Children of the Dream: Why School Integration Works

In Children of the Dream, economist Rucker C. Johnson, with an able journalistic assist from Alexander Nazaryan, summarizes academic research that “points incontrovertibly to three powerful cures to unequal educational opportunity: (1) integration, (2) equitable school funding, and (3) high-quality preschool investments.”

Children of the Dream

“In most places and times, these policies were advanced one at a time, unevenly and inconsistently” and that variation across districts, they explain, “is exactly what offers us a rare testing ground.” Comparing outcomes in kids who did and didn’t have these initiatives rolled out during their school years allowed Johnson and his team of researchers to tease out the independent value offered by all three. That includes desegregation, which turns out to have been “such a powerful force that its beneficial impacts persist to influence the outcomes of the next generation.”

But the most impressive data Johnson offers up shows “significant positive synergistic effects” between these policies. For example, “[f]or poor children, the combined benefits of growing up in districts with both greater Head Start spending and greater K-12 per-pupil spending were significantly greater than the sum of the independent effects of the two investments in isolation.”

Why then is integration viewed as a noble but failed experiment? Why is the conventional wisdom that Head Start provides little to no benefit, just the opportunity for fraud? What explains the lack of popularity of funding formulas that offer more assistance to schools that need it more?

Part of the problem, they say, is spin. In the segregation context, for example, “even outside the Deep South recalcitrant whites manipulated and marshaled public will in a way that allowed opponents of integration to appear not to be racists. They resorted to powerful code words—like neighborhood schools, local control, and forced busing, to summon profound, if rarely spoken, racial fears.… This strategy worked, and it contains a devilish dilemma: even as researchers … have shown that integration works, much of the public has been erroneously convinced of the very opposite.” 

Part of it is “our collective impatience, an unwillingness to see measures through, a willingness to abandon anything and everything that does not show immediate results.” Here, Johnson points a finger at both policymakers and other researchers:

Education reform often proceeds by a kind of punctuated equilibrium. We implement some new whiz-bang reform, let it run its course for a little while, but then become impatient because things haven’t improved as much as we wanted them too: test scores haven’t jumped, for example. Studies are published to confirm that, yes, indeed, X reform failed to achieve Y effect…. New fixes are tried, reversed, and then new fixes are tried again…. Too often, we take the pan out of the oven far too early, only to find the result woefully undercooked…. Other [academics take] snapshots of school funding reform efforts [that may provide] some clarity, but only about a strictly limited period of time. Our study sought to take something closer to a time-lapsed video, looking at the effect of school funding reform over decades. 

With a long view, Johnson’s work (the intricacies of which can be found in the endnotes) proves that Head Start and school funding reform have worked. What’s more, “[c]ontrary to popular wisdom, integration has benefited—and continues to benefit—African Americans, whether that benefit is translated into educational attainment, earnings, social stability, or incarceration rates. Whites, meanwhile, lose nothing from opening their classrooms to others.” 

Throughout, the authors’ writing is clear and as close to conversational as academic discourse can be. They even produce some truly stunning prose, for example, “segregation is not only about separation of people, but it is segregations—hoarding, in fact—of opportunity” and “[l]ike many poor people, both then and now, she understood the value of education but didn’t have the tools to extract that value for her own children.”

Children of the Dream ends with a forceful call to action that is as optimistic as it is stark: “How much longer will we bemoan the state of affairs while lamenting that nothing can be done? Much can be done…. We have tools that are, in some cases, decades old, but that nevertheless have the capacity to drastically correct some of the gravest inequalities in American society … that have flummoxed policymakers for decades…. [Realizing this potential] will require an extraordinary coordination of resources and effort, but every solution proffered in these pages is fully within the realm of possibility.”

Johnson and Nazaryan conclude, “We believe that the American project is not so much imperfect as it is not yet fully realized.” Their book, however, is—and I highly recommend it to anyone who cares about education or inequality.

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Act Natural: A Cultural History of Misadventures in Parenting

Jennifer Traig does things a little differently than historians like Ann Hulbert. For starters, her scope is insanely broad, covering all of history and the globe. Then there’s her tone. Traig’s writing is truly accessible, bringing ease and pleasure to two traditionally taxing topics: historical study and parenting. “Children from all social classes just did not spend that much time with their parents,” she writes in a characteristic passage: “Unlike us, they probably did not feel much guilt about it, much as my mail carrier doesn’t feel guilty for not mowing my lawn. It’s simply not his job.” 

Act Natural take two

She doesn’t just make the material readable though; Traig makes it funny, like LOL funny: “Medieval childcare books are generally very stern and preachy. They are still fun for the modern reader, however, because early printers used a long s that, to the modern eye, looks just like an f. Since the books tend to dwell at length on breastfeeding, you read a lot about getting the fuckling infant to fuckle. Mostly, however, you read about faving the infant’s foul from fin.” Her personal and whimsical asides occasionally annoy, but the vast bulk of them land, helping break up some seriously legit research into manageable chunks.

Did you know, for example, that “a shocking amount of [parenting advice was] written by people who either had no children or were estranged from them” including monks? That, thanks to Freud, “botched toilet training was blamed for everything from homosexuality to World War II”? That Puritan books had “sunny, child-friendly titles like ‘Deaths of Pious Children’ and ‘The Exhortation that a Father Gave to His Children Which he Wrot a Few Dayes Before His Burning’”? That John Newbery, “the father of children’s literature” was a ruthless capitalist who maximized product placement in children’s books, including for an abortifacient? 

