Bad Mothers

Sandra Tsing Loh sort of reviews Aylet Waldman's Bad Mother. Loh mostly talks about her life, since she publicly self-combusted on the pages of Atlantic Monthly. Her marriage is over and she's homeless. Her essay isn't even really about motherhood. It's about tragedy. It's about the fragility of the intact, middle-class family and the heroics of the extended family. That woman needs a hug.


71 thoughts on “Bad Mothers

  1. That woman needs a hug.
    Or a slap or something. What a terrible essay- I couldn’t finish it, though it did make me quite sure I didn’t want to read the terrible, deeply self-indulgent sounding book. What unpleasant people.

  2. Why does the Atlantic continue to let people bleed out their personal lives on its pages? Don’t we as readers deserve more than this? The egocentricity and self-indulgence/navel-gazing of it all just repels me.

  3. I’m not going to admit to wanting to slap someone, but Tsing Loh lost me at “The very success of the modern American family-—where kids get punctually to SAT-tutoring classes, the mortgage gets paid, the second-story remodel stays on budget-—surely depends on spouses’ not being in love.”
    This is the second time now that it wasn’t enough for the author to write about the collapse of her own marriage, but rather had to make that collapse the result of an unavoidable and inevitable flaw at the heart of all (hetero) marriage.
    People should be allowed to tell themselves whatever stories will keep them moving through their days, but editors who publish those stories for the spikes they’ll get in readership due to the “controversy” have won my contempt, not my subscription dollars.

  4. OK, I had to finish it, and now I hate this essay even more.
    You want to know why I don’t find 1970s-era “me first” motherhood a useful model? Because my mother was one of those moms, and she left to have an affair, too. And I was Not Okay. I mean, I’m okay now. All three of us kids in that marriage are doing very well now.
    But I’m not going to end any essays about any stage of that experience with odes to the kids’ contentment. We were flayed alive.
    Tsing-Loh can figure out that no functional suburban family could possible be founded on a loving couple who has regular sex, but she can’t figure out that two grade-school daughters who want their mom to get a job so she can clean out her car (the car, btw, where by Tsing-Loh’s admission they spend a big chunk of their time with her) might be something other than content?
    That’s real brilliance. I’m so glad that Tsing-Loh is the person The Atlantic pays to write articles about modern motherhood.

  5. “the fragility of the intact, middle-class family and the heroics of the extended family”
    If you treat your siblings and parents as badly as Loh has treated her husband, you can most assuredly blow up your extended family relationships. In general, relationships between autonomous adults do not survive extended or severe bad behavior. I suspect that, were Loh’s children not, like all children, rather pitifully ignorant and dependent on her, that relationship might be collapsing even now.

  6. Thanks, Jody, I needed that. There are vast parts of that essay that I didn’t understand. What was the point about her sister-in-law who had a stroke or something?
    I did feel bad for her in this piece though. She sounds quite miserable.

  7. “If you treat your siblings and parents as badly as Loh has treated her husband, you can most assuredly blow up your extended family relationships.”
    For the record, I believe STL has an octogenarian father with a paid-off house in Malibu, so she’s going to be OK, at least financially.

  8. “What was the point about her sister-in-law who had a stroke or something? ”
    To 1) show us that she’s a good person (and I was, frankly, amazed at what she had done for her brother and his children) and 2) to illustrate the multiple bonds that extended family relationships produce. I thought this bit was quite dramatic, and could imagine it telling a completely different story than the one told in this piece (which goes in a bunch of different directions without getting anywhere).
    I think there is, buried in the ramblings of ideas she’s trying on, something worth thinking about — the well-being of children, and the relationship that has to both immediate and extended family networks. I think part of the story about the sister in law who had the stroke was to illustrate that interaction.
    And, although as Y81 says, any relationship can be broken, ones that do not require primacy (like that between husband & wife) may be easier to sustain (albeit at a level that is, by definition different).

  9. “And, although as Y81 says, any relationship can be broken, ones that do not require primacy (like that between husband & wife) may be easier to sustain (albeit at a level that is, by definition different). ”
    OK, this sentence is broken: I mean that husband & wife require primacy, and thus might be harder to sustain than, say, the relationship between sisters, which do not.

  10. STL talks about Germaine Greer and the multigenerational family:
    “But then I turned to her chapter called “Family,” in which she argues that “stem”—or extended, multigenerational—households are inordinately stable; as opposed to today’s two-parent nuclear families, stem homes can never be “broken,” as their success does not “rest on the frail shoulders of two bewildered individuals trying to apply a contradictory blueprint.”
    Anybody who believes that, I sentence you to 90 days of living under the same roof with your in-laws (or your parents). If this happy talk about the multigenerational family is true, you should do fine together.

  11. I don’t condone what she did and that essay certainly isn’t a review but I am still quite sympathetic to her view of family isolation and the requirements of professional-class mothers. And I do agree (I think we’ve discussed it here) that a whole lot of anxiety and alienation is produced by the current state of capitalism where one income simply isn’t enough, so either there’s a lot of daycare or there’s a lot of overwork on one spouse’s part and loneliness on the part of the other spouse, unrelieved by communal supports.
    Also I think, hateable as she likes to make herself, she’s rather a good stylist.

  12. “Anybody who believes that, I sentence you to 90 days of living under the same roof with your in-laws (or your parents). ”
    My parents live across the alley from me (though not in the same house, so it’s not quite the same deal). Compromises are inevitability necessary, as you increase the number of people who are closely involved with each other and the children. But, in return, many more people love my children. I remember reading once of a parent writing that one of the hardest things about not having a father for your children (I can’t remember why she didn’t) was that there was no one else around who could thrill about the details of your children triumphs or who got a similar joy from the curve of their cheek or their laugh. With grandparents so close by, I can share that with so many more people.
    So, I’m not *just* talking theoretical extended family here. I really do, practically, live in one. And, a surprising number of families at my childrens’ schools have grandparents who are involved in their children’s daily lives.
    I don’t know that “stem” households actually require that you live under the same roof, only that you are involved in the details of each others lives.

