December
24th 2009
“On Being a Bad Mother,” by Sandra Tsing Loh

Posted under: American history, art, childhood, class, Gender, unhappy endings

annetaintoryouropinionFor those of you who will be doing battle at an airport, train, or bus station near you for your holiday travels, pick up a copy of The Atlantic (December 2009) and read Sandra Tsing Loh’s “On Being a Bad Mother.”  (Some of you may have read her article in The Atlantic last summer, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” in which she used the occasion of leaving her own marriage to ask some provocative questions about the usefulness of marriage as an institution for the rest of us.)  Interestingly, the nominal hook for her “Bad Mother” essay is a review of Ayelet Waldman’s recent book, Bad Mother, and Germaine Greer’s not-at-all recent The Female Eunuch (1970). 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Tsing Loh finds the whole fashion of modern self-proclaimed “bad mothers” to be more than a little twee.  As she explains,

[t]hen again, my view is biased, as I myself am not just an imperfect mother, I am a badmother. I am bad not in that fluttery, anxious, 21st-century way educated middle-class mothers consider themselves “failures” because they snap when they are tired, because they occasionally feed their kids McNuggets, because as they journal they soulfully question whether they’re mindfully attaining a proper daily work/life balance. No, I am bad because after a domestic partnership of 20 years, when my kids were still elementary-school-age, I fell in love, had an affair, admitted it, and quite deservedly got tossed out of the house on my ass. Currently between homes (my earthly belongings reside in a 10-by-10-foot windowless U-Haul storage unit whilst I alternately house-sit, pool-sit, and cat-sit), I furtively park at the curb of my former home for an extra few minutes after dropping my kids off and, with my laptop, I steal wireless. Approaching 50, I am living a life that is less sunlit [Ayelet] Waldman/[Michael] Chabon than tattered Charles Bukowski.

In short, I am truly bad, in a 1970s way—that decade when women really were bad!

She goes on to review (briefly) Waldman’s and Greer’s books, finding a perfect sentence in The Female Eunuch that describes marriage as “two bewildered individuals trying to apply a contradictory blueprint,” one that is necessarily a more fragile basis for family life than what Greer calls “stem” (extended, multigenerational) families.  Think about matrilineal and matrilocal Native American peoples like the Cherokee and Iroquois in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries–their families were very stable because fathers weren’t all that important, and there was none of that European Christian obsession with identifying paternity and “legitimizing” children–as if there is such a thing as an illegitimate child. 

Tsing Loh also comments on the kerfuffle on blogs caused by her publication of “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” this summer.  (In case you didn’t hear–women aren’t permitted to say that adultery is fun and that leaving a marriage might be a regrettable but necessary decision):

So my two-career companionate marriage—of traveling tag-team parents—was ending. Now we civilly hand off our children much as we’ve always done (my ex is on the road 20 weeks a year). Because our gypsy children seem okay, because I’d been honest about my shortcomings as a wife and mother, because we are more than 40 years after Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, I’d thought mine was a sad but not atypical tale to cite in The Atlantic as a jumping-off point for a discussion about the state of modern American marriage, but No!!! Oh, the shock, the outrage, the vitriol, the tying to the bumpers of and being dragged behind blogs large and small all across our fair nation! Oh, the plasterings with a scarlet A, the media stonings. I fielded so many horrified condolence calls after one particularly savage L.A. Times profile of me that I found myself plaintively asking a friend, “Don’t you think the word crucifixion is overused nowadays? Do we have to keep using the word crucifixion?” But what particularly surprised me was the ire of some of my own sisters in the chattering class—college-educated, affluent NPR listeners/New York Times readers. In the old days, for better or worse, members of this privileged demographic would have been on female liberation’s front lines. Now they were among the most censorious. “YOU MUST GO BACK HOME!” one girlfriend of mine (56, married, Boomer professional, no kids) typed in block letters. “THINK OF THE CHILDREN!”

thelma&louiseWho here is really surprised by the fact that it was her “sister” guardians of class privilege who told her YOU MUST GO BACK because of THE CHILDREN?  (I’m not.)  I share Tsing Loh’s nostalgia for the bad mothers of the 1970s–at least they’d have friends who would meet them for coffee or let them stay with them, instead of making her poach wireless from her ex-husband or make her way as a social leper welcome only in people’s home to look after cats and/or pools.  A friend of Tsing Loh’s comments, “It feels like we’re living in the ’50s.”

