Motherhood. Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t.

Yesterday was quite the day for catching up on reading. Not just any reading – aggravating reading, provocative prose, applause-worthy words, and sputter-inducing commentary on the state of affairs in Parenting Land.

First, there was Lori Gottlieb on The Atlantic, offering her observations concerning our current fixation on doing everything for our kids – and apparently, how that lands them in therapy. An excellent article, I might add.

Lisa Belkin reinterpreted and summarized portions of Gottlieb’s article, on Motherlode, and the discussion that followed (in comments) rankled me no end.

To top it off (I’m cutting to the chase), there was a nifty NY Times article reporting on a study that shows single middle aged mothers report poorer health than those who bear children while married. (Stating the obvious?)

That’s another discussion though related – and I’ll save my tirade on that for another day. Meanwhile, might we muse on modern-day motherhood?

And by the way, where’s my T-shirt? You know the one – “It’s All My Fault” is emblazoned across the chest, in red of course.

Mommie Dearest

Sure, I have my own mother issues, and over the years they’ve proved to be relatively significant. “Relative” is relevant; I’m an adult, and not 20-something. I’ve had plenty of time to come to grips with decades of odd (and damaging) maternal behavior. But I also recognize my part in my life choices, the work to move beyond my upbringing, and the skills acquired at my mother’s side along with aspects of parenting that I have taken from the way I was raised – not the least of which is the importance of learning.

So what do we think of the current pop cultural preoccupation with mothering styles, and our tendency to condemn one in favor of another? And I dare to say mothering because it remains predominantly women who raise the children – and some might say – over-raise them at that.

But why are we damned if we do and damned if we don’t? Why does one (20-something) commenter on Motherlode find fault with her happy childhood and equally happily married parents, explaining that she was unprepared for the world as a result?

Since when is an adult child not expected to learn a few things on being out in the world – about being out in the world?

My Kids, My Selves

My own sons were fortunate in many ways. With multilingual parents – both of us – despite divorce and friction for a decade since, diversity (not to mention travel abroad to see family) has played a role. My elder took to it early; he is – by nature – extroverted and gregarious. He pursues adventure in the world with a vengeance. And relish.

His brother? He’s come later to that sort of tendency; he is by nature more creative and more introspective.

As the Mom?

I catered to each – as much as I could. I overcompensated in some areas (I see now), in part due to single parent guilt, and in part out of demons from my past that I continue to wrestle with. But it’s my baggage and not theirs; I’ve quelled those problematic voices each time they’ve threatened to suck me under – and my parenting effectiveness, along with me.

So when is enough enough? When will we “zoom out” as I suggested the other day, and stop micromanaging our parenting ad infinitum?

(Dis)owning Our Mistakes?

Look to improve? Of course!

Look to our own mistakes in order to learn from them? That, too.

But only up to a point.

Parenting is not an exact science. Each flavor of parenting carries its own struggles – solo parenting, adoption, gay parenting, co-parenting, raising a grandchild, a sister’s child, being an older mom, a teenage mom. And apparently – the traditional two-happy-parents-family-unit is now increasingly problematic.

Consider this comment from the Motherlode reader I mention above, concerning her parents making life a little too pleasant:

… I’m in my mid-twenties and have two wonderful parents who unwittingly did this, with the best of intentions. They raised me in a warm, supportive home in an idyllic town, and looking back, I realize I was insulated as much as possible from the hardships of the real world. Yes, I had discipline (I remember being spanked), no, I wasn’t sheltered from mean classmates or the logical consequences of not preparing enough for an exam (they left me to sink or swim on these things), but on the big things, oh my goodness, there was a vacuum. “Death” was an abstract concept, as I only remember attending one funeral in my childhood. “Scarcity” was a suspect theory, since I don’t remember an occasion of having asked for something (a toy, a dollhouse) and not having received it within six months…  “Failure” was an impossible idea – I had always succeeded at everything academic, so the idea that I could fail at anything was ridiculous. Obviously, I now know better!

Are you kidding me?

Damn the Mothers! Full Speed Ahead!

