I spent most of the first year of my older son’s life in a haze, trying to navigate between his overwhelming need, my overwhelming desire to be a good mom, postpartum depression, doctoral coursework, sleep deprivation, and social isolation. This form of life was so new to me, and at times so desolate, that it took a long time to notice that aspects of it were deeply, deeply familiar.
Not my altered mother body that looked like it belonged to someone else; nor the way I was now smilingly by firmly shut out of mix-gender grown-up conversation, to be addressed only later, as an afterthought, with “And how is the baby doing?”; nor the intrusive sing-song-voice questions from strangers. Those were bizarre, unexpected and disorienting.
What felt familiar, though – as I eventually realized — was the combination of vast privilege, intense and anxious self-scrutiny, and utter lack of self-regard that I found now situated my life. Here, specifically, is how it finally dawned on me, one day when my son was out of infancy and I’d just come back from a Weight Watchers meeting. “Oh!” I thought. “Being a good mother is like dieting!”
At the time, I didn’t consider that in a “Holy shit, that just goes to show how they’re both ridiculous and futile enterprises!” I thought that I could marshall my discipline from dieting into discipline for good motherhood. But since I started giving up on both fantasies – the fantasy of being an acceptably-good mother and the fantasy of being an acceptably-pretty girl/woman – I’ve though a lot about how far the similarities really extend, and here’s what I’ve got so far:
First, there’s the fact that multiple oppressions help define the scope of an already-oppressively-gendered competition. The dominant culture’s possibilities for “pretty enough woman” and the dominant culture’s possibilities for “good enough mother,” are both fraught with racist, heterosexist, classist, and ableist assumptions. By the time the serious competition starts, many people are already ruled out and told, “You might as well not try.”
But if you are one who’s made it past the audition round – as I am, as a white moneyed able-bodied in-betweenie – then there are the methods, the expert books, the products to get you from “before” to “after”, the results-not-typical testimonies from people for whom a certain program worked, the manufacturing of insecurities so you’ll buy this book or that product.
And, of course, the self-denial made into virtue, where you get more applause and affirmation the more you sacrifice. Which is not to say the self-sacrifice should ever – EVER – make you truly unhappy. You can gripe a bit, sure, but when pressed you may only say how fulfilled and happy you feel at all the virtuous sacrifices you are making for what’s best.
There’s also an assumption that “responsible” eating/parenting requires retention of vast stores of information about every little situation, every bite, every nutrient, every variable that puts your body or your child closer to what’s best. What, you DIDN’T know that mustard has X points / that blueberries are a super food / that that toy was recalled last month / that Montessori education has the following positive outcomes / that the latest IOM or BMJ study says such-and-such / that it’s bad to be too hovering / that it’s bad to be too inattentive / that carbs are good now? / that carbs are still bad? What are you, selfish? Or just stupid and benighted, one of those sheeple who just parents/eats unthinkingly with no connoisseurship, health-consciousness, or taste?
Moreover, all those little details have to coalesce into a Special Way of Doing Things. An eating program, a “healthy lifestyle,” a parenting philosophy. Nothing can work in practice if it doesn’t work in theory, because it’s the theory that distinguishes you from those poor slobs who just do whatever they want. You certainly can’t just eat on the fly, enjoying what tastes good and what makes you feel good. You have to have a special way you eat that you tell people about with a convert’s zeal. And you certainly can’t just parent on the fly. You have to have even the smallest decision be part of a consistent parenting ethic more substantial than “It was what happened to work right then, for me. For you it might be different.”
And oh God, the way we talk to each other when we’re trying to achieve the ideal. All the “I was bads” and “I did X even though I know I’m supposed to do Y” and “Help me keep my female relatives from sabotaging my plan!” and “My problem is that I just…”
And finally – and I’ve done this, and I hope we can help each other avoid doing this in the comments – there’s the fact that strangers will snicker into their sleeves at how trivial such concerns are. Look at these silly women, working themselves into a dither about calorie counts and organic sleepers. Of course, it’s also those judging strangers who are all too happy to blame you for your selfish eating/parenting, at times when your mere presence — whether as a mother of a child they find insufficiently silent and adorable; or as the possessor of a body they find insufficiently, um, silent and adorable -– gives them an ookie feeling.
Forgive me, I’ve been leading seminars and can’t help but throw out some discussion questions. What do you make of this? Do you see these similarities too, or am I overreaching, pulling a Roiphe, saying “Here’s my master theory for everything based on the experiences of me and my six friends!”? Have I and my mothering cohort been so formed by weight loss that we inevitably bring it to bear upon other areas of embodied life? Or is it the case that dieting, and self-effacing competitive mothering are both instances of some more general artifice that frames a certain sector of privileged women? Is there a way to talk about this that isn’t all WON’T SOMEONE PLEASE THINK OF THE POOR MONEYED WHITE GIRLS?!?! What are your perspectives — those who are mothers and those who aren’t, those who get entered in the pageant and those who don’t — on self-effacing hypervigilant motherhood and dieting?