She goes on and on, even touching on modern times: 

In the United States, a child who’s been out of the womb 366 days is one, but in countries that use East Asian age reckoning, which counts from conception, he’s two. Some cultures add a year on your birthday, and some on the calendar new year. Even the length of the year can vary, with the lunar calendar clocking in eleven days shorter than the Gregorian. Were I to fly to Shanghai, I would find myself twelve hours ahead and two full years older….

***

Beng babies are considered living humans when their umbilical stump falls off. Aboriginal Anbarra babies remain classified as fetuses until they smile the first time. For Balinese Hindus, babies don’t become fully human until the 105th day after birth; before that, they belong to the spirit world, and are considered so holy their feet aren’t permitted to touch the ground. The Namibian Himba people believe a baby is alive before it’s even conceived, backdating its existence to the time it first came to its mother as a thought. 

Traig offers up a good deal of comfort too. “The history of parenting,” she writes, “is, in large part, a history of trying to get out of it.” That is to say, in some respects, our problems are not new. In 1671, Jane Sharp lambasted overparenting (“Their children by overcockering, growing so stubborn and unnatural, that they have proved a great grief to their parents”), and during the 1940s, many asserted that “overinvolved mothers were creating a generation of psychological cripples.” Modern parents probably do have it worse in some ways though. Take sibling squabbles. For much of history, parents escaped most of it since they “were less likely to be around their children, and their children were less likely to be around each other, given that they were either working or dead.”

Along similar lines, Traig concludes that “a lot of parenting’s thorniest issues—sleep resistance, picky eating—began when we started trying to fix something that wasn’t particularly broken.” A final note of solace reads as follows: “If I’ve learned anything, it’s that barring the really awful stuff, things mostly turn out fine, and the ones that don’t were beyond our control anyway.”

For the most part, the book soars. It’s interesting. It’s amusing. And most of the writing is tight with flawless transitions. But some of those get sloppy, and there’s an uncomfortable amount of unacknowledged repetition, of factoids and even a punchline or two. Another round of edits would have gone a long way.

There’s also the small issue of the facts receiving gloss. There’s just no way to make definitive statements about parenting across the centuries without smoothing over a few things. And I’d be remiss not to note that this “cultural history” focuses on white culture.

Still, I highly recommend Act Natural as a fun way to get perspective on modern parenting.

BONUS REVIEW ON THE SAME TOPIC: 

In Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About ChildrenAnn Hulbert chronicles how twentieth-century parenting experts in the United States have offered dramatically varied “dogmas and data,” reflecting “American confusions about children’s natures and futures, and about mothers’ missions.”

raising america

The new plague of anxiety about child-rearing, it turns out, is actually as old as the plague itself: “pick any post-medieval century as it turns,” Hulbert writes, “and you can find historians proclaiming a notable shift in, and rising concern about, parent-child relations.” That’s comforting. So too is her conclusion that the experts “have fared no better or worse than the rest of us in the quest for calm consistency in child-rearing technique and theory.”

And Raising America contains a good deal of interesting information and reflection. Yet Hulbert’s is a copiously researched historian’s history of the central dilemma (“is it more discipline or more bonding that they need at home?”) and as such, one I recommend only for those hoping to feel like a college student again.

Untrue: Why Nearly Everything We Believe About Women, Lust, and Infidelity Is Wrong and How the New Science Can Set Us Free

Wednesday Martin, of Primates of Park Avenue fame, writes: “Relinquish your libido, or tame it, for stability. Somehow we presume this is a developmental imperative of sorts, the hallmark of maturity and health, and that it will be easier for women, that it comes ‘naturally’ to them.” This “deeply ingrained social script about female sexual reticence” among Americans is one of the reasons that when women cheat there’s an “asymmetrical, searing stigma.” But female infidelity is “far from uncommon,” Martin demonstrates, and it provides a useful lens through which to examine all of female sexuality.

untrue

What she concludes is that much of what we presume to be biological truth is instead the result of factors like cultural context, social control, and even ecology. Martin harnesses significant research to argue that “when it comes to our sexual selves, women have been sold a bill of goods. In matters of sex, women are not the tamer, more demure, or reticent sex. We are not the sex that longs for or is more easily resigned to partnership, to sameness, to familiarity.”

Though Untrue can get repetitive, with Martin often devising several lovely ways to phrase the same thought, she strikes a good balance overall, producing something that’s plenty readable while still packed with research. And, perhaps thanks to the Primates controversy, she does a good job issuing the necessary caveat: “This book is not an exhaustive review of the literature …. I am only your guide to my view—informed by the social science and science to which I was drawn.”  

With that in mind, she points to one eye-opening fact after another. Take “responsive desire,” for example. The term “describes a tendency to feel sexually excited after erotic stimulation, versus in anticipation of it (that’s called ‘spontaneous desire,’ based on an experience that sexual desire is an appetite like hunger that just comes upon us),” and it’s apparently more common among women. It means “what [many] women want and need during sex [is] to see themselves as sexy and desired,” and Martin reasons that “crude initiations” (i.e., “a husband or partner who doesn’t bother trying to be seductive”) plus exhaustion “from mothering and ‘wife-ing’” have led to women essentially going on strike from the type of sex on offer to them. “They’re saying, ‘I’m not doing this.’ Not because they don’t like sex, or because they don’t love or care for their partners, but because the same old sex with the same old person isn’t working for them.” In other words, the “I’m too tired, honey” phenomenon is actually the reverse of how it’s portrayed in sitcoms: women want sex, good sex, and they won’t accept anything less.

