Longtime Nation columnist and “good old-fashioned feminist” Katha Pollitt found herself at the age of fifty-two finally learning to drive. Her driving lessons correspond to her growing awareness of just how badly she’d been treated by her philandering Marxist boyfriend, whom she finds herself compulsively Google-stalking. Such funny, sad confessions form the bulk of her charming new personal essay collection, How I Learned To Drive and Other Life Stories.
In the sleeper-hit of the bunch, “Beautiful Screamer,” Pollitt writes about the loneliness and ecstasy of new motherhood. With great comic timing and a breeziness that makes it feel like an email from a good friend, she hits on pretty much every hot parenting topic out there, from sleep-training (she didn’t do it) to childbirth perfectionism (she calls it “machismo for women”). She also drops the bombshell that having babies can turn even the most equitable couples into “gender Republicans.” In other words, after the birth of her child: “The old assumptions about men and women, which had been lulled by money and leisure and youthful bohemianism and feminism, woke up.”
We took Pollitt out for a glass of wine in the East Village before her recent reading at the Strand bookstore. She was as funny in person as she was in her book, where she delivers zingers like, on breastfeeding: “If it’s so natural, how come there is a job called “lactation consultant” that requires twenty-five hundred hours of formal training?” – Ada Calhoun
Not long ago, we ran a story called “The Overparenting Crisis,” about how parenting perfectionism today mimics the housekeeping perfectionism of the ’50s. How do you think today’s mothers compare to ’50s housewives?
By today’s standards, ’50s mothers were unbelievably “devil may care.” Go out and play! Get some fresh air! You took your kids to the doctor and you did what the doctor told you.
The internet has created a new kind of authority.
But it’s bogus authority. Why would you take medical advice from someone named pussycat253?
But there is a good side to the information overload.
Yes, think back to the ’50s, when women gave birth in “twilight sleep.” You had all the pain of childbirth, but you didn’t remember it, so you’d do it again! But in general, I think this kind of worrying has some bad effects down the road. It’s a form of overprotection. How do children learn to take responsibility to solve their own problems? I see kids my daughter’s age – she’s twenty – who you can just see have been too coddled, too sheltered. The helicopter parent phenomenon. It’s so different from how people were raised in my generation. I sat down and did my homework. When I had a question, I asked my parents. If I was lucky, they could answer it. But sometimes I didn’t get the answer, and I had to go to school, and say, “I don’t know.”
In your book, you write, of people who have a baby to keep their marriage together, “Were they insane? You might as well set your house on fire because you were tired of your furniture.” It’s a great line, but is the “gender Republicanism” you describe still as bad as that? Among many of our readers, men and women are sharing child-care pretty equally.
I think there may be a little more gender flexibility in the social class where incomes between men and women are more equal. But when there’s a banker married to a would-be folk singer, I don’t think the banker is taking six months off to stay home with the baby.
So the key is to marry men who make less money?
That’s what Rona Mahoney says in her wonderful book Kidding Ourselves. She thinks women should marry down. The problem is that everyone then ends up poor. But I think it’s probably a good idea to think it out before you have the baby. Often, the woman just assumes, “Oh, I’ll just have the baby and we’ll have some babysitters and it’ll all be the same.” But it’s not going to be all the same, because children take a lot more time than you think they’re going to and they have a lot of needs that are hard to plan for.