge because we feel conflicted about the choices we've made. We're afraid of screwing up what we're constantly reminded is the most important job we'll ever have... [But] the real conflict... is between all parents and the economic policies and social institutions that don't value the act of caregiving, that make it so damnably difficult to raise our children, stay economically viable, and keep ourselves and our relationships intact."
Yes, indeed. Which brings us back to Matchar's point about the need for systemic change: Parents of the United States, unite! Organize for universal health care, accessible and high-quality education, and a robust social service network that helps people address and resolve problems in their lives before they get out of control. Organize for a fair and functional criminal justice system, a modern and efficient physical infrastructure for our country -- roads, bridges, sewers, energy, etc. Organize for food security so that everyone has access to affordable, safe and healthy food. Organize for public safety and gun safety, so that kids are not shot down in their classrooms or on the street. Organize for immigration policies that continue and build upon the United States' long tradition of pluralism and diversity. Organize for foreign policy that promote peace, understanding and economic justice. Do it for your kids. Do it for mine. Do it for tomorrow's children.
And now that you have read my article, there are four fewer books you have to read -- so you have more time to organize!
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