Maybe that wasn’t such a bad place to be after all, Tsing Loh argues–instead of today, when “[w]eekends are a manic whirl of Kids’ Science Museums, Baby Mozart concerts, and laboriously educational “craft” days when, instead of dumping kids and going off for a 1950s-style hairdressing-and-martini break, mothers are expected to sit down and glue things with their children for seven and a half hours.”  Sensibly, she asks what all of this pasting and worrying and car-seat-installing is for:

And for what? Why do we agonize? David Sedaris is one of the most successful writers of his generation, and his chain-smoking mother is known for drinking herself into a glaze and locking her five children out of the house on a snow day.

Now that’s a role model I can live up to!

30 Comments »

30 Responses to ““On Being a Bad Mother,” by Sandra Tsing Loh”

  1. New Kid on the Hallway on 24 Dec 2009 at 1:57 pm #

    I would have more sympathy to her message if I didn’t find Tsing Loh’s writing some of the most self-absorbed I’ve ever read. I just have a hard time believing that because her marriage went bad, the institution of marriage itself is inherently suspect. Which is really what the summer piece read like to me, and what the criticism I’ve seen has focused on. “Being a Bad Mother” seemed to share exactly the same flaws.

    (There was a great discussion of this piece over at 11D back in November.)

  2. Comrade PhysioProf on 24 Dec 2009 at 2:34 pm #

    I would have more sympathy to her message if I didn’t find Tsing Loh’s writing some of the most self-absorbed I’ve ever read.

    I have formed no opinion on the sociopolitical dimension, but in relation to her writing, I found it both exceedingly self-absorbed *and* exceedingly absorbing. The descriptions of her car and all the shit in it were gripping.

  3. Historiann on 24 Dec 2009 at 2:49 pm #

    She’s an autobiographical essayist–it’s her job to be self-absorbed!

    I think she’s funny, and no more self-absorbed than David Foster Wallace was, or John Updike, or Nora Ephron’s essays. But–there is no accounting for tastes: either you like her, or you don’t. I think she’s doing a brave job in writing about the problems and tensions in middle-class marriage and family life. (And, you can’t accuse her of being anything but self-deprecating–she’s not setting herself up as a paragon of virtue and having-it-all-togetherness, unlike the odious Caitlyn Flanagan, who used to write for The Atlantic.)

  4. Comrade PhysioProf on 24 Dec 2009 at 3:09 pm #

    the odious Caitlyn Flanagan

    Odious is putting it mildly. AUUGGHHHHH!!!!!!!!!

  5. KC on 24 Dec 2009 at 3:35 pm #

    I think women who have affairs and seek out happiness are good role models for their children. I really do. The bad mothers, and they are out there, are the ones who psychologically, physically, or sexually abuse their children while pretending that their fidelity to the concept of “marriage” makes them “good.” And of course, I would say the same for fathers.

  6. Annie Em on 24 Dec 2009 at 3:44 pm #

    I always look forward to Loh’s Atlantic essays (one of the highlights of the magazine, frankly), and like other talented essayists/memoirists, she uses her own experiences as social commentary, and she does it with wit and style.

    Ann has quoted my favorite parts (Loh’s and your last lines are both so Sedaris-like!)….but I haven’t seen anyone mention this connection:

    That “think of the children” is a key line in Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” when Adele Ratignolle, who just gave birth to yet another child, says it to Edna Pontellier, who left the man she loves waiting at her home for her (or so she thinks) to be with Adele as she had earlier promised.

    That line obviously haunts Loh as much as it did poor Edna, but lucky for us, Loh has chosen to write about it rather than drown. So 21st century (and certainly bloggy) of her!

  7. Susan on 24 Dec 2009 at 5:19 pm #

    I haven’t read Loh’s essay, but it’s an interesting set of ideas. Is it my imagination, or is part of the problem that we’re expecting the family to be an ever more important part of everyone’s life? For all the 50s stuff about motherhood and not working, my mother would never have spent all day at a craft workshop with us, and even in NYC, we had an enormous amount of freedom to explore from a relatively young age. And even before they divorced, my parents clearly had separate lives/friends/connections. If people are more focused on making the family work, the tensions which have long been present in marriage are exacerbated when you are dealing with two people who are expected to be self-actualizing individuals (i.e. 21st century middle class educated NPR listening adults). You can fully self-actualize, or you can be part of a completely fulfilling and absorbing family unit, but you can’t do both. I occasionally think that people who accept that part of the price of marriage is NOT just doing what you want are the real radicals…noting of course that there is a difference between adjusting and being crushed by a partner.

