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Posts Tagged ‘self-doubt’

In an epic case of What-Goes-Around-Comes-Around, Janice Min, founding editor of Us Weekly magazine (a magazine which traffics in “cute mum and baby” porn and is nearly singlehandedly responsible for introducing terms including “baby bump” and “post-baby body” into the lexicon) who helmed the junkreading juggernaut for six years and now collects her paychecks from the Hollywood Reporter, is bummed because of the pressure she feels, a mere four months after her baby was born, to “get her body back.”

Cue the finger violins.

Don’t get me wrong. I empathize with her plight. No really, I do. But this is the woman who built an empire on careful monitoring of the size and curvature of other womens’ bellies in images superimposed with circles and arrows to help the viewer discern where there might either be a growing baby or, like, the remnants of an Umami burger, under the heading “Bump Alert!” (Such a fun game. If it actually is a baby, it’s so exciting! And if it’s not, it’s so fun to laugh at someone else’s gut!) On cover stories of women who’ve just given birth, prancing in bikinis under headlines like, “How I Got My Body Back” — and stories worrying over the poor souls who haven’t managed to lose the baby weight immediately. Oh, and can’t forget baby: why, it’s the chicest accessory of the season! Min was not only shoveling this schlock week after week after week, she was taking it straight to the bank.

Had anyone else written the piece, which ran in Sunday’s NYT with the title “Can A Mom Get A Break?” I’d be backing her up. But this is simply too much. It’s four months since Min welcomed baby, and the manicurists want to know when she’s due.

There, in the stacks of periodicals at the nail salon, these genetic aberrations smile at us from celebrity magazines, or from our computer screens, wearing bikinis on the beach in Cabo weeks after Caesarean sections, or going straight from the recovery room to Victoria’s Secret runway…
You see, in today’s celebrity narrative, just two kinds of desirable maternal female physiques exist: the adorable gestating one (with bellies called “bumps”) and its follow-up, the body that boomerangs back from birth possibly even better than before.

The “Wow, I totally see the error of my ways and man you really do reap what you sow” you’re waiting for? It begins and ends with this:

I am partly to blame for my own physical netherworld. As the editor of Us Weekly, covering the Suris and Shilohs of Hollywood for six years, I delivered what the young female audience wanted: cute moms and babies. So much so that Tom Wolfe once remarked, ‘The one thing that Us Weekly has done that’s a great boost to the nation is they’ve probably increased the birthrate.”

I don’t know about that (although I honestly wouldn’t be surprised), but a glossy tabloid as ubiquitous as Us can certainly take a leading role in shaping the culture, the “narrative” to which Min refers. (After all: the Stars, as Us likes to point out, Are Just Like Us!) A narrative that’s about appearances. Which is bad. Worse, as Min suggests, is the way in which it morphs:

The recent “Are You Mom Enough?” cover of Time magazine was either the apex or nadir of all our current mama drama. If it wasn’t enough to get creeped out hearing grown men express envy of the breast-feeding 4 year-old boy latched onto his attractive mother, the question posed on the cover seemed to encompass not only the article’s attachment parenting debate, but also the self-doubt that all mothers perpetually face… It’s like our helicopter parenting (with nowhere else to go) turned inward.

Or the judgment we foist upon others turned onto ourselves.

I promise you, I am not taking pleasure in this woman’s pain. In fact, I think there’s a lesson in it for all of us: It’s hard to be a woman. It’s hard to manage the juggle and the pressure and the expectations. But when we pick each other apart for sport, where does that leave us? Spending our baby’s first months of life consumed with getting back into our skinny jeans.

And there’s one more lesson worth thinking about: Karma, as they say, is a bitch. (Especially when she gets her post-baby body back to pre-baby form faster than you.)

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So, the Mommy Wars. They’re back. Again. Or still.

A superquick recap: As you’ve undoubtedly heard by now, last week Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen said on CNN that Republican Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s wife Ann, a stay at home mom, had “never worked a day in her life.” Naturally the Romney campaign latched on to that one with the sort of ferocity that would make a pitbull (lipstick-wearing or not) proud, and the media has been all over it since.

