“I just found out that my DH [dear husband] is cheating on me while he’s away in europe. I have an email from the woman planning additional time together. I don’t want to continue a life with a cheater … feel so sick and lonely. what do i do now?”
“I drink. I love it. It is my best friend sometimes. but other times it is my enemy. I get so lonely sometimes and it quells me. anybody here experience the same thing?”
“I’m a sahm with 2 dc. I have a cushy life with a housekeeper once a week and big budget for stuff. Still I’m so bored and lonely with life. I eat and go on the computer all the time. My dh works all the time too.”
“I’m 40, how much can I grow up at this point?”
A SHORT HISTORY OF AMERICAN MOTHERHOOD
Once upon a time, becoming a mother was something you did alone, in your home, with your baby. Your sources of expertise were few: women in your family, women on your block, and your doctor. Your husband knew nothing, and when you had a question, there was Dr. Spock. Maybe you were happy, or angry, or drunk, or overwhelmed, or pleasantly bored, or deeply satisfied. But those emotions lived at home.
Then came the Internet. (Okay, then came feminism. But after that, the Internet.) And for New York mothers, then came UrbanBaby.
If you’re a mother of a certain type—upscale and analytical—you have likely heard of the site. It’s a discussion board, but it’s also a bit of an obsession and a bit of a drain, in the sense that it’s a place where a lot of New York mothers dump their most toxic feelings, in maroon-and-bright-green threads that spill down the screen with little organization. On UrbanBaby, the private lives of city mothers are lit up and exposed. All the houses are glass there, and everybody’s got a rock.
In part, this is because UrbanBaby is anonymous—and online, anonymity acts like a combination of a truth serum and a very strong cocktail. But this is also because being a mother can feel like sitting in a solemn lecture room, listening and taking notes, and repressing impulse after impulse to yell out dirty words. On UrbanBaby, people blurt out these dirty words.
On my screen right now, these threads co-exist uneasily:
“What percentage of people do you think just ‘settle’, i.e. just marry the person they are with when they get to a certain age not b/c they think they are the perfect person for them but are too scared to go out there again?”“If you saw a jewish girl wearing a vineyard vines sweater what would you think? be 100% honest.”
“Why do I have to keep telling dh size doesn’t matter? why?????!!!! I hate lying.”
“Is Anderson Cooper gay?”
“Post names of really crappy nannies you know.”
“These soycrisps are addictive.”
“I am in love with my daughter. She is on this new roar and growl routine as she crawls like a crab across the floor. I could watch this forever.”
“Tell us a secret about yourself. Something you don’t want other people to know. We won’t tell a soul.”
Everyone knows the scary archetype of the monster Manhattan mother: She’s all elbows and no bosom, like ritzy Mrs. X in The Nanny Diaries or careerist Kate Hudson in Raising Helen; she’s every East Side matron on Wife Swap braying about “me time.” Which is to say, a professional who treats her child like a résumé; a fashionista who wears her child as an accessory; a trophy wife who leverages her child as an excuse to quit work and go shopping. Or perhaps she’s turned motherhood itself into her career, driving her child insane with flash cards, like the Parker Posey character in Best of Show, except with a toddler instead of a purebred Weimaraner: obsessed with getting exactly the right plush toy, right now.
Even many actual New York moms talk about one another this way, so much have we internalized the notion that there is something loathsome and prissy and spoiled at heart about New York motherhood. Something at once neglectful and overprotective. Something not very motherly at all.
But then again, I’m one of them. From the time I was three months pregnant, I was online, researching. I bookmarked sites for music classes and cribs. I lurked around, the way people do, surfing from place to place. But something about UrbanBaby kept drawing me back. The tone was different. It was not supportive—a welcome shock. It was toxic but also compassionate in surprising moments. It was an antidote to sites like BabyCenter—those earnest malls trafficking in humor-free LOLs and “babydust” (a virtual gift sent to women who are TTC, or “trying to conceive.”)
You’d think the board’s randomness would make reading it unbearable. And maybe it is. But for many, including me, it is also irresistible, a place for New York mothers to talk about the most taboo subjects—money, sex, and especially marriage, the ones rotting from the inside, the ones where the couples never talk and never have sex, the ones organized along occult power lines invisible to the outside world. You don’t have to be a very voyeuristic person to be drawn in, but it helps. On UrbanBaby, women openly confess to an ambivalence about parenting that no one is allowed to admit in the sunlight. They disclose financial secrets they’d never discuss with their closest friends and secrets about their feelings toward their husbands, which sometimes amounts to the same thing.