  8. Z on 24 Dec 2009 at 5:39 pm #

    Love the post. Someone really needs to be saying these things, it’s very salutary, and KC is right in my view.

  9. feMOMhist on 25 Dec 2009 at 12:54 pm #

    I’ve been a fan of Loh’s for years. Essayists are meant to exploit their personal lives. Possibly best line ever about motherhood comes from Chopin “I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself.” I prefer to think of myself as Winicott’s “good enough” mother.

  10. Anastasia on 25 Dec 2009 at 7:33 pm #

    I have to think the observation that increasingly the people who are married and making a go of family and motherhood were raised by divorced parents. I don’t mean Tsing Loh specifically. I just know a good number of people my age who are less sympathetic to the parental pursuit of happiness as reason for divorce than we might be because we grew up in the midst of divorces ourselves. I don’t think people who pursue affairs are good role models. Deception is nothing to be emulated by anyone, I don’t care what your politics are. Divorce is perhaps a more open question. But I know I’m far less amenable to the idea of both divorces and extramarital affairs given the absolute mess my parents made of my family of origin.

    I realize I sound like a jerk. I’m just trying to observe that I see this very differently because of the way I grew up and the way I grew up makes me less tolerant of divorce because I’m less inclined to tell myself the children will be fine.

  11. Anastasia on 25 Dec 2009 at 7:34 pm #

    My grammar is a mess in that sentence. I meant I have to make the observation, I think.

  12. KC on 25 Dec 2009 at 8:50 pm #

    This is not an easy discussion to have because our individual backgrounds play a large role in how we see this. But I used to wish, hope, and pray when I was a child that my parents would get a divorce, just so that the horribly abusive dynamic in the house would change in some way. If one of my parents had had an affair that would have at least taught me that one can be defiant and irresponsible without destroying the universe.

  13. LadyProf on 25 Dec 2009 at 9:50 pm #

    Ditto KC–my mother took WAY too long to unload my father. Her lack of money was her main reason. In one of her novels Peter de Vries had a character say (approximate memory, 25 years later), “I was the victim of an unbroken home, or the victim of an intact one.”

    You could try to draw an abuse line and say that when there’s abuse, divorce should follow, and when there isn’t, it shouldn’t. But the line isn’t always bright. I think neutrality on the to-divorce-or-not question makes better policy. Culture in the U.S. and most nations already puts a huge thumb on the scale favoring staying married.

  14. LadyProf on 25 Dec 2009 at 9:56 pm #

    Sorry, *his* novel! The late Peter was male.

  15. susurro on 26 Dec 2009 at 5:01 am #

    While I do think we can learn a lot abt middle class policing and what it means for the overall mainstream feminist movement I’m not sure we can generalize outward much further than that from these two articles. It seems to me there are larger questions to ask that she seems to be pointing to but perhaps unwilling to address (at least as presented here) abt why so many came out of the 70s and then invested in the 50s in more ways than one. What socio-political commitments underneath it all lead certain women out of self-proclaimed radicalism and into the suburbs or hipster gentrification and opened the door way for those willing to “fail at middle class public standards” to become such pariahs? In other words, I think there is a larger tale here abt ongoing strains in mainstream feminism that police “their own” and fail to connect with “others” beyond, she had an affair and “we” dared to judge her.

  16. Miranda on 26 Dec 2009 at 5:27 am #

    Divorce, if the two people aren’t suited, is perfectly acceptable. There’s no point in being miserable your entire life.

    But I have no sympathy for anyone who commits adultery. My father was a serial adulterer, and it caused anger and pain and fighting to a level that sent me under my bed at least once. Things were better after the divorce, although Mom and I ate a lot of eggs because we didn’t have much money. Nothing wrong with eggs, and lots of people had it worse.

    So Sandra can pretty much bite me.

