The Origin of Superwoman

This issue of The Atlantic has been lying around our apartment for several weeks while I worked on my actual job; last night, I had time to read it.  The one thing I wanted to note was Sandra Tsing Loh’s piece about how her view of herself as a mother has changed in the aftermath of her divorce.  Partly because she’s now virtually homeless, partly because she’s been smeared as a symbol of neglectful parenting on “blogs large and small all across our fair nation” (oh, and in the Los Angeles Times as well,) Tsing Loh now takes a hard look at the ideals of motherhood into which she was once indoctrinated and which she can no longer hope to meet.  She turns for enlightenment to a pair of books that I remember seeing all over the place in the 1970s, but that have apparently become hard to find in the last couple of decades: Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch and Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex.  She particularly recommends Greer’s chapter on “Family,” which traces the change from the traditional norm of a multigenerational extended family consisting of dozens of people related by blood who live and work together to the modern Western norm of the nuclear family, a couple and their children separated from their “stem families,” often by hundreds or thousands of miles.  Tsing Loh quotes Greer’s statement that the traditional family was a more stable system than the nuclear family because responsibility for its most crucial functions did not “rest on the frail shoulders of two bewildered individuals trying to apply a contradictory blueprint.”     

Some months ago I quoted Kurt Vonnegut’s remark that, “When a couple has an argument nowadays, they may think it’s about money or power or sex, how to raise the kids, or whatever. What they’re really saying to each other, though, without realizing it, is this: ”You are not enough people!”  It seems that Vonnegut and Greer were thinking along the same lines in some ways.  Not in all ways; Vonnegut seems to be suggesting that we as humans, by our nature, can be nurtured only in the bosom of a close-knit multigenerational extended family, while Greer’s argument leaves open the possibility that our need for extended families is one side of a contradictory inheritance from our pre-capitalist past, and that we might in time be reshaped so that we can find happiness without returning to the days before capitalism.  That’s a big difference, of course.   And Vonnegut’s remarks leave out the main theme of Greer’s study, the inequality of the sexes in various forms of family structure.  Close-knit multigenerational extended family groupings are usually, perhaps always, strongly patriarchal; the nuclear family may dethrone  the paterfamilias, but it may also isolate a wife from other women during her marriage and throw her naked to the cold winds of the labor market in case of divorce. 

Still, where Vonnegut and Greer do agree is that the nuclear family does not put enough people under a roof to maintain a stable home life.  The Supermom ideal which Tsing Loh has bitterly learned she will never be able to meet is a symptom of this underpopulation.  The future Supermom is supposed to establish herself in “a cool Creative Class career, like Writer.”  Then, she adds to that career a second career, as Child Care Provider Extraordinaire.  “Today’s Professional Class mothers are expected to have… the personalities- and the creative aspirations- of elementary school teachers.  But if you’re like me, you can’t compete with those seasoned professionals for whom child education is an enthusiastic vocation.”  Unless your Creative Class career is as an elementary school teacher, you are almost certain to be like Tsing Loh.  Surely it would be a miracle of sorts if a person whose background was in one profession could, on the strength of no particular training, match a qualified and experienced professional in another profession, whatever her personality.     

Supermom, by dint of her miraculous gift for childhood education, then shepherds her children into Creative Class careers of their own.  And the requirements for membership in the Creative Class are unforgivingly narrow; “We see, at our Creative meetings, the line that separates state-college folk from Ivy alums.”  It’s all well and good if your kids are writers or artists or whatever, but if their degrees are from humble adult education programs like the University of Michigan or UC Berkeley, it doesn’t count, apparently.  You’re still a flop as a mother.  The Creative Class Supermom not only guides her children into this fantastically narrow mold, she does it  without stifling their individuality; “the last thing she wants to be is a 1950s style nag.” 

For those who accept defeat in the contest to be Supermom, there is consolation in the works of D. W. Winnicott, a 1950s psychoanalyst who developed a concept of the “good enough” mother.  Tsing Loh finds that Winnicott’s “good enough” mother is “actually pretty close to perfect.”  

Supermom is devoted to her children; so devoted, in fact, that she is racked with guilt if she suspects that she loves their father more than she loves them.  This, to Tsing Loh’s disappointment, is why Ayelet Waldman titles her memoir Bad Mother.  While Tsing Loh fears that she is a bad mother because she left her husband for another man, Waldman fears that she is a bad mother because she can’t keep her hands off her husband, her children’s biological father.  Tsing Loh says that this isn’t so crazy; after all, “The very success of the modern American family- where kids get punctually to SAT tutoring classes, the mortgage gets paid, the second-story remodel stays on budget- surely depends on spouses not being in love.”  Being in love simply takes up too much time and attention to meet all of Supermom’s, or for that matter Superdad’s, obligations. 

This is where it becomes crucial that “You are not enough people.”  Not only are spouses dissatisfied with a marriage that only gives them one more person to talk to, and that person a member of the opposite sex, but children are dissatisfied too.  Without grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins, all under the same roof, they direct all their demands to their parents.  Without their own parents, siblings, in-laws, nieces and nephews, parents direct all of their aspirations to their children.  Because each person is only one person, nothing parent or child does can satisfy the other’s need for a bigger group.  What the parents do have to offer is chauffeur service, fees for tutoring, and entry into structured activities led by adults who wear whistles around their necks.  What the children have to offer is the good opinion of such adults.  These goods can only for a moment quiet the longing for a larger kinship group, and so each side demands ever more of them.  The two beleaguered parents insist on providing ever more education to their children; they pride themselves on it, to the point where it becomes inconceivable for them not to judge other parents based on the lengths to which they have gone in playing this particular game.

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3 Comments

  1. cymast

     /  December 22, 2009

    “And the requirements for membership in the Creative Class are unforgivingly narrow . . if their degrees are from humble adult education programs like the University of Michigan or UC Berkeley, it doesn’t count, apparently.” I don’t see how this makes any sense, even to a mentally challenged person with chronic low self-esteem.

    What if your extended family makes a career out of appearing on The Jerry Springer Show?

    What isn’t mentioned is the choice of being childless. I think that’s very important considering the state of the world.

  2. acilius

     /  December 23, 2009

    The ideal Tsing Loh describes is pretty crazy, I agree. That’s why I think there must be some kind of feedback loop at work. Surely no one could adopt such an attitude all at once, it has to be something that builds up as the result of one behavior reinforcing another.

    I also agree that it’s important for our society to develop a more favorable view of childlessness. Tsing Loh might also agree. But Tsing Loh would be hard put to devote much space to this topic in this piece, since she is nominally writing a review of Ayelet Waldman’s book Bad Mother and is actually writing at great length about the public response she received after she wrote in an earlier issue of The Atlantic that she had left her husband to be with another man. That public response took the form of a nationwide slut-shaming under the pretext of concern for Tsing Loh’s children.

  3. cymast

     /  December 23, 2009

    Something I noticed in my art classes in college- the degreed art professors were, as a rule, the most predictable in their art. The underclassmen were generally the most creative in their art. The upperclassmen were generally in-between.

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