  13. bj,
    Oops, you got that. Sorry!
    I think there is a pretty big difference between sharing a home and sharing a street, as there is between having visitors staying at a hotel and staying in your home.
    I grew up with my grandparents in easy reach and I certainly wish that my kids saw their grandparents more. However, at the same time, I am very pleased that my housekeeping, parenting, and work ethic are not under constant surveillance by my in-laws. Not that my in-laws are such terrible people, it’s just that it’s an inherently awkward relationship.

  14. I thought that buried within the personal anecdotes, there were some good points there– like after the horrific story about her sister-in-law, she said something kind of brilliant about how many women in her life play the role of mother to people who are not their children. I think that’s absolutely true, and there’s a lot to be mined from that statement. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen here. I thought the story about her SIL also illustrated that when a mother disappears, stepping into that breach can be a huge and heartbreaking job because being a “good” mother is so huge and heartbreaking.
    And Laura, I think you’re right, that the essay does have something to say about the fragility of the middle-class family. How does she not have somewhere to live?

  15. ” Not that my in-laws are such terrible people, it’s just that it’s an inherently awkward relationship. ”
    Well, I actually live in the same town with my in-laws, too. And, I don’t think it’s particularly more of an awkward relationship than any other one. In the end, we balance the difficulty of being under “surveillance” against the value the family and children obtain from the grandparents. Mind you, my parents are pretty amazing and I’m a pretty unsurveiable personality (it’s pretty hard to judge me and have any effect whatsoever), and thus my balancing doesn’t feel very uncomfortable to me. But, in our case, the balance of the awkwardness against the tremendous value both my parents and my children get from seeing each other every day (and the childcare/household support the grandparents provide to the whole family) far outweighs the awkwardness of having more people in my house a lot of the time.
    (and yes, I do recognize that being next door, think like that tv sitcom, is very different — better — than sharing the same house).

  16. She does indeed sound quite miserable. So she seems determined to make any readers equally miserable, partly by blaming them for somehow being complacently happy and therefore making her feel inextricably compelled to seek her bohemian freedom by defying our lousy bourgeous conformity.
    It was like reading the longest teenager’s diatribe against Establishment parents ever.

  17. Tsing-Loh is probably not homeless because of economic circumstances. She’s house-sitting, cat-sitting, shacking up in various locations, while she figures out where she wants to go next.
    Why do I think she’s doing this? Well, granted I’m projecting my mother onto her, but these sentences rang true to me:
    “And indeed all women I know play that role for somebody—like it or not. They herd and feed and remind and buck up and do their best to stuff the nightstand with treats against life’s inevitable horrors and generally expend a great deal of time and energy tending to many different people in many different contexts. To be a mother—-even simply to be a woman—-in today’s world is to be made exhausted and resentful by a role or set of roles that we don’t recall deliberately choosing. … I find that, for now, my relationship with my own girls is wonderfully simple.”
    In other words, Tsing-Loh is homeless because she wants out of the motherhood that bored and exhausted her. She doesn’t want to be a Creative Woman Mother anymore. She wants to go back and be the girl in the L-shaped apartment that smells of curry, and have every choice in the world in front of her. Hell, she wants to mourn her love affair.
    Once Tsing-Loh gets an apartment, she’ll have to set up a permanent custody arrangement. She’ll have to decide either to abandon her daughters entirely or to accept that she can’t ever stop being a mother, she can only redefine that in a way that works better for her than the old way. She’ll have to take up some of the labor of motherhood again.
    That story about her SIL? Tsing-Loh tells it immediately after asking, what is a mother FOR anyway? What’s her answer? To paraphrase, “You do all this WORK based on your dreams of the future, but those dreams could be shattered as you bend down to pick up a toy, and then someone else, out of a feeling of obligation to your children, will have to pick up the labor after you.” Tsing-Loh wrote that she, the least-crafty person in the world, sat for hours in her SIL’s long-term care room doing craft projects out of a sense of obligation to the stories her nieces and nephews would tell in the future.
    Tsing-Loh is exhausted and she thought that the only escape was the total escape. Someday her children will work their way through to a place where they can separate the exhausting, stultifying, rejected labor from themselves as the children who imposed the labor — but they probably aren’t there yet. Right now, they’re probably still in the place where they figure they’re the ones who made her leave.

  18. What I find odd is her insistence, without much to back it up, that her children are fine in the present, and therefore all will be well in the future. When in fact those poor kids have no idea that they are in for a lifetime of hassle, wasted time, missed holidays, and generally wearing a track in the dirt between their parent’s houses. God help us all when divorced parents get old– it’s misery to try and care for them separately.

  19. She does indeed sound quite miserable. So she seems determined to make any readers equally miserable…
    If that were really her goal, I think she could find a way to write in the NYT Style section.

  20. Yes–has she done Modern Love yet??? That’s the column that makes me roll my eyes till they hurt, weekly.
    Maybe it’s just me but I’d rather read about a mother being wilfully transient and looking for the next thing and hoping it will come out OK for her kids than one desperately justifying bourgeois misery on behalf of the kids. And I have read an awful lot of mommybloggery like that so maybe I too am in reaction. Marriages slowly crumbling because Mom is living in a bubble of her and kids and trying to make it perfect and having less and less in common with adult humans including the husband. I feel like I’ve overheard a million stories like that.
    Oh yeah, I am a child of 70s divorce and benign neglect, also. Not saying it was all perfect but I don’t think the moving around did me much harm. (The nastiness of the parental relations, yes; also having young, clueless parents who didn’t have much ability to distance their kids from their personal lives.)