  17. Historiann on 26 Dec 2009 at 6:51 am #

    I think Susurro is right that “there is a larger tale here abt ongoing strains in mainstream feminism that police “their own” and fail to connect with “others” beyond, she had an affair and “we” dared to judge her.” Tsing Loh’s framing equates “female liberation” with adultery–and maybe that’s what she’s nostalgic for. But, as she says, her partner wasn’t a creep or an abuser–he just wasn’t exciting to her any more, hence the affair.

    How many women my age (30s and 40s) who were children in the 1970s, the big decade of middle-class divorce, think that? (For other than self-serving reasons, that is.) My guess is that that’s where most of you are, especially those of you who have written of being children of divorced families (Miranda and Anastasia.)

    I still think that women friends should take care of each other, not judge each other. (I think that Tsing Loh was writing of the “judgment” of listeners and readers of her work who e-mailed and blogged their disgust with her, BTW, not necessarily of her personal friends.) Stuff happens in marriages, and people on the outside have no idea what they’re like on the inside. It’s too simplistic to write that adultery = liberation, but it’s also too simplistic to say that in every case divorce is an unqualiified disaster for the children (as KC and LadyProf suggest.)

    Tsing Loh’s own family, when she was married, would have been much better off had they adopted a “stem” family style, since her husband was on the road 20 weeks a year. The burdens we place on heterosexual relationships and the nuclear family are extremely demanding–and whose agendas are served? (As Tsing Loh writes in discussing Greer’s book, it sure makes people who sell durable goods happy, that each family has to have its own appliances, home, and car/s, for example, rather than sharing with other families. . . ) If she had lived in co-housing, for example, that might have alleviated some of the strains, boredom, and resentment that she must have felt when her husband was on the road and she was entirely responsible for her children.

  18. widgeon on 26 Dec 2009 at 8:31 am #

    I don’t think the problem with 70s parenting was divorce, but rather (in some cases) neglect of children’s needs justified by a search for self-knowledge. My parents were divorced, but what was damaging to me was neglect. Not having food in the house, enough clothes etc. I know others who experienced this kind of parenting in the 1970s. There is a middle ground between all-day craft projects and looking after kids basic emotional and physical needs. Some parents in that decade, divorced or not, never found that middle ground. Being their kid sucked. You fended for yourself and it was neither appropriate or safe.

  19. Miranda on 26 Dec 2009 at 9:04 am #

    I think that the problem with most marriages (and with lifestyles in general) is that people don’t think about what they’re doing. I’m sure Loh’s husband being on the road so much was a strain on her. However, was that a new development after the marriage, or did they know that he was going to travel a lot when they got married and had children?

    Part of this, of course, is that Loh is irritating. My car can get pretty messy too, but I don’t write it off as part of my status as creative genius.

    “There is a middle ground between all-day craft projects and looking after kids basic emotional and physical needs.”

    And this to the thousand, widgeon.

  20. KC on 26 Dec 2009 at 10:04 am #

    There is a middle ground between all-day craft projects and looking after kids basic emotional and physical needs.

    So true, and something that is so difficult to achieve. I think the “1970s parenting style” that people are identifying here has been overcompensated for by a lot of parents in the last decade or so, so that now kids are almost getting suffocated by all the overscheduling of practices, recitals, events, lessons, etc. that get stuffed into their daily lives.

  21. Randi on 26 Dec 2009 at 12:20 pm #

    “Broken home”. Now there’s a phrase. Home is only broken when she kicks him out or she leaves. All that he does and doesn’t do before she leaves isn’t breaking anything! At all! I contend men screw around just because they can, until they’re caught and then they’re so contrite; women look elsewhere because they live in a “broken home”.

    We all know marriage is a woman’s responsibility.

  22. LadyProf on 26 Dec 2009 at 1:26 pm #

    ‘Tis my season for half-recalled books that I can’t retrieve via Google. A propos of Randi’s comment, I remember Hugh Drummond, the psychiatrist, writing in one of his books that when women commit adultery it’s generally because their husbands are depriving them of something they deserve, and when men commit adultery it’s generally because they’re self-entitled pigs.

    If Drummond were a woman he’d have been pilloried for saying such a terrible man-hating thing; because he’s a man, his contention was (only) ignored. FWIW, I think there’s a lot of truth there, although I feel pretty sure that a few adulterous women are self-entitled pigs and a few adulterous men suffered an unjust deprivation.