That’s just one thread among many Martin pulls: the impact of plough agriculture; what being raised to sit with one’s legs crossed means; a trend of purchasing medically retrofitted virginity; the sexual practices of Himba women; Skirt Club; the need to rethink the Darwinian paradigm of the demure, chaste female and sexually assertive, prolific male; fruit flies and bonobos monkeys; OMGYes; the “cuckold lifestyle” or “hotwifing” and “clean-up” and “silky seconds”; race and porn.

The following passages provide a feel for her style:  

Couples therapy itself was not really even a “thing” until recently (there were only three thousand family and marital therapists in the US in 1970, whereas by May 2017, the official figure was nearly forty-three thousand).

***

In her book The Technology of Orgasm, Dr. Rachel Maines tells us that from the 1850s to the early twentieth century, women with various nervous disorders and complaints visited doctors who palpated and massaged them below the waist in order to cure their “nervous conditions” with a “release of nervous energy”—an orgasm. After this physician-administered “hysterical paroxysm,” which doctors considered “a medical duty like breaking a fever,” in Maines’s words, many women found themselves temporarily cured of exhaustion, melancholy, and nervousness. The process could take up to an hour, however, and left doctors longing for a quicker, less labor-intensive way to do it for their female patients. The vibrator was born.

***

Yet even just the part of the clit we can see, the glans—think of it as the tip of the iceberg, or perhaps better, the mouth of a simmering volcano—has more than eight thousand nerve endings, meaning it has fourteen times the density of nerve receptor cells as the most sensitive part of a man’s penis, also called the glans…. The entirety of what is now known as the “female erectile network” (FEN) or “internal clitoris” snakes back nearly to our anus on either side; extends along our labia, which swell with pleasure; and includes our urethral sponge (previously called the G-spot) and something called the perineal sponge too.

***

Other women are “untrue” because they have to be, are expected to be, or because it is practical. In many partible paternity cultures of South America, a monogamous woman may be considered both stingy and a bad mother. Closer to home, the anthropologist Arline Geronimus has demonstrated in her work and her article “What Teen Mothers Know” that in areas of the US where sex ratios are skewed against women—that is, where there are notably fewer men than women—delaying childbearing and monogamy are reproductive and social strategies women can ill afford. In neighborhoods where there are high rates of incarceration, for example, women and children may benefit from serial relationships and depending on extended family and other kin support to raise their children. Contrary to what social conservatives assert, this has less to do with morality and more to do with material circumstances and the kind of maternal strategizing and trade-offs in a sometimes hostile environment—in this instance, one ravaged by institutionalized racism—that helped Homo sapiens thrive.

“This book only scratches the surface of the history and evolutionary prehistory of female infidelity and female sexual autonomy, which are complex, surprising, and in many instances an upending of everything we have been taught about men and women,” Martin concludes, and after reading the information she gathered, I can’t argue with her.

The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children

The Explosive Child is ostensibly a book for adults dealing with “kids who become frustrated far more easily and more often, and communicate their frustration in ways that are far more extreme than ‘ordinary’ kids,” yet any caretaker or educator can make great gains using the mindset and methodology of Ross W. Greene, Ph.D.

explosive child

His central tenet is “kids do well if they can.” Internalizing this philosophy is important, Greene explains, because an adult who believes a kid will do well whenever they want to will use “conventional reward and punishment strategies aimed at making him want to do well,” strategies that often backfire both pragmatically and emotionally. Parents who instead understand that “challenging episodes occur when the demands being placed on [a child] exceed his capacity to respond well,” are more likely to “solve problems collaboratively and proactively rather than unilaterally and emergently.” They’re also better at choosing their battles (in Greene’s words: removing “low-priority demands and expectations”).

In clear, well-organized text Greene walks us through the process of identifying the lagging skills (e.g., frustration tolerance) and unsolved problems (e.g., difficulty making transitions) that lead to undesirable behavior. His three-step process includes: the Empathy Step or “gathering information from your child to understand his concern or perspective about a given unsolved problem,” the Define the Problem Step which entails “communicating your concern or perspective about the same problem,” and the Invitation Step “when you and your child discuss and agree on a solution that is realistic (that is, you and your child can actually do what you’re agreeing to do) and mutually satisfactory (it addresses the concerns that you[ both] voiced).”

For each juncture, Greene offers up specific phrasing, such as “I’ve noticed that …” and “My concern is ….” He details common pitfalls (like using “maladaptive communication patterns” including overgeneralization and sarcasm) and what to do when the process goes off the rails in one way or another. Ready for the coolest part? By engaging your kid with Greene’s method you indirectly teach the very skills that will enable them to meet behavioral expectations without it.

Though The Explosive Child is written with an eye toward verbal, school-aged children, much of the approach works with toddlers and in adult relationships. My sole complaint is that Greene goes overboard in the accessibility department. “I know I’m being a little redundant here,” he writes, “but this is important.” And he’s right about that last half, but there’s so very much repetition in The Explosive Child that I wished I could click an “I get it” button on my Kindle that would advance to the next new information. That said, I happily and easily read every word in this valuable take on parenting—and I recommend you do too.

This review originally appeared in Golden Gate Mother’s Group Magazine.

10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works

I picked up 10% Happier based on the title alone, having never heard of Dan Harris and with no clue that mindfulness would be the mechanism he’d recommend for achieving this attainable-yet-substantial goal. “Until recently, I thought of meditation as the exclusive province of bearded swamis, unwashed hippies, and fans of John Tesh music,” the Good Morning America anchor writes in what I would learn is his trademark mischievous wit, that of an intellectual repackaged for the everyman. “Meditation suffers from a towering PR problem, largely because its most prominent proponents talk as if they have a perpetual pan flute accompaniment,” he quips, and keeps the laughs coming, as he uses the tale of his own awakening to the power of meditative practice as a framework for introducing and assessing various schools of thought on mindfulness.

