“we separated for a year—got back but it’s still not great.”
“What’s missing? What needs to be fixed?”
“we have no sex life and we snap at each other.”
“maybe that is the reason.”
“yeah but we can’t seem to snap out of it.”
And then three simultaneous responses:
THE PROBLEM WITH NO NAME
In 1963, Betty Friedan called it “the Problem With No Name”: the existential horror she’d discerned in the hearts of suburban housewives, the despair of the educated woman whose life had narrowed to the walls of her home. “As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—‘Is this all?’ ”
You’d think that that particular problem might have been solved by now. After all, these were emotions that were supposed to have bloomed in the dark, the product of female isolation: Every woman believed her sadness, her confusion, her inability to cope, was merely her own private neurosis. If she felt sleepy all the time or angry all the time; if she lay next to her husband feeling like an insane stranger to him—that was just because she was broken. Her natural femininity had soured like milk. And because no one could talk about it, it was hard to see the enormous hand of the culture that had created the isolated fingerprints of each mother’s private breakdown.
But now the Problem With No Name has a million names (and almost as many anthologies) to describe it. In books like Mommy Wars, Perfect Madness, The Mommy Myth, and The Bitch in the House, authors have diagnosed the experience from every possible angle and offered as many contradictory solutions: Loosen up! Toughen up! Go to work! Stay home! Accept that this is just what men are like; refuse to accept that this is “just what men are like.” Polemical performance artists like the writers Caitlin Flanagan and Ayelet Waldman (both UrbanBaby obsessions) use their own lives as fodder. Most recently, Linda Hirshman, author of Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World, has joined the din, insisting woman go back to the office at all costs, touting Friedan as her role model.
Hirshman has predictably caused her own ripples on UrbanBaby, especially among moms who resent her thesis that they are holding women back by staying home with their kids: “This Linda Hirshman chick is one nasty, bitter freak,” reads one typical post. Yet her suggestion that we reread Friedan is a useful one, if only because going back to the Problem With No Name means experiencing waves of unsettling déjà vu. Because large swaths of Friedan’s writing could have been written today, in response to UrbanBaby.
Here are some of the symptoms Friedan saw in the culture back in 1963: “In a New York hospital, a woman had a nervous breakdown when she found she could not breastfeed her baby.” Women of all ages were desperate for marriage, defining themselves only by their association with men, “moving from one political club to another, taking evening courses in accounting or sailing, learning to play golf or ski, joining a number of churches in succession, going to bars alone, in their ceaseless search for a man.” They were “taking tranquilizers like cough drops. You wake up in the morning, and you feel as if there’s no point in going on another day like this. So you take a tranquilizer because it makes you not care so much that it’s pointless.”
All this free-floating anxiety was, Friedan noted with alarm, affecting the children. “Strange new problems are being reported in the growing generations of children whose mothers were always there, driving them around, helping them with their homework—an inability to endure pain or discipline or pursue any self-sustained goal of any sort, a devastating boredom with life. Educators are increasingly uneasy about the dependence, the lack of self-reliance, of the boys and girls who are entering college today.” According to Friedan, a conference in the White House was even called on the subject, to discuss “the physical and muscular deterioration of American children: were they being over-nurtured? Sociologists noted the astounding organization of suburban children’s lives: the lessons, parties, entertainments, play and study groups organized for them.”
Maybe nothing has changed since 1963. Maybe everything has changed and only the anxieties remain the same, with new labels pasted on top of the old pathologies—every distant “refrigerator mom” replaced by an overanxious “helicopter mom.” Look closely, and the new diagnoses begin to seem like the inverse of the old ones, just another way of pointing out that there is something wrong with mothers, at once neglectful and overprotective. As a culture, we seem perpetually afraid that there is something wrong with our children—that they are spoiled and weak and incapable of growing up.