  21. But it wasn’t a wreck of an article, whatever the wrecks it describes. I’ve liked Loh’s writing since “Depth Takes a Holiday” and thought this was well-written. The first block quote and her following two words manage to be more complete as a review of a book than most 800 word articles.
    Also, I think the SIL issue might make the whole affair make more sense. Isn’t the usual male midlife crisis affair a state of avoiding thoughts of death by sleeping with somebody who is (statistically speaking) much further from it?

  22. “I’ve liked Loh’s writing since “Depth Takes a Holiday” and thought this was well-written.”
    I’ve liked her for a number of years, too, and was really hoping that after “Mother on Fire” she’d turn into America’s funniest education writer. That could still happen, but it’s not looking good. That’s the worst of people who are in the middle of divorces–they talk about them to everyone they meet for literally YEARS.

  23. I really disagree with Loh about her point that we do the hard work of parenting with its boring craft projects, because of the long term goal of a having a tender, but distant relationship with a grown up child. If she think craft projects are boring and annoying, she should try parenting a special needs kid with the mountains of paperwork, therapy schedules, and tears from a frustrated child. Or even a perfect normal, but spacy kid who announces fifteen minutes before school that he needs a baby picture and two white t-shirts. Humpf.
    We parent because it’s the right thing to do. We potty train and watch Elmo and help with the tough math problems, because it’s a good thing to help others. And, as an added benefit, it makes us better people. It takes away from continued reflection on ourselves; nothing is more boring than listen to someone talk about themselves all the time.
    We parent, because in between the drudgery of homework and diapers, there are moments of fun.
    We parent, because it is an act of creativity to raise a kid and shape them into a cool human being.
    I have to think that Loh knows all that, but she is too miserable about destroying her own life to remember those things.

  24. We parent because we are biologically driven to do so.
    We parent because hopefully (besides biologically) we’ve fallen in love with these little human beings, and put their needs before ours- defying logic.

  25. We parent because a ten minute conversation with a three-year-old to explain that daddy will not let him drive the car is less frustrating than conversations with coworkers and other people that you cannot physically move when logic does not move them.

  26. I’m just not sure where “right thing to do” fits into behavior (in general). So, I’d say that we invest in parenting because of the short term rewards and hopes about the long term. The same neediness that can drive us crazy is also a tremendous reinforcer. When I’m trying to type at my computer and my 5 year old climbs on to my lap for the gazilionth time, it’s annoying, but it’s also tremendously warm and cuddly and adorable. We parent because we care about our children, and want them to be happy going into the future.
    I think Loh has lost sight of that, temporarily, and, perhaps, is at a point when the balance seems negative, where there reinforcers are less rewarding than the burdens. During those periods, she made an irrevocable decision that has changed her life going forward (the affair) and she’s working through her new reality.
    But, I think people who are blaming her as a mother — there’s nothing in her writing that suggests that she’s abandoned her children in any way other than having betrayed their father. We could argue that reproducing means never betraying the other parent of their child, if you are to be a “good” parent, but we know that many humans fail at that endeavor. Her response to that result (for her and others — though certainly not everyone, and part of everyone’s complaint here is her allegations that everyone is doomed to failure and those who haven’t failed yet are living another kind of lie of the marital ideal) is to talk about ways that children could be less dependent on the structure that fails a fair percent of the time.
    That’s a discussion I can get behind, because I do think that divorce has a significant and wrenching impact on children, who do not get to make the decision. On the other hand, I think that we cannot force parents to love each other, certainly, and we can’t even force them to stay married to each other. We can try to incent the behaviors that make those things more likely. We can try to educate people about the impact. We can try to make sure that obligations to children do not disappear when the pair bond breaks up.

  27. Hello! She can’t stand anything that isn’t about her. She’s managed to once again make it all about her, by disrupting the structures that were all about her kids. And then writing about it very publicly. Yuck.
    For the record I also dislike men who do this sort of thing.

  28. “disrupting the structures that were all about her kids”
    What, marriage is all about her kids? That’s not my view.
    And, would we be having the same discussion if she’d just walked out on her husband, rather than having an affair first? Does it matter that she betrayed her marriage vows on this path, or is it just leaving the marriage for which she should be
    (I think writing about your life when it also involves your kids is a more complicated question that I don’t have clear answers about, even about what I would do — as opposed to what I think others should do)

  29. Oh, and I probably agree that she can’t stand that it isn’t all about her. It’s a characteristic shared by many “artistic” temperaments, and the history of her writing suggests that she craves instability and drama. Should such a person never have become a parent? Perhaps, but it’s not a choice we get to make.
    Are we going further and stating that parents (and really, we only require this of mothers) must make every decision based on the best interests of their children? If not, which decisions are we allowed to make for our benefit, not theirs?
    I’ll admit that unlike some posting here, I was parented by a mother who probably has lived her entire life making *all* of her decisions for the benefit of her children (yes, probably one of the reasons that it makes it fairly easy to live next door to her). I admire her, and take her for granted, but I do not wish to emulate that behavior. I’d be lying if I said I made all my decisions for the benefit of my children (for example, right at this very moment, they’d rather I not be typing at the computer). It is not for their own good that I choose to do it any way; it’s for my benefit.

  30. Marriage per se is not all about the kids. And, this is just me, but I care much less what you do to your marriage when there are no kids involved.
    But once the kids are there, yes, it is hard work. And yes, you as the adult are not the primary focus. And yes, your extended family may not be quite so supportive if you do stuff that harms the kids. Because your kids rely upon both parents, relations between those parents become part of the kids’ support structure. Note the parents don’t have to stay married to provide support structure. I’m not arguing for staying in the marriage. I am arguing for thinking about the kids as you think about yourself.
    I don’t deny that the role of motherhood subsumes individuality; it’s something we all struggle with. But there are ways to push back more constructively than sleeping around and then splashing it all over the Atlantic.

