Women’s Work: A Reckoning with Work and Home

Megan K. Stack’s “private problems are no doubt duplicated in households all over our planet. And yet housework is seldom considered as a serious subject for study, or even discussion.” This, writes the Betty Friedan of our generation, “is an injustice on a grand scale.”

Women's Work

Women’s Work is not just about housework. Equal parts memoir and manifesto, the book uses the stories of four women who “stumbled through a house that was also a job site” to tackle motherhood, marriage, and other tidy, manageable topics like exploitation, poverty, gender, and the human condition. “Our routines were disrupted by pregnancies, abortions, miscarriages, weddings, domestic violence, funerals, sick children, and school fees. Mine, theirs. The stuff of women the world over. We lived together in the space left by men who were temporarily elsewhere.”

It is a beautiful, horrifying reflection of domesticity rendered in prose that’s just the right amount stark and ornate in turn. “Imagine you are so tired your face feels like permanent putty and you cry at the slightest provocation and, in general, you are about as raw and crumbly as the flesh of a pale white mushroom with its skin rubbed away,” Stack writes, putting words to a state known intimately to sleep-deprived parents the world over. Some of them will also be familiar with the woman described by an unflinchingly introspective Stack: “I lived in terror of waking the baby, and I shared this terror with deliverymen, houseguests, and anybody else who made the strategic error of existing in the vicinity of my sleeping child.”

Descriptions like these are where any analysis of Women’s Work must begin. “Crescent stains of fatigue hung below her eyes,” she writes. “On those long afternoons of early summer, when our rooms steamed and thickened in the slanting sun, Pooja’s sadness hung like laundry that wouldn’t dry,” she writes. She writes of “anger so hot it could sterilize a wound” and a husband “dragging his eyes from his computer with the air of a disgruntled student forcing himself to contribute to class discussion for the sake of his final grade.” She writes, and I see and feel.

I haven’t hired full-time help like Stack, just a babysitter a few hours a week and once every two someone to clean. And yet, I recognize myself and my experience in her words. I too “assumed that, to the extent that our lives would be exploded [by having children], the disruption would be evenly shared.” My family also slipped into a troubling status quo: “It began with biology—I’d been pregnant, then breastfeeding. I’d been a physical necessity, which had been a role of exquisite privilege and total destruction. And somehow my rarified status stayed unchanged even as the babies grew. The habits we’d all adopted—my centrality, the children’s dependence, [my husband’s] slight remove—had stuck.” 

Those parts of her story that didn’t bring my own past emotions rushing back still resonated deeply thanks to Stack’s ability to tell a story both evocatively and self-critically: “I didn’t even know her full name, and I don’t think she knew mine. She called me Excuse Me.” Of a housekeeper who became pregnant, Stack says: “I promised myself I would not pressure her to add to her load, and I didn’t. At least, I don’t think I did. The best I can say for myself is, I could have been worse, and she wasn’t expecting anything better.” Of the entire endeavor, she writes: “I had loved Xiao Li, and she had loved my baby. To write about her was to walk an uncertain line between exploitation and truth.”

In only a few places did this self-awareness seem to falter. “She had to work long days in my rooms, fine, but she wouldn’t let me congratulate myself as her benefactor,” Stack writes, and I cringed. (Though that may very well have been the point, as Stack repeatedly offers herself up as an effigy of white privilege.) I also found something indelicate about how Stack describes her employees’ offspring: “The children of Mary and Pooja and Xiao Li had to trade like grown-ups, and their trade was the most brutal of all: they got money, but they grew up without mothers.” On the one hand, she again acknowledges her privilege and its cost to others. On the other, the critique is firmly grounded in the American nuclear family model.

I also got the feeling Stack lost steam a little near the end, with the penultimate portion of the book less finely crafted than the rest, but these minor criticisms are offered in the manner of a diamond jeweler whose job it is to find flaws amid overwhelming brilliance. Not many people can write like Stack. Not many can step outside themselves and think like her. The two strengths together produce a must-read not just for mothers, but for anyone who has a household or who benefits from others’ leaving theirs, which is to say, everyone.

The following quotes both explain why that’s so and provide a feel for Stack’s style: 

The cold reality of my gender was dawning on me. I’d known enough, already, about harassment and domestic violence and pay differentials and the incessant, exhausting focus on how you look and laugh and talk. But it had all been basically manageable—not ideal, certainly, even enraging, but navigable—right up until the baby came. It was motherhood that forced me to understand the timeless horror of our position. The obvious, hidden-in-plain-sight reason women had not written novels or commanded armies or banked or doctored or explored or painted at the same rate as men. The cause was not, as I had been led to believe, that women had been prevented from working. Quite the opposite: we had been doing all of the work, around the clock, for centuries. 