  23. Mark K. on 26 Dec 2009 at 4:43 pm #

    “Stereotypical heteronormative family model is shaky for lots of people” combined with “children of divorced parents often are suspicious of adults claiming personal growth as a justification for leaving households” is a major reason that an increasing number of people in my generation (mid 20s to late 30s) are turning to polyamory.

  24. digger on 26 Dec 2009 at 6:51 pm #

    I was raised in the 70s, a child of divorced parents. I don`t think there`s anything wrong with divorcing for whatever reasons. It ain`t fun, no matter why. If the why is important enough for someone to go through the sh!t, that`s a good enough reason for me.

    The self policing may stem from folks` own insecurities about their own relationships. Perhaps they`re staying `because of the children`… but it sucks to not offer a place to crash or a cup of coffee. Sounds terribly insecure.

  25. Aurora on 26 Dec 2009 at 8:56 pm #

    I read the entire article — a difficult read. It is sad in tone, as one would expect the death of a marriage to be. It seems like she’s trying to rationalize what happened to her and put it in larger context in an effort to come to terms with things. She’s trying to make sense of things, but there’s probably not much sense to be made of this.

    One thing she said caught my eye — as long as her kids have their house and routine they don’t care about what’s happening to their parents. But they should, shouldn’t they? I bet they are taking it badly, but they aren’t showing it and taking comfort in routines. Modern families are astonishingly centred around kid schedules and making sure the kids are comfortable.

    I don’t feel annoyed toward her. Rather I want to offer my sympathies and I suspect she would welcome it.

  26. Historiann on 27 Dec 2009 at 9:40 am #

    Aurora–agreed. It is sad. But, I don’t think young children should *have* to worry about their parents, and I question their capacity to do so. After all, it’s what makes children so adaptable and successful when their families fall apart–so long as their needs are being met, it’s (mostly) all good. It’s probably for the best for them.

    In the period I research, childhood was continually disrupted by death, disease, starvation, warfare, and captivity–across ethnic and class lines, for the most part. The more self-centered children are, I think, the better their chances for adaptation to new parents/new environments/new homes, and thus the better their chances for survival.

    I know it must be disturbing for most modern parents to know that their children would not only survive but even thrive after a parent’s premature death, but I think it should be comforting. Who cares if a child remembers you clearly or grieves your loss, so long as she grows up to become a healthy, strong, and functional adult?

    Digger: I agree that the injunction by others to stay in marriages probably indicates some feelings of “I settled–why shouldn’t you?”

  27. Indyanna on 27 Dec 2009 at 3:12 pm #

    Random footnote to this post from the Sunday sports page: “Over lunch on the veranda at the Masters one year, Earl Woods said, ‘I’ve told Tiger that marriage is unnecessary in a mobile society like ours.’ ” [NY Times, Sports Sunday, December 27, 2009, p. 4].

  28. Kathleen Lowrey on 27 Dec 2009 at 7:26 pm #

    how could anybody not love a writer who ends that long quote about yoga / attainment / and mothering with

    “Well, okay.”

    ?

    I am laffin and laffin.

  29. susurro on 28 Dec 2009 at 4:17 am #

    “If she had lived in co-housing, for example, that might have alleviated some of the strains, boredom, and resentment that she must have felt when her husband was on the road and she was entirely responsible for her children.”

    This is an interesting potential solution, and one ppl have tried or use regularly, and that gets me back to the investment in a certain kind of middle class attainment/ capitalism that seems out of step with rhetorical strategies in mainstream feminism. Maybe I’m just having one of my “see how capitalism is failing everywhere, do you really want that or the shame that goes with failing to get it? really?” moments instead of focusing more closely on the problems she does raise, which are valid and disconcerting.

  30. Professor Zero on 29 Dec 2009 at 7:29 am #

    Good points, Susurro; thanks for broadening this discussion as you have.

    “why so many came out of the 70s and then invested in the 50s in more ways than one”

    I think it is because a lot of those 70s parents did not take the 70s ideas very seriously. Sure, they took advantage them in egotistical ways but it was rather superficial. So the kids got the disadvantages of the 50s and the 70s and none of the advantages, and since they didn’t remember the actual 50s these became easy to idealize.

    A lot of my current students’ parents — people in their 30s and 40s (it’s easy to be 35 and have a child who’s a freshman in college, remember) — had and have poor impulse control, and get into a fair amount of trouble for this reason. This is why the kids so idealize authoritarian structures.