They blurt out entire novels about their lives in staccato dialogues.
“I never wanted kids and now I am pregnant.”
“do you want this one?”
“ ‘Want’ is such a strong word. My husband wants it. Sometimes I think it’s interesting. I am EXTREMELY uncomfortable (2 months to go) and I am BORED.”
UrbanBaby began as a New York project, founded by former Esquire editor Susan Maloney and her husband, John, for women who “couldn’t relate to pink and blue,” and though it has since gone national, its flavor is still very New York. There are lists of lactation consultants and interviews with “Moms About Town” like Nicole Miller; there are aspirational illustrations of skinny moms with posh diaper bags. A Craigslist-ish area allows moms to hawk gently used Bugaboos.
But as with so many online phenomena, what really took off about the site wasn’t the useful part. It was the message board, which flourished not despite but because of its chaotic design. On UrbanBaby, no one has a profile or a screen name, so there’s no telling who is posting from thread to thread—could be Mary Louise Parker, could be your bitchy neighbor. Comments are studded with baffling abbreviations like dh (dear husband), dd (dear daughter), ds (dear son), and BTDT (been there done that) and jargon like “sanctimommy” (a self-righteous mom) and “Über-boober” (a self-righteous mom obsessed with breast-feeding).
Amid all this, invisible “deleters” erase entire threads for no clear reason. (Were they too sexual? Too political? Did they talk about the deleters too much, à la Fight Club?) And if you are banned, you will get nothing but a mysterious message telling you how long you need to wait before being allowed to post. In seconds. Like this: “You will not be able to post for 24,083 seconds.” No explanation.
As women post en masse over the course of the day and long into the night, the mood changes: The daylight crowd tends to be prissier, the night crowd rowdier (and drunker), the late-night crowd surrealistic and unpredictable, made up of the extremely sleep deprived, from mothers of newborns to insomniacs in the midst of a divorce. But certain shared obsessions loop back, sometimes for years on end. There’s the conflict between Park Slope (crunchy, sanctimonious) and the Upper East Side (elitist, spoiled). There are “Muffintops,” a.k.a. the postpartum love handles, and “Frenemies,” or backbiting false friends. Celebrity moms—Gwyneth, Brit, SJP, MLP—and their failings and whether they are secretly on UrbanBaby. Stay-at-home moms: How much help do they have? Cry it out: Is it cruel to sleep-train your child? Circumcision, extended breast-feeding, autism, PPD (postpartum depression), BPPs (bitter poor persons), and TT (top-tier) preschools.
There are the notorious “bad nanny sightings”:
“If you know the parents of this beautiful girl please tell them that their nanny is verbally abusive to the baby and let her scream today for at least 45 minutes and kept telling the baby ‘you have to learn.’ ”
There are recurrent escape plans:
“I have a secret fantasy of splitting with dh and taking db [dear baby] and leaving him with dd. He’s making her such a spoiled brat, I’m tired of being the bad guy, and I’m tired of his shit.”
And there are endless comparative polls: How much do you weigh? What’s your HHI (household income)? Your ring size, your bra size, your thread weave? Someone calling herself Psychic Mom tries to predict the future, and Hong Kong Mom posts in the wee hours of the morning to sleepless mothers in the East Village. A tough-love Marxist urges a mom whose nanny has quit without notice to “walk it off.” Muslim moms debate identity politics with Jewish moms. A self-proclaimed Life Coach mom offers to solve everyone’s problems at once.
Once you’re hooked, it’s very hard to log off. So hard that women have been known to get banned deliberately just so they can break their addiction. And there are some very mean women out there—women who will accuse a woman whose child has died of making the whole thing up, women who will attack another woman’s child’s name until she posts back that she’s crying. The site is poisonous at times, but also strangely comforting and frequently hilarious: There are other women out there who are all wound up, cracking bizarre running jokes and overthinking everything, but overthinking it together.
And if you ever wanted to know what people were saying behind your back, here is your answer.
DID YOU MARRY FOR MONEY?