***

[My husband and I] fought because we were both exhausted and secretly convinced the other one had the better end of the deal. We fought because we were neurotically careful not to fight in front of the baby, and that meant we almost never got a chance to fight at all, and by the time we fought the annoyances had fermented to a potency that obscured altogether their original cause. We fought because we used to baby each other and now nobody got babied but the baby. As for me, I fought because I was reeling in shock, and because Tom was hardly there at all. He had slipped easily back into his old life while I had been bombed back to some prehistoric version of myself. And I was angry that he had accepted this superior position, this lesser disruption, as a sort of birthright. And so I fought with his absence. 

***

I made no effort to discover whether her lifestyle was a grand adventure or heartbreaking drudgery, or some combination of the two. Those questions lined themselves up in my thoughts, but I left them silent. They lit too starkly the discrepancy in our positions. That I had money and would not have to leave my baby behind. That she was poor, she had not been educated, she didn’t have choices. I had the vague idea that my silence was magnanimous. I told myself I was sparing her from embarrassment. It hadn’t occurred to me yet that I was the one being spared…. If I found out too much, if the facts were too grim, then I might conclude that my domestic arrangement was fundamentally unfair. That was my formless and underlying fear: that if I understood too much, I might have to rip apart the status quo. I could either drown or I could wear Xiao Li as a life vest. There was no third choice. 

***

I’d given my time to Tom, so that he could rush off to the office that very first morning and every morning thereafter. I’d given my time to Max, who was scared and unsettled and needed a parent down through the hours…. Every outgrown pair of shoes, trip to the dentist, or preschool obligation—any crisis or errand affecting anybody in the family—inevitably devoured another chunk of writing time…. My time had been used as capital. It had been invested in the family future to improve our collective position. I paid slices of time; I paid life; maybe I paid brain cells, or a book or two. I paid and it’s gone. My babies are beautiful; my heart is whole; I’m not asking for a refund. Still it does not escape my attention that I paid in time. There is a lingering expectation that men will pay in money. But when it comes to time, it is almost always the woman who pays. And money is one thing, but time is life, and life is more. 

***

I’d already cataloged the downside of depending upon impoverished women, but never had the limitations of employment in my house been more obvious. Just as Mary was not a day care and couldn’t guarantee a steady flow of childcare, I was not a company and couldn’t offer benefits and insurance and broader social protection….  That’s why ad hoc domestic labor is, ultimately, a bunk system. It’s a jerry-rigged, flaw-riddled compromise that will never live up to its promise of upward mobility for one woman and personalized childcare for another. 

***

Tears filmed my eyes. I was deliberately manipulating Mary. I was also speaking with unfiltered honesty. Both were true, both at once. I was showing Mary my buried fears, but I was doing it strategically. I wanted to leverage my vulnerability to make her more trustworthy. 

***

These women migrant workers are crucial because they solve a conundrum: middle-class and wealthy women demand a place in the job market—or at least a measure of leisure time commensurate with their social ranking—but their male partners don’t want to do more housework…. This model for women’s emancipation depends, itself, upon a permanent underclass of impoverished women. But of course these stories are not only about women—they also scream the reality of men who manage to duck not only the labor itself, but the surrounding guilt and recrimination. All those well-meaning men who say progressive things in public and then retreat into private to coast blissfully on the disproportionate toil of women. In the end, the answer is the men. They have to do the work. They have to do the damn work! Why do we tie ourselves in knots to avoid saying this one simple truth? It’s a daily and repetitive and eternal truth, and it’s a dangerous truth, because if we press this point we can blow our households to pieces, we can take our families apart, we can spoil our great love affairs. This demand is enough to destroy almost everything we hold dear. So we shut up and do the work. No single task is ever worth the argument. Scrub a toilet, wash a few dishes, respond to the note from the teacher, talk to another mother, buy the supplies. Don’t make a big deal out of everything. Don’t make a big deal out of anything. Never mind that, writ large, all these minor chores are the reason we remain stuck in this depressing hole of pointless conversations and stifled accomplishment. Never mind that we are still, after all these waves of feminism and intramural arguments among the various strains of womanhood, treated like a natural resource that can be guiltlessly plundered. Never mind that the kids are watching. If you mind you might go crazy. Cooking and cleaning and childcare are everything. They are the ultimate truth. They underpin and enable everything we do. The perpetual allocation of this most crucial and inevitable work along gender lines sets up women for failure and men for success.

