Letters

"When did we become so enthralled with the neuroses of upper-middle-class, white, stay-at-home mothers?" Readers respond to Noelle Howey's essay about overly anxious parents.


Salon Staff
April 26, 2005 9:36PM (UTC)

[Read "Zen Mama," by Noelle Howey.]

Hurray for Noelle Howey's "Zen Mama"!

I was raised -- and I am raising my 3-year-old -- with Dr. Spock's advice to be calm and flexible, enjoy your kids, and assume your authority as a parent with a matter-of-fact ilan. He, and my mother and grandmother, are my role models.

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Achievement is important, good manners and habits are important, but so is a sense of humor. So is learning how to satisfy yourself for yourself -- not for others. The greatest gifts we can give a child in this status-obsessed culture are the ability to roll with the punches, laugh and understand when good enough is good enough.

-- A. Laitinen

Thank you for Noelle Howey's article on being a mellow mama. As a 28-year-old mother, I am one of the youngest parents I know. Sometimes I've wondered if my age difference accounts for my lack of anxiety in raising my daughter.

My parents raised my three sisters and me while working multiple jobs and managing my father's terminal illness. They simply didn't have the time to indulge in anxiety over our internal lives and playground escapades. While I would have liked more attention as a kid, I wouldn't trade those free hours of making up stories and exploring the woods by our house for any number of structured activities designed to improve my life.

At 14 months, my daughter is curious, independent, loving and fearless. We spend our time together in the garden or playing tickle games, not going through flashcards or practicing foreign languages. I have no desire to direct what she learns and experiences, and I have no idea what I want her to be when she grows up. And while any number of bad things could happen to her, I have very little control over any of them. I'd rather spend my time enjoying her not stressing about the possibilities.

All kids really need is to know that their parents love and support them. Everything else is just details.

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-- Demetra Delma

Thank you for publishing Noelle Howey's smart and timely article on motherhood anxiety. I haven't been sure what to make of the volume of dialogue about this issue. At what point did we become enthralled with the neuroses of upper-middle-class white stay-at-home mothers to the point that we decided to have a real debate about the merits of their parenting practices? Are the working mothers of the world still so guilt-ridden that they need to expose the way the other half lives for shock value and laughs?

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Debates about proper mothering are just another incarnation of American class warfare and Ms. Howey's disengagement from the controversy seems a sane and rational choice. So what if the high-strung mother in your play group uses her child's achievements to replace her abandoned career? Who cares if some self-appointed saint's child-rearing operation is outfitted by 20 high-end consumer product companies? Those aren't the kind of people most mothers want around their kids anyway.

-- Annie Bradford

In my experience, truly Zen mamas do not feel the need to denigrate other mothers in national publications. Truly Zen mamas support other mothers, even if they don't understand them. They do not insult them, they do not marginalize their concerns and they do not talk haughtily about their own superior mothering.

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Let me tell you what it's like to live with maternal anxiety, since Ms. Howey lacks the insight and compassion necessary to do so. I developed postpartum anxiety after my healthy, sweet and utterly wonderful son was born. I struggled with it for several months. Through hard work, acupuncture, support groups, therapy and the passage of time, it eventually eased, though I sometimes suffer recurrences.

This was my reality: I had insomnia and was frequently unable to sleep for the entire night. When I did sleep, I suffered through horrific, bloody nightmares. And when I say nightmare, I mean that I was there, experiencing every single moment. I watched Nazis dressed in Nickelodeon-orange uniforms toss candy to little children they were burying alive. I saw babies hacked to death in a dream-world Rwanda by black-hooded men.

I grew stiff. I hobbled around like a crone, unaware that anxiety frequently attacks the joints first. I had dizzy spells and stopped exercising because I was afraid I would pass out. My pregnancy weight loss slowed even though I also lost my appetite.

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When I finally visited my doctor, desperate for some sleep, I was told, "All new mothers are nervous. It will pass."

It didn't "just pass." My life would be hell now if I hadn't had the good luck to run into another mother who had suffered from PPA and who pointed me to help. I could write an essay about PPA here, but this is not the place.

I don't expect Ms. Howey to know anything about PPA. Most people who haven't had the misfortune of experiencing it don't. But I do expect a basic level of humanity, of recognition that not all mothers parent exactly like her self-congratulatory self. Does she believe that I visited night terrors upon myself because maternal angst is fashionable? Does she really think her friend, the one she dismissively feigns concern for, is lying awake anxious because it's an upper-middle-class trend?

She claims that she's worried about the message she's passing onto her daughter by even acknowledging her friend's nighttime anxiety. Frankly, I'd be more worried about the other messages she is broadcasting: lack of compassion for a suffering friend, lack of concern for anybody whose reality might possibly be different than her own.

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Ah, but Ms. Howey will protest, I didn't mean you, with your nightmares and your aches and your dizziness. I just meant those rich mothers, those women who worry about play dates and schools.