  31. Another example, demonstrating that George Eliot is always right about everything.
    “For in general mortals have a great power of being astonished at the presence of an effect toward which they have done everything, and at the absence of an effect toward which they had done nothing but desire it. Parents are astonished at the ignorance of their sons, though they have used the most time-honored and expensive means of securing it; husbands and wives are mutually astonished at the loss of affection which they have taken no pains to keep; and all of us in our turn are apt to be astonished that our neighbors do not admire us. In this way it happens that the truth seems highly improbable. The truth is something different from the habitual lazy combinations begotten by our wishes.”

  32. “Are we going further and stating that parents (and really, we only require this of mothers) must make every decision based on the best interests of their children?”
    I’d argue that the decisions STL is making right now aren’t good for anybody: her, her kids, her husband, her extended family, the public school kids that she was all revved up to help a year or so ago, etc. I wouldn’t describe it as selfishness, because it’s so patently self-destructive. There is no candy-colored erotic paradise waiting for high-maintenance women in their late 40s and early 50s (especially not ones semi-living in their cars with two kids).

  33. Nobody’s said the word yet, so I’m going to: bipolar. Bipolar people can be very fun to be around, but they also make terrible decisions.

  34. For me, the problem is not divorce. Clearly, clearly Tsing-Loh’s marriage was over. She needed to get out.
    The problem is that Tsing-Loh has identified the work of PARENTING as the underlying cause of all her miseries. She tells us that anyone attempting to parent in her environment couldn’t possibly be in love. She tells us that ditching all the work of parenting and living out of her car was the only way to bring herself even a fraction of happiness. “Now my relationship with my kids is simpler. We eat at restaurants, read for a while in the car, and then they go home.”
    Who are the caregivers right now, and who are the kids?
    Tsing-Loh was the primary caregiver for her daughters, and she left. She was the primary caregiver, and she’s telling the world that she needed to escape the work of mothering. She was the primary caregiver and she hasn’t set up a second home where she can parent them on a regular basis. In fact, she’s explicitly saying that life is better, now that she doesn’t have to do any sustained parenting at all.
    These are HUGE problems. This IS a form of abandonment. Tsing-Loh needs someone to ask her, point blank: do you want your daughters to take over the labors of the parenting that you couldn’t bear any longer, or are you going to be a grown-up, and do your job? Get an apartment, set up a custody arrangement that involves more than book-club in the car, start rebuilding your life. Only children think that adults don’t have to do their chores.
    Maybe multi-generational families worked so well because people understood that at each stage of the family’s whole life, they each had specific roles to play. Tsing-Loh’s role right now is to be a mother, in some measure, no matter how exhausting all aspects of motherhood have made her.

  35. I think my questions vis a vis her parenting really boil down to the last paragraph where she insists that her kids are okay.
    I kind of want to tell her look, engage your social & financial support networks and get a small crummy apartment, even if that means a crummy job (if one is to be had) so that your kids have somewhere to put their toothbrushes.
    And that comes from the experience, like Jody, of having been told I was okay during that era of hard-core feminism and that “someday I would understand” when at 38, I am aware that despite my love of reading and my good grades I was profoundly not okay, and I still don’t entirely “understand” my parents’ choices.
    I totally get why she put the last paragraph in and it may even be true, but it’s a little frustrating to watch her invoke bad mothering (which I think she does rather well, including the very harsh contrast between vegetative mom+craft-doing aunt vs. passionate lover) and then in the end say well, her kids are okay.

  36. “Clearly, clearly Tsing-Loh’s marriage was over. She needed to get out.”
    I think that if she had waited a year or two or three, things might have looked very different. I believe there’s been some research on this, saying that people who rate their marriages as very unhappy often self-report as happy several years later. Likewise, I believe empty nesters experience an increase in happiness.
    However, STL’s case is unusual in that both she and her husband have careers that put them on the road a lot, so their married life probably already resembled an amicable divorce.

  37. Great discussion. I have some other posts on deck, but I’m waiting for this thread to play out.
    Actually, I find this discussion more interesting than STL’s essay. She’s so clearly in a personal mess that we really can’t take any of her observations seriously. She’s viewing everything through her personal lens of destruction.
    Like bj, I had a mom who subsumed all of her own interests for her family. Was she an idiot? I don’t know. She has been rewarded by having all three of her kids and their families within a 15 minute radius. She’s in her 70s, but has a better social life than any of us. She goes out to dinner w/her old friends from the PTA. She is very close with all six grandchildren. She and my dad travel to Italy and run a food pantry for the poor. She takes Zumba classes at Curves.
    I don’t think that you need to make all of your choices based on the good of the kid. I’m writing here instead of running to KMart to get some white t-shirts for Jonah and dropping them off at his school. He should have told me that he needed the shirts over the weekend. But I’ve made other choices that were for the benefit of the kids and didn’t increase my personal happiness at all. Isn’t there some happy medium between selfless saints and selfish individualists? Why do we always have to fly toward the extremes?

  38. “I don’t think that you need to make all of your choices based on the good of the kid. I’m writing here instead of running to KMart to get some white t-shirts for Jonah and dropping them off at his school. He should have told me that he needed the shirts over the weekend.”
    Some people would call it a teachable moment.