In all fairness, the commenter goes on to point out that she wasn’t taught to face fear or to resolve conflict. But honestly, I couldn’t say that my sons have been taught those skills in our home either. Does sibling rivalry count? Does weary single motherhood hone everyone’s ability to negotiate and deal with conflict?

She is also married to a man whose upbringing was dramatically different, filled with hardship which she describes. She is now living in another country and culture (his) – something which would cause discomfort and require a host of new coping skills from anyone.

We certainly don’t have enough information in a blog comment to surmise what other issues may be at work, but by her own definition, this young woman recognizes that she had a happy childhood. At what point is she going to cease blaming her malaise on the sort of family unit that most of us would give an arm and a leg for? That she only attended one funeral as a child?

Um… this is a problem?

Incidentally, I will point out that my sons have never attended a funeral – and I’m glad of that. They have experienced loss – when my own mother passed away, as they processed their feelings and stood by me as I worked through mine.

As for how we “parent” and what we call it – helicoptering and attaching and any other name (that would smell as foul), I say we go for whatever feels right at the time, and whatever we can reasonably manage. And I say this while most heartily agreeing with Lori Gottlieb that our happiness culture is out of hand – happiness for the mothers, happiness for the children, and all too little sense of proportion or perspective.

Yes, this from the woman who insists that parenting is a profession. And I stand by that, sounding the horn for the skills that women (especially) bring to the task. They are mighty indeed. We are mighty indeed.

If only we would value what we furnish and stop apologizing for it. Stop expecting it to follow a specific path. If only we were compensated in some way – (health care? flexible employment environments?) – we might not neglect our own health, lag behind in our earnings, and fall so far back in energy stores as to struggle simply to keep going, not to mention – contributing. Maybe even happily.

The “Happiness” Industry

Now that we’ve moved into Happiness Territory, might I add that Ms. Gottlieb’s (intelligent and thoughtful) article addresses this very issue – and its role in our own measure of discontent, which inevitably plays out in how we raise our kids? Its role in what she refers to as parental overinvestment?

She writes:

My parents certainly wanted me to be happy, and my grandparents wanted my parents to be happy too. What seems to have changed in recent years, though, is the way we think about and define happiness, both for our children and for ourselves. Nowadays, it’s not enough to be happy—if you can be even happier… The American Dream and the pursuit of happiness have morphed from a quest for general contentment to the idea that you must be happy at all times and in every way.


Could we consider setting aside our obsession for all things busily gleeful, and possibly return to appreciation for options occasionally meaningful? Or a less nonsensical expectation that would recognize that life offers challenges, opportunities, and a wide range of emotional states – and maybe that’s a positive?

Might we consider disassembling the Happiness Industry, or if that’s too radical, recognizing that its prominence in contemporary discourse is potentially harmful? That its trickle-down effects on relationships, marriage, and parenting are part of the growing problems of narcissism and entitlement?

Parents Rule, Kids Drool?

My sons don’t possess all the skills I wish they did at this stage, but they’re armed and ready – as ready as I can make them, and as ready as they have made themselves.

I wouldn’t characterize their childhoods as happy or unhappy; I would say they’ve known love, a firm hand, and challenges to overcome.

This includes living through adversity I wish they hadn’t had to endure. But even if there had never been conflict or financial hardship, even if there had never been acrimonious divorce, even if they had never lived my stress as it rippled through our household, my sons would not have been raised into entitlement, but into hard work, respect, and the necessity of thinking beyond themselves. Feeling part of a community. Various communities, in fact.

In parenthood – as in all things – we learn as we go, there’s no better teacher than experience, and there’s also no do-over.

Unless of course you count the time when our own children will be raising their kids, and come to understand that parenting well is not an evil legacy. On the contrary, it’s an asset, albeit a matter of trial and error, good instincts, a bit of luck, a village if you can manage it, and a great deal of common sense.

Might I also add – an open mind?

© D A Wolf



  1. says

    I think that commenter will figure out soon enough that the blame is unnecessary, just an understanding of the culture she grew up in versus the one she has with her husband. And I love that you put this with the happiness industry because I believe the two are connected: the sense of entitlement, that any “wrong” is someone else’s fault. Part of it is simply part of our development; thankfully, we continue to grow and mature, and you better believe when she’s a parent she will have a completely new level of respect and gratitude for how hard her parents must’ve worked to give her such a happy childhood! And hopefully, more people will begin to realize that happiness is an emotion like any other, with a beginning, a middle and an end.