10 happier

Along with our education, we get the stories of a war reporter turned culture reporter (at first, a self-admitted “Anthony Bourdain of spirituality, feeding on the most bizarre fare I could find”) as told by a talented writer. Take this example of Harris’s descriptive prowess:

Ted was really excited about this place—although I got the feeling he could muster equal ebullience while discussing parsnips or annuities. He did, in fact, have the air of a man who could be a top regional insurance salesman. With his short, parted hair and his sparkling eyes, he had the Clintonesque way of locking in on you and making you feel that, at least in that moment, you were the most important person in the world…. Undoubtedly, part of Ted’s appeal was that he had a way of invoking Satan while remaining ceaselessly chipper.

Harris traces Eckhart Tolle’s concept of a voice in our heads “engaged in a ceaseless stream of thinking—most of it negative, repetitive, and self-referential … squawk[ing] away at us from the minute we open our eyes in the morning until the minute we fall asleep at night, if it allows us to sleep at all” back to the Buddhist concept of the “monkey mind.” Harris brings the reader with him as he realizes that the thoughts “skittering through” our heads aren’t irrational, but they also aren’t necessarily true, and learns the power of a little mental distance. “It’s not that my worry suddenly ceased,” he says, “I just wasn’t as taken in by it.”

There’s a “lie we tell ourselves our whole lives,” Harris writes: “as soon as we get the next meal, party, vacation, sexual encounter, as soon as we get married, get a promotion, get to the airport check-in, get through security and consume a bouquet of Auntie Anne’s Cinnamon Sugar Stix, we’ll feel really good.… We live so much of our lives pushed forward by these ‘if only’ thoughts, and yet the itch remains. The pursuit of happiness becomes the source of our unhappiness.”

It finally hit me that I’d been sleepwalking through much of my life—swept along on a tide of automatic, habitual behavior. All of the things I was most ashamed of in recent years could be explained through the ego: chasing the thrill of war without contemplating the consequences, replacing the combat high with coke and ecstasy, reflexively and unfairly judging people of faith, getting carried away with anxiety about work, neglecting Bianca to tryst with my BlackBerry, obsessing about my stupid hair.

The key is to stop worrying about the past and the future, he says, and “make the present moment your friend.”

Then, unlike those he criticizes, Harris gets into the nitty-gritty. By way of example, here’s his break down of the meditative process: 1) sit comfortably with a straight spine, 2) feel the sensations of your breath as it goes in and out, and 3) whenever your attention wanders, forgive yourself and come back to noticing your breath. During the rest of the day, whenever possible, “do only one thing at a time. When you’re on the phone, be on the phone. When you’re in a meeting, be there.” Throughout the day, take “purposeful pauses”: “instead of fidgeting or tapping your fingers while your computer boots up, try to watch your breath for a few minutes. When driving, turn off the radio and feel your hands on the wheel. Or when walking between meetings, leave your phone in your pocket and just notice the sensations of your legs moving.” Try to make being nice “a conscious, daily priority.”

At each stage of Harris’s evolution, skepticism yields to theoretical buy-in which, only after great struggle, eventually bears fruit (e.g., “Mindfulness is … a way to view the contents of our mind with nonjudgmental remove. I found this theory elegant, but utterly unfeasible.”). It’s an accessible, relatable pedagogical technique, and one of many tricks Harris uses to seize and hold the reader’s attention. Like those he pedals in the commercial broadcasting world, Harris’s teasers are as effective as they are blatant (e.g., “I didn’t know it as I sat in the lobby in India absorbing the news, but Ben’s arrival would precipitate a professional crisis”).

I wanted to be annoyed by Harris’s tendency to err on the side of the dramatic, his penchant for reiteration, and the irony of writing both that seeking happiness causes unhappiness and “happiness is a skill” that can be built through practicing x, y, and z. But I couldn’t. How can you dislike a guy who writes a book on mindfulness and ends it this way?

[T]he voice in my head is still, in many ways, an asshole. However, mindfulness now does a pretty good job of tying up the voice and putting duct tape over its mouth. I’m still a maniacally hard worker…. I still believe … that a healthy amount of neuroticism is good. But I also know that widening my circle of concern beyond my own crap has made me much happier.

Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy

In the introduction to Like a Mother, Angela Garbes writes, “This book is not meant to be a traditional pregnancy guidebook with advice on what or how to do things,” but after reading each of its chapters closely, it’s still unclear to me what it is intended to be. As best I can figure, a food writer got pregnant, had a baby, had some friends who had some babies, wrote an essay about breastfeeding that went viral, and got a book deal. She then wrote about all of the things that bothered or intrigued her along the way. The result is a journalist’s stream-of-consciousness, including personal experiences, research, anecdotes, and opinions. It could have worked, and in a few places—most notably the chapter featuring microchimerism—it does. But the vast majority of Like a Mother lacks coherence as it covers factual and theoretical ground already well-trodden by others (including Emily Oster for the former and Judith Warner for the latter).

like a mother

“We hear almost nothing about the emotional landscape of the postpartum experience: the alienation from your own body, the massive identity shift,” she wrote, and I wondered under what rock Garbes lived before becoming pregnant. Lots and lots of ink has been spilled on that topic. The same goes for revelations like how presumptuous people are toward pregnant women, the frequency of miscarriage, the imprecise nature of due dates, and how ludicrous it is to expect abdomens to “bounce back” weeks post-birth. “Why don’t we talk openly about the fact that while there is much joy in becoming a parent, caring for a young child is also grueling, sometimes depressing work?” she wrote, and I screamed back at the pages, We do! Yes, these are important topics of conversation, but they are not rare among women of childbearing age who frequent the internet. Her assertion to the contrary made it difficult to give the book the benefit of the doubt, to hang in there through seeming non-sequiturs and storytelling that sufficed but didn’t grab.

