In a secret, lurking way -- ok, secret until now
-- I find I'm looking forward to my operation next week. It's not just that I'm hoping for an end to roughly two years of headaches; I'm actually going to get a rest
. This anticipation has snuck up on me over the last couple of weeks as I've prepared a bulging manila folder of to-do lists for my soon-to-be-long-suffering husband, while anticipating catching up on TV sitcoms. Doing it has made me realize what a caricature post-90s, control-freak, overscheduling mom I am -- there are swim team and soccer schedules, notes on the extra-curricular Spanish and Hebrew, urgent reminders not to buy the milk with that hormone whose initials I can't just now recall, and to watch for the battery-less earthquake-ready radio we should be soon receiving in the mail as part of our KQED donation, etc., etc. -- but also, again, just how exhausting it can be in our nutty times to be even a basically responsible parent.
Certainly part of the problem is TMI, too much information. My parents didn't worry about whether they had a disaster plan in place for when the Big One strikes (60 percent chance over the next 30 years); they knew nothing at all about that hormone in milk, and didn't feel quite as much pressure, I'm sure, to help give their kids an edge in an increasingly globalized economy. All this, as I argued in The Mommy Brain,
is making parenting a more cerebrally demanding job than ever. But of course there's that other thing, in that today's moms are part of our relatively new experiment of trying to combine parenting and careers.
The front page of today's New York Times brings us yet another report of the frustration this has caused, in an article titled, "Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood." The story has lots of problems, to my mind, like -- why
do these stories always focus on the most privileged women, the ones who certainly will have a greater opportunity to depend on their husbands' earning power? And why didn't the reporters ask any of them if they were worried about planning things that way, when one out of two marriages are ending in divorce? And why does it say "Set Career Path to Motherhood" when what they're talking about is merely taking some years off, with many saying they fully intend to have illustrious careers after the kids are relatively grown?
Yet one of the truths it touches on is one that I and so many of my mom friends talk about all the time: we had no idea that motherhood would be this hard, and part of the reason it's so hard is that once you really start paying attention to your kids, you realize how much they need from you, and how rarely they can get what they need from other people. My kids are 7 and 10, and I've been relying for just a few hours a week on the after-school program at the public school they attend in a relatively priviliged neighbhorhood. Even here, that program has been unreliable: when my 10-year-old walked home one day last week by mistake and didn't check in, they hadn't noticed he was gone until I called them almost two hours later. And oy, could I tell you some babysitter stories. (Like the one who came down with leprosy, or the one who after months of being the model of perfection joined with my two sons drawing explicit pictures of gonads.) (I've since cut way down on sitters.)
Husbands can and do get engaged, but it usually takes a lot of patient training. One of the studies that impressed me the most in my book showed that mothers listening to their babies' cries energized the ancient "reward" centers of their brains while fathers showed virtually no brain activity.
So the elite college women interviewed by the New York Times may simply be reading the landscape correctly and being unusually honest about what they see. Until government and workplaces start to provide the kind of flexibility moms need to be the default caregiver for children, women who don't need their paychecks to survive may tend to give them up during the time they must be hyper-responsible. Otherwise, like me, they may find themselves sneakily looking forward to brain surgery.