News flash: It's two sides of the same coin. It's the same root, the same terror, the same issues at the core. In a sense, I was lucky that I had the physical manifestations of anxiety: It made me realize something was wrong. But what if my anxiety had not manifested itself that way? What if it had instead taken the form that Ms. Howley denigrates?

My PPA support group has women from all walks of life. There are wealthy mothers. There are teen mothers who live with their own parents, barely scraping by. There are mothers who can barely afford their rent, those who probably can buy the apartment building, and everything in between. We support each other without conflict, because we know the truth Ms. Howey does not: Anxiety does not discriminate.

-- Name withheld by request

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Whenever I worry about being a working parent, I remind myself of 19th century factory workers who tethered their children to the bedposts before they headed to the mills for 10 to 12 hours. Then my son's six hours in grade school, followed by two hours on the playground at after-school care, give no cause for concern whatsoever.

-- Vicki Broach

Thank you, Noelle, for a sane article about motherhood. I am not a saint or a model mother, but the recent descriptions of the anxious modern mother left me feeling like a scold -- who are these women and their poor children? My particular beef is with parents who are always worried about children getting hurt and therefore avoid all risk. We have stripped our backyards of trampolines and homemade tree houses. We have eliminated diving boards from our pools and stopped letting our kids play at the local empty lot. How will they ever learn the skill of taking risks?

I hope that my own daughter will be better prepared for her adult life because I let her fall on pavement and let her climb old trees and explore caves. These experiences are practice for the larger world ahead of her -- where she will need to take many adult risks.

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If we value initiative and boldness in our professional lives, we need to teach those skills to our kids. Childhood adventures let children experience a full range of emotions and are stories they will remember and retell again and again.

-- Milly Baker

Noelle Howey seems to have missed an important point in Judith Warner's book, and that is the origins of this new extreme mother-anxiety. Warner focuses on how this current generation of new mothers are experiencing increased anxiety because of their total lack of support systems. Whether it is a lack of affordable, quality part-time day care, lack of family-friendly employers and policies, or a lack of family members, friends or husbands who can help out -- it is the absence of any kind of "village" child-rearing ethic that these women mourn and which churns their unrealistic anxieties.

Mothers have always had anxiety about their children's well-being, but I think something more frightening is developing among current Gen X moms (myself included). Even if a mellow mama like Ms. Howey chooses to remain above the fray (and bravo to her for doing so), surely as a working mother herself she must have noticed that the reasons behind this unhealthy trend are very real, they are significant and (I fear) they are not going away.

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-- Monica Bellenger

Noelle Howey's article is right on target. Kids can grow up to lead happy, fulfilled lives without parental meddling.

I find it sad that the contemporary child is so overburdened with structured activities that he or she has no time to daydream, contemplate and generally space out. Our current culture places too much emphasis on achieving lofty goals -- not all of which are accessible to everyone. Consequently, those who don't get into the exclusive private school or vacation in Costa Rica at age 6 feel like failures. All of this jockeying to purportedly provide for our children results in nothing but an inflated sense of entitlement. Believe me, someone else will always be smarter, faster and wealthier than your darling boo.

I am mother to a 16-month-old toddler and have a baby due in October. I am not a perfect parent by any stretch of the imagination. All I know is that my daughter and I share a good laugh and at least one hug every day.

-- Amy Pang

Thank goodness for a voice of sanity. I find that when reading articles about anxious mothers, I just keep thinking, "Get over yourselves."

And then I wonder what I missed -- raising two daughters, working full time and not stressing about much besides the normal making-it-through-the-day stuff.

My daughters are grown now: 28 and 25, one's a lawyer and the other is in medical school, so apparently my lax child raising didn't damage their chances at living a full life.

Most important, though, they both tell me they hope they can be as good at mothering as I was. Music to any mother's ears (the payoff for the "I hate you" you get when they're 13), and reinforcement for the idea that less is sometimes more when it comes to parenting.

By less, I don't mean less love or affection or discipline or boundaries, of course. Just less concern about the "right" schools, clothing, extracurricular activities and friends.

But then maybe that would be sensible for adults, as well as children.

-- Linda Picone

I applaud Ms. Howey's relaxed perspective on her maternal role and responsibilities. She's on the right track. I find it unsettling, however, that neither she nor most of the mothers described in her article saw fit to mention two issues that are far more important than birthday party favors and SAT scores.

First, where are the worries about rearing compassionate, ethical humans concerned about more than abs and income potential? Second, and far more critical: In their zeal to produce perfect children with safe and limitless futures, upward of 10 percent of these uber-moms are building their hopes and expectations on quicksand.

Until a year ago, our biggest worry was how we were going to pay for our son's education at Harvard. He's bright, intense, imaginative -- and bipolar, obsessive-compulsive. Today, our biggest worries are whether he will take his psych meds, whether (when) he will have to be hospitalized again, and whether he will ever live a normal life. Thanks to NAMI (National Alliance of the Mentally Ill), the one worry we do not have to face is that his illness is due to something we did or didn't do.

-- Victoria Wright


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