Sunday, December 13, 2009

If 40 is not the new 12, then 29 is not the new 21.

I always enjoy Judith Warner's writing over at the New York Times. Until recently, she penned the weekly column, Domestic Disturbances, in which she wrote about motherhood and modern life. Now she contributes to the Opinionator, where her columns have a similar focus. I like her style and voice - personal, honest, smart - and how she looks for connections between trends and behaviors, using herself and her family as models.

In her most recent column for the Opinionator, "40 Is Not the New 12," Warner describes a piece about bullying that she attempted to write a few years ago. She wanted to visit a girl who had been "particularly cruel" to her in junior high in order to reach some kind of understanding. Warner was unable to locate the "bully," but she did fine another classmate who remembered things differently: Warner wasn't bullied; rather, Warner deserted her and others for a more popular clique.

The piece goes on to describe and reflect on the nature of memories, especially of a time in each of our lives so wrought with daily crises and hormones. She wonders about the impulse of mothers to revisit these experiences, using their daughters as proxies:
These days, I come back a lot to memories of 7th and 8th grade (and the unreliable narrators of those memories), because my elder daughter, Julia, is now in 7th grade, which means, of late, that she lives in a world filled with endless girl dramas of the most unfortunate and, alas, ordinary kind.

Warner suggests that parents, especially--or uniquely?--mothers, want to make sense of their children's experiences, or at the least, help the children make sense of those experiences. Frame them in some kind of narrative, one that allows them to dismiss some experiences and heighten others. But, she concludes,

I’m not sure that our selves really are so continuous. And the experiences of childhood are not really as universal — i.e., as accessible to us as parents — as we’d like to believe.

That is, each of us has a right to our daily traumas; on our own, we'll write our narrative.

I enjoyed reading this piece, but it was the comment section that drew my attention more than Warner's column itself. Many reflected on being bullied, being bullies, or being both. Others wondered about their own children. A few described experiences at lunch with distracted peers, texting their daughters, being BFFs. But one wrote the following:

Maybe it would be good if the economy collapsed totally or we had a total war like WWII so women would have to spend all their time focused on tilling the fields, working in factories or doing something constructive to keep themselves and their families in food, shelter and clothing, leaving them no time to think about the silliness that is the subject of this article. I cannot imagine productive intelligent women (whether holders of one or more degrees or possessing little education) wasting time on such foolishness. Indeed, I'll bet women who were successful mothers in years past never did.

If only women would chop Maslow's hierarchy of needs in half: food, clothing, shelter. None of that silly happiness stuff and, god forbid, self-actualization, this commenter implies.

Actually, I think many of us - men and women alike, though I imagine (maybe wrongly?) that it's women, more so - experience that guilt. We know that there are those with real problems: hunger, homelessness, lack of opportunities. We know that regardless of what's going on in our own life, someone, somewhere, has it far worse. We know it's a relative luxury to wonder about things, to seek meaningful connections. But I also think that this knowledge contributes to our ambivalence - dually holding the desire for better and the fear and guilt of having better.

And I'm realizing that, in general, women aren't encouraged to do and have better in the same way that men are.

1 comment:

Dan said...

Wow. That commenter must have missed the day they taught self-reflection in a seventh grade "essential skills" class.

Regardless of gender, we all spend some part of lives reliving, remembering, or rectifying our youths. But talking about those experiences with others can be difficult: I often find that others have many powerful feelings associated with all manner of events/interactions from decades ago---but those feelings seldom line up exactly with mine.