  2. says

    Thoughtful and provocative. It seems the Boomers have raised a generation that is exceptional at one thing. Expecting everything to be provided for them. If you think about it, twenty-something grew up in an environment where kids were the center of attention. Minivan moms carting kids to and from endless activities; middle-school philosophy that no one fails and competition to be on a team is unheard of…just make enough teams so everyone can play and no one gets their feeling hurt. Self esteem ruled and the culture bent over backwards to accommodate. Now… she will experience what the real world is like, just like the rest of us had to do at one point in our lives. Her education in this area is just coming a little later than some others. I’m sure in a few years she may be asking for a little salt and pepper to eat the crow that will be on her plate.

  3. says

    Agree with your perspective. As a former magazine editor, whose job it was to essentially package up the human experience into digestible bits and tips, I understand the desire to reach for “happy.” But as I wrote in my book, our search for “blame” in the absence of perfectly happy is insane. I was a laid-back mom when my child was very young; now circumstances demand that I be a warrior mother and I spend most of my day advocating for and doing research about my son and his current challenges. Parenting styles, as you point out, must be flexible, FLUXIBLE, as we address the ever-changing nature of our children, our own circumstances and our own sense of self. Resolving the puzzles of childhood is what makes adulthood–even for that woman who was struck by the complexity of adult life. All we can do is live our stories, and keep peering around the corner as the next chapter opens.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Thank you for joining the conversation, Stacy. “All we can do is live our stories, and keep peering around the corner as the next chapter opens.”


  4. says

    Sometimes I feel the best I can do for my adult children is to be there when they need to talk. My friends will note that I still cover for many of their mistakes. I’m getting better at not doing that now.

    Your post today spoke to my guilt for not being a better parent. But I have one wildly successful child and one abissimally unsuccessful child. Maybe it’s just that the universe has a wicked sense of humor. Or maybe… I could have done better.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      You know what they say, Gandalfe. Hindsight is 20-20. But I would also be curious to know how you define a “successful” child. And I wonder how our definitions of success – for them and for ourselves – evolve over the years.

      Care to elaborate?

  5. says

    Should a parent who has chosen to devote their life to caring for their child(ren) expect to ever have a good marriage? Does a single mother in that situation have any right to complain that there are no good men out there? I did some preliminary dating of one or two women who appeared to fall into this category and found that there was no sense in my pursuing it, because there would be no independent place for me in their lives. “The best thing a parent can do for the children is to love their spouse.” (Not as simple as this sounds, and of course assuming that the parent is worthy of love.)

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Definitely not that simple, Paul, re the single mother issue. (Them’s fightin’ words, my friend… :)) And yes – she has every right to state her experience of the men she encounters – “good,” “bad,” or otherwise.

  6. says

    Ah, we all have a right to complain, but what does it mean if that particular group of women complain that there are no good men? (Grammar, grammar…not my thing). My point concerns those parents who have chosen their child over any possible spouse, and therefore choose a spouse for the sake of the child more than love of the spouse. What sort of marriage can be expected if that is the motivation (likely unconscious) behind one parent? Would a good man be wise to enter into such a relationship?

    As mentioned, I’ve seen a couple of instances that looked like this, but then, life is not simple.

    I actually say this from an idealistic position. I distrust marriages where one or both partners enter to satisfy their own specific pre-existing wants such as sex or money or some other utility. This could be considered one specific instance of this.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Thanks for the clarification, Paul. But the fact is – men and women (both) have been marrying for specific “reasons” since, well… always?

      That said, I don’t disagree with your stance – for myself. Many compromise certain aspects of a marital relationship in order to achieve security, or a stable home for their child, etc., just as men look for the younger trophy wife, the sexy (second) wife, and so on. I may not care for either scenario, and find both to be problems from a social standpoint (for very different reasons), but it doesn’t change the fact that it happens. As you say – specific instances of the phenomenon you describe.