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Two Homes, One Childhood: A Parenting Plan to Last a Lifetime

Bob Emery is a psychologist, researcher, professor, and mediator who has lived and breathed divorce for decades. In Two Homes, One Childhood, he speaks to every divorced parent’s deepest fears (“Is your child’s challenging behavior part of normal development or a sign of something deeper, perhaps owing to the upheaval of your divorce?”) and hopes (“Children shouldn’t be defined by divorce…. And you can make sure that doesn’t happen.”). The insights gained from his professional roles are deepened by personal experience. (He recently grabbed drinks with his ex-wife to celebrate the arrival of their grandchild.) He knows firsthand how difficult it is to construct a parenting plan that “grows and changes along with the developing needs of children”—and how essential. 

Two Homes

Emery’s tone is clear and steady with no beautiful turns of phrase but nothing to trip the reader up either. My one complaint in terms of style is the repetition, both on the sentence level and between chapters geared to different ages. Emery says, “I do this for a few reasons. I know some readers will skip around, so I raise a few key issues repeatedly so no one will miss them. I also repeat myself some, because, well, some things bear repeating.” Fair enough, but it can still grate for a cover-to-cover reader. 

Two Homes nonetheless adds substantial value by synthesizing nuanced research and offering both big picture recommendations and tips and tricks to get there. “Here is what your children need,” Emery summarizes: “a good relationship with at least one authoritative parent, that is, a parent who is both loving and firm with discipline” and “low levels of conflict between parents.” A second high-quality parental relationship is ideal, but not as important as not “living in the middle of a war zone between two parents.” When it comes to the nitty gritty, Emery is blunt: Be the adult. Shield the kids. Do your job.

With the long lens that comes with age and an academic background, Emery reminds readers that marriage is what demographers call “an incomplete institution,” one that is still evolving. So too are best practices for raising kids together outside of marriage. We know some do’s. We know some don’t’s. Emery folds them together to establish a psychological compass to help us navigate the gray areas.

Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to Preschool

Parents these days are inundated with advice—on everything from breastfeeding to sleep training, from childcare to screentime—almost all of it purportedly evidence-based. Who better to sort the wheat from the chaff than Emily Oster, an economist who distinguishes “the good studies from the less-good ones” for a living? She did just that in Expecting Better, a book about pregnancy that, like Cribsheet, leads with the following premise: No expert, even Oster, can tell you what’s right for your family in most instances. Instead, she summarizes what high-quality science reveals about the risks and rewards attendant to any given choice, and describes a way of weighing those pros and cons in combination with your own preferences. “The data is the same for us all, but the decisions are yours alone,” she reminds.

Cribsheet

Here’s an example of how that goes in the context of having your baby sleep in your bed: 

The finding that co-sleeping carries a small risk even if done as safely as possible is largely consistent across studies…. Among families with no other risk factors, roughly 7,100 of them would have to avoid co-sleeping to prevent one death….

[S]ince the data suggests that there is some risk to sharing the bed, and possibly also to having your child sleep in their own room, we may conclude the absolute safest thing is to have your child sleep in your room in their own bed for these first few months. 

Yet this setup may not work for your family. Let’s imagine that your preference is to share your bed with your infant—maybe you think it will be easier to breastfeed, or you simply want to have the baby close. 

If this is the case, there is a strong temptation to dismiss the evidence on risk. It is easy to find parenting sources that point to one study that doesn’t show significant impacts of bed sharing and say it proves there is no risk. This is not a rational way to make this decision. If you want to do this right, you need to confront the idea of risk, think about how to make it smaller (if you can), and then think about whether the (minimized) risk is one you are willing to take…. 

[T]he evidence suggests that bed sharing [for sober nonsmokers with full-term infants] increases the risk of death by 0.14 per 1,000 births. The death rate from car accidents in the first year of life is around 0.2 per 1,000 live births. The bed-sharing risk is therefore a real one, but it is smaller than some of the risks you are likely taking regularly. 

Now, that excerpt might leave you thinking Cribsheet is exceptionally dry, and it is, but not in the bad way. Oster writes with precision and an almost British wit, a style that truly delights once one gets used to it: “In the first days and weeks after your baby arrives, you will experience a wave of hormones. Most women find they are emotionally sensitive during this period. This is not, for example, the time to watch the first fourteen minutes of the movie Up.” Here’s another taste: “One trial shows some benefit of something called gua sha therapy, which involves scraping the skin to produce light bruising. Gwyneth Paltrow swears by this, so take what you will from that.”