  39. Oh, and I don’t think my mom has been damaged by her choices either. I would like to think that the ease with which she fit into that role fit her personality, and that it was not the distinctly oppressive socialization she also experienced. But, I know that those choices could not fit my personality, that those choices could not work for me, and also believe that knowledge (i.e. I’m far more selfish than my mother, particularly when it comes to my children) should not preclude the choice of motherhood for me.
    I don’t know how these choices will play out. When I hear stories like JennG’s & Jody’s on how they felt damaged by their mother’s/parents choices, (and, they are reflecting stories that are out there in the popular literature, too, not only those involving divorce — weren’t there a few books out there by sons of famous mothers that basically complained about how their mothers weren’t around enough). Are we requiring “Giving Tree” behavior from mothers — at least for a limited duration?
    And, Laura, your example of not getting T-shirts isn’t a good one, really, because as Amy points out, it is a teachable moment. We can frequently frame our choices in such a way as to believe that they’re still for the good of the children (frankly, people do that about getting out of a loveless marriage, no?). I’m arguing in favor of a decision that we do not argue is for the benefit of our children, except for the benefit that we might argue accrues from our own increase of happiness. (and, even then, we’re not doing it to increase their happiness by increasing our happiness, we’re just doing it make us happy). I’m arguing in favor of selfishness being acceptable (within bounds — not, for example, in favor of having an affair).

  40. I doubt the disgust would be as bitter if she weren’t a woman. It’s like if you sign up for that “primary parent” role (and you pretty much do, if you’re a woman) then being anything less than the 50% parent even for a while makes you bad bad bad. If you’re a guy and you’re not around much for a couple of years it’s all “Ooh, he was kind of a jerk after the divorce but after all he DOES still spend time with his kids” (even if it’s every other Sunday).
    I hate that.
    I agree, laura, there has to be a middle ground. Did Loh fly off the handle because she went too far in the self-subsuming direction? I kind of doubt it (she is kind of an egotist) but even if it’s not true for her, it has been true for many women I know.

  41. I am NOT dissing my mother for not engaging in Giving-Tree behavior. She didn’t engage in Giving-Tree behavior when she was still at home. I know of no mothers in my neighborhood when I was growing up who thought that was the standard. None of my friends do now, either. We all have strong streaks of selfishness and self-preservation, and thank god for that.
    I am criticizing my mother for having NO HOME to which she could take children overnight FOR FIVE YEARS after her divorce. I am criticizing her for having no set custody schedule — we saw her “when we felt like it.” I am criticizing her for deciding that, having been oppressed by motherhood, her only other choice was to create a life where her children didn’t have to intrude at all.
    Even my mother, looking back, says she was consumed by a kind of madness. She would make COMPLETELY different choices, if she could go back in time.
    When you have built a family where you were the primary caregiver, then you cannot walk away from the children (the CHILDREN, not the spouse) without causing damage. It will be different damage than that caused if the other parent leaves. It will be different damage than if you chose a 50/50 custody arrangement. It may be a kind of damage profoundly shaped by a culture that teaches children to rely more on their mothers than their fathers (in straight families), but it will still be damage.
    This is not about the affair. This is not about the divorce. This is about being the person who “[stuffs] the nightstand with treats against life’s inevitable horrors” and then LEAVES.
    You can have an affair or get a divorce without deciding to see your kids primary on the road.

  42. I’ve become a big fan of Sandra Tsing Loh’s writing and point of view.
    I think it should be noted that she doesn’t need to go out and get “some” job—she is a writer for many publications, including a regular gig for “The Atlantic” and and a performer. She quite successful for a “artistic type. She’s doing ok.
    Her discussion on her re-reading some of the old guard feminist texts was super. It seems to me that she is questioning (as those feminists were) about why woman are not allowed to live their lives based on what is good for them–why they are always chiefly responsible for others first. Why they are forced or somehow force themselves to always make the choice “for the Children” or “for the Husband” or “for Security” ? Really, why not make the adventurous choice? The choice that she wants?Why not let the dad assume the role of the “primary” safety conscious, stable adult?
    I have a lot of admiration for her willingness to make such choices And yeah–I do hope the kids will be fine. For what it’s worth, I seem to run into plenty of children who were raised in families where the parents did all the “right” things for the kids and the kids are not that all right. And the moms STILL get the blame anyway–*nervous laugh here*
    But I do love her writing and choice of subject matter. She really doesn’t sound all that miserable to me. She seems like a lot of fun to hang around with—although I would be afraid to see how I might end up in one of her articles!
    Also–I’ve been reading your blog for a while now, just lurking, and I really like you writing, and choice of subjects and point of view. Thanks!

  43. As annoyed I am with STL’s behavior on multiple levels, I think it’s worth pointing out her (ex) husband is on the road *20 weeks* a year. That means she is the only caregiver (even now) at *least* 50% of the time. Assuming the girls’ dad does less than 100% when he is home (I think it would be hard to do even 50% if you were out of the rhythm half the time), she does a *lot* of the parenting work. (Even now.) Not to mention having her own work.
    No wonder she was exhausted and wanted “out” in some way. I’m not sure her solution was the right one, and I don’t approve of all of her choices, but I sympathize with what I suspect is a bone deep exhaustion.

  44. Sara, I thought about that. It does seem as if Tsing-Loh must be going back to the house for long stretches of time to live. Maybe they’re going to have one of those “the kids stay, the parents rotate” custody arrangements, in which case my parents’ example has nothing to do with theirs.
    Then again, Tsing-Loh didn’t choose to give us a picture of herself going in and out of her old home. She showed us a picture of a woman living the bohemian life. It may not reflect the actual reality, but it does reflect her state of mind.
    I do think it’s just essential for kids to feel that they have a place in both of their parents’ lives after divorce. Kids are concrete, so the place needs to be concrete.
    Tsing-Loh says her girls are content, but look what they’re asking her to do: get a job, stash your stuff someplace else. They need to know that she is making space for them in her life. I don’t think it’s wrong or oppressive to ask parents to take those needs into account.