And then there is marriage, the true and hidden subject of much of the site, which is so often, and startlingly, less about babies themselves than about what babies have done to these women’s relationships. Numerous posts concern cheating husbands—wives snooping via e-mail; wives finding out that their husbands have online-dating accounts; wives getting “key-logger” programs to trace the patterns of his computer use; the recurrent, fiery debate about whether investment bankers cheat more than other husbands, whether porn and strippers constitute or indicate cheating, whether a husband is cheating with his besotted single-woman colleague who keeps sending him text messages, and whether anyone knows a good divorce lawyer.
See also “Have you ever had an affair?”
See also “Did you marry for money?”
There’s a melancholic sub-theme about nostalgia for ex-boyfriends, especially erotic dreams about ex-boyfriends during pregnancy. A cadre of “EWGs”—ex–working girls—inform the horrified uptown moms what their men are really like. There are a lot of questions about gayness (Is my husband gay? Is my child gay?) and a recurrent debate about whether enjoying Brokeback Mountain is a sign of gayness. A lot of the time, the women simply post on and on about what their husbands don’t do: They don’t help out, they won’t be kind, they never come home until the wee hours, and they demand sex the mothers don’t want to give and refuse sex the mothers beg for.
On Mother’s Day, a day I had expected to be a happy one on UrbanBaby, the board scrolled by all day with disappointment: no card, no gift, no help, a weekend spent with a terrible mother-in-law and a husband who claimed Mother’s Day wasn’t Wives’ Day, so he didn’t need to get his wife anything.
And amid all the self-pity, there’s a loathing of self-pity. “A baby is tiring, just suck it up or don’t have kids,” replied one poster to a mother of a 3-week-old who wondered if other women’s husbands helped with night feedings.
There are phenomena I’d never heard of before I read UrbanBaby. For instance, “push presents.” Apparently, it’s a tradition to give a fancy piece of jewelry—a diamond tennis bracelet, say, or an expensive ring—to your wife as a reward, or perhaps a motivation, for getting through labor. On UrbanBaby, it’s also a tradition to mock these bracelets. And to compare them.
When bonus time comes around for the wives of IBers (investment bankers) and “BigLaw” lawyers, the boards go mad with Schadenfreude and envy and rage. In one such discussion, a woman explained that she couldn’t stay home even if she wanted to because she needed her salary: She made $150,000 a year. “Not significant,” responded the other poster. Other people began to chime in: “150,000 per year is not significant income? What planet do you live on?” And “I would quit in a heartbeat if I made $150K. It isn’t significant to me.”
On the boards of UrbanBaby, the economic calculus of Manhattan and Brooklyn (and sometimes Queens and often Long Island) is hashed out with a cruel candor that is nearly impossible to find in other places, if only because women in disparate economic circumstances are forced to confront one another’s experiences head-on. Corporate bigwigs post there; so do their nannies. Single mothers sinking into debt hash out their budgets in public; so do women in marriages where both parties float on a sea of family money and never work and spend their time managing their investments. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the sharpest clashes happen not between poor women and rich women but those separated by the slimmest difference—the anxious perforation between the wealthy and the super-wealthy.
“DH and I make about 300K per year. We have 200K in savings. Can we afford a 1 million dollar apartment? We can’t believe we have to spend that much to get anything close to what we want, and we both grew up fairly blue collar, so it just seems like an absurd amount of money for us (despite decent income). Have I just not adjusted to the way things are now?”
Maybe it’s no wonder that on UrbanBaby, emotions are so close to the surface. With a 26 percent rise in the number of 5-year-olds in New York from 2000 to 2004 , a simultaneous rise in the percentage of families staying in the city instead of moving to the suburbs, and an increase in the number of mothers choosing to stay home with their children, the island seems to be filling up with strollers at precisely the moment when the sidewalks have narrowed. Who can afford to have one child, let alone two or three or four? It’s little wonder that motherhood on UrbanBaby is surprisingly hard to distinguish from class war.
Of particular fascination to the UrbanBaby women are those mothers whose economic status seems to many posters both enviable and ridiculous: stay-at-home moms with full-time nannies and expensive tastes.
“my wohm [work-outside-the-home mom] friend is always muttering sarcastically how it must be nice as a sahm [stay-at-home mom] to have lunch with friends & hang out at the park. So I told her it must be nice to afford designer clothes & go on luxurious vacations 2x a yr. Now she is mad at me! WTF?”
“both of you steer clear of me, I’m SAHM who lunches and I have designer clothes and take luxe vacations.”
