Contemporary motherhood’s big lie: if you aren’t suffering, you must be doing it wrong

Mothering boulder

Motherhood, Screened Off by Susan Dominus appeared in The New York Times several days ago. Ostensibly it is a piece about pushing aside technology to reconnect with our children. Dominus suggests that our use of technology has rendered previously transparent adult actions opaque to children and that is a problem.

My mother’s address book is one of the small visual details of my childhood that I can perfectly conjure, although I am sure no photograph of it exists… I knew when she was looking for someone’s phone number, which seems unremarkable, except that my own children do not know when I am searching for a phone number, because all they see is me, on my iPhone, intently focused on something mysterious and decidedly not them.

It is that loss of transparency, more than anything, that makes me nostalgic for the pre-iPhone life. When my mother was curious about the weather, I saw her pick up the front page of the newspaper and scan for the information. The same, of course, could be said of how she apprised herself of the news. I always knew to whom she was talking because, before caller ID, all conversations started with what now seems like elaborate explicitness (“Hi, Toby, this is Flora”).

Dominus is embarrassed to be caught using her iPhone during her twin sons’ soccer practice:

[pullquote align=”right” color=”#8c7e75″]Children do not require the caress of the maternal gaze every waking moment of their lives.[/pullquote]

…[A] woman a few feet away turned to me. “Look at us,” she said, with a sheepish smile, gesturing at a row of parents hunched over their devices. “Our kids are out there practicing, and we’re all on our phones.”

I flushed. I was guilty as charged! But I was almost as quickly indignant: I was wrongly accused! True, I was on my phone, and if my kids looked up they would have seen the same thing the woman did: someone slightly bored, distracting herself with some mindless electronic pursuit… I had unwittingly cast myself as a familiar, much-maligned character: the mom who is blind to the daily pleasures of parenting, focused instead on some diversion which, by virtue of its taking place on that phone, is inherently trivial.

I took something different away from the piece. I read it as an example of our contemporary obsession with artisanal parenting, the belief that our children are products that are rendered “high quality” by small batch production using traditional, labor intensive methods. Any moment spent not nurturing, teaching or connecting with our children is a moment wasted.

Simply put, if you aren’t suffering, you must be doing mothering wrong.

In the world of artisanal parenting (often called natural parenting), traditional and traditionally painful and inconvenient processes are required to produce artisanal children. The mother takes no shortcuts, and avoids all conveniences thereby producing superior children. Greater suffering = higher quality. Unmedicated childbirth is therefore “better” since it is a traditional method involving lots of maternal suffering. Breastfeeding is supposedly “best” since it involves lots of maternal time, effort, discomfort and inconvenience. Attachment parenting (baby wearing, family bed, no sleep training) is purportedly better because every moment of every mother’s day ought to involved a child strapped to, sucking from or draped across her body.

Adult activities must be transparent to children, hence the author’s lament that her children don’t know what she is doing when she is using her phone. Adult activities must be justifiable to children, hence the author’s worry that although she is physically at their soccer practice (where she is not needed and presumably not a focus of their concern), they might look up and see her on her phone and won’t realize that she is engaged in something meaningful (reading literature) rather than performing tasks or amusing herself.

I was impatient when my mother’s attention was occupied elsewhere. But my 9-year-old children, when they see me on my phone, feel something more intense, something closer to indignation. They are shut out twice over: They see that I am otherwise occupied, but with what, they have no idea.

I have started to narrate my use of the phone when I am around my kids. “I’m emailing your teacher back,” I tell them, or, “I’m now sending that text you asked me to send about that sleepover,” in the hopes that I can defang the device’s bad reputation, its inherent whiff of self-absorption.

Parents have private lives, private pursuits and need private time and that is a fundamental lesson every child ought to learn. Children are not entitled to a moment by moment accounting of adult activities.

What’s really the problem with a little maternal self-absorption?

It means the mother is not suffering enough!

My husband thinks no amount of narration will change the way our kids feel about the phone. The problem, he says, is that whenever I grab it, they know that I am also holding a portal, as magical as the one in Narnia’s wardrobe and with the same potential to transport me to another world or to infinite worlds. I am always milliseconds away from news of a horrific mass stampede near Mecca or images of great medieval art or a Twitter dissection of the pope’s visit. How far am I going, they might reasonably worry, and how soon will I be back? Perhaps they sense how vast the reach of the device is and how little they know of what that vastness contains; at any moment, the size of the gap between them and me is unknowable.

And it’s wrong for 9 year old children to be deprived of their mother’s rapt attention for an unknowable amount of minutes, because … why?

It means the mother is not suffering enough!

Recently, one of my sons has had trouble falling asleep… And so I lie in the dark next to him, as patiently as I can, willing myself to breathe deeply so that he will do the same. All the while I am fighting the ever-swelling urge to locate my phone, so that I can do something productive, feel that feeling of getting somewhere, at last, while my children sleep, wholly guilt free.

How dare a mother want to accomplish something that is helpful to her and not directly helpful to her child?

She’s clearly not suffering enough.

The ultimate irony of contemporary artisanal parenting is what is imagined as the “way things were” before technology could not be farther from the truth. When mothers had less technology at their disposal they had LESS time for nurturing, teaching or connecting with their children. And … here’s the kicker … they weren’t worried about nurturing, teaching or connecting with their children on a moment by moment basis; they were too busy simply trying to survive.

Prior to the advent of technology, children spent MORE time outside the direct purview of their mothers. They went outdoors for hours at a time to play with other children. They did chores (real chores, not making their bed) necessary to the family’s existence; in other words, they worked for their keep.

The truth is that children are not artisanal products whose quality is proportional to the time their mother spent suffering while ignoring her own needs.

They do not require the caress of the maternal gaze every waking moment of their lives.

They do not need constant maternal interaction; indeed they can be stifled from constant maternal interaction.

What children need is knowledge of their mother’s love and concern; her suffering merely reflects our conceit that children are our products and by suffering we can make them what we want them to be.