The Kids Will Be Fine: Guilt-Free Motherhood for Thoroughly Modern Womenby Daisy Waugh
A bracing, hilarious manifesto for motherhood as it ought to be: spontaneous, loving, and just a little bit selfish
Pre-chewing toddler food. Flash cards for two-year-olds. Endless hours of school gatherings to sit through in smiling silence. How did motherhoodwhich even under the best circumstances comes with a million small costs and/b>
A bracing, hilarious manifesto for motherhood as it ought to be: spontaneous, loving, and just a little bit selfish
Pre-chewing toddler food. Flash cards for two-year-olds. Endless hours of school gatherings to sit through in smiling silence. How did motherhoodwhich even under the best circumstances comes with a million small costs and compromisesbecome a venue for female martyrdom, verging on a sort of socially approved mass masochism? How did the great natural force of maternal love get channeled into a simpering, slavish adherence to an inflexible social norm, a repressive sentimentality festooned with hideous pastel baby accessories? How did the bar to good motherhood get set so high that it's impossible for modern mothers not to feel like they're failing?
It doesn't have to be this wayand Daisy Waugh is here to tell us how to opt out of the masochism cycle. Part feminist manifesto, part hilarious rant, The Kids Will Be Fine asks modern mothers to stop confusing love with subjugation. This is a book for moms everywhere who are fed up with the constant stream of unsolicited, impractical, guilt-inducing advice directed their way; for moms who have always secretly suspected that children would turn out okay even without handmade organic snacks or protective toddler headgear. With biting wit and lancing observations, Waugh gives women permission to slough off the judgments, order in some pizza, and remember that motherhood is also about the mother.
British journalist and novelist Waugh refuses to sugarcoat motherhood; in this compendium of concise, no-nonsense essays, loosely divided into the chronological stages of motherhood beginning with childbirth and ending with school-aged kids, she comments on subjects including co-sleeping (defy the experts if you dare); organic foods (“a waste of money”); the “Soppy Dad Brigade” (“soft-voiced and squeaky-soled”); and the uneasy truce between working moms and stay-at-home moms. Waugh, a mother of three, expresses ire at what she sees as society’s inflexible and unreasonable expectations of mothers. She urges women not to confuse love with subjugation, and take their lives back—“unparenting” by making choices that are both less complicated and less costly. According to Waugh, many mothers have become neurotic and excessively involved in their children’s lives—planning exorbitant birthday parties, overscheduling extracurricular activities, and getting sucked into an endless vortex of demands and attempts to please. Though devoted to her own children, Waugh rails against sentimentality and guilt, freely admitting to swearing, drinking, and living an uproariously imperfect life. Mothers of all ages and stages will be entertained by Waugh’s provocative book. Agent: Anna Stein O’Sullivan, Aitken Alexander Associates. (Apr.)
"In her blunt, sometimes caustic, manifesto, Waugh tackles the issues that dominate parenting blogs and torment mothers daily. Breast-feeding, crying-it-out, the dismal sport of competitive birthday partiesWaugh skewers them all. She's like the chain-smoking, worldly aunt who takes a deep drag on her cigarette before blowing a cloud of smoke in your face and telling you to stop worrying and get on with your life."The New York Times Book Review
"Mothers of all ages and stages will be entertained by Waugh’s provocative book."Publishers Weekly
A scattered book "in defense of mothers everywhere who have had enough of the constant commentary…and guilt-inducing advice on something we might do far more enjoyably (and far better) left to our own instinctively irritable and lazy but loving devices." Many commentators decry our current navel-gazing, self-concerned society, and it can be especially difficult to navigate for new mothers and mothers-to-be. Social pressures and medical establishment expectations can make a dos and don'ts list a mile long. Waugh (Last Dance with Valentino, 2011), a relative of Evelyn, adds another book to the growing list of counteractive books, insisting that years of scientific research, common-sense knowledge distilled through generations of trial-and-error parenting, and all of those self-limiting prison walls people construct around themselves can be disregarded, provided it's done with panache. The author even found a doctor who told her that it doesn't really matter what substances you put in your body while pregnant. If children want to sit on the couch and watch a Harry Potter movie for the 10th time, they should be able to. After all, they will have adulthood to spend doing things they don't want to do—unless they read this book, in which case they can cherry-pick which responsibilities to address. The general thrust of Waugh's argument is "don't worry, be happy," which could be made convincing with more of a focus on skewering those specific areas that lead to obsessive-compulsive helicopter parenting, combined with some insight into how too much drive to "do the right thing" can also be damaging and lead to burnout. Instead, the author's emphasis is focused more on making sure parents do "a little less fretting and hassling." Whether or not you agree that parents deserve to hold on to vestiges of their pre-parenting years, for the most part, Waugh's message misses the mark.
- Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
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- First Edition
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Read an Excerpt
Some Potentially Liberating Observations
Researchers have found that children born to older mothers have stronger language skills and face fewer social and emotional problems compared to children born to younger mothers.
Recent studies show that children of older mothers are more at risk for autism.
Studies have shown later development, poor verbal skills, and lower test scores of children whose mothers returned to work in the early months of their babies’ lives.
Researchers have found that mothers who are overinvolved or overprotective during the early stages of a child’s development can increase the risk for anxiety later in the child’s life.
Recent studies have shown that babies who are breast-fed exclusively for the first six months of life are at greater risk for developing nut allergies.
Recent studies show that infants who are breast-fed are less likely to suffer ear infections.
It is tempting when trying to make a point (especially an argumentative one: namely, most of what follows) to do a quick foray through Google in search of a study or statistic to back it up. Look hard enough and there will almost certainly be one. And although studies per se are clearly a good thing when used to illustrate a strong point of view, they are probably best taken with a pinch of salt. The above selection of beguiling but contradictory information took me about half an hour to cobble together while waiting for my yoga class to begin.
There are lies, there are damn lies, and there is Google for some slick-sounding studies to back them up. I am going to resist the temptation to bamboozle us all with studies.
I was at a working lunch not so long ago, sitting at a big table, surrounded by clever, accomplished men. In a roomful of twenty or more, only four of us were women: an Estonian intern in her early twenties who didn’t seem to speak any English; an expert of some kind, a gentle, unassuming woman; a secretary to the man hosting the lunch; and me, out of my depth, outnumbered, and a bit distracted. But the food was good, and it made a change from writing.
One of the guests was an expert on welfare reform. (This story gets better.) He was a highly respected gentleman with a mean mouth, I noticed, and a good suit; he was advising the current government, as he had the last, on sundry initiatives related to welfare-dependent single mothers. Maybe—who knows?—some of his illiberal-sounding initiatives might indeed prove helpful one day, but in my heart I doubted it, if only because of the scorn-filled tone he used to discuss them. He had statistics aplenty and an unshakable confidence in his own rectitude, and also a noticeable dislike for the people he proclaimed himself so keen to help.
In any case, call it sentimental (I’m sure he would), but it seemed to me that, statistics or no statistics, any child-rearing initiatives devised by men with mean mouths and smart suits enjoying extravagant weekday luncheons in Mayfair dining rooms where there weren’t enough women present were unlikely to bring much wisdom or kindness to the effort.
The main gist of the man’s intended reform was faintly reminiscent of that creepy Tom Cruise film Minority Report, in which, thanks to a brilliant fortune-telling computer, government officers could incarcerate villains for “pre-crimes” before they’d had a chance to think of committing them. The mean-mouthed man wanted to send parental instruction officers—I’m not sure what name he had devised for them—into the homes of young, single mothers who looked as though they might yet prove unfit for the difficult task ahead. These girls, the men around me agreed, simply hadn’t the faintest idea what was required of them, and they needed to be told.