  45. “I doubt the disgust would be as bitter if she weren’t a woman.”
    I can’t speak for the other commenters here, but, in general, you can certainly find plenty of people, both among your acquaintances and in print or on-line, who are angry or bitter at their fathers for not being good fathers. This category includes a range of behaviors from those who actually abandoned their families, either to hit the road or take up with another woman, to workaholics who simply didn’t spend time with their families, to fathers whose lives were consumed with leisure time activities which didn’t include the children, to fathers who spent all their money on vices and thus failed as providers. The anger of neglected children is certainly not confined to bad mothers.
    Having said that, it is certainly true that society valorizes perceived “good dads” rather abundantly. I remember when I used to travel around the City with my 5-year-old daughter. (We used to visit sights, like the Statue of Liberty or the Stock Exchange.) A woman by herself with a child is just a nuisance, but everyone smiles at a girl and her dad. Spectator crowds used to ask us if we wanted to stand in front. Doormen used to come out and get us taxicabs. Etc.

  46. “She didn’t engage in Giving-Tree behavior when she was still at home. I know of no mothers in my neighborhood when I was growing up who thought that was the standard.”
    Yep. Self-immolation has not been the mainstream American maternal ideal for at least 40 years. When I was a kid in the late 70s/early 80s, my mom was your typical educated rural conservative Christian housewife, with streaks of hippie. My family was technically blue collar and would periodically move in with grandma, but our 4 BR rental house had an entire studio devoted to her watercolors and my mom would make runs to the nearest center of civilization to take paintings at the gallery. Her painting fizzled with the appearance of a third child and the rigors of several years of living in an unfinished house, but once we kids got bigger, all sorts of possibilities opened up. When I was a kid, she was never the hover mother, but she was always there. And, as Woody Allen says, 90% of success is just showing up.

  47. I think that her article has really started us talking about what a “bad mother” is. As Loh argues in the beginning of her “review” Waldman’s “Bad Mother” is really not much more than embracing not being the perfect mother (I don’t actually know, ’cause I haven’t read the book). And, we know that there real “bad” mothers, the ones who don’t feed their children, abandon them to predators, or hurt them. Loh’s story is somewhere in the grayer area (though some may see it as black and white). How bad a mother is she? I guess I’m arguing I can’t really tell from the parts of the story she tells us, and that that her behavior still falls in a gray zone.
    I’m using her story (in my mind) to argue against a model of motherhood that depends on selflessness (and mind you, even people who argue that they’re being selfish about something, aren’t really, most of the time). Others are casting the story differently. And none of it is really *her* story.

  48. Finally read it, and I’m sorry, but my only thought is to borrow a phrase which a then-Maoist friend of mine back in college used regularly: STL is going to be one of first up against the wall when the revolution comes. Not because she’s a bad mother–there are far worse–but because she seems resolutely determined to hate everything her educational and economic class have given her, while simultaneously treating with utter contempt the possibility that those class advantages might be anything other than component parts in the tragic, unavoidable trap which is marriage and reproduction. The fact that hundreds of millions of people can and do build permanent relationships and raise children who do not turn out to be either hobos or cannibals has no moral presence in her writing whatsoever. Her essay is one of the most annoyingly and ostentatiously un-self-aware things I’ve ever read. As Matt rightly put it back at the beginning, “What unpleasant people.”

  49. “A woman by herself with a child is just a nuisance, but everyone smiles at a girl and her dad.”
    I think there may be a big regional difference here. I remember living in DC with a preschooler and a toddler and many titanic struggles with getting the three of us and a stroller. Then we moved to Texas. The kids are bigger and more prudent and I can really manage by myself, but people here (men and women) literally spring to help me with doors, even if they are sitting at a Starbucks table and I’m only with one child.

  50. I’m sorry that happened to you, Jody.
    Amy, there’s been plenty of press about Gen X parents being very into the self-immolation (or self-fulfillment through parenting: take your pick) and I have seen a lot of it anecdotally. Don’t you know parents whose kids have never had a babysitter until age 4 and are shocked at what a terrible time the kids have separating when they go to preschool? I know a bunch.

  51. Yeah, I’m not talking about Giving Tree type behaviour either.
    I’m talking about both parents walking out after a fight and neither one coming home for three days while the two kids (11 and 7 years old) fend for themselves, terrified, or Ice Storm like cocktail parties where all the kids are in the basement drinking booze and (not even joking) molesting each other while the parents pair off in different rooms upstairs, over and over for years. (My parents didn’t divorce, in the end.)
    I am all for a careful consideration of everyone’s needs. But when one parent (or both) freaks out and changes everything in the name of passion, or love, or feminism, the upheaval can be profoundly disturbing.
    While I do honestly reap the benefits of first-wave feminism I am not sure that people who didn’t live through the upheaval of mothers casting off the shackles as the shackles understand what damage that does.
    My friends, cousins, and I were what our mothers & fathers were walking away from, especially from our points of view.
    They may not have meant it quite that way, but their actions spoke really loudly. Is it irreparable? No. But wow, it does kind of burn to read much of the same language. The kids are okay because they’re reading??? I read like gangbusters. I was lonely and scared and needed to escape. I was never able to articulate that /half/ as clearly as asking if mum might get a job and get a place to live. Kids often don’t.
    (And CY, just a side note: If she’s doing so well, maybe she could put a deposit on an apartment?)
    The thing is, maybe the women did need to do that. But the walking away did damage. The lucky ones of us sat at home and watched ABC afterschool specials in order to try to figure out how to grow up. The unlucky ones of us found other ways to try to get the love we needed from adults around us who chose to exploit that need.
    And I guess it makes me sad that in Tsing Loh’s piece she evokes the same “leaders” who lead it the first time, and she doesn’t seem to apply the learning that I guess I feel like my generation had, which is that kids do need to have /their/ experience acknowledged and that they are often /not/ okay when these things go down. Now she may be doing that, but it didn’t come through in the piece.

