When I was four, I asked for a hunk of Parmesan for Christmas. My subsequent Christmas lists were heavier on My Little Pony and Easy Bake Ovens (I never received the latter, possibly because my mom was afraid I would combine the two), but I’ve never forgotten that apparently odd request. It isn’t really odd: who wouldn’t enjoy rich, flaky, salt-spangled Italian cheese?
That must have been my mom’s attitude when it came to feeding us. As I’ve said before, she’s an amazing cook, and that gave her the power to overcome most of our picky-ness. She didn’t try to make us eat tasteless, boiled-to-death things; she tempted us with the good stuff. We were never forced to clean our plates, but she didn’t let us get out of trying whatever she had made, and she didn’t make everyone a separate meal. “A child’s palate needs to be educated,” she told me later. “How are they going to learn to like different foods if you only feed them what they ask for?”
Apparently my mom is French: this way of feeding your kids is praised in Bringing Up Bébé, the latest encomium to un-American parenting. The author was amazed to see that French kids ate a variety of foods and only had one snack per day – somewhere along the way, maybe in the 70′s or 80′s, American parents went so off the rails that this now seems like a quaint Parisian travel fantasy.
I’ll have finally completed the herculean process of getting five young children out the door to go to an activity, and realize with a sinking feeling that I’m not done, because we’re required to bring snacks. I sign up to be part of a Bible study or a weekly prayer group, and one of the first questions I’m asked is which days I’ll be bringing snacks. My kids walk away from the dinner table leaving plates full of their favorite foods untouched, and I realize that the culprit is snacks.
Jennifer Fulwiler’s manifesto
nicely highlights the larger problem with endless snack sign-up sheets: there’s an inverse relationship there between maternal effort and real benefit to the children. You can see this in that alarmingly popular “Invisible Mom” story I criticized: “Some days I am only a pair of hands, nothing more: Can you fix this? Can you tie this? Can you open this? Some days I’m not a pair of hands; I’m not even a human being. I’m a clock to ask, ‘What time is it?’ I’m a satellite guide to answer, ‘What number is the Disney Channel?’ I’m a car to order, ‘Right around 5:30, please.’” This (fictional) woman wears herself down to a dejected nubbin – why? To help her children become more rude, more unimaginative, more helpless. Imagine if the kids had to learn to tell time, memorize the number of their favorite TV channel, tie their own damn shoes! They would be more confident, more self-sufficient, and much nicer to live with. Mom could stop feeling like a Jeeves with multiple Berties to care for.
That seems to be the overarching message of Bringing Up Bébé (of which I’ve only read an excerpt): true freedom can only be attained through self-mastery, and giving children a “frame” in which they must practice self-mastery makes life nicer for the grownups. Heresy! shriek the Puritans. If you aren’t miserable, you aren’t doing it right, and your children will never grow up to be billionaires
. Sadly, this secular anxiety, arising in upper-crust parents who believe that more parental striving equals more brilliant children and that their own children must take the lion’s share of prestige and worldly goods or else be considered failures, has blended with Catholic/Evangelical guilt and fear to produce an even more virulent trap for religious people. There are certain circles where you must
have 11 children and homeschool them all the way through high school or face judgement, and some Evangelicals have created harmful parenting philosophies based on their unknowingly secularized readings of Scripture: says Christian writer Leslie Fields
, “A few of the more stridently conservative writers are so confident of their parenting methods and outcomes, they describe child-training as a risk-free venture analogous to staking out tomatoes, training dogs, and teaching mules, only loosely veiling B. F. Skinner-like techniques with swatches of strategically placed Bible verses.” (My friend Sheila has documented one particularly horrifying system here
.) If you run the right training program, your children will become “spiritual champions” – and if your son gets a boyfriend or your daughter becomes an atheist, it means you messed up somewhere. Never mind free will – all that guilt is on you.