  7. says

    It’s good to SHARE good sex and finances and children and the like, in whatever way is agreed upon so that both partners appreciate both their own happiness and that of their partner. The details can be complex — you know me….talk, talk, and more talk….then ACT. Reality is often something different.

  8. says

    Gottlieb has gotten us talking, which is good. But I have to say I don’t have a good understanding of what she’s talking about. If you want to say something about the effects of having parents who are “too attuned,” then you need to define what “too attuned” means specifically. Then you need to follow two groups of kids, one group with “too attuned” parents, and one with random parents. Maybe you should follow kids of “attuned” parents while you’re at it, once you’ve defined what that is. Has Lori Gottlieb done this? No. She’s generalized from the patients who walked into her office. Why? Because it’s easier. In my book, “attuned” does not equal “indulgent.”

    BLW, I found your framing of the whole discussion very useful, especially your skewering of the twenty-year-old woman whose parents “insulated” her from the real world.

    I find it useful as well to reflect that Jefferson was careful to grant to all the right to life and liberty, but not to happiness, only its pursuit.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Wolf, If I may interpret and summarize (my understanding of) Gottlieb, she is indeed taking exception to our insistence on “happiness” in our children, and what she perceives as excesses of attention (“attuned”) that seem to produce anxious, vaguely dissatisfied adults. I agree with you that this isn’t a scientific study in any way – it is her opinion based on her experience with her patients, but I would say that anecdotally I see, read, and experience the same phenomenon, especially in women in their 20s and 30s. The woman I described who left the comment on Motherlode is an example of this.

      I also think that no one can or should make assumptions about another’s child or child-rearing without knowing a whole hell of a lot about what the dynamics are – for the parents and the child. I’m certain my “engaged” parenting style (from the outside looking in) may seem excessive (attuned?) to some. To me, it was the right thing at the time, in our circumstances, knowing my children as I do. I was also lax or liberal in some ways that other parents scorn. Tough. I guided my kids in ways that felt right for them and for us.

      Is there any way to know if parenting is “good” “better” or “best”? I suppose someone could ask my kids in 40 years or so. Doubt I’ll be here for the answer.

      Bottom line? The Happiness Business has much to offer by way of suggestions that can allow us to enjoy a bit more of our harried lifestyles. But it’s also a smokescreen, a false god, another money-making industry that isn’t dealing with core issues to do with families – including jobs, health care, education, environment – and the way these critical issues affect our daily lives. And the Happiness Biz pointed at our kids and our mothering (especially) is – in my opinion – and apparently Gottlieb’s, not helping to form strong, resilient young adults.

      But to blame it on parents? Solely? Much too simplistic an answer.

  9. says

    As you say, no one can or should make assumptions. Never assume, I think the saying is. What, exactly, is meant by excess attention? What is attention? Until we agree specifically on who and what we’re talking about, we’re not talking about anything. Reminds me of the wife who saw the therapist and complained about her husband’s excessive appetite for sex. “How often do you have sex?” the therapist asked. “Every year.”

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Oh, you’ve got a smile on my face now, Wolf. And right you are, indeed. With “sweeping statements,” a tiny bit of clarification (however oxymoronic?) adds credibility.

      Sweeping: Having wide-ranging influence or effect
      Statements: A definite or clear expression of something in speech or writing (plural)

  10. says

    Ooh, this is a juicy one, D.

    First, the 20-something commenter seems to have enjoyed the same childhood I did. But I don’t complain about it; I treasure it and I credit it with my (relative!) sanity and stability and my ability to cope with the routine stressors of life. (And I bet if she thought about it, she might have experienced more than she realizes in her sheltered existence.)

    As far as the happiness industry goes, I’m right there with you, even if I’ve been a consumer of it myself from time to time. (As in any movement, there are pearls in there with much of the coal.) I will never be someone who is chipper all day long, nor do I want to be. And I certainly don’t want to raise children on instant gratification. Bruce @ Privilege of Parenting has helped me move toward a concept of happiness that I like: acceptance for what is. You know, like whatever life dishes out, and whatever you can make of it. 😉

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