Yesterday, the cover of the New York Post ran one of its typical doozers: a picture of Chirlane McCray, with a headline reading, “NYC’s First Lady: I Was a Bad Mom.” The paper was supposedly summarizing an exchange McCray had had with Lisa Miller for the cover story of this week’s New York; what McCray had actually said, however, was far more nuanced:
I was 40 years old. I had a life. Especially with Chiara — will we feel guilt forever more? Of course, yes. But the truth is, I could not spend every day with her. I didn’t want to do that. I looked for all kinds of reason not to do it. I love her. I have thousands of photos of her —every 1-month birthday, 2-month birthday. But I’ve been working since I was 14, and that part of me is me. It took a long time for me to get into ‘I’m taking care of kids,’ and what that means.”
The Post cover clearly stung — as it would have any mother, any family, when someone’s words are so bluntly mischaracterized. At a press conference yesterday, de Blasio demanded an apology from both the Post and the Daily News, which teased the story on its cover yesterday too, claiming McCray “didn’t want to be a mom.”
Set aside for a moment the fact that these headlines were ugly examples of mom-shaming, promoting the ludicrously retro notion that the only acceptable model of motherhood is full-saturation immersion with your children or nothing at all (Amy Davidson wrote a good column about this). By deeming McCray’s words newsworthy, the Post and News betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of modern parenthood, of their audience, of the world as it currently exists. They believed McCray’s words were somehow inflammatory — “bound to horrify most moms” as the Post put it. But what if the opposite were true? What if most mothers read McCray’s words and felt a flicker of identification, if not full empathy?
It is hardly controversial to say that the transition to motherhood is challenging. There’s over 50 years worth of social science documenting precisely this sentiment. In fact (as I’ve written before), one of my favorite papers about maternal and paternal ambivalence, “Parenthood As Crisis,” was published in 1957, the very moment in American life when mothers were supposed to be embracing family life with wide-open hearts and crisply ironed aprons. Yet here’s what one of the moms in that paper told its sociologist-author, E. E. LeMasters: “We knew where babies came from, but we didn’t know what they were like.” (That’s his emphasis, not my own.)
She was blindsided, in other words, just as McCray was.
LeMasters went on to summarize other complaints from his female interviewees: “[E]xtensive confinement to the home and the resulting curtailment of their social contacts; giving up the satisfactions and the income of outside employment … guilt over not being a ‘better’ mother.”
Does this sound at all familiar?
Yet here we are, more than half a century later, acting as if saying such a thing is (a) shocking and (b) news. (For their future consideration, the tabs might also want to consider these incendiary topics: Children interfere with your sex life. And cost money. And often change the arc of a person’s career, particularly if that person is a woman.)
The difference is that women in the 1950s seldom had a choice in these matters. Eisenhower’s America offered few options for career-minded middle-class women; they had little choice but to stay at home. McCray, on the other hand, came of age later. Rather than having her first child at 21 (the median age of first birth in the ‘50s, roughly) she had her first child, Chiara, at 40. What separated her from the women LeMasters interviewed wasn’t her reaction to motherhood; it was the fact that she had somewhere else to put her energy — namely, her work — and she used that outlet until she could wrap her head around this dramatic change in her life.
Today, millions of middle-class women are going through a similar experience. The median age at first birth for a college-educated woman is now 30.3 — and that’s a national statistic (one imagines women are even older in major metropolitan areas like New York). They enjoy roughly a decade of freewheeling autonomy before their children come along. How could the contrast between the before and the after not be dramatic, acute?
Perhaps the Post was reacting to one of the more subtle subtexts of McCray’s response: That being at home with her child seemed, at first blush, too monotonous. (“The truth is, I could not spend every day with her. I didn’t want to do that. … I’ve been working since I was 14, and that part of me is me.”) But again: There’s a literature stretching back 50-plus years that talks at length about maternal boredom. It’s hardly novel, much less shameful, to suggest that time spent with small children is sometimes dull, and that work might be preferable. No less than Benjamin Spock, the child-rearing expert who dominated the mid-20th century, said as much. “The woman who chafes at the monotony of child rearing (and I’m assuming most mothers do, at times),” he wrote in his book of essays, Problems of Parents, “is really beset from two directions: The separation from adult companions, and being bottled up with the continual demands of the children. I don’t think Nature ever intended the association to be quite so exclusive.”
And lest anyone thinks Spock was carefully choosing the word “monotonous” because “boring” was too provocative, note that he also wrote this in a magazine column: “The fact is that setting aside a chunk of time to be devoted exclusively to companionship with children is a somewhat boring prospect.”
That’s right: boring.
Today, you know who talks eloquently and reassuringly about the tedium of child rearing? Louis C.K. He’s made a cottage industry of it. “She’s 5 years old,” he once said of his oldest daughter. “Do you know what that means? Nothing that she says matters. She’s never said anything important in her entire life.” Yet as far as I know, GQ didn’t run the headline “I Was a Bad Father,” on the cover when they named him Man of the Year. (It’s funny when a guy says this stuff; it’s scandalous when a gal does. [I cannot believe we are still writing these sentences. Honestly, I don’t know here whether I’m supposed to yawn or weep.])
There’s no story here. The only scandal is that the Post and the Daily News think there is. But unless we can talk about the complexities of parenthood honestly — without words wrenched out of context, without subtle observations turned into soapy melodramas — then all parents, both fathers and mothers alike, will be made to feel that the common stuff of their affective lives are reasons for shame.