While “Can’t we all just get along?” is my immediate, reflexive thought in the face of such firestorms, I realize that it’s just not that simple–and that, as Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams recently wrote, The Mommy Wars are real. In her smart and honest piece, Williams writes of her experience having a foot in both worlds–she’s a mom and a freelance writer who works from home. Here’s a taste:

We as women spend our whole lives being judged, and never more so than for our roles as mothers. We suffer for it, and frankly, we dish it out in spades. We park ourselves in separate camps, casting suspicious glances across the schoolyard. And it sucks because the judgment is there and its real and it stems so often from our own deepest fears and insecurities. We pay lip service to each other’s “choices”–and talk smack behind each other’s backs.

Yep, we’ve got each other’s backs theoretically, but when it comes down to it, Williams is pretty much right about what we’re doing behind them. But what is it really about? Why are we so defensive? So eager to judge each other for doing things differently? I’d argue its because, sometimes, we worry that we’re doing it wrong — and that the easiest, most comfortable defense in the face of that kind of worry is often a good offense.

And it’s not just stay at home moms versus working moms. It’s working moms versus their non-mom, on-the-job counterparts. It’s moms versus women who don’t have kids. It’s singletons versus coupleds. It’s pro-Botox and anti. It’s Tiger Mom versus Bringing Up Bebe. It’s gluten-free/organic/vegan versus chicken fingers and tater tots.

The other night I Tivo’d a show on OWN: it featured Gloria Steinem in conversation with Oprah, and then the two of them speaking at a small gathering of Barnard college students. At one point, Oprah asked Steinem about being attacked by other women, and then cut to a clip of Steinem on Larry King’s show. King thanked Steinem for being with him, she smiled hugely, and King went to a call. A woman’s voice came through, and she said, “I’m so glad I get to talk to you, Ms. Steinem” …and then went in for the kill. “Why are you trying to destroy families?” she asked in a voice so hostile it made me shiver. “Are you even married? Do you even have kids?” she demanded accusingly.

So, here’s the question: why are we so quick to perceive someone else’s doing things differently–or simply fighting to get access to those different things to do–as an attack on what we’re doing, a statement on our choices? As though there can be no other explanation for why we’ve taken the roads we’ve taken than that the road we didn’t take is wrong.

If we go out for ice cream, and you get chocolate, and I get vanilla (okay, I never get vanilla–I will always get pralines’n’cream), can’t the reason we’ve ordered differently just be attributed to the fact that we have different taste, like different things? Must I interpret your taste for chocolate as some sort of implicit judgment of mine for caramel? An attack on pralines? Surely, that would be chock-fulla-nuts.

What would I get out of criticizing you for your choice?

Perhaps if I was a little unsure that I’d ordered correctly, or perhaps if your choice was looking kinda good, enumerating all the ways chocolate is bad and pralines are good might help to stave off the self-doubt.

When it comes down to the Mommy Wars and all of the other crazy Us-vs.-Themmery we women put each other through, isn’t this kind of what we’re up to? After all, what, exactly, does my choice have to do with yours? Or yours, mine?

Well, there’s something: your choice has to do with mine in the sense that you’re showing me what the road not traveled looks like. If there’s only one way to do something, you’re spared the worry that you’re doing it wrong. There is no right or wrong, better or worse, there is only the way. But, the more options there are, well, the more options there are. And none of them is gonna be perfect, because nothing is. And when we come upon the bumps in our road, we wonder about the other road–and we worry that it’s better. And then, in our lesser moments, we seethe. We judge and we criticize in an attempt to stave off our doubts. If we can make the case that we are right–or, perhaps more to the point, that the other is wrong–we can seize on that little boost of self-assuredness to carry us through for a while.

So I guess what I’ve come up with is this: the moments when we feel like we need to make the case that that other road is wrong are probably the moments when we need to look at ourselves. Honestly. Perhaps we’re frustrated, or overwhelmed, or insecure or unhappy, or–and my money’s on this one–just having one of those days.

And women still have a lot of those days: that we have these choices we’re so quick to do battle over is new. We face structural inequities, lesser pay, the bulk of the burden of the second shift — and all of that second guessing. While we do indeed have access to a ton of paths that were blocked to us just a generation ago, we haven’t yet had the chance to make them smooth and pretty. They’re unpaved and overgrown and difficult to find. Of course we will have moments of self-doubt and envy and insecurity and frustration. But sniping at and about each other does no good for no one.

