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October 29, 2007

Book Club: The Other Mother by Gwendolen Gross


Join us today as we discuss The Other Mother  by Gwendolyn Gross.  This is the first time that contributors of Silicon Valley Moms Blog, Chicago Moms Blog, DC Metro Moms Blog and NYC Moms Blog (along with the rest our friends throughout the blogsphere) will be discussing, reviewing and critiquing a book, together.  Please use the comment section below to share your thoughts and feedback.  If you have written a post about this book on your personal site, please make sure to leave that link in the comment section!


Apparently, I don't love my baby enough. I don't think that's what Gwendolyn Gross meant for me to take away from her entertaining novel, The Other Mother, but unfortunately, that's the overwhelming message I got. Maybe it's just me.

The book features two protagonists -- one woman is Thea, a stay at home mother (SAHM) of three kids, and the other is her new neighbor Amanda, a working mom, about to have her first child. The two women make different choices about their parenting / work lives, but they are united in one thing, their rather desperate love of their children, and their tremendous guilt about spending time away from them. And that's the part I didn't get.

Look, it's not that I don't love Kavi. My five-month-old is an adorable little bundle, and now that the worst of the sleep deprivation is finally passing, I do enjoy our time together. She's sweet and snuggly, an easy baby from what others tell me, and her little laughs are some of the best sounds I've ever heard. I miss her when I spend too much time away from her, and I'm always happy to pick her up again when I come home. But that said, I just don't love her the way these women love their kids. Both women, whatever their work choices, seem to feel intense passion for time with their children, constant worry that they're doing things wrong, tremendous guilt whenever they leave their babies with anyone else, all pitched to such a high intensity that it's a constant panic, running under the surface of their conscious thoughts. Gross depicts these characters very believably, so that reading the book, I had no doubt that women like this existed -- that, in fact, all mothers were like this. But at least so far, I'm not.

This is most evident in the matter of childcare (which, of course, lies at the heart of the novel, as the two women struggle with their own choices to either work or be primary childcare for their children). It's not much of a spoiler to mention that early on in the story, Amanda, planning to return to work and unable to find an acceptable nanny for her newborn first child, asks Thea if she'd be willing to watch the baby, and Thea accepts. The women agonize over childcare issues throughout. Amanda rejects one nanny after another as not good enough for her child. Thea goes so far as to repeat her mother's saying, "Why bother having children if you don't want to raise them?" They resent their husbands for not doing more, but both of them share a fundamental assumption that a child's mother can and will provide the absolute best care, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and anything else is a poor second. This, I think, is a fundamental difference between their attitude and mine. I just don't believe that.

'Cause here's the thing. I like spending time with my baby, yes. But I like it a lot better if I get breaks. Big breaks. Currently, I have childcare from 9-6 two days a week, and it is lovely. I take a language class T/Th mornings, come home and pump milk at lunchtime, kiss the baby, and then go out to work in a cafe on my next novel. We've had this setup since Kavi was three months old, and if we could afford more childcare right now, we would add it in a heartbeat. Her babysitter, Mya, is a friend of mine with daycare experience, and probably knows quite a bit more about taking care of small children than I do; I feel entirely comfortable leaving Kavi with her for long stretches. On days when Mya doesn't come, sometimes one or another of my friends will come over to give me a break. If they're not used to small children, I'll stay around long enough to coach them through the basics, and the first few times they watch Kavi, I'll stay reasonably close, so I can get home in a few minutes if anything goes wrong.

And yes, sometimes little things do go wrong. Recently, one of my friends bumped Kavi on the head, which freaked him out completely, and I can see how another mother might freak out too. But look -- babies get bumped. Kids get sick, or fall down, or sneak out. Yes, they need adult supervision, but that doesn't mean that adults, mommies or otherwise, can save them from every bump and bruise the world will throw at them. There seems to be an assumption these days in American culture that parents (and especially mothers) must protect their children from absolutely everything, and if we don't, we've failed as parents. So even though yes, my heart skips several beats when Kavi bumps her head and lets out a scream, my head does know, a few minutes later, that she's probably fine, and that in any case, these things will happen, no matter who's taking care of her.

It's not Gross's fault that my reaction on reading her book was to feel like a weird, un-loving mommy. But I do wonder where her characters come from, because they don't seem true to my experience. A few of my friends have small kids now, but most of my experience with child-rearing comes from watching my parents and their friends and family raising children over the last thirty years. And maybe I'm wrong, but I just don't think they stressed about it all the way Gross's characters (and maybe most modern American women?) do. Maybe part of my attitude comes from growing up in that kind of close-knit immigrant community. It was typical at get-togethers that all the adults were communally responsible for all of the kids; that was a base assumption. So that, as a kid, you knew that if you fell down and scraped your knee, you could go to any 'aunty' or 'uncle' at the party who happened to be nearby, and they would wash and bandage it up for you. And as a parent, that meant that you didn't have to be watching your kid every single minute -- everyone else was helping you with the child-watching (whether they were parents themselves or not), and so everyone got to relax a little.

I inherited that mindset, and so I assume that my friends are trustworthy, responsible adults, and that I can leave my baby girl with them and go off to get some work done. I assume that most childcare providers are reasonably competent too, and that while they might not do things exactly as I do, that children are resilient, and Kavi will be just fine. In fact, at heart, I believe she'll be better for having a variety of people caring for her, learning to love her. Maybe someday in the future I'll encounter a truly terrible nanny or daycare, that puts my daughter at serious risk -- but you know, even if I do, I don't think that invalidates my point. I'll still believe that they're the exception, not the rule.

But here's the thing -- even if we stipulate fabulous child-care such that no mother would ever have to worry, I think the two mothers in this book would still feel that they were failing their children by not being there with them every minute of their young lives. And this, I just don't understand. I don't feel that conviction emotionally, I'm not passionate about being with Kavi every moment of the day. In many ways, I feel more like a traditional father than a mother; right now, my ideal would be to be able to go to work about 30-40 hrs/week. I do want to raise my child, but I am happiest raising her part of the time, and letting others have the privilege and joy of sharing the job the rest of the time. That's what feels right to me. But this book (and American culture in general) makes me feel like an unnatural mother.

Am I?


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