The XX Factor

In Praise of the Mistakes of Motherhood

Hanna , I agree that Erica Jong makes some interesting points in the Wall Street Journal about the impossibly high expectations for motherhood in modern culture. I think she’s right when she observes that our “obsession with parenting is an avoidance strategy…Aspiring to be perfect parents seems like a pathetic attempt to control what we can while ignoring problems that seem beyond our reach.” And yeah, at the same time, I agree that it’s tough to imagine leaving your kid with a nanny and a “houseman” for long periods of time, as her piece and her daughter’s companion essay suggests she did. But Jong’s piece is all about earning the right to be wrong, and that’s what so annoyed me about her daughter’s account.

First, let’s back up. As a culture, I think, we have a particular problem with how we view decision-making. We are obsessed with the avoidance of risk–to an extent that biases us toward finding errors. Forget motherhood. It starts during (or even before ) pregnancy. We view risk during pregnancy in terms of what the mom does and doesn’t do ( drinks alcohol /eats sushi/dyes hair) rather than looking more broadly, as Annie Murphy Paul has pointed out , at environmental problems that are harder to solve. If we are a nation of rugged individuals, so, too, does our litigious society view risk in terms of the individual, in terms of what some selfish jerk (often a mother) did wrong.

If I would differ from Jong on one point, it’s the disdain with which she and many others view so-called helicopter parents. (“The smothering surveillance of a child’s every experience and problem,” Jong calls it.) Those who sneer at hovering moms fail to see that this is the flip side of the very same coin as the hovering itself. All of it – the moms’ fears of making mistakes, and society’s disgust with mothers afraid of making mistakes – is a kind of mother blame.

But aside from her tone, Jong is making a fruitful point. She is arguing is every woman should do “the best you can,” should accept that “there are no rules,” should not feel hemmed in by impossible and impossibly time-consuming standards. Which is why her daughter’s dishy, facile, passive-aggressive essay – in which she suggests that women can only choose between the extremes of being “feminist comrades” or “1950s June Cleaver types,” and repeatedly emphasizes all the material goods her absent mother bought her, and undermines her mom’s ambition by suggesting, with pity, that her mother knew no other way – is so frustrating. It shouldn’t be sitting side-by-side with Jong’s essay because Molly Jong-Fast’s experience of being mothered is besides the point, like assessing an artist’s work by considering his personal life.

Somehow, even if its unintended, the Journal running both of those together feels like it undermines Jong’s smart essay, tempting readers to judge her cultural commentary in light of whether her approach to motherhood worked or not. It sets Jong up as a straw woman, implying that she claims to be a paragon of motherhood. She doesn’t. She is making the point that we are all just muddling through.