Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The Rise of the Alpha Mom?

Nina sent me an article from New York magazine called “Empire of the Alpha Mom” by Randall Patterson. It was a good article because it clearly outlined some of the difficulties new mothers in America today have with the transition to motherhood. It was also a horrifying article in how it profiled one mother's response to this difficulty.

The article is about Isabel Kallman who wants to become the "Martha Stewart of parenting." Isabel is a highly educated career woman who has very high expectations for herself and her family. As her husband says, "we want to make sure we do whatever we do very well." In lots of ways this is very typical of today and there is nothing wrong with wanting everything to be perfect. But people who have this kind of attitude and are used to being in control often get broadsided when they encounter the unpredictable world of children.

Here is a composite of quotations from the article that I think sum up the dilemma of modern motherhood very well:

“As her due date approached, though, she began to feel the creature pressing against her vital organs and became aware that she was losing control....All that she had ever become was the result of study, and now she realized she had not studied to become a mother. Knowing this, she quickly lost faith in whatever instincts she may have had. 'Everyone said, "Follow your instincts, follow your instincts, your instincts will take over." And it just didn't make any sense to me,' she says." And so little Ryland was born, a baby who was, according to his high-achieving, hard-working parents, "very needy, very demanding...nonstop motion, a complete tour de force, the Energizer Bunny 24/7, unbelievable!" Isabel, “felt an isolation, a loss of independence, a helplessness...her one true instinct was to run."

Today’s well-educated, hard-working women likely have no idea of what parenting is like until they experience it first hand. (I am speaking from experience here.) Their models of success are all about control and hard work and study. And this approach just doesn't naturally mesh with having a child. Parenting has become a THING, something to approach not with instincts and benign neglect, but a BIG PROJECT that needs to be done RIGHT. The result is that mothers today take a very professional, involved approach to their children that is well meaning, but, well, just not natural.

The horrifying part of the article comes with Isabel's response to this common dilemma. Instead of getting in touch with her instincts, really experiencing the experience, having a transformation, she intesifies her drive, goes cerebral, does her homework, and studies up on motherhood. "No expert told her not to worry about it, just to do as she pleased. They talked instead about the right way of parenting: that you don't these days, just prop your child in a playpen with a bottle or put him out in the yard like a pet. You breastfeed him. You play with him. You wear him on your body so that he gets used to your voice, develops language skills more quickly." But, like many of us, Isabel couldn't pull it off. She couldn't be the perfect mother. "The more Isabel's' child demanded of her, the more she went out to learn. And the more she learned, the more she was told to stay close—and the more people she hired who could do that for her." Instead of rejecting these so-called “experts,” and the impossible messages they send, she embraces them and discovers what she calls her most valuable lesson: "it takes a village." In other words, if you just hire enough people, you can have it all again, you CAN be the perfect mother AND the manager, the LEADER of the pack.

And so her salvation comes in starting her own cable company, "Alpha Mom TV." The article shows how this TV channel will offer everything. To the mom awake at three in the morning with her fussy baby it will provide the information, "they'll be told what to do and what not to do and how to do it better, “ the guilt, “Isabel ratchets up the tension; more mothers go nuts,” and the solace, “some calm high-priestess of motherhood…coming on to absolve them for failing to be perfect today and bolstering their resolve to be more perfect tomorrow.” It’s brilliant, it's its own perfect, self-perpetuating system! As the author of the article succinctly puts it, “The work of Alpha Mom TV, like that of the church, will be to allay the fear it creates."

And maybe that is just how we have gotten where we are today with parenthood. The people in this world who are calm and content are not the ones out there promoting their worldview. It is the strivers, the over-achievers who are getting the publicity, creating the images, the brands, telling the tales, raising the bar. There is a basic dilemma today with the place children have in our lives. I agree with that 100 percent. But I think Isabel's response, creative as it is, is just about 180 degrees wrong from where it should be. It is exacerbating the problem not coming to terms with it. But then those of us who are not hiring a village but instead diving into our children’s needs, not running from the closeness but seeking a more natural, instinctual balance, basically trying to be REAL and CONNECTED, aren't out there writing how-to books or creating TV channels to promote our views. For one thing, there’s no market for it, but the real truth is, we don't have the time!


Mom said...

A few isolated comments from a mom of a generation ago:

My pediatrician's advice: "What's good for the mother is good for the baby."

Philosophy from a few generations ago when women had large families: "The first four are the hardest. After that the older ones look after the younger ones, and the children all benefit from the benign neglect of the mother."

Comment from a recent, local newspaper article about stressed-out teens: The author described "helicopter parents", those who are hovering all the time. Another newspaper comment: children are not a problem that needs to be fixed or a project with a specific goal.

My observation: Create a reasonably safe and healthy environment, treat your children with the respect, attention and affection you give to adults, let them grow into the people they were destined to be.

cda said...

Shoot, Jen.

All these years you've been my role model. I've been recording everything you do so I could do the same. I was sure you had researched it and everything was scientifically tested and proven to be the optimal approach. Are you telling me you've been mothering ON THE FLY? You didn't raise R and K BY THE BOOK?

I like your mom's comments, especially the one about four kids. Wow. And we know how well you turned out. Great work, Jill!

DSTP said...

I don't have time (!) to leave a well thought out comment (nursing/sleeping baby on my lap and first birthday party to plan) but my brain is filled with opinions and thoughts, however muddled. I feel for those parents who attempt to control through parenting style. Can you imagine adding such frustration to an already challenging task?

Sis-in-law NY

Mother Hypocrite said...

As a mom whose oldest child is now nine, I find it really funny that someone who only has ONE child, and TODDLER at that, claims to know anything about being a parent. (the TV lady)

It's EASY (somewhat) to control what they do and how it turns out when they're little, but as the kids get older and develop their own personalities and interests, we as parents realize that we're not actually IN CONTROL, because we didn't "MAKE" these children, God did, and he gave them each their own personalities and abilities and disabilities and challenges.

In so many ways, I feel so sorry for this lady, because I remember being overwhelmed with my 3 preschoolers and I hold the somewhat dubious distinction of being the only woman in our military community who over time managed to read EVERY SINGLE parenting book available in the base library. I, too, foolishly thought that with enough information I could 'control' everything in my children's lives.

What's the saying: "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans?" Well, that's kind of what happens . . .

If you're fantasizing about your child growing up to be the world's greatest novelist and winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, well, God just might send you a dyslexic, just to force you to think, and to change, and to love in a new way.

I pity that poor little boy who belongs to Isabel Kallman, or whatever her name is. Because I have the feelling that God has something very special planned for him - something that's going to rock his mama's world, and she's going to realize that all th e books in the world are no match for real life.