It’s a shame, because Like a Mother contains a good deal of valuable commentary. The nitty gritty of pregnancy and birth could still be talked about much more openly, especially IRL and in front of men. There are many right ways to have a baby.

Birth is “both a normal, everyday occurrence and a significant medical event.” Amen.

“In pregnancy, developing babies are of the utmost importance, yes. But so are mothers.” And similarly, “It is easy for mothers to focus our attention away from our own needs and onto those of our tiny, helpless babies—after all, they will only be this young once. But we will never be this young again, either.” Hear, hear.

“For the many women who have uterine fibroids and have undergone surgery to remove them, a C-section may be the safe, natural option. Labeling unmedicated vaginal birth as ‘natural’ creates a false binary.” Sing it, sister.

And, as the crowning example of Garbes’s capacity for crisp insight, we have: “Would-be mothers are no more or less virtuous than any other person, but our expectations for them immediately shift when pregnancy enters the picture.”

She also makes three notable policy recommendations. First, “[i]f we’re telling women that they should breast-feed exclusively for six months, then we should give them—at minimum—the same amount of paid family leave.” Second, enough women experience pelvic pain and pelvic floor disorders after childbirth to justify a physical therapy protocol similar to the one in place for ACL injuries. Third, more research needs to be done on women’s bodies, including placental function. I wish Garbes had gone deeper with that last big point though, researching—rather than just asserting—how much the lack of knowledge reflects sexism as opposed to the unlimited frontier of science, particularly when impacted by latent Puritanism. Do we know more, for example, about the prostate? About the biomechanics of male pleasure?

She’d be precisely the person for that job, since Garbes can hang with the best of them when distilling little-known biological information. Her description of the clitoris left me intellectually panting. She brought the placenta alive: “It’s a carnal version of satellite photos of river deltas—small and large tributaries, all reaching from remote corners to fill the powerful stream that is the umbilical cord.” And breasts receive the same treatment: “Hundreds of alveoli cells gather into grapelike bunches called lobules, and groups of these lobules come together to form a lobe. The average breast is made up of twelve to twenty lobes, which are spread throughout the breast like the petals of a flower. Milk ducts act as plumbing, transporting milk from their respective lobes. These ducts meet up, and milk from various lobes mix together and continue traveling to the nipple, where the liquid can exit the body.” She also shows unique strength at addressing sexuality without squeamishness: “Just as I reached my first postpartum orgasm, breast milk sprayed—and I mean sprayed like a fire hose, not a garden hose, not a gentle trickle from a tap—out of both of my boobs, hitting our pillows, our headboard, and my husband’s face.”

And I very much appreciated Garbes’s perspective as a woman of color, wishing for more passages like the following:

I’ve spent my entire nonpregnant adult life in a body with large brown breasts, a soft, round belly, and plenty of curves—a body I have struggled to see as beautiful, and sometimes even acceptable, in a culture that overwhelmingly celebrates people who are thin and white.

***

It’s a reality many of us have to contend with at some point: that what happens to us at the end of pregnancy and childbirth may look different because we look different from the average white woman.

That’s a lot to like about a book I found incredibly frustrating and difficult to finish. Perhaps at the end of the day, it’s Garbes’s editor with whom I have a bone to pick. Or maybe Like a Mother is specifically for people who have never been pregnant or read other material on the topic. Either way, with the exciting subtitle, “A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy,” I thought the book would soar. Thanks to the wandering nature of that journey, for me, at least, it did not.

[A version of this review originally appeared in Golden Gate Mother’s Group Magazine.]

Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear

When Kim Brooks pulled up to a Target with her son comfortably ensconced in the back seat, buckled and absorbed in an iPad, she wondered: “Why? Why did I have to … drag him inside? It was cool outside, hardly fifty degrees. The parking lot was safe.” The answer is, because in modern America if someone sees you leave your child unattended, even for just minutes, they can make a video and call the police, and the Commonwealth of Virginia can prosecute you for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. They can, and in Brooks’s case, they did. Once the article she wrote analyzing what her experience reveals about parenting these days went viral, Brooks produced Small Animals, a deeper dive into what free-range parenting spokesperson Lenore Skenazy describes as “this huge cultural shift in how we view children, in how we view parenting, in how we view the ability of children to move through the world.”

Small Animals

“[W]e now live in a society where most people believe a child cannot be out of an adult’s sight,” the two agree. In Skenazy’s words, “This idea that a good parent is a parent who watches and manages and meddles and observes ceaselessly … has profound consequences in the lives of parents and children [and it’s] not rooted in any true change or any real danger…. It’s rooted in irrational fear.” Brooks is at her best when establishing the existence of this new reality (e.g., “Unstructured play and outdoor activities for children three to eleven declined nearly 40 percent between the early 1980s and the late 1990s”) and its senselessness (statistically speaking, sugary beverages and riding in a parent’s car present risk to a child’s health orders of magnitude higher than so-called stranger-danger, and yet our attempts to completely eliminate the latter have resulted in skyrocketing rates of maternal and adolescent anxiety).

She also does a lovely job of highlighting the disproportionate impact of the trend on women and low-income families:

It’s one thing to insist children can never be unsupervised to an economically privileged, partnered, professional woman … [but i]n a country that provides no subsidized childcare and no mandatory family leave, no assurance of flexibility in the workplace for employees, no universal preschool or early childhood education, and minimal safety nets or state-subsidized support services to parents and families, it is impossible to make it a crime to take your eyes off your children without also making it a crime to be poor.