Why am I so interested in French mommies all of a sudden? Well, I’m getting married soon, and I’ve watched a writer friend of mine go through a really heart-wringing crisis because she feels she must choose between her writing and the happiness of her child. Like any good Catholic, she sees greater degrees of self-sacrifice as the only answer. There’s no way I can disagree with her in theory, but she feels trapped and I feel twitchy.
The other day it all came to head when a certain Natural Family Planning group sent me their magazine, which I started receiving after Aeon and I took the requisite NFP class. I opened it to find out “Why My Spiritual Director Urged Me to Quit Blogging,” and – well, first of all, it doesn’t help the image of NFP when the author, Annamarie Adkins, talks about unexpectedly having four children in six years and going half crazy because of it. Her reason for quitting her mom blog was, it turned out, not completely unreasonable – she found herself using the Internet as a quick fix whenever she felt bored or lonely, and documenting her children’s lives rather than participating in them – and she doesn’t say she intends to quit her freelancing work. Hey, I’ve kicked myself many times for taking the quick high of a blog post in place of the money and professional cred a published article might bring.
But Adkins’ decision to quit blogging “to begin a more humble, hidden, full life,” as right and grace-inspired as it may have been for her, is not a good decision to hold up in front of young, female, Catholic writers. How difficult it is for a budding writer to gather the confidence to submit something to an editor! How insidiously sloth sucks us back up when the piece is rejected and we must face revising it or sending it off to the next editor! Women in particular worry that they are consumed by vanity, while men never seem to give it a second thought: if they want to write, they write, and they assume that someone out there will want to read them. The Vida count
put women writers’ minority status into stark, cold data; and while some wanted to blame discrimination, plenty of editors complained that they simply didn’t receive as many submissions from women. For me, this rings true. As a writer, I fight a constant battle against not vanity, but sloth.
The Invisible Mom was obsessed with mortifying her own “strong, stubborn pride,” even while her husband and children were marinating in selfishness. She could never be invisible enough. I’m not doubting the capability of Adkins’ spiritual director to diagnose “vanity” as his directee’s root sin, but I think any stay-at-home mom who quit or hid her blog would feel, like Adkins, “isolated, a bit friendless and a little empty on the inside at times.” (All those qualifiers!) Stay-at-home moms these days are
isolated, sometimes to the point that people have suggested ministries to visit them
as if they were shut-ins. Perhaps Adkins has plenty of extended family… or then again not. She finishes the piece thus: “Whenever the hole left by blogging aches, I remind myself that only God could – and should – fill it for me. When I want to go to the Internet, I really should be going to Jesus.” I acknowledge the truth in this – but if every Catholic mom, to please Jesus, had to quit blogging and do nothing except tend to her family in the most obvious, material sense, that would suggest that married life also embraces another vocation: that of a cloistered nun, but with no silence for contemplation.
I wonder what one of those laid-back French mothers would think of the illustration that accompanies the piece: a nervous mother at her computer, angel and devil hovering on either shoulder, and five children running wild in the background. There is a grinning boy with a squirt gun, a preteen boy teasing his sister, a baby flinging a bowl of cereal from his high chair, and a little girl singing karaoke. I imagine the French mom would not consider the singing girl to be a problem, and would simply tell the boy with the squirt gun to play with it outside, leaving her with only two problems to resolve. I’m not sure what the illustrator thinks the mother should be doing with karaoke girl and squirt gun boy. Does he think they will suffer emotional trauma if their mother doesn’t drop everything to clap for her daughter and roughhouse with her son? Both of them look ecstatic to me.
I don’t admire everything about Pamela Drucker’s French moms (really just Parisian bobo moms). And I do plan to breastfeed, and to homeschool (if it is right for us). But I don’t plan to stop writing, and I don’t want to writhe, “self-wrung, self-strung,” on a rack of endless, toxic, mother-guilt. If I feel guilty I will either acknowledge my sin and go to confession, or recognize the feeling as that harmful anxiety that we beg to be free from at every Mass. If I have a daughter, I want to show her that growing up doesn’t have to mean giving up her dreams.