Wry and understated is not the norm for parenting books, nor is Oster’s awareness of—and comfort with—her own neuroses, something more reminiscent of David Sedaris or Jenny Lawson (e.g., “I have many notes from the first months of Penelope’s life about her rolling ability (very early rolling to the left, but poor rolling to the right)”). The resulting tone strikes just the right balance for a brilliant person seeking to communicate effectively with the masses: “There is another type of evidence, one that you see a lot on the internet. I’d refer to this as … ‘it happened once to my friend’ evidence. You know: ‘My friend didn’t vaccinate, and her kid is super healthy!’ Here is what we learn from this: nothing.”

Cribsheet is also exceedingly well-organized, complete with a “Bottom Line” synopsis at the end of each chapter.

That’s not to say the book is flawless. Oster sets out to provide “a basic, data-derived map of the big issues that come up in the first three years of being a parent,” but her success is necessarily confined by a few limitations: (1) research constantly evolves and she has access only to that which has been published as of her release date (data that came out after Expecting Better called one of its core conclusions into question), (2) the extent to which her methodology is the right one (figures in the field of public health have criticized her for examining studies using an economist’s eye rather than their own set of standards), and (3) her ability to dig up all relevant information. I’ll focus on the third of these here.

Oster acknowledges that “the problems get more varied as kids get older, and much less amenable to data analysis.” But she still chooses to tackle toddler discipline, and there she falls short. To explain how, it’s important to look at a topic she nails: TV watching. Oster takes what she calls “a Bayesian approach,” incorporating logical reasoning based on background knowledge about how the world works when existing data doesn’t paint a full picture:

There are only thirteen or so waking hours in the day for kids. If they spend eight of those hours watching TV, there is not enough time to do pretty much anything else. It seems very unlikely that this won’t have some negative impacts. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine that watching an hour a week of Sesame Street or Dora the Explorer will lower your child’s IQ, or have much of any effect on them in the long run. You can subject the iPad to similar logic. A two-year-old who is on an iPad all day: likely bad. A half hour of math games twice a week: probably not bad.

Finally, our intuitions should be informed by the economic idea of “opportunity cost of time.” If a child is watching TV, they are not doing something else. Depending on what that “something else” is, TV watching may be better or worse. Many studies of this emphasize that (for example) your kid can learn letters or vocabulary from Sesame Street, but they are better at learning those things from you. That’s almost certainly true, but … [i]f the alternative to an hour of TV is [instead] a frantic and unhappy parent yelling at their kid for an hour, there is good reason to think the TV might actually be better.

Here, Oster trounces other commentators on screentime, using fair inferences and arguments waged on both sides of the debate to reason toward a likely ideal: low screentime with a high-value alternative activity. Only after that step does she bring reality into the calculus.

But when it comes to discipline, Oster fails to do this. She profiles several “rewards and punishments” programs and concludes that they “have been shown to improve children’s behavior,” without factoring in possible externalities of inducing compliance in this fashion. Many parenting commentators point to social science research on fostering intrinsic motivation, independence, and healthy self-image, and say using natural consequences rather than punishment produces desirable behavior without undermining autonomy and trust. Oster takes the opposing view as a given: “[K]ids … need to be punished sometimes.” Stickers, M&M’s, and time-outs have also been called into question by child development experts as means of control that backfire in the long run, but she refers to the practices unquestioningly. (Contrast Oster’s treatment of baby-led weaning which catalogues many of the theories cited by proponents and opponents of the practice prior to concluding that the data is inconclusive.) She rounds out the section by saying spanking has been shown to be counterproductive “so if hitting is the alternative, then one of these programs is probably worth a try,” but it’s unclear why that would be the bar.

There are other blind spots. The section on crying, for example, doesn’t state that some babies do so because they need medical attention. To be fair, this isn’t just Oster’s problem. Lots of parenting commentary meant to calm can lead parents of sick babies to try to tough it out at home for too long.

That said, stress reduction is one of Cribsheet’s great strengths. “There are lines you shouldn’t cross with young children,” she writes: “but there are many more gray areas.” Making it clear that there’s often no one right way to do things is likely to diminish new parents’ anxiety considerably. Conversely, so too can definitive, unequivocal advice like the following: 

  • Your toddler or young child does not generally need a multivitamin.
  • Although antidepressants are passed through breast milk, there is no evidence of adverse consequences.
  • Despite the warnings, there is simply no evidence that the use of pacifiers impacts breastfeeding success. 
  • There is no need to pump and dump
  • Across virtually all studies of sleep location, the one thing that jumps out as really, really risky is babies sharing a sofa with an adult.