“la di da.”
One night, a woman posts this seemingly non-rhetorical question: “If your dh had a 5mil trust fund would you stay home? 2 kids and dh does not work.” Responses range from a deadpan “uh, yeah” to “someone has to work … 5 mil is not enough for forever.” A long thread branching off examines the premise that a trust fund providing interest of $350,000 to $500,000 is not enough to live on. “Not enough for whom?” asked one poster incredulously. Another poster replies, “Me. We currently live a 15k/month lifestyle, net, with 1 dc and no school costs”—and then promptly summarizes her expenses for an invisible audience: “7k rent, 1k PT sitter, eating out 1.5–2k, utilities 500, travelling 2k, clothing 1k, out and about ‘cash’ 1k.”
Yet although there’s a lot of talk about money—including inane semiotic detanglings of the differences between old and new money—just as often the financial nitpicking is submerged into chitchat about other differences, from breast-feeding to baby nurses. And so the women focus on the five pounds that separate them from the woman who shares their bench in the playground. And everything, from a serving of YoBaby yogurt to the precise numerical factor that mothers should spend playing with their children (Thirty minutes a day? Thirty minutes an hour?), is pulled into the calculus of how good a mother you are. Strangely, the sensation one gets from the most privileged mothers on the boards is of constant scarcity. Only so many children can get into a “top-tier school,” someone else’s toddler has more words than yours, other people are taking vacations so vastly superior to your vacations that your vacations barely count as vacations.
And maybe people go to UrbanBaby to be judged in the first place. Certainly, there is something masochistic about the experience, because no matter what you do, someone will disapprove, starting with the day you give birth. Refuse the epidural, and someone will sneer that you’re a hippie fool—beg for the drugs, and someone else will suggest you’re a weakling. Home-birth? Lunatic. Scheduled C-section? Control freak. IVF? Unnatural. You can hire a doula and a midwife and a lactation consultant and be called a flake, or hire a nanny, a night nurse, and a maid and be called a spoiled brat. Or you can hire no one and get called a “martyr mom.”Perversely, this is a comfort: If there are no right choices, there are no wrong ones either.
SEARCHING FOR “BITTERNESS”
Which is not to say that there isn’t supportiveness on UrbanBaby. On the boards devoted to pregnancy and newborns and women trying to conceive, you can find answers to every question, immediately, from a chorus of helpful invisible fellow mothers, at any hour. Much of the advice is witty and precise: People will recommend toys, help you choose an OB/GYN, reassure you after a miscarriage. Last Monday, a mother posted, “I feel like I was a bully this am with dc. I was yelling, dd was in tears, ds (4) said ‘You made me upset and I hope you’re happier when you pick me up,’ ” and her invisible friends commiserated in a flash: “that was me yesterday” (two minutes later), and “i hate when that happens. i went through a couple of weeks like that & finally told myself just to snap out of it” (four minutes later.) On UrbanBaby, nothing is too ordinary to discuss and nothing is too abstract—and it all just keeps flowing by, swerves in the river of the shared mother mind.
Mothers post about happiness as well, often defensively invoking another parenting site: the cheery, cloying BabyCenter. “I love my muffin so much it hurts. New mother here to 6 mo ds and I still can’t believe this amazing little thing is my son. Ok, sorry for the babycenter moment. Carry on!”
But sometimes, the dark side of UrbanBaby is more alluring. It’s what keeps me lurking on the craziest, most surrealistic boards—especially the toddler board, which attracts the most outrageous, least child-centered posting. It’s there that you can feel like you have tapped into that cartoon fantasy of the Manhattan Mother, or at least her startling real-life analogue, a woman who may not always be likable but who is full of complicated conflicts and contradictions.
Some nights when my baby is sleeping, instead of reading the boards straight through, I play with the site’s primitive search function to see what turns up. One night, I searched for bitter and found this stay-at-home mom posting in a rage: “I am so angry and bitter. There is no solution.” Her baby woke up at 5:22, her husband won’t wake up for night feedings, and “he gets to do whatever he wants/whenever he wants. Me? Never and going back to work wouldn’t change a thing. It would be me rushing home to relieve nanny. and it would still be me on weekend. I truly don’t foresee marriage surviving children … The rage I feel is unreal. Yes, he makes a lot of money and allows me to SAH. but that is about it.”
Then I tried cheating.
