So I’m back at it again. I’ve had so much to write and so little time, mostly because I am
constantly ‘busy’ doing ‘stuff’ like cleaning or looking for work or driving the child instead of writing. Not that I expect to earn money from a blog, but it’s a great writing exercise and, as all pros know, doing anything well requires discipline and consistency. So I’m attempting a bit of both here. I’ve got lots to say, it’s just a matter of saying it.
On the topic of mothering and being a mother, I read a fascinating novel/memoir/anthropological field study called ‘Primates of Park Avenue‘ by Wednesday Martin. The book is about that very particular group of New York mothers that inhabit the Upper East Side (UES), which is truly a very different world in terms of wealth, status, privilege, expectations and lifestyle. I have not been there myself, nor do I know anyone who lives there but I read a lot and am familiar with some of the social and societal peculiarities of these very wealthy families.
(On a side note, I also read a book about another group of the financial elite called ‘Crazy Rich Asians‘ by Kevin Kwan which is not about crazy Asians but about crazy rich Asians and is a fascinating look at reclusive and moneyed Singaporean families but not particularly about kids.)
Back to the Park Avenue stories. The anthropological commentary is an interesting adjunct to the story because it tells how we, as humans, have completely changed focus in our idea of ‘family’ in a number of ways.
CEO, Motherhood INC. or Killin’ it on Park Avenue
One of the first observations the author makes is that these mothers, who are themselves highly educated at elite universities and have held prestigious jobs—think hedge fund managers and lawyers—dedicate their entire being to raising successful children as stay-at-home mums. Their motivation is to ensure that their children get into the right preschool, leading to the right private school, then a top university (preferably Ivy League) and that they are taking the right classes and cultivating the right hobbies whilst attending the right events with the right people and so on, until they are married off to a person of similar wealth and status thereby ensuring the survival of the lineage.
According to the author, who reports without judgement or malice even though she’s an outsider at first, the UES mothers are very adept and ruthless in managing every aspect of their offspring’s lives from toddler music appreciation and Mandarin lessons to organizing playdates with the right people. Mothers’ entire lives revolve around the success of their children and every dress they buy, event they attend, summer house they rent is done with an eye to providing the right environment for their offspring to thrive and succeed. Mothers are congratulated on the child’s achievements and blamed for their failures which is, I suppose, pretty much the case in most first world countries, but apparently it’s magnified to the Nth degree on the Upper East Side. This is helicopter parenting at its finest or most horrendous depending on how you look at it.
Assets: 9 Children, 3 Cows, 3 Pigs, 8 Sheep
The author also notes that historically, large families were seen as a type of wealth. Children were loved but were also currency for success. When children were raised communally, they were valued as future hunters/warriors and gatherers/nurturers necessary to ensure the survival of the tribe. Even when we evolved into nuclear family units, young children were responsible for basic chores, helping around the house and caring for the younger children. A child’s net cost was food and clothing as there were no ballet classes or hockey practices, but the potential payoff was significant in terms of building the family wealth and/or status: Sons could work the land or work in the family business. Daughters could make advantageous marriages to expand and solidify land holdings or business success.
This is SO not the case now. Children are not ‘useful’ in modern civilization and represent a financial liability to their parents so large families (4+ kids) are pretty rare. Of course we view our children as assets in sentimental and emotional terms; however, they would correctly be labelled as liabilities, as an asset, by definition, produces income or has financial value. The expense of raising a child—in hard costs for food, clothing, education, lessons etc. and loss of potential income from a parent—is significant. Obviously, very few Park Avenue families would experience financial limitations, but are constrained by the time commitments necessary to produce a ‘successful’ child; even with a nanny, housekeeper and a driver, it is unlikely that even the most organized and dedicated UES mother could efficiently manage more than four children.
Child Status: The Light of My Life (AKA Centre-of-the-Universe)
The place and status of a child in the family has changed dramatically and is now based on sentiment rather than utility. We have evolved to the point where children are born and become the focus of the family with a significant portion of the family resources are devoted to their care. This was never the case historically as children were not overly useful for the first few years.
As a personal note about the ‘centre-of-the-universe’ idea of children in families, the only book (and I read them ALL) that helped me when Karis was an infant and would not sleep more than 2 hours during the night, believed that the baby should be welcomed as a new member of the tribe but certainly not the focus. The author advocated putting the baby on a schedule starting at 6am and waking her up every 90 minutes to feed with structured naptime based on the baby’s age and weight because YOU are the parents and YOU need to guide this helpless infant and help her learn to manage life on the planet (AKA parent-directed feeding). So anyway, I followed the schedule and the child slept through the night on the first day. Of course I didn’t sleep that first night because I kept checking on her, but she slept through the night from that day forwards. Coincidence? I don’t know. Anyway, I later found out the book was by a pseudo-Christian religious cult and has mixed reviews so I don’t tend to recommend it 😉
My Tribe: It Takes a Village
One final idea the author touches on is the idea of communal childcare. I won’t give away the ending of the novel, but suffice to say that the author does connect with the UES tribe and they rally round her in her time of need. I think we need more of that in our lives. Karis attended private school from K-5 and that’s where I met the ladies of my tribe. We spent a great deal of time together when the kids were young and, as a result, the kids did too. They weren’t all particular friends but they managed to get along together with a minimum of fuss as it was simply the way it was. They knew that they could be picked up by any number of mothers who would arrive with a snack and the necessary gear for ballet or soccer as the case may be. They knew that ‘any mum would do’ and became comfortable with all the mums in the tribe. Best of all, they knew that even if their mum didn’t know about or see a particular transgression, some mum did. And it was only a matter of time before you were found out. Any mum will do…stay tuned for Part 2.