In Cribsheet, Oster offers all this and much, much more—like debunking the “no sex until six weeks postpartum” thing, a rule she says “appears to have been invented by doctors so husbands wouldn’t ask for sex.” You might want to wait, deciding that dealing with the vaginal dryness caused by breastfeeding (an Oster fact) is a burden not fully mitigated by the risk of a decline in marital happiness from less sex (a second Oster fact). “Not everyone is going to make the same decisions,” she says, “and that’s okay.” 

It’s also okay to both point out Cribsheet‘s limitations and call it a job exceptionally well done.

Co-parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households after Divorce

After becoming “the poster children for divorce” in their community, Deesha Philyaw and Michael D. Thomas started the blog Co-Parenting 101 “to provide a place for cooperative co-parents to share their stories so that others might be encouraged, and to challenge the stereotype of the always-messy divorce.” Their streamlined paperback presents the wealth of information the two acquired in a well-organized format and authoritative-yet-conversational tone that makes it easy to read and relate (e.g., “You can’t commit to honoring your child’s relationship with the other parent and commit to punishing that parent forever at the same time. Guess which ‘commitment’ has to go.”).

CoParenting101

After demonstrating the benefits of successful co-parenting to both adults (less depression, grief, anger, and money lost to legal fees) and children (lower rates of attachment issues, depression, teen pregnancy, behavioral problems, suicide, drug abuse, poor academic performance, school dropout, and delinquency), they offer “do” and “don’t” lists that lead the way to “civility, compromise, and cooperation.” 

DO: “Vent about your ex only when your children aren’t around” and “insist that family and friends also refrain from bad-mouthing your ex.” DON’T: “Burden your children with details about money and other problems related to the breakup.” DO: Take the high road. (Spoiler alert: It pays dividends for you as well as the kids.) DON’T: “Indulge children with gifts or by being overly permissive in an effort to ‘make up for’ the divorce or assuage [you]r guilt about it.” DO: Let your child know they are “free to love both parents openly” by being positive and interested when they talk about time with the other parent. DON’T: “Treat your child like a confidante, counselor, or fellow ‘victim.’” DO: “Recognize that during his parenting time, it’s his house, his rules, his way.” DON’T: Implicitly or explicitly ask children to agree that divorce was the right call. DO: “Put on your game face, cry in the car after your child has left, do whatever you need to do to hold it together so that your child is truly free—emotionally free—to go with the other parent and enjoy herself.” The lists go on.

Philyaw and Thomas also cover the basics of different legal mechanisms (mediation, collaborative divorce, litigation) as well as the various schedule options and other logistics. But their strength lies in encouraging self-regulation and acceptance of a bottomline that should be familiar to parents, happily married or not: “There will be times when you’re called upon to be uncomfortable or shoulder a burden so that your children don’t have to.”

In part, they do it through modeling. Philyaw and Thomas live on the same street. They have always invited one another inside for transitions to give their girls a feeling of ease, even in the years when that was emotionally rough for the grownups. Though both have since remarried, they all spend Christmas Eve and day together. They sit together at school and extracurricular events. The “whole family—children, spouses, and stepchildren—socializes from time to time and goes on annual vacation.” Most kids, they say, “dream about their parents getting back together, and having their parents get along is almost as good…. Kids want reassurance that even though the family they have known is breaking up, they are still part of a family.”

Throughout the book’s pages pro-tips are sprinkled, little practical gems derived from collective experience that facilitate bigger principles. If you can afford it, buy two of all but the most expensive things your child owns so they don’t have to lug bags and both houses feel like home. Set up a staging area like Philyaw’s “Dad Basket” to keep artwork, forms to sign, and other things headed for the other parent as a physical manifestation of ongoing cooperation. Find humor in the hard moments. And remember, “it’s never too late to commit to improving your co-parenting situation.”

We Got This: Solo Mom Stories of Grit, Heart, and Humor

In We Got This, editors Marika Lindholm, Cheryl Dumesnil, Domenica Ruta, and Katherine Shonk share the quotes, poems, and short stories of more than 75 individuals impacted by solo parenting. Like most anthologies, the result is both hit and miss. That said, there’s quite a bit of hit.