  52. Just a quick note as a blog moderator. A few years ago, we had a good discussion about the impact of divorce on kids here.
    Thanks, cy! Glad you delurked.
    God, JennG and Jody, I am so, so sorry. Thanks for sharing your stories. I have friends who had similar experiences, so you’re not alone. There is a real danger with a hipster rejection of Giving Tree motherhood when it goes to the other extreme. It’s one thing to have a job that gets you home by 5:30 or to refuse to do art projects and another thing to abandon your kids. As some commenters said here, it’s a dangerous game that Waldman and others play by championing their idea of the bad mother. It could end up justifying some really bad behavior.

  53. “Amy, there’s been plenty of press about Gen X parents being very into the self-immolation (or self-fulfillment through parenting: take your pick) and I have seen a lot of it anecdotally.”
    There is something to that, but I suspect a lot of it may be stage-specific. It’s natural for parents of babies to be totally immersed in them. Notice how much more emotionally charged the early controversial issues are (breast vs. bottle, cry-it-out vs. family bed). Sure, there are controversial issues for older kids, but it’s not at all on the same scale.
    “Don’t you know parents whose kids have never had a babysitter until age 4 and are shocked at what a terrible time the kids have separating when they go to preschool?”
    Not really. The worst separation anxiety I’ve ever seen at preschool was from a little boy whose parents had a series of au pairs. I was working co-op, and he was howling for an hour or so in a very small classroom, until he finally crawled into his jogging stroller and fell asleep. He did that for at least a couple days. There was another little boy who had separation problems far into the preschool year, but he also had a full-time nanny. Of course, my preschool peer group was probably rather different than yours–we had only maybe one or two really zealous attachment parenting types.
    With regard to what people were saying upthread, I’m learning a lot from my husband about sharing what you like with your kids. He takes the kids boating, does an electronics set with the oldest, takes the kids out (one at a time) to do amateur astronomy, has started a board game club at school (with my help) etc. My adult interests aren’t quite so sharable, but I admire it as an ideal, and I’ve enjoyed seeing my daughter start doing some of the crafts I did as a child (I’d really like to get her a loom).

  54. “I’m talking about both parents walking out after a fight and neither one coming home for three days while the two kids (11 and 7 years old) fend for themselves, terrified,”
    OK, this particular incident is beyond anything Loh has described and actually qualifies as abuse in my book.
    Loh has not, by any stretch, done anything along those lines. I’d argue that what she’s done, is violate a version of what a good mother (or conversely a bad mother is) in Amy’s characterization:
    “When I was a kid, she was never the hover mother, but she was always there.”
    So, is this the definition of a good mother, or conversely, a bad mother is one who “is not always there” or who makes her child fell that she “is not always there?”
    I would actually define selflessness as the “always there” expectation. I do not think men have ever been expected to be always there, but I think the gender neutral version of this is to say that every child needs, emotionally, to have someone who is “always there.” I don’t know if I believe this or not, but I’m inclined to think not (and I don’t mean always there as in there has to be someone to take care of a five year old, I mean it in a more metaphysical sense)
    But, as Laura summarizes, I think I now understand Jody & JennG’s specific beef with STL’s essay — that it specifically alludes to the self-actualization feminism that they experienced personally in the 70’s, raising it as a potentially positive model. I think the question for Loh is whether one can make that allusion/use that guide without falling into the behavior that all of us would agree is bad motherhood.

  55. Anyone else read the novels of Norma Klein as an adolescent in the 1970s? They were full of fairly kind, fairly self-aware parents divorcing (sometimes multiple times) and somewhat older-than-their-years kids living with the results. Certainly the divorcing parents were infinitely more grown-up than mine acted, but their kids had to meet the challenge of making sense of it all.
    I think there are some studies saying high-conflict divorces are what’s really hard on kids but I don’t know how serious the research is and to what degree mature, responsible divorces have been studied, assuming anyone can agree on what constitutes one. (For example, do the reasons for the split have to be good, and does custody have to be shared, or is the main characteristic a united front where there’s no public fighting and the kids know what to expect from the arrangement?)

  56. Great comments section. I’ve been (or was) an STL fan for years and sad to say I’m profoundly disappointed. As someone who helped raise (along with my wife) a special needs child myself like laura I would only add to the general discussion which has covered so much already the fact that in my book one “parents” not only because of the biological imperative; but because, morally, one is RESPONSIBLE for one’s offspring–like it or not. One does not have to like or even necessarily love or respect one’s offspring–be it their personalities or their actions–but one is nonetheless still ultimately responsible for them.
    The bottom line, it seems this geezers eyes, is that artsy STL tired not only of her own parental role, but also of her beta-male “kitchen bitch” husband and now seeks new thrills living “on the edge.” Time to grow up, imho, and tend to one’s basic work-a-day responsibilities before hunting for a more “fulfilling” lifestyle and some “edgier” more exciting Alpha-Male with which to find psychic and sexual Nirvana.

  57. More than anything I’m SO DISAPPOINTED in STL! I used to love her writing. Now she just seems like the consummate loser.
    Being a mid-40s mom is never easy. But she makes the alternative look even worse.

  58. You know what, gang? I don’t think people who are indulging in really bad behavior need much in the way of justifications in order to get there. So let’s not worry about writers who are just trying to get the “worried well” to be less worried.
    I think STL is a completely familiar kind of person with familiar desires who has lost some of the validating narratives that were in wider circulation for her desires in a previous generation. I don’t know quite how or when it happened, but a lot of educated professionals and intellectuals kind of made their peace with suburban domesticity, only with less Jell-O and more chore sharing. STL is still hung up on a view that this is incompatible with living an artistically fulfilled, sexually alive, humanly possible life and is sort of confused that the rules got changed on her somewhere along the line such that there was no longer a chorus behind her singing that good old American Beauty Ice Stormy kind of tune.
    In general, I prefer people who are grappling with their own choices to do a bit less complaining about everyone else’s choices.

