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.

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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?

The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives

Bill Stixrud and Ned Johnson picked the perfect subtitle for The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives. The book presents data and theory from fields such as neuroscience and psychology in support of the proposition that “you should think of yourself as a consultant to your kids rather than their boss or manager,” and then follows through with loads of practical advice on what, exactly, a more hands-off approach looks like.

selfdriven child

As a clinical neuropsychologist and a tutoring company founder, respectively, the authors work with both perfectionists and kids who “don’t seem to care about anything.” They’ve found that those at both ends of the motivation spectrum “suffer from a low sense of control” which is “enormously stressful.” The antidote? Giving your young child space to “practice managing and taking nonlethal risks.” Only by experiencing “the natural consequences of their choices, ranging from being uncomfortably cold when they decided not to wear a coat, to getting a bad grade on a test because they decided not to study,” will “her brain build the circuits that are necessary for resilience in the face of stress.” Going the other way, with sticker charts “and other forms of parental monitoring,” the authors say, creates “kids who must then constantly be pushed because their own internal motivation has either not developed or has been eroded by external pressure.”

Let kids be bored. “Ask your child if there are things he feels he’d like to be in charge of that he currently isn’t.” Explain the reasons behind a request “and then allow[] as much personal freedom as possible in carrying out the task.” Make sure your child knows “that he is responsible for his own education.” Try to say—and say and say and say—“It’s your call.” But don’t “let go of all restrictions and rules.” Join with your kids in setting parameters “and let them work within them,” knowing that you’re there to offer counsel.

It’s good stuff, the writing is tight enough, and the authors offer up a few stellar explanations (e.g., “Today, we think about the long-term consequences of concussions: ‘Yeah, he looks okay now, but too many more of those and he’s not going to remember his kids’ names.’ We think stress should be talked about in this way, too.”), but the text lacks the artistry or narrative element needed to shake that eating-of-the-vegetables vibe. A second flaw lies in statements such as “Girls are generally more interested by—and more consistently motivated to achieve in—school” and “Girls generally have more empathy.” Drawing distinctions without citing solid empirical evidence of their existence, analyzing just how significant any differences are, and nodding to socialization as a possible sole cause simply is not acceptable in light of modern neuroscience and social science research on pre-pubertal gender differences, and the inclusion of these statements makes me doubt the authors’ other assertions.

Putting those concerns to the side, Stixrud and Johnson truly offer a wealth of information, albeit with the specifics mostly angled toward older children. The key ingredients for motivation, they say, are (1) the right mindset; (2) a feeling of autonomy, competence, and relatedness; (3) the optimal level of dopamine; and (4) flow. Then they offer “empowering mental strategies” for getting the recipe right, “like planning ahead and visualizing goals … or thinking of what you will do if what you want doesn’t come through.” They suggest teaching kids that replacing “I have to” with “I want to” or “I’m choosing to” increases their odds of success. It also helps to “avoid catastrophizing” by thinking, “This is annoying but it’s not awful,” or “This is a setback but it’s not a disaster.” Tests too are about mindset: “Look to conquer, rather than survive,” they counsel. Focus on strengths.

Increasing downtime, meditation, sleep, and movement are all more standard suggestions than my favorite piece of advice, one I’ve already used with my nine-year-old who tends to engage in “negative self-talk.” When she called herself “stupid, stupid, stupid” for misplacing a folder, I used the authors’ words: “Imagine if we were on a softball team together. A routine ground ball is hit right at me, but goes between my legs. What would you say? Probably something like, ‘It’s all right. You’ll get the next one.’” Offer yourself the understanding you’d give your best friend, I told her, getting my money and time’s worth from The Self-Driven Child in that little gem alone.

The Good News About Bad Behavior: Why Kids Are Less Disciplined Than Ever-And What to Do About It

Lots of people write about education, and parenting books proliferate, but rarely do the twain meet. That’s true despite substantial overlap in both underlying principle (such as the neuroscientific and psychological findings that tell us how kids’ minds work) and practical best practices. In The Good News About Bad Behavior, Katherine Reynolds Lewis offers evidence of a dramatic shift in recent decades in children’s ability to control their behavior—and a road map for what parents and schools ought to do about it.

The Good News

Overscheduling and hovering already “undermine the development of the very traits that children need to become self-disciplined.” (“Anytime you do something for children that they can do for themselves, you’re stealing the opportunity for them to feel more capable,” Reynolds Lewis writes, explaining why adults who want to inspire confidence and competence in kids need to move away from “a focus on academics and testing [that pushes] recess and play out of the school day” and adult-managed extracurricular activities, homework, and play dates—and shift instead toward more unscheduled time with opportunities to play, “experience the consequences of risk,” and “learn to tolerate moderate amounts of stress.”) 

