I was all set to agree with much of Erica Jong's complaint in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal about the modern "orgy of motherphilia" (always the sex with her!) until I read her daughter Molly’s take on the matter. Never was there a more perfect two generational snapshot of mothering mores.
Jong, of course, looks down on our generation of mothers. She has the usual list of complaints: celebrity baby bumps, attachment parenting, homemade organic baby food. American mothers and fathers, she writes, "run themselves ragged trying to mold perfect children."
Her ultimate diagnosis:
What is so troubling about these theories of parenting-both pre- and postnatal-is that they seem like attempts to exert control in a world that is increasingly out of control. We can't get rid of the carcinogens in the environment, but we can make sure that our kids arrive at school each day with a reusable lunch bag full of produce from the farmers' market. We can't do anything about loose nukes falling into the hands of terrorists, but we can make sure that our progeny's every waking hour is tightly scheduled with edifying activities.
I for one don’t worry much about carcinogens, either, but I do endlessly ponder the problem of control. Lately, for example, I have been thinking about the phrase "terrible twos." I have a 2-year old. He is my third child. With my other two children I was probably teaching them Chinese or reading them Proust by now, but this time around I am just delighted by his delightfulness. I would rather spend time with him than do most things not because I worry he is not intellectually stimulated enough or the nanny is sneaking him nonorganic snacks but because he is more interesting than most of the other things I daily engage in. Sure, he has a tantrum or two, but "terrible"? Where would that phrase possibly come from?
I don’t know the origin of the phrase, but my only conclusion is that we call them the "terrible twos" because this is the moment parents start to truly lose control of their children. Until now, the baby is basically an appendage. He or she might cause you to lose sleep or work less efficiently, but the crises are of your own making, and about your identity. But at 2, a child is truly becoming a separate person. They want things, they demand things, and they start to become actual individuals whose personalities may or may not be to your liking. They may not care at all about Proust, or dried unsweetened apples, or whatever else is on your agenda. They have the potential, in other words, of becoming less "my child" and more the houseguest who won’t go away. And for many people that maybe seems "terrible." So maybe it's true that we see all things child-related through the lens of control, and that not only colors our entire experience but prevents us from actually seeing the child we are spending so much time hovering over. Ditto all those "edifying activities."
Now back to the Jongs. Daughter Molly is a stay-at-home mother with three children who can not imagine getting much work done while raising her children. Her mother, she says, was indulgent and loving but not around much. Here is the meanest part:
In the '80s my mother left my father. She got shoulder pads. She was made fun of in Spy magazine. She traveled the world. I lived in a town house with a hot pink door in New York City with my nanny Margaret and Sugo the houseman, who had a mole that had hair growing out of it. Mom made money, bought me expensive handbags and tried the best she could to relate to me. But she was famous, always touring, always working, always trying to cling to the New York Times best-seller list.
And now, the part that must kill Erica Jong. Its possible that Erica, with her pot smoking and liberation, created the helicopter beast.
Ironically, it was because of my mother's hard work that I have the life I do now. She worked hard so that the women of my generation could have the choice to work or to stay home. She slept in hotel rooms in San Diego so that I could cuddle with my own children. She spoke to large groups of women in Toledo so that I could work at the school book fair. We can devote ourselves to our work, or we can decide to be 1950s June Cleaver types. And that's because of the sacrifices that my mom and her feminist comrades made.
So now, you see, I don’t know what to think. Because I want to be on Erica’s side in all this, but I would never leave my children with Margaret and Sugo for months. But cuddling all day brings to my mind the word "suffocation," and only this week I turned down the chance to work in the book fair.
Photograph of Erica Jong by Michael Loccisano for Getty Images.