***

One of the findings of Barbara Sarnecka’s study on risk assessment and moral judgment, the study in which people were asked to evaluate the danger children were in when left alone under different circumstances – and the moral “wrongness” of the parent who had left them – was that when participants were told a father had left his child for a few minutes to run into work, the level of risk to his child was equal to the risk when he left the child because of circumstances beyond his control (when he was struck unconscious by a car). When a woman was running into work, the moral judgment was closer to the level expressed at her [leaving the child unattended to go] shopping or hav[e] an affair.

***

I realized that my story, unusual as it might seem, had tapped into a common and long-established tradition of mother-shaming, the communal ritual of holding up a woman as a “bad mother,” a symbol on which we can unleash our collective, mother-related anxieties, insecurities, and rage…. Sanctification and public shaming are two sides of the same coin. A culture can’t venerate and idealize the selfless, martyred mother as much as we do without occasionally throwing an agreed-upon bad mommy onto the pyre.

Her attempt to explain how we got here meets with more limited success. Brooks puts her finger on suburbanization and two waves of high-profile, aberrant events: stranger kidnappings in the 1980s and hot-car deaths in the 1990s. She establishes that risk assessment and moral judgment are intertwined (e.g., “I was beginning to understand that it didn’t matter if what I’d done was dangerous or wrong; it only mattered if other parents felt it was dangerous or wrong. When it comes to kids’ safety, feelings were facts, and such ‘facts’ often led to disapproval and judgment.”). But her forays into history disappoint (surely Puritan, Victorian, and Babylonian modes of parenting were not as monolithic as temporal distance and Brooks’s characterization would make them seem).

Throughout, Brooks’s prose is good, but not as tight or moving as I had hoped. Sometimes she seems to be trying too hard to be quotable; at others, there’s almost a careless feel, just getting the job done, originality be damned (e.g., “When you have small children, there are no vacations; there are now only trips”).

And yet, we get glimpses of a brilliantly snarky woman:

It was a familiar dynamic between the two of us, a dynamic that had probably always been present in our relationship but that parenthood had exacerbated and intensified a hundredfold: my caring about a thing, an issue, an obligation or need of our shared family life—my caring what other people thought about us as a family—and his caring less, then my caring about his caring and then his frustration at my agitation about this discrepancy in our caring because really, why did we have to care so much about every small detail?

***

The good mothers I had grown up with were quiet, gentle-mannered Christian women. In the winter, they wore sweaters with reindeer on them. In summer, they wore loose, floral blouses. They wore Mary Kay lipstick and permed their hair and rolled hot dogs in crescent buns on special occasions and deferred to their husbands.

***

I donned the only swimsuit I’d brought with me. It wasn’t exactly a maternity swimsuit, but it wasn’t exactly not a maternity swimsuit.   

As well as a few truly special passages with analysis powered by analogy:

When I was a child, I believed that a wolf lived in the back of my closet, up near the black plastic bags of old clothes…. The wolf was clever and well-spoken, and one day, amused by my pleading, he told me that if I counted to fifty before I fell asleep every night, he would stay in the closet…. I lay in bed tight beneath the covers, counting slowly in my head. It made no sense, but I believed it. I knew that if I counted, I’d be safe. One, two, three, four, I counted every night, all the way to fifty. I never doubted or wavered in my counting. I wanted to be safe.

***

[A fear of flying can be] your quirky little thing and it’s not really other people’s business. But when it comes to this fear about leaving children alone, which is equally irrational and equally not based on data or risk, the fear has become both common custom and law. Everyone is being compelled to share the phobia and if they don’t act like they share it, they are literally subject to litigation. You can be arrested and jailed and your kids can be taken away if you don’t behave in this way that’s demonstrably irrational.

While Small Animals isn’t perfect, the combination of incredibly important subject matter and undeniable bright spots produces a must-read for modern parents who sense that there’s a less fearful, less controlling, less counterproductive way—and even more so for those who don’t.

Amateur Hour: Motherhood in Essays and Swear Words

If you have mommy friends on the interwebs, chances are you’ve clicked on one of Kimberly Harrington’s viral parenting essays: “Job Description for the Dumbest Job Ever” (e.g., “This position manages to be of the utmost importance and yet somehow also the least visible and/or respected in the entire organization”), “I Am the One Woman Who Has It All” (e.g., “I have kids who have forced me to do everything in my life with greater efficiency and the professional assumption that I’m now less efficient after having kids”), “Just What I Wanted, a Whole Twenty-Four Hours of Recognition Once a Year,” “Are You Sure There Isn’t Something Else I Can Do Before the End of the School Year?” and “Please Don’t Get Murdered at School Today.”

Amateur Hour

Amateur Hour contains these satirical social commentaries and more. “Anne-Marie Slaughter Is My Safe Word,” which appears to be original to the book, is one of the most brilliant compositions I’ve ever read. (“Now, I know that [that safe word is] a mouthful, ball-gag puns aside, but I feel like it reflects my beliefs … when it comes to the intersection of work, parenting, and caregiving in general.”) Unlike most compilations that feature one style, Harrington mixes quirky conceptual pieces (the written equivalent of MOMA exhibits) with straight-laced ruminations on grief, aging, and marriage. Many passages spoke to my heart and/or sense of humor deeply; other bits seemed just okay. When the vast bulk of a writer’s material lands though, I tend to give the rest the treatment bestowed off-jokes by a favorite stand-up comedian: I assume someone, somewhere is doubled over.