When adults respond to undesirable behavior by “cracking down” or turning to coercive tactics such as time-outs, counting to three, sticker charts, ice cream prizes, and clip charts, they further restrict the autonomy required to produce resilience, which in turn leads to more undesirable behavior. Parents and teachers need to reframe misbehavior, she says, treating it not as willful disobedience that requires squelching, but as “a clue to a puzzle that can only be solved with the child’s engaged cooperation.”

What does that mean in practice? Respond first by connecting with the child, then communicating about the problem, and ultimately helping boost capability “by coaching them on both practical and social and emotional skills.” This three-step process lays the foundation for what Reynolds Lewis dubs the “Apprenticeship Model”: Backing off and giving kids responsibility within a framework of consequences agreed upon by parent and child in advance. Tolerating “a fair amount of chaos and includ[ing] our kids’ input in decisions,” but holding firm boundaries is her basic blueprint for effectively setting limits.

The specifics can get a little overwhelming. Reynolds profiles four alternative discipline frameworks (two targeted at parents and two at schools) that mesh well with the Apprenticeship Model: (1) “Adlerian parenting,” the method she learned through the PEPS parent-education (and support group) organization that focuses on reflective listening (“restating what you believe you heard and asking for confirmation or clarification”), respectful language, and housework, among other things; (2) “Duct Tape Parenting” which counsels parents to resist the impulse to comment on behavior (“The thing that happened is, when my mouth went quiet, their brains flipped on,” the method’s guru apparently said); (3) Ross Greene’s model of collaborative and proactive solutions for schools (“Under his philosophy, you’d no more punish a child for lashing out in class or jumping out of his seat repeatedly than you would if he bombed a spelling test”); and (4) the PAX Good Behavior Game, where a class agrees on a list of desired behaviors and then rewards the small teams that exhibit them with silly physical activities.

Reynolds Lewis expects different bits to resonate with different readers, ultimately leaving each with “a patchwork of strategies,” and to that end offers up even more detailed guidance. She hits the major tenets of the positive parenting movement (e.g., special time, mindfulness, family meetings, “when-then” statements, the strengths-based approach, “say what you see,” using words to name big feelings, and “catch them being good”), but then goes further to address the specifics of “healthy eating, self-care, the morning routine, homework, chores, screen time, sibling fights, and taking responsibility for belongings.” Favorite approaches that I wasn’t familiar with include using the phrase “Would you be willing to,” avoiding emotional manipulation by responding “the way a nonrelative would,” the “mumble and walk away technique,” and realizing that when a child hits someone but claims it was an accident, it might very well have felt like an accident to her, big emotions having high-jacked her brain.

As someone who writes about both parenting and education, I expected to be disappointed by The Good News About Bad Behavior. The topic seemed too ambitious, and I expected a disjointed and/or overly personal account. I was pleasantly surprised: Reynolds Lewis almost pulls it off flawlessly. Throughout the book, she utilizes the neuroscience findings she imparts, smoothly transitioning from engaging story to research and back again at the intervals ideal for sustaining human attention. She also maintains a tone that’s relatable as well as knowledgeable, handing out both mea culpas on her own missteps as a parent and research-backed conclusions like they’re candy and it’s Halloween (e.g., “When I first started relying on consequences instead of punishment, my tone of voice was often blaming and I sometimes rubbed in the lesson”). This, plus her pragmatic approach (e.g., “Certainly, you can’t parent a child without some kind of critical feedback”), defused my knee-jerk defensiveness and allowed me to see myself in descriptions like the following: “Authoritative parents-in-training often resist imposing their will on children until the moment when the whining or the messy house pushes them over the edge. Then they fall back on the authoritarian tones embedded in our collective memories.”

And yet, despite each chapter’s readability, there’s a breakdown in organization (particularly near the end where too many competing conclusions sit stacked). It’s unclear how one can effectively harness the wealth of information presented. In a sense, Reynolds Lewis falls victim to her own success in the comprehensiveness department.

That said, she makes a forceful argument for using the Apprenticeship Model in homes and schools, maintaining “strong adult-child connections, communication that uncovers the underlying causes of misbehavior, and training kids in cognitive, social and emotional, and essential life skills.” That “looks different when parenting a four-year-old as compared to a teenager,” she writes, “but the basic principle remains the same: give kids as much ownership as possible, with support, predictable routines, and agreed-upon consequences.”