We got this

The book is packed with relatable moments and contains some truly evocative prose. “His presence was like an imaginary door that he swung open and closed,” writes Terri Linton. Along similar lines, Melissa Stephenson lists rarely shared details of parenting in the shadow of an absentee: “How there is no one to help them buy me presents on holidays, so they make them in secret after bedtime. How we spend those holidays alone, all the friends we call family busy spending time with their real families. How when their father last visited, my son smiled and said, ‘Now everyone at school will know my dad is real.’” 

The editors include work of their own. Dr. Lindholm, who founded ESME.com, the solo parenting website on which several of the book’s essays originally appeared, writes: “[M]y daughter’s walls, sheets, blankets, and pillows were festooned with purple and pink butterflies. The tiny blue parakeet, which I purchased at PetSmart after a particularly devastating mediation session during which her father accused me of destroying his life, was my latest nod to Ella’s obsession and my bottomless guilt.” Co-editor Cheryl Dumesnil also speaks to the experience of a dissolved union: “My marriage broke, irreparably, years before it ended. I had done my level best to create a healthy life for myself and the kids, despite the brokenness, hoping someday, eventually, maybe my ex and I could fix it. This was a lot like trying to live a fulfilling life while a shark is eating your leg.”

Short quotations break things up along the way, quotes such as Nina Simone’s “You have to learn to get up from the table when love is no longer being served” and Katie Couric’s “You don’t have the bad cop when you’re the good cop and when you’re the good cop you don’t have the bad cop; you’re like the whole police force in your family.” Also lending the compendium a carefully punctuated flow is its intersectionality: the reader hears disparate voices, including many from backgrounds that rarely receive representation in the mainstream media. 

All of these bits contribute to make We Got This a generally worthwhile endeavor to produce, but its highest value to readers lies in a handful of truly stunning works. “Tahlequah” by Isa Down, “When He Died” by Robin Rogers, “It Will Look Like a Sunset” by Kelly Sundberg, “All Manner of Obscene Things” by Kim Addonizio, and “Deconstructing Kanji” by Mika Yamamoto each left me unable to pull out one or two glistening lines, the whole lot skillfully crafted and heartbreakingly relatable.

“Grey Street” by Angela Ricketts falls in this category too, but the imagery of “[o]ne ugly green Croc lying by the door” as she heads to the hospital with a bare foot and a myocardial infarction bears repeating. So too does the following: “My left shoulder pangs and I grip the wall without a sound. Just my palm on the ugly wall. For years the army painted the inside of our homes chalky white; then they decided to get all snazzy with the neutral tones.” The same thing goes for “Size Queen” by Evie Peck, hands down the funniest part of We Got This (sorry, Amy Poehler). “I went through the stages of rejection: anger, denial, disgust, hunger, Botox brochures,” Peck writes, later confessing, “It was weird sexting at my son’s game, but I was snack mom today, so I’d redeem myself later.” Several other zingers can’t be appreciated out of context.

And I can’t not mention the excerpt from Anne Lamott’s bestseller Operating Instructions and Ylonda Gault’s wildly popular New York Times essay “Why I Don’t Grieve for My Daughter at College” (“Privilege takes many forms. I can only assume that the legions of parents who spent this fall up in their feelings over their babies’ departures have led lives very different from my own.”). 

Again, not all the material landed for me. Nor will it for you. But We Got This offers the promise that some combination of its many words will deeply insinuate itself, making you think and feel about what it means to be a solo parent, regardless of whether you are one yourself.

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.

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

UPDATE: After reading another of Wednesday Martin’s books on a topic with which I have more baseline familiarity, I’m inclined to believe the harsh criticism of Untrue levied by other reviewers whose science chops are far more extensive than mine (I stopped with AP Biology). As my original review indicates, Martin acknowledges that she cherry-picks certain studies that support her personal view. I found that style forgivable when I didn’t realize that her selectiveness skirts the boundaries of deceipt, and that Martin’s statements on social media extend the claims of the book beyond what even its text supports. One commenter told me “some basic points like women’s desires from self attraction to ‘foreplay’ are necessary but also made in countless other books; everything that makes this book unique is deeply flawed and misleading.” While that is seeming more and more likely to be true, I’m leaving my review up for the same reason I’d read the book again knowing what I now know: Many of the “basic” points mentioned below are only basic to some; others will still benefit from having them collected. That said, I highly recommend readers of the book also read the considerable body of negative commentary that accompanied its release.

—————————–

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.