Mommynomics 101: If Privileged Manhattan Moms are Lazy, I'm Missing Something

Published by Wednesday Martin

In a recent article for the New York Observer, Richard Kirshenbaum wrote about Upper East Side parents "outsourcing" their parenting duties — to their drivers. It's an amusing and insightful piece that follows on the heels of Tara Palmeri's New York Post piece about moms (and dads, c'mon!) who send nannies to do school volunteer work in their stead. Nannies acting as crossing guards and bringing school snack are rubbing many the wrong way.

It's certainly bizarre to contemplate people delegating parenting duties because they can't be bothered (Kirshenbaum writes about a mom who uses her driver as a chaperone for her teens because she doesn't want to miss her spin class). And a driver being responsible for transporting a drunken teen home from a club could get any responsible parent's hackles up. It gives us a voyeuristic thrill (and a chill) to read about lazy, irresponsible Manhattan parents whose ways are so odd and off-putting and nuts.

On the one hand, yes. But on the other, running just beneath the surface of these admittedly out-there anecdotes, there is a whiff of the familiar. Namely, they suggest that age-old theme, that privileged moms are necessarily bad moms, indolent and self-indulgent, too wrapped up in themselves to care about or care for their kids. They have nannies, this belief presumes, because they can. It's a perk and a status symbol, many believe, the equivalent of a bauble you get yourself on a whim. Not a compromise these women have made because they have to or want to work, or a decision they have made because they feel they are happier people and better parents when they are spelled and supported by a caregiver.

Who are these languorous, decadent, rich Manhattan moms at the heart of so many voyeuristic anecdotes, anyway? Where are all these Mrs. Xs from The Nanny Diaries? When I first began my research for my upcoming book, Primates of Park Avenue: an Anthropological Memoir of Uptown Motherhood, I expected there were lots of them. I guess they are out there. But after five years of running with the privileged parents of the Upper East  Side, where my kids go to school, I don't know many of them. Most of the women I know are busy, busy busy — and not just busy seeming busy. The theory of "attachment parenting" is mainstream gospel in the world I live in and study, demanding that, to be considered "good mothers," women should basically spend every second breastfeeding, bouncing and bonding with their infants...and virtually never have a break until the kid goes off to college (after they write the kid's college essay, of course).

The mothers I live among here in Manhattan exhaust themselves in the service of their children, because they love their children and can afford to, but also because they are under enormous cultural pressure to put their children first every second of every day. These women are homework consultants, sports cheerleaders, early intervention overseers, playdate supervisors, and administrators of special services for their kids with learning disabilities, many of them — not to mention  home managers.

Yes, they're doing what women have done for decades, the hard work and heavy lifting of mothering — but they're doing it under specific circumstances. Up until the early 1970s, that purveyor of mainstream childcare wisdom Dr. Benjamin Spock recommended that stay-at-home mothers take some time for themselves every day — a man of his times, he advocated that these mommies play bridge, talk on the phone or watch a soap opera — while Junior or Susie played alone in his or her bedroom. For the child's good and the mother's.

I don't know many Manhattan moms — hard driving and ambitious on behalf of their children, but also anxious, sometimes beyond description, to help those kids succeed and be happy — who wouldn't feel guilty doing Dr. Spock's bidding. They feel tremendously guilty, they report to me, if they stop helping and advocating for their kids for a minute (in return, they are denigrated for "helicoptering"). And because they live in Manhattan and have the means for it, many exhaust themselves pursuing every possible avenue to enrich their kids socially, intellectually, and emotionally. The cost is high. A recent Pew study found that these non-working but hard-at-work mothers "report more sadness, anger, and episodes of diagnosed depression than their employed counterparts," according to sociologist Stephanie Coontz summarizing the study in the New York Times recently.

In a perhaps unexpected twist, many of the women I live among and study have quit prestigious jobs to give their all to mothering — and the beneficiaries of this are not just the children but also the children's schools. I know women who used to run departments and hedge funds who now work forty hour weeks on the school Fall Harvest Fest or the Spring Fling or the gradeschool's annual Benefit gala. They take the time — a lot of it — to write the school newsletter rather than a piece for an academic journal; they use the skills they honed as top notch PR sharks to be "class parent," sending out dozens of emails and coordinating dozens of schedules and organizing countless events to foster a sense of school spirit; they use the fundraising know-how they developed as investment bankers to keep a school or a charitable cause afloat. Plenty of these women giving their all to causes, schools, and kids have actual paying jobs, too. Many have "scaled back" their hours, intentionally or unintentionally finding themselves on the "Mommy Track" — Coontz points out that women who have done so report higher levels of dissatisfaction and depression that women who don't.

Sure, there are Manhattan Geishas, and I write about them plenty in Primates of Park Avenue. Yes, there are women like the ones Kirshenbaum and Palmeri describe. But I am more familiar with the breed of Manhattan mom who never stops politic-ing, strategizing and advocating on behalf of her child, trying to better her kid's school and her kid's world, because she doesn't feel she has any choice. In many instances she is stressed, anxious and more prone to depression. I'm not going to judge her for skipping the bake sale.