“Can anybody help me think about this—I think I have to leave my husband (he’s been cheating on me and worse) but i feel sad about having to date people that don’t love my daughter in the same way he does. How does one do that?”
Other good search words: pathetic, furious, divorce, whore, affair, and nanny.
But really, anything can work. Try behavior:
“Please help,” writes one poster. “I know that dh is cheating on me, but I love the person that he’s become. He sings around the house, loves playing with the kids, and is a general joy to be around. It’s just so sad that I couldn’t be the woman to inspire this new behavior.”
A THEORY OF THE FIFTIES AND THE SEVENTIES
On UrbanBaby, two equal and opposite forms of nostalgia nudge up against one another like hot and cold fronts.
First, there’s nostalgia for the fifties, when (the fantasy goes) mothers were a safe, proscribed, protected, narrow, and paid-for class. There weren’t many choices for women, and that was a good thing. And at the center of this fantasy is a man who is a good provider, someone who can bring the fifties life into the far-less-affordable 2006.
Numerous posts play out this fantasy like that old dating board game, in which the fate of your plastic marker was determined by which man you landed on. “Would you rather marry a blue collar guy who makes a lot of $$, a white collar who makes little money, or old money who is a cheater?” asks one post. “If you were to marry again, which would you prefer: doctor, lawyer, ib’er , hf’er [hedge funder], journalist?” asks another. (This provokes a certain amount of hilarity at the limited choices available.)
In some posts, there’s a giddy, anxious glee about reclaiming those roles. “I am one sick little 50’s housewife. Love making a menu, list of ingredients, clipping coupons, going to store, buying specials, stocking up, coming in under budget. Love it! What the hell is wrong with me??” And sometimes there’s something else: a feeling of loneliness, a rush of rage at not being appreciated. Stay-at-home moms on the site often seem amazingly angry, and it’s not unusual to read a post that says nothing but “I hate my husband.”
And then there’s nostalgia for the seventies, when (the fantasy goes) motherhood was a freewheeling, chain-smoking, martini-swilling, no-car-seat experience, and we all came out just fine.
“I remember sliding around on the vinyl backseat of my grandparents dodge swinger.”
“Fun, right? I remember getting a dozen kids in the back of a neighbor’s pickup to go swimming at the unattended lake.”
In one post, a woman suggests that people imagine posts that would have been on UrbanBaby if it had existed in 1970 and got an array of parody postings from “My dumb kid ate all my dope!” to “My wooden spoon broke as i was spanking dc—should I just use my hand to spank?” to “My 3 yo twins ride their Big Wheels and Hippity Hops across the street to the park alone, should I make them come home before dark?”
The night Britney Spears spoke to Matt Lauer to defend herself as a mother, the boards were on fire. A hundred (or maybe twenty, or maybe 500: It’s impossible to tell on UrbanBaby) invisible women live-blogged their response to her every word, critiquing the eyelash that dangled from her face like a broken windshield wiper, laughing at her description of her husband, Kevin Federline, as “simple,” moaning in disbelief when she defended her driving her child around without a car seat as “country.”
She was everything that they (or we) were not. She was tacky. She was “white trash.” She gave her child a “Wal-Mart” name. She definitely didn’t seem to be thinking too much.
And yet people also felt sorry for her. They were angry at her—she was a bad mother!—but they could also identify. “Does anyone ever wonder if celebs post here (like Britney for example) and then feel bad about what people say here about her. I would be so horrified if there were somewhere where people criticized my parenting!”
And “I have been thinking for a long time that even though Britney does some stupid things it’s sweet how much she holds Tater Tot.”
Within days, people began admitting to their inner Britney:
“Call me Britney. I was carrying dd at the park this weekend, slipped on some water & totally wiped out … I conked my head & everything & now I can’t stop having these horrible images of what could have happened.”
I think I totally get why britney stuffed herself in that ‘cute figure’ outfit last night: she hasn’t grasped yet that she isn’t still the super-hot-bodied girl anymore. I only know from my own personal experience—not that I wore jean skirts, but it has taken me until after my second baby was born to get it through my head that my body was not as tight as it used to be. it’s like I was seeing the old me in the mirror out of habit.”
