Thursday, January 6, 2011

Should You Stay Home With Your Kids? Maybe Not.

First it was the wedding story about the couple who met while they were each were married to other people.  Unlike some of the stories on the evening news about the sweethearts who discover one another in the nursing home after their spouses have done the proper thing and died before the lovers could hook up, this particular union's story involved sidelong glances across school fundraising events and an eventual admission of love.  Then they had to tell their respective spouses that the jig was up and they wanted out. 

The story, in my favorite Sunday morning read on the Styles page of the Times (the womens' sports page, I've heard it called, rather patronizingly) was written in the same format as those for the kids who meet in the Peace Corps or musicians who get together while starting a collective that benefits an endangered species.  Two overachievers meet and click immediately.  There are busy, busy, important lives to manage. Then there is a moment of enormous, soul-searching doubt before one of them proposes in a clever way that clearly shows their Connection. 

Except this article was more restrained and less celebratory, saying pretty much through the whole thing that, other people being very badly hurt, it wasn't the best start. You never would have known this from the viceral rage directed at them and the media outlet that dared to tell a story we all see, again and again, and not just on TMZ. As the mistress who would later marry the narrator's wife says in what became the title of Isabel Gillies' 2009 memoir: "It happens every day."  You would think, from the reactions--the couple was called selfish, a pair of child abusers, and worse--that they were the first people who ever did such a thing.  Their worst crime appears to be that they actually admitted they are happy, instead of burning with shame forever.

Now there is the Salon article where Katy Read, a recently-divorced freelance writer with two teenaged sons, dares to write that she regrets having stayed home with her kids.  She's broke, she doesn't know how she'll make it through the next year, never mind save for retirement and college.  She wishes she'd stayed in the workforce, as she'd actually be employable now.  She loved her time with them, but now she can't support them, to the extent she must, nor herself. 

The letters--all 244 of them today alone--are assurance that the Mommy Wars are not nearly over.  However people cherish Happily Ever After, apparently a mother who admits some essential facts--that husbands sometimes lose their jobs, die, or leave; that it's in a woman's best financial interests to develop marketable skills to support herself and her family, no matter whether it's nuclear or not--is even worse than people who leave unhappy marriages so that they might be happy. 

Given my personal history on these matters (stuff does happen) I am a little surprised at how so many people have rather violent emotional reactions to both of these stories, and I can't help but wonder why.  Is it just the conflict between American individualism and its deeply moral roots?  Do people really think, when they look around their own school auditoriums on parents' nights, or even around the family dinner table at Thanksgiving, that these ideals really exist, outside of a lucky few? Do they think this sort of thing is contagious, and if they argue with suffiicient zeal against it, it will never happen to them? Or do they wish so fervently for the long-term marriage and the stay-at-home mother (or wish they'd had it in their own childhood) that they must villify anyone who dares challenge the sacred ideals? 

No matter how we look around and see perfection, the truth is that everyone carries burdens, most of which others never see.  As Penelope Trunk in response to letters to her own bracingly honest post this week, "I think lots of marriages have glass on the floor."  We might all be kinder to one another, not to mention make more thoughtful decisions of our own, if we remembered that.


  1. P Trunk is cray-cray and needs help help, now now. I guess I don't have empathy. She made the pronouncement that if you don't understand the lamp over head you have no empathy. Or precisely that those with empathy would understand. Yes, I have empathy for the frustration, but not the manifestation. I know I am nuts, but am just not with her on the self-mutilation. I don't think more distractions are the answer. I think she needs to be very quiet for a very long time.

  2. Yes, she is definitely off the grid, but her point applies to a good many of us. Some say love is a form of insanity, and at times--especially when things are breaking down or changing drastically--all of us can experience that. I think she needs to find a good person to talk to, and she can make me very uncomfortable, but she adds something valuable to the discourse because she really doesn't have a filter. She talks about fights with her husband and yelling at her kids--not many of us can say we haven't done that, ever, but most of us feel shame and wouldn't admit it. Our culture is an odd combination of over-sharing (this is a luxury for celebrities) and pretending to be perfect. I wish we could get over both.