Last night before I went to bed, I was flipping the channels (it was a big weekend; I allowed myself some serious couch potato time once I got home–don’t judge!) and stopped for a quick second on CNN, because the ticker below that said “Mommy Wars” grabbed my attention. Four commentators went back and forth and around and around about the Mommy Wars: they were all men.

We are all doing the very best we can, in a world that it’s up to us to change, to make room for us. Every last one of us, no matter what path we choose to take. We’re all travelers–and we should do what good travelers do. Greet each other with a smile and an open mind. Share our stories. And, then before heading our separate ways, we should wish each other happy trails.

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So I was pondering Shannon’s post yesterday about expectations, and thinking about how women today are often crushed under the weight of great ones. Then I started thinking about the ways in which those expectations lead many women to feel — or be — judged.

And then, I got pinged by serendipity. First, I came across this review of “Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace” by Ayelet Waldman on “Your (Wo)Man in Washington”, a grassroots blog promoting economic equality for mothers and other caregivers. This graf hit home:

It is not just that Waldman’s memoir about some of her dishonorable mothering moments is smart, funny and poignant that kept me going. Ayelet Waldman is, on some level, EveryMom. We can all relate to the feeling of having someone tsk-tsk disapprovingly at our parenting choices. We have all suffered the disappointment of having the reality of parenthood differ from the fantasy, or the fear that our children will inherit our flaws. We are all familiar with the self-doubt that is part and parcel of being a modern-day mother.

The reviewer had me at self doubt: Do women keep looking over our shoulders because we buy into unrealistic expectations? Which in turn lead us to keep feeling judged? That we’re unable to measure up? Are we our own worst critics? Could that be why making choices is so difficult? My next ping was a Q-and A on Ayelet Waldman’s website, where, when asked why she wrote the book, Waldman replies:

Because so many women I know are in real pain. They are so crippled by their guilt, by their unreasonable expectations, that they can’t even allow themselves to celebrate the true joys of being a mom. When your little girl curls up in bed with you and says, “Your hair always smells so good, Mama,” you should be able to melt with emotion without worrying about whether she’s reading at grade level.

And then I was reminded by an email from a former student that it’s not just moms who are crippled by the fallout of unreasonable expectations. It’s their kid sisters, too. Quick backstory: In an op-ed last year on the impact of too many choices on twenty-something women, I wrote:

...The niece of a friend once confided she sometimes wished she’d been born into a world where everything from spouse to career was chosen for her. She echoes what I see: a generation of youth overwhelmed by the unintended consequences of choice overload. Many are 20-something women raised with high expectations, more options than their mothers ever imagined, and a sense that the perfect life is not only a possibility, but an obligation. Some are paralyzed by it: How can I commit to Plan A when Plan B, which might be better, may be just around the bend? Others constantly doubt themselves, obsessing not on the choice they made – but the ones they rejected.

This student had apparently come across the piece this week — go figure — and emailed in response:

I completely identify with it. And in a way, it kind of made me feel better about the next few months of my life. I have always had really high expectations for myself (thanks to my parents, too, you are right on that,) so it’s hard to just be satisfied with something knowing I have dreamed of something else. However, after a few weeks of stress… I think I am getting more excited about it– any job, that I would enjoy decently. I could talk a lot about this, but I digress….

Lowered expecations? No expectations? My final stop was a comment from Colleen, posted Thursday morning:

You never know what will make you happy, and I feel like the more expectation you put on something, the less likely it is to live up to it. It is like New Years Eve… so much pressure is put on you to have great plans and an epic night, and in the past, I have usually had more fun grabbing dinner and drinks with friends on the night before, or the night after, or any other random Tuesday. Do what makes you happy right now, don’t expect a new job or new house or new city or new boyfriend or new baby to change everything and bring you the ultimate happiness you’ve been waiting for. Like the old saying goes, wherever you go, there you are…

And wherever you go, as Shannon suggests, you ought to leave those expectations back where they belong, in fantasy land. Once you do, maybe the harshest judge of all — the one in the mirror — will disappear as well.

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