  59. Speaking of bad mothers, today I deleted unread around 15 emails having to do with the planning of the teacher appreciation lunch. My mom (who once told my sister “don’t volunteer me for anything”) would have done the same thing.

  60. “Don’t you know parents whose kids have never had a babysitter until age 4 and are shocked at what a terrible time the kids have separating when they go to preschool?”
    I absolutely see this dynamic (I’m a preschool teacher and mom), and I honestly think that there are more Gen X parents engaging in “overparenting” than not. It seems as though American parents (mothers) swing from one extreme to another depending on our generation. The real problem is that we have little societal support system to have a real middle ground.

  61. I’m a regular reader here (but only very occasional commenter) and I’ve been hesitant to post here becuase I actually know Sandra Tsing Loh socially. I wasn’t sure my comment would really add anything to the discussion but what the heck…We are not friends exactly, but we have friends in common, we know each other socially and are “friendly”. I am not privy to any details about her divorce or living situation outside of what I’ve read in her essays but I can tell you that she has not at all abandoned her children nor is she planning on couch surfing and living out of a car for the next 5 years. Her husband travels frequently–though I understand slightly less frequently than he used to– but she is still the primary caregiver a good portion of the year and sees her kids daily as far as I know.
    She’s not one of those warm and fuzzy women who projects a nurturing vibe. I think that’s pretty obvious from her performances and writing too. But every time I’ve met her and discussed kids, houses, politics, Los Angeles, LA public schools etc. she comes across as a smart, funny, self deprecating, interesting woman who loves her kids but bristles a little at some of the conventional and traditional expectations of being a woman, wife and mom of the “creative class”. She can be a challenging person honestly. But I like her a lot–even though in many ways I don’t relate to her despite having a lot of surface things in common.
    I’ve never gotten even the slightest impression that she is anything but devoted to the well being of her children. She is a professional writer and performer who makes a living mining her personal life for books, essays and performance pieces. I would say that her public persona is an exaggerated version of the real life person.
    I think it’s normal to read a lot into a personal essay and there is clearly a lot of projecting going on in the comments. I don’t know her well but my impression of her has always been that she is a very thoughtful person. I just can’t imagine that she’s not considering her kids well being in the long term decisions she’ll need to make in the near future in order to move forward with her life. I think right now she’s still in crisis mode and it’s hard to make long term decisions in crisis mode. It hasn’t been that long since the decision to leave her marriage was finalized after all. She’s not writing with any hindsight. She’s very much living it right now.
    As far as the essay goes, I personally thought it was kind of all over the place –very much like this comment probably– but also had a lot of good points. I enjoyed it, even though I found it kind of depressing.

  62. Okay, now that I’ve read the essay (and the above comment too), I have to say that I think STL has some really good and interesting points about motherhood today. In fact, I’ve been thinking about many of the things she’s writing about.
    But, it’s really really hard to extrapolate those good points from her essay, which is kind of a mess.

  63. I don’t recall Norma Klein but I still own my copy of The Pistachio Prescription. 🙂
    Thanks for the kind words about the three-day fight… that episode was extreme but I do kind of believe that the cultural movement at the time contributed richly. Women were encouraging women to throw fits and leave home and not look back because that was (microculturally) “empowerment.” (And you know, sometimes it was. It’s just that the children trailed in the wake of it.) In my parents’ defense, not only did we not have cell phones or answering machines, they really did each believe the other was sulking at home.
    As for Gen-X overparenting, sure, I think that’s one struggle people (women) in my generation have and one way it comes out. But I guess I believe that unless we can discuss the reasons that Gen-X parents may be untrusting of others, keen on attachment theory, or apt to hover and want to know every detail, it’s only half the picture.
    I agree, anon for this one, that I do come to the essay with my own experience and that it definitely stirred my own reaction. I do get that Tsing Loh is grappling with very real pressures and issues and obviously I feel them too. It’s nice to hear your perception and I hope that’s the case.
    I do have to say that my experience coupled with the cynicism for which Gen-X is known, is that when someone describes a situation I would find extremely difficult and then says they know their kids are okay, my personal filter goes: Urg. Because that’s what people really thought when I was growing up, but therapists and pharma companies have grown rich on the results.
    Laura thanks for the great discussion and sorry to post so much in your comments.

  64. “It’s nice to hear your perception and I hope that’s the case.”
    “…when someone describes a situation I would find extremely difficult and then says they know their kids are okay, my personal filter goes: Urg.”
    Amen to that, too. People in the middle of huge emotional cataclysms are often not very perceptive about what’s going on with other people.

  65. ” People in the middle of huge emotional cataclysms are often not very perceptive about what’s going on with other people. ”
    Well, and often unable to do something about it. I’ve never been able to forgive Sylvia Plath for killing herself with her children in the house with her.
    But, I think that if STL stumbles on this discussion (or others about her) or one of her friends do, one has to recognize that the discussion isn’t really about her, but is about a made up person we build based on the essay (which is only a part of her).

  66. I can’t even think about Plath without getting incredibly angry. Don’t you think Loh is a GREAT Mom in comparison? (insert obnoxious smiley.)
    “Speaking of bad mothers, today I deleted unread around 15 emails having to do with the planning of the teacher appreciation lunch. My mom (who once told my sister “don’t volunteer me for anything”) would have done the same thing. ”
    Oh, very very bad. Almost Plathian in its badness.

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