The New Yorker magazine keeps its thumb on the pulse of New York City middle and upper-class motherhood. A recent cover (Sept.13, 2010) depicts a school-age child trudging down a city street. She is carrying a large back-pack and leading a burro loaded with books, sports equipment, ballet shoes and a cello. The title of this cover is "Beast of Burden." It reminded me of another New Yorker cover published on May 15, 2006 -"Happy Mother's Day." On this cover a young mother, also wearing a large back-pack, pushes a massive baby carriage, piled high with diaper bags, bottles, snacks and toys. A tiny, bewildered little face peers out of the carriage. I think it's only a matter of time before the baby of 2006 grows into the school child of 2010.
These covers intrigue me--contemporary mothers trying to perform their maternal duties flawlessly and ending up burdening their children. Yes, New Yorkers want to be in fashion, but this kind of behavior goes on in Palo Alto, California, where I live, too, and just as compulsively. Fashion seems to be so important in child-rearing. We say that pregnancy, childbirth and child-rearing are "natural" processes, but they just don't happen as easily as we hope they will. So we search for rules, guide-lines, "up-to-the-minute" data. And this has long been true of human parenting I take issue with the current exhausting standards of what good parenting should be, on the part of both parents and children.
The pressure to "do it right" increases maternal ambivalence and leads to much anxiety and guilt. As I have pointed out previously ambivalence is a mixture of loving and hating feelings that occur in all important human relationships, including motherhood. It is very hard for women to talk about. These feelings are difficult to admit, to friends, family and other mothers---even those nice, friendly women in your Mother's Group. All of them are struggling with the same mixed feelings. A patient admitted to me that only once in the many years of her Mother's Group meetings did the group even approach the issue of ambivalence. "We were all so upset" she said, "that we never went back to it again."
I have seen so many women patients struggle with the issue of "doing enough." I'm thinking of a former patient, Eleanor, who became anxious and upset whenever she felt that other children had anything her daughter did not have-perfect grades, awards, club memberships, sports, clothes, toys. This child went to school with a very big backpack! Who needed all these activities, all these prizes, all this equipment? Not the child, although she did wish to please her mother and could not always hold out against pressure to take on yet another activity. But, where in this child's life was the room for free play, adventure, woolgathering? Where was the opportunity to learn to live with some failure, to not have everything, to improvise and imagine. Admittedly, I am describing an extreme case, but isn't it reminiscent of those New Yorker covers?
This particular patient had many reasons, beyond the need to be parentally fashionable, for loading her daughter's backpack. She came from an emotionally withholding family where there was little understanding of her need to "fit in." Her daughter, an only child, was not going to repeat her mother's childhood deprivation. It was impossible for Eleanor to see that sometimes less is more, that the opportunity for her daughter to hang out with other kids, to invent her own games, to use her imagination, was as important as ballet lessons. Furthermore, my patient's need to have a daughter who had it all did not really compensate for her own earlier deprivations. We can't make life perfect for our children. If we did, how would they learn to adjust, solve problems, deal with hardship? They shouldn't be burdened by our need to have them make up for our disappointments.