Quite quickly, the conversation took what I felt was a nasty turn; if I’d known I was going to write about it later, I would have made notes. At the time, I sat as politely as I could while the steam began to whistle inside my ears. Mr. Thin Lips delivered his statistics and anecdotes with a sneering viciousness, and the clever men of Mayfair—of all political persuasions—nodded and sighed and rolled their eyes at the desperate state of the masses until the plates were cleared for dessert.
What these mothers needed . . . What these girls failed to appreciate . . . What these women had to be made to understand . . . Some of these little children, we were told, arrived at school having been so horribly neglected by their so-called mothers, they couldn’t recognize their own names. They couldn’t dress themselves. They weren’t potty trained. They’d never laid eyes on a book. Many of them couldn’t even speak properly. The single skill guaranteed to these children, it seemed, was the ability to open a large package of potato chips.
God knows there are some cruel and irresponsible mothers out there, and I’ve no doubt that in the course of his research, Thin Lips had encountered more than most. But something in the tone of these men, how lightly they dismissed these apparently hopeless women, how easily and complacently they judged and damned their maternal efforts, crystallized an irritation that had been bubbling away for years. I have to say that the anger I felt, listening to them sneering and despairing from their easy moral high ground, took me quite by surprise. You know how it is: one minute, you’re sitting quietly, slightly intimidated, listening to the experts. The next minute, it occurs to you that some of these emperors at the table might, in fact, be naked. I looked at these men, from one to the next, and I wondered which of them had played what kind of a role in the potty training of their own wretched toddlers.
More to the point: What was the longest stretch of time spent by any one of these men, absolutely and entirely alone, with a child under two years old? A single morning? A weekend? Maybe even one whole, long, nightmarish week? Perhaps a wife had been in the hospital, the mother-in-law was dead, there were no sympathetic neighbors or sisters, no nannies available. . . . But even then (I thought), they would have known that such an arrangement was temporary. Some ghastly mismanagement on the part of someone else, probably female, had led them to this unavoidable situation. But it would be okay, because everyone would feel sorry for them and laugh indulgently at their incompetent efforts. And in any case, even a week of solitary potty training is bearable for a clever fellow in a suit, if he knows that, come Monday, he’ll be safely back at his piss-and-puke-free desk, engaging his brain and, above all, feeling guilt-free leaving the potty training to somebody else.
Anyway, after several long minutes of listening quietly and smiling pleasantly at this VIP lunch, I started to feel so angry that my vision began to blur. “You go on as if these women were barely human!” I burst out, before I had quite noticed I was speaking. “But you don’t seem to realize that the very fact that these chip-eating children still exist by school age is a testament . . .”—I didn’t put it quite as neatly as this—“. . . the mere fact that these children made it as far as elementary school at all is a testament to their mother’s love. You’re all sitting around sneering, but do you have the faintest idea how much effort and care is required simply to keep a baby alive?”
I said something along those lines, and I definitely said the bit about them sitting around sneering, thereby declaring war on the entire room. I rounded off my speech with a sweetener, a nugget of humor I thought might help smooth things over, while also, pretty much, summing up. “What I’m trying to say is . . . maybe a few rotten apples, like Stalin, for example . . . but on the whole, in general . . . I bet the Russians love their children, too.”
They looked angry and confused. “You’re coming at the whole matter of motherhood from the wrong angle.” (I tried again.) “You may not approve of what their children eat. But these women aren’t raising children for your benefit and approval. They love their children. Even if you can’t understand how or why.”
To be clear, this book isn’t about men. They are the least of our problems. I’m only setting them up as a common foe, so that the rest of us—the ones actually doing the potty training or feeling guilty about employing someone else to do it—can be loosely united, no matter what we feed our children, how hard we work or don’t work, how too old or too young we may be. This is a book in defense of mothers everywhere who have had enough of the constant commentary—the stream of unsolicited, sentimental, impractical, and guilt-inducing advice on something that we might do far more enjoyably (and far better) left to our own instinctively irritable and lazy but loving devices.
