The XX Factor

Fear of Failing

As a mother, Erica Jong was clearly away a great deal-physically and, no doubt, emotionally-but she pales in comparison to other absent mothers of history. There was a charming New York Time s profile over the weekend of Deborah, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire. The British duchess, now 90, is the only surviving one of the six famous Mitford girls-among her siblings were Nancy and Jessica. I don’t know where the duchess fell in the birth order, but it was far enough down that her birth was not mentioned in her mother’s engagement calendar, though a visit from the chimney sweep, five days later, was. “No one took any notice of me except Nanny,” the duchess remarked. She wasn’t feeling sorry for herself. She does not seem to have expected her mother to pay more attention to her than she did. In that era, presumably, parents were expected to be busy and the void was filled by friends, fellow members of one’s social set, schoolmates, nannies, and,  of course, one’s extremely lively siblings, who once surrounded her to taunt her, “Who’s the least important person in the room? You!” 

“I had a marvelous time,”  she says of her childhood.

Things are different now. Maternal inattention is resented. Scores are settled. I agree with Libby that the companion piece Molly Jong-Fast wrote to go with her mom’s WSJ essay is threaded with passive aggression and backhanded compliments. Jong paid for “a whole menagerie of therapists” for daughter Molly, and (one is left to infer) was part of the reason she needed them to begin with. Jong was encouraging and never mean-that is, when she was home, and not out chasing fame or her next husband! Faint praise though it may contain, I’m not sure I agree that the daughter’s essay is beside the point. Given that Jong is writing about parenting, the fruits of her own free-range parenting technique do seem more relevant than if she were, say, an artist or a lawyer, whose professional output is the only thing that matters. I’m trying to decide which one of them takes the greater risk here-Jong for letting her daughter critique her in print, or Jong-Fast for inviting comparison of her own writing style to that of her mother, who, right or wrong, is more intellectual and fluent and forceful.

If nothing else, the two pieces offer unnerving evidence that women develop their own mothering style by reacting against the mothering they got. Erica Jong’s own mother felt that children compromised her painting career, and expressed her resentment by telling Jong she was fat, and making it clear that she was “jealous of her success.”  In reaction, Jong gave full rein to her own ambition, and at the same time praised Molly overabundantly, telling her that “everything [Molly] produced was brilliant, even the lopsided coffee mug and the asymmetrical pillow.” (Again, the elderly duchess in her own profile provides a useful gloss: “There is this extraordinary thing called self-esteem which is pumped into the children now,” she marvels.)

Problem was, Jong was gone so much, having the high-profile remunerative career her own mother lacked, that Molly seems to have reacted against precisely that absence and precisely that success, retreating indoors to helicopter-parent her children, and maintaining that “I could never have raised kids and made money.” These women seem caught in an endless loop of generational revolt and counter-revolt and competition. Can’t wait till the grand-kids are old enough to weigh in!

Jong’s argument against attachment parenting-her view that it’s anti-feminist, prompting women to quit their jobs and forsake the public realm, for fear of neglecting their kids and raising failures-is well-argued and true, I think, but not altogether new. I agree with KJ that she spends too much time blaming modern mothers and not enough time blaming workplaces or inviting more participation from, oh, say, men. Jong also talks about the book Origins , in which Annie Murphy Paul explores new research into how fetal experience affects a person’s life after birth. Jong interprets this science as one more way of making mothers feel guilty, in this case about what they ingest when pregnant. But what she overlooks is that much of this research looks at the effect of broader environment on fetal development-was the child being gestated, for example, during a period when citizens were starving, and if so, how did those environmental conditions affect later life. One of the points Paul makes is that societies should pay more attention to how pregnant women are treated; should be kinder to them, give them more rest and more tender care. It’s not all about blaming mom. In other words, Paul supports KJ’s argument, that it would help a lot if the wider world were more solicitous and accommodating of parenthood.

Talk about blaming, though-I have to say, I end up feeling sympathy for Erica Jong. To have a mother who called her fat and who resented her success, and a daughter who describes her, in the essay’s most devastating aside, as “always trying to cling to the New York Times best-seller list,” seems harsh punishment indeed for all those book talks and plane flights and royalty checks. These twinned essays are an interesting study into the resentment that high-achieving women can kindle in their own households. Hopefully somebody in her family says the occasional “good job” to best-selling, hard-working Erica. But you don’t really get the sense that anybody does. No wonder Jong turned away from her family, toward the wider world, one is left thinking. After all, moms need some self-esteem pumped into them, too.

Photograph of Erica Jong by Peter Kramer for Getty Images.