It doesn’t hurt that Harrington is my kind of girl, an introspective nerd who takes her neuroses less seriously than her punchlines:

Maybe normal people use lists as they’re meant to be used, as a daily reminder of things that should be taken care of somewhat soon. I don’t like to do things that make sense, so I use lists as a way of outlining how theoretically busy I am while also setting myself up for an infinity loop of self-loathing over my failure to get an impossible amount of things done.

***

“But you don’t ever like anything I post on Facebook! You don’t even look at my page!” Those are not the words of a teenager, spitting ridiculous complaints across the room at her best friend or boyfriend. Those are the words of a forty-five-year-old woman, a mother of two, in the middle of a fight with her husband. A fight where the topic was divorce.

***

And before I even know what’s happening, I’m suddenly sharing worries and revealing doubts in a school hallway or on the playground. Even though I know—I know—I should stop talking, I keep trying to bury my openness with more openness. It’s like my own mouth is swallowing me whole.

Nor the way she sprinkles her stories with legitimately helpful parenting advice:

I will not be calling administrators or program directors or HR on your behalf. I will not be smoothing the way for you, although it will be so hard to resist doing just that. I will have to be the elder grown-up here, to not hobble you with my help.

***

When I die, hug each other with force, until no one wants to be the first to let go. I let go first a lot. I can tell you now, I regret it.

Even the Russian judges would be forced to give Harrington’s writing high marks both technically and artistically:

There are the girls in their early teens, with the gangly limbs of children and the growing bodies of women. They romp in the waves not fully realizing the complicated power their bodies possess. They absentmindedly grab their budding breasts to adjust their tops, and I put my head in my hands. They don’t even know. Or maybe they do.

***

I see the skin on my forearm, crinkling like birthday streamers in response to the slightest pressure. That’s the skin of my mother and my grandmother before her. That’s the skin I clearly never planned on having.

At the end of the day, Harrington’s work stands out because the humor she wields as both sword and shield produces more than a sardonic chuckle here and there; it protects and clears the way for the most poignant and penetrating of insights:

This is the year he’s noticing differences and other kids are noticing what’s different about him. And although I know he’s not the only one going through this, he does not.

***

[Mothers] hold ourselves to intense and impossible standards. We, of course, don’t do this alone. Our culture has set the bar so high that it’s hidden in a place where we’ll never find it. And, conversely, the bar for fathers has been set so low they can easily step over it on the way to the bathroom.

Sight: A Novel

I read Jessie Greengrass’s Sight: A Novel just after finishing Sheila Heti’s Motherhood: A Novel. The two books are in many ways similar. Both authors discuss the decision of whether or not to have children and other existential questions in language that can be as cumbersome as it is beautiful. Both try to break up their protagonist’s intense rumination. (Greengrass does so with dalliances into seventeenth-century scientific breakthroughs and the birth of psychoanalysis, which serve the purpose but get a bit repetitive in addressing the mental states of Wilhelm Roentgen and Anna Freud.) Neither book could be described as a page-turner.

sight

In the end, “Sight” appealed to me less, even though Greengrass produced more breathtaking language (e.g., “She was at birth a half-size model of herself, her blueish skin stretched tight across her skull, the line of her vertebrae showing along her back like threaded pearls beneath a cotton sheet”) and gave her narrator the same life path Heti rejected and I chose. (Thanks to Greengrass’s own parenthood, we get vivid descriptions of what mothering is actually like—“I hold my daughter close and sing to her as though I might with such tendernesses obliterate her recollection of all the times I haven’t come quite up to scratch”—rather than Heti’s necessarily less precise imaginings of what it would mean: “On the one hand, the joy of children. On the other hand, the misery of them.”)

Perhaps “Sight” spoke to me less because of this greater specificity, rather than in spite of it. For example, the disconnect could owe to my lack of experience with the grief she writes so stirringly about (“[M]y mother had died when I was in my early twenties, her death so desolating that for months afterwards I had been unable to recognise my unhappiness, mistaking the joyless pall I wore for adulthood’s final arrival: the understanding, come at last, that the world was nothing but what it appeared to be, a hard surface in a cold light” and “I could think only of my own mother, of how her death had seemed like a sudden event slowed down, a single shocking moment that went on for months”). But it could also be that Greengrass’s language is like the fanciest of cakes, less palatable for all its splendor, just a little too much (e.g., “All morning, caught up in the business of appointments, I had forgotten to feel sick, but now it returned, the constant queasy ostinato over which rose exhaustion’s disharmonious cadence, a progression paused before the point of resolution, aching forwards”). I found my eyes frequently glazing over, even occasionally rolling.

That said, there is much in “Sight” to love. As a parent, in particular, the following passages appealed:

“Home from the hospital … we began to count again, not down this time but up, back through days and weeks to months, and still that joy I had been promised didn’t come.”

“When my daughter throws her arms with thoughtless grace around my neck, I respond with an agonising gratitude that I must hide from her in case, feeling the heft of it, she might become encumbered and not do what she was born for, which is to go away from me.”

“Each evening, after our daughter is asleep, surrounded by the chaos made from our once-ordered lives, Johannes and I sit together for half an hour and let our thoughts unwind in silence or in fractured sentences, this ritual proximity an attempt to touch one another across a widening space of tiredness and habit, and although we do not confess, are neither priests nor penitents, still it is a kind of undressing and we are better for it.”

“[T]he complicated interplay between our children and ourselves, the ways we twine about one another, using them as mirrors to our flaws, their reflective plasticity showing us how we must first learn that which we would like to teach: honesty, patience, the capacity to put another first ….”