Not all mothers love their children, of course. And I pity the infinitesimal few who can’t, though not as much as I pity their offspring. But I don’t speak for them, only for the rest of us: for that truly vast majority of women who, in our own imperfect and infinitely varied fashions, in the privacy of our heads and hearts, love our children fiercely and without the smallest shadow of doubt, yet who nevertheless sometimes feel the need to go to extravagant and impractical ends to prove it—not to ourselves, or to our children, but to an ever more censorious and sentimental outside world.
Modern parenting—like the men at lunch—disapproves of idiosyncrasy. It requires all of life to be laid flat and bite-size at the altar of a child’s serenity. Leaving aside the spirit-sapping assumption that serenity is the be-all and the end-all of a well-lived life, it fails to take into account that loving mothers and their beloved children often want different things from the world, and from each other, too. We don’t have to dance to an identical jig. In fact, if I may say so, we damn well don’t have to jig at all.
And yet as the civilized world continues on its long and laudable trek toward greater tolerance in other forums, the Good Mother prototype seems to have got stuck—or worse, actually: it seems to have regressed, becoming ever more rigid and one-dimensional, to the point where even the smallest aberration from the simpering, slavish norm is scowled at. As any pregnant woman who dares to drink alcohol in a bar soon discovers. Such minor lapses in personal, prenatal care (if lapses they are at all) are now monstrous crimes: monstrous enough for total strangers to feel comfortably within their rights to approach and remonstrate.
We live, for the most part, in an unself-consciously selfish society. That’s the way it is. It’s how we’ve evolved and learned to survive. But future mothers are meant to set themselves apart: to forget everything we’ve been taught about the importance of “self-actualization,” of “life being a journey,” “fulfilling our potential,” and so on—to cast all that aside and fix a hurried halo over our heads. Hopes and dreams, personal tastes and individual requirements—all the things that raise us above animals and make us human—become not simply irrelevant but faintly embarrassing. It’s as if their mere existence might somehow undermine not only a mother’s gratitude for the gift of giving life, but the magnificence of Mother Love itself.
What we have, for the most part, is repressive sentimentality, a smiling acceptance of female martyrdom that teeters, at times, beyond martyrdom into a sort of approved mass masochism. It’s creepy. And it reaches its creepiest, most perverted climax in the delivery room, where women, for reasons that have never made any sense to me, are encouraged to endure the extraordinary pain of labor without calling on the perfectly safe and incredibly effective painkillers that we all know to be available.
I have three children. During labor for the first (before I knew any better), so pumped up was I, with nerves and hormones and fear of disapproval, that I allowed the midwife to negotiate me out of an epidural and into a hideous birthing pool. She said I was very lucky one had come free. So I lay in this idiotic tub, naked, frightened—and in agony—while my husband and the midwife stood awkwardly side by side looking down at me. Painful. Humiliating. Lonely.
But we learn. By baby number three I knew exactly what I wanted. And though the doctor rolled her eyes and looked queasy, and told me that “only the middle-class women” insisted on epidurals (perhaps because only the middle-class women are confident enough to demand them?), the hospital eventually relented. Better still—I had a husband who traveled, other children to care for, and I was living in a place far away from family and friends, so I had something called a “social induction.” In other words, I was given drugs specifically so that the baby was born at a time to fit with my schedule. And—bless that scruffy little hospital—before anyone even gave me the induction drugs, they fitted me up with an epidural. Which meant, reader, a 100 percent pain-free delivery, at a time that suited me.
The midwife was an older woman: earthy, gossipy, and warm. We chatted up to the last minute about all sorts of things—her grandchildren and my children, The Apprentice. . . . At some point our conversation was interrupted by one of those shattering, agonized screams the likes of which you hear only on battlefields (I imagine) and on delivery wards where they’re being stingy with the epidurals. The woman in the room next door, I was told, had “opted” for a “natural delivery.” So natural, her screams made the flimsy walls between our two rooms shake. As the screams faded, and the poor woman paused for the panting exercises they no doubt told her would help with the next agonizing round of contractions, my midwife gave a merry, bosomy chuckle and shook her head.
