The Monster in the Car Seat
I’ve not been able to pull the article up on a simple search for a while, but I saved it long ago. It was too excellent not to preserve. I did mis-remember the publication. It was Ruth Franklin back when The New Republic was a worthy read:
The Monster in the Car Seat
by Ruth Franklin
Only at TNR Online
Post date: 04.23.04
Road rage, the wrath of choice in the 1990s, has come home to roost. “This book was born out of anger,” Cathi Hanauer writes in her introduction to The Bitch in the House, a collection of essays billed as “the truth about sex, solitude, work, motherhood, and marriage” that provoked a minor media firestorm last year. (The unsurprising “truth” is that the last three of these leave precious little time for the first two.) Disabused of her own illusions about “the co-parenting arrangement,” Hanauer coaxed pieces out of twenty-six of her friends and declared an “epidemic of female rage.” Like many afflictions of the well-off, this epidemic has ricocheted around the mainstream media.
Both Time and The New York Times Magazine recently ran cover stories detailing the travails of the working mother who requires a legal pad to stay “up to speed” on her kids’ meals and activities and returns to her email after reading “Goodnight Moon,” all the while contending with a spouse who doesn’t always take on his fair share of the burden.
Now the husbands berated for their inability to complete the grocery shopping without losing the baby have fired back with an essay collection of their own. The Bastard on the Couch, edited by Daniel Jones, Hanauer’s husband, offers men the chance to “try really hard to explain their feelings about love, loss, fatherhood, and freedom.” As it turns out, these feelings are fairly uncomplicated. Men, too, bought into the idea of the egalitarian marriage, and now they’re just as mad as their wives about how it has actually worked out. “What a great example for the children!” Jones writes. “No longer would little Jason and Jennifer be raised seeing only their mommy serving and cleaning up after everyone — now Daddy would serve and clean up after everyone half of the time too.”
“Having it all” has become the catchphrase of this debate, which assumes that all of it is worth having — the kids and the job, the marriage and the freedom. And since many of the men and women writing on this topic are in fact writers, they have the benefit of schedules that allow them to hold fulfilling careers and feed their kids dinner every night, for which they never tire of congratulating themselves. (Nearly all the essays about children in The Bastard on the Couch are by men who, as freelance writers or artists, have assumed the role of partial stay-at-home dad; I wonder if the CEO who comes home after his children are in bed has a different perspective.) But the subtext of all these books and articles makes one wonder why they bother. Because the strangest and most dispiriting element of this debate is not the anger that these husbands and wives direct at each other, but their relentless hostility toward the little demons whom they perceive as the source of all their problems.
If there’s one thing men and women can agree on, it’s that children are time-consuming, tedious, and downright icky. Like a child who begged for a hamster and then refuses to clean out its cage, these fathers and mothers seem genuinely surprised by the amount of “grunt work” that kids require. (That’s Jones’s phrase; other writers are less decorous.) In a piece called “My Life as a Housewife,” Rob Jackson describes his feelings as a stay-at-home dad in the 1980s, when such creatures were “a rare species indeed.” “The fact that my life was high-concept and that I was an innovator, defying convention, didn’t give me much solace when I was cleaning up wet messes of all consistencies and aromas,” Jackson writes. “Such moments, and there are hundreds of them, are simply not fulfilling. The work my mother did — work that I very much took for granted when I was growing up — was now my daily routine, and it could be mind-numbing.” This echo of Betty Friedan surely constitutes the ultimate irony of the women’s movement.
There’s no denying that parenting involves a lot of wet and sticky messes. But even the most colorful projectile vomit hardly deserves hyperbole fit for the gulag. “We are still partners, but partners in martyrdom, burning ourselves at the stake on a bonfire of diapers that need to be changed,” The Bitch in the House’s Kristin van Ogtrop writes. For Jones, a day out in the city with the kids becomes an “exhausting marathon.” Another father, out with a friend and their kids for Halloween, finds the ordeal of getting all the children into a taxi almost more than he can handle. “My friend, a successful lawyer now working as a stay-at-home mom, looked over at me and said, ‘We really deserve a drink. Our partners have no idea how easy they have it, do they?’”
Caitlin Flanagan’s essays in The Atlantic Monthly have firmly established her on the reactionary side of this debate, but even as she proudly asserts that she stayed at home when her twins were babies so as not to miss a moment of their “fleeting, precious, and unrecoverable childhoods,” she describes those days as “tedious” and “mildly depressing.” “Don’t get me wrong,” she interrupts herself, “I got a real kick out of the babies.” But she never explains how. All we hear about is the “shit work,” which grows “more onerous and more complicated with each passing month.” Playdates, which she describes as “a sort of minimum-security lockdown spent in the company of other mildly depressed women and their tiresome, demanding babies,” bring on “a small death of the spirit.” She also feels “resentful and sometimes even furious” to discover that parenting involves not just lovingly spooning rice cereal into her babies’ mouths but also wiping it off the floor, walls, and ceiling afterward. “Why was I supposed to endlessly wipe down the kitchen counters and lug bags of garbage out to the cans and set out the little plastic plates of steamed carrots and mashed bananas that the children touched only to hurl them to the floor?” Why indeed? After all, she is assisted by a “highly capable and very industrious nanny who did all of the hard stuff.”
With all this focus on parental self-pity, it’s hardly surprising that while their paraphernalia is ubiquitous in these pieces, the children are virtually absent. When the little cherubs do make an appearance, they are savaged. “I don’t think anybody who doesn’t have kids can appreciate what vicious little time-suckers and energy-suckers and emotion-suckers they are,” Kevin Canty writes. “We adore our kids — for example, neither one of us has ever locked them up in dog crates in the basement (although we have, of course, been tempted),” write the authors of The Mommy Myth, a new book written to counter the idea that a woman “has to devote her entire physical, psychological, emotional, and intellectual being, 24/7, to her children.” Surely these writers strive for a light-hearted tone, but such jokes are uttered far too frequently to be funny. Others don’t even try: Elissa Schappel is horrifyingly frank about her own rage. “Have I said yet that I’ve never hit my children? I have not,” she reports. “What I have done: grabbed their wrists and yanked their arms. Dressed them roughly and pushed them out the door. Let the brush catch and pull their hair when they squirmed. On occasion, let them fall when I could have caught them.” The infractions that bring on this kind of treatment include such crimes as knocking over a glass of water.
The men, at least, seem aware of the possible effects of this anger on family harmony. Lewis Nordan, after divorcing his wife and moving away, notes that “at least in those days when Elizabeth was working and I was home taking care of my boys I got to know them better than most fathers with real jobs probably ever do.” But among the women’s essays one is hard-pressed to find much self-awareness. One — only one — contributor to The Bitch in the House, Jill Bialosky, writes about her child with true mind-blowing tenderness, in an essay about how seriously the passion that the first-time mother feels for her baby can disrupt the sexual dynamic of her marriage. “I kissed him all over as he lay on his changing table bare naked while he kicked his legs and screamed for more. … I nibbled on his fat, pudgy legs. … I called him goose and boo and bandito ban dox and dolly and my little tulip.”
In her review of The Bitch in the House, Flanagan bitchily accused Bialosky of publicly humiliating her husband by revealing the details of their flagging sex life. But what about the children who will some day read about how deeply their parents resented all the “shit work,” how lucky they felt that they could hire others to take care of it, how enraged they became when they thought their spouse wasn’t picking up his or her fair share? In twenty years these volumes might have a new sequel: The Monster in the Car Seat. And that could be even less pretty than the poopiest diaper.
RUTH FRANKLIN is a senior editor at TNR.