Celebrities are huge on UrbanBaby—the boards often clutter up with posts reading “TEAM JOLIE!” and “TEAM ANISTON!”—but of all the famous women whose alternately stuffed and unstuffed wombs have been documented in US Weekly, Britney brings out the strongest emotions. She’s the much-mocked public mother, the one everyone was afraid lurked inside them, the woman with the bull’s-eye on her belly. She was weeping and a mess and totally out of control, and that was the scariest thing of all.
Late at night, the woman on UrbanBaby start talking dirty. They list how many partners they have had. They argue about oral sex and start up extended chats about lesbian seductions—including confessions of playground affairs that seem at once convincing (details about children napping in a Pack n’ Play!) and suspiciously akin to Penthouse’s “Forum” stories. The next morning, the discussion has been deleted.
And then there are their opposite numbers. Search “sexless” and you find a series of posts seeking community: “Anyone else in a sexless marriage?” Some are regretful: “I guess I just wanted to get married and have a baby, but I’m starting to look at everyone else and think they’re happier than me.” Some are wishful: “Anyone know if there’s anything a woman can take to increase the sex drive. like herbal stuff or something?”
One night, a poster wrote in a panic that she’d found a receipt for lingerie that she’d never received. Over the next hour, dozens of anonymous posters walked her through the possibilities: Could it be a gift for her? Was he cheating? She posted again and again: She was a stay-at-home mom with small children; she usually contacted him by his cell phone. UrbanBaby posters argued tactics: Should she confront him when he got home? Coolly place the receipt on his plate? We eagerly waited for her to return and tell us what had happened, but she never came back, and no one could figure out whether that meant it was a fake or whether she had gotten bad news and never logged on again. Days after the incident, people continued posting to her, hoping she’d reappear, but she never did. And when someone would post claiming to be her, it was impossible to confirm if it was true.
Another night, on one of the numerous threads in which people ask for people to post secrets, a woman revealed, “I may get married purposely to get divorced and get the alimony money.” She was quickly called a sociopath. Posters were fascinated that she’d confess such a thing: How could she be so cold? And she did come across as cold but also intelligent and insightful, disassociated yet, like many of the posters on threads like this, startlingly self-reflective. She revealed that she prefers being a single mother. The guy is a nice-enough guy; he’s just “there.” And perhaps unsurprisingly, she was abandoned as a child and abused, although she told nobody about these experiences, or at least nobody except us.
Men on UrbanBaby are a very strange presence. They are necessary, and they are useless. They are critical, in both senses. Although women sometimes post loving accounts of their husband’s sexiness and smarts, more often men are less loving partners than objects for study: Did I know he was like this when I married him? Has he changed or have I? Search for divorce, and you find women in all stages: about to leave, negotiating settlements, struggling with the mess of a custody dispute, and trying to keep things going.
“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.
But if you read UrbanBaby, it’s hard not to be unsettled by the same conclusion that hit Friedan when she surveyed the mothers of America: that what seem like women’s private struggles can be seen as an expression of their shared experience. Without a baby, it’s easy to maintain the idea that you and your husband are atomic individuals, mavericks who shape your own fates; afterward, that notion slips away. In the seventies, the solution for all this was supposed to be consciousness-raising groups. Women would gather together and spill their beans, then look for a pattern among the beans that had been spilled. These meetings weren’t supposed to be merely bitch sessions or therapy. They were supposed to be an opportunity to look for the connections: to figure out how to restructure the world so that there was more room for everyone.
UrbanBaby and the Web in general can’t offer that. They are too chaotic and too ephemeral; it’s impossible to work for change when no one can agree on what needs to be changed, when even your closest ideological allies are nameless and disappear at 2 A.M. But for all the bile on UrbanBaby, there’s still something affecting and even powerful about seeing women’s experiences spilled out so freely. In even the saddest exchanges, there’s a feeling of community—the possibility for isolated women to hack their way through to a bigger picture. In these moments, women seem to be offering one another a way to reimagine the mother they’ve become.
“Feeling sad about marriage. Have beautiful 4 mo son and a little bored with DH. We’re not having sex that much, and I’m exhausted being home with ds. Money is tight and we aren’t always kind when speaking to each other—rather sarcastic in fact.”
“it will get better. the first six months with a new baby can be very hard on a marriage.”
“you are me. i feel stuck.”
“4 mos we were still adjusting … and I felt like a single mom … and he didn’t appreciate how hard going back to work was (my choice, but still hard), things started to get better soon after”
“It takes awhile to get used to a new person in your home.”