“I will wonder if this is how it will always be, now, this longing to be elsewhere—the wish when I am with my daughter that I might step apart from her, and when I am apart this anxious echoing, the worry that the world might prove unsound, a counting down to her return …. I wonder what it says about me that I seem to feel love only in absence—that, present, I recognise only irritation, a list of inconveniences, the daily round of washing and child teas, the mundanity of looking after, and beyond this the recollection of what went before and how nice it was to be free ….”

“Johannes was at home, his own life a thread less frayed than mine, his hours contiguous while mine drifted apart.”

Oftentimes, Greengrass’s facility with metaphor left me in awe:

“[O]ne of those long, flat beaches that separate the marshes of East Anglia from the uncompromising sea, places that Johannes and I go to sometimes, early in the autumn when the ground is warm but the air has a chill to it and when, in the late afternoons, the moon hangs like its own ghost in the sky and the reed-beds cast long shadows and everything is dusty, gold, and both of us are pierced, slightly and not unpleasantly, with a nostalgia for something that we have never seen but know, instinctively, that we have lost.”

“She had bought the house, dilapidated then, the year that she turned thirty, shortly after qualifying as a psychoanalyst, and since then she had slowly reworked it, fitting its rooms around herself, until she seemed to sit within it like a stone inside its setting.”

“This diary keeping was, she said, not strictly necessary to the task of self-analysis but it was a methodology which she found useful, a way of holding the mind to task, like the use of a rosary in prayer.”

And yet, I never cared what happened to Greengrass’s narrator or her family members, despite our common ground. I want to love the language in which a story is wrapped, but I want to love the story too.

Motherhood: A Novel

In Motherhood: A Novel, Sheila Heti’s narrator spends most of her pages agonizing over whether or not to have children: “I always came back to this formula: if no one had told me anything about the world, I would have invented … sex, friendships, art … to fulfill real longings in me, but … [child-rearing] wouldn’t have occurred to me as something to do. In fact, it would have sounded like a task to very much avoid.” Her partner helps by adding “that it sort of blows your load, parenting, because it’s the perfect job—it’s very hard but only you can do it.” And yet, she seriously asks whether her problems “would be solved by stuffing my days with childcare, and my heart with my own child.” But if she had children, would it be just “to be admired as the admirable sort of woman who has children”? And if she didn’t, would it owe merely to a contrarian’s “feeling of not wanting to be someone’s idea of me”? It goes on and on.

motherhood

Why would I, a mother of three, allot precious minutes to the story of a woman who ultimately decides that resisting the hormonal urge to have a child “feels as blissful and intimate as having a child” and that writing a novel and having a kid are basically the same thing? Because along the way Heti provides intellectual and emotional fuel, questions and answers sure to stoke the fire of anyone grappling with a big decision—or their own self-concept—and who among us isn’t doing those things?

This is certainly most true with respect to her primary topic. “The childless and the mothers,” Heti writes, have difficulty understanding “what the other has done—when it looks to me like she has been stolen, and when it looks to her like I have stalled. We both look so cowardly and so brave. The other one seems to have everything—and the other one seems to have nothing at all…. [T]here is an exact equivalence and an equality, equal in emptiness and equal in fullness, equal in experiences had and equal in experiences lost.” Even so, “[t]here is a kind of sadness in not wanting the things that give so many other people their life’s meaning.”

“I don’t want ‘not a mother’ to be part of who I am—for my identity to be the negative of someone else’s positive identity…. I want a word that is utterly independent of the task of child-rearing…. But how do you describe the absence of something? If I refuse to play soccer, is my not playing soccer an experience of playing soccer? My lack of the experience of motherhood is not an experience of motherhood. Or is it? Can I call it a motherhood, too?”

And then there’s my very favorite passage: “Sometimes I feel it would be so easy to have Miles’s baby—his flesh inside mine, his skin so nicely scented, so clean, so smooth; that brain, that heart, mixed with mine. When I described this to Erica, she said, You’re not describing wanting his child in you. You’re describing wanting his c*^k. I saw it was true: when I imagine being pregnant, it’s more like the feeling of something lodged inside me—so big, so deep, and feeling so good. I suppose it wouldn’t be like that. Then do I really want a child, or do I just want more of him?”

As you can see, Heti’s writing is as brilliant and piercing as it is brooding and labored. Hers is a literary endeavor, as evidenced by the coin-flipping mechanism she uses to break up her protagonist’s ruminations, as well as her equally incisive commentary on the subjects of depression (“a tall, thick wall between myself and the world, a wall that had prevented me from seeing, while giving me the impression that I was truly seeing”), the parent-child relationship (“That is the way I have always felt: helplessly wrong, and so desperate to live as a person beyond criticism, whatever that might mean; to prove that I was better than any of the ways she saw me, to do one thing she might admire”), decision-making (“I understand that fear beckons to a person as much as possibility does, and even more strongly”), patriarchy (“Only when a woman is no longer attractive to men, can she be left alone for enough moments to actually think”), and hormones (“Tears and more tears this morning. Not actually crying, but the feeling of wanting to cry.).

“Pain is not imaginary,” Heti’s narrator says: “Those who skip town do not escape it, and those who skip between lovers do not. Drinking is no escape; gratitude lists are not.” At first I thought I tolerated her characters’ more controversial remarks (e.g., “Of course raising children is a lot of hard work, but I don’t see why it’s supposed to be so virtuous to do work that you created for yourself out of purely your own self-interest”), but upon reflection, I appreciated them.

A page-turner “Motherhood” is not, and yet, I found myself committed to turning over the probing thoughts on each of its pages, coming out clearer and lighter, despite its heaviness of subject matter, language, and tone. Heti’s words are an invitation for growth, and isn’t that what motherhood is really all about?