“Another natural childbirth,” she laughed. “I don’t know why they bother.” It’s a question I’ve been asking myself ever since about so many of the aspects of modern motherhood that we’re told to adhere to.
As I typed these words, I received an e-mail from a friend, written in hurry and rage, with a Web link to a precious-looking book called Recipes from My Mother for My Daughter. I will quote the e-mail verbatim: “For God’s sake, look at it! Even the cover is so SANCTIMONIOUS! I’m pretty sure her mother never made anything with mascarpone anyway, because even garlic was barely even invented in the UK till the end of the bloody 70s!”
What are children for?
Depends who’s asking, doesn’t it: the CEO of Toys “R” Us, Sir Jimmy Savile, you, me, Joseph Kony, or the pope. Broadly speaking, I suppose, children aren’t really “for” anything much, except for growing into adults so that they can have children of their own and perpetuate the human race. Which is nice.
But it doesn’t really explain why, as individuals, we continue to go to the inconvenience of bringing our own children into the world. “Perpetuating the human race” was not even at the bottom of my list of reasons for having children. It didn’t feature at all.
Bearing in mind what an appalling impact children have on our finances, sex lives, friendships, ambitions, our bodies, and our freedom—and bearing in mind the overwhelming sense of doom: the black cloud of world-at-an-endness that hovers between the Western consciousness and its broken ozone layer—and bearing in mind that the planet is already horribly overpopulated, that Venice is sinking, the ice caps are melting, the welfare state is unaffordable, the politicians are crooks, the world economic contraction is a Braxton Hicks to what lies ahead, that retirement’s a pipe dream, and we’re all going to die of cancer in a hospital corridor.
Bearing all this in mind, it seems extraordinary that we continue to breed at all.
Why? Why, above all, do Western women—with jobs and dreams, financial independence and reasonably full lives—why do we put ourselves through it?
Here is a list of possible motives.
• We are in love.
• We like the idea of being surrounded by a loving family.
• We want to feel needed.
• We like taking care of helpless creatures.
• Everyone else is doing it, and it’s a bit lonely being the only one without a baby.
• Our job is boring and a new baby’s a good excuse to resign.
• We’ve reached a stage in life where something has to change.
• It seems like the right time and we might regret not having had a baby in years to come.
• Our partner wants a baby and we want to make him happy.
• We’re already pregnant and can’t face having an abortion.
• To trap a partner who might be thinking of abandoning us.
• To take care of us in old age.
• It’s a meal ticket.
• It satisfies a deep and primal desire to perpetuate, if not the human race, then at least our own stake in it.
• Because life is meaningless and, at bottom, we are all painfully lonely. And children, with the hope and joy they bring, help to keep our despair at bay.
No matter how you look at it, our reasons for bringing children into the world have nothing to do with the interest of a yet-to-be-born baby and everything to do with the interests of ourselves, or—which is the same thing—people we happen to care about. Mothers have babies—despite environmentalist assertions that the world would be better if we didn’t—because, for one reason or another, it suits us. (A pregnant woman who refuses abortion, by the way, or who rejects lifesaving medication “for the sake of ” her unborn child is acting according to her own moral code and for fear of her own eternal soul. She is no more selfless than the rest of us.) The point is, we are no less self-interested than the next man.
I find that rather liberating. We procreate not for the benefit of our children, not for the pleasure of friends, not for the approval of health visitors, schoolteachers, or thin-lipped government advisers, but for a myriad of expediencies, all of which lead to the benefit, pleasure, comfort, and approval—of ourselves. Mother love, as discussed, is a beautiful thing, bringing with it an abundance of collateral goodness: patience, kindness, tenderness—and, yes, self-sacrifice; but at the bottom of it all, motherhood is about us.
It was quite fashionable for a while, among the Mothers of America, to post the following message on their Facebook pages. It was a sort of Martyred Mom mission statement, from what I can make out, reminiscent of those stickers we used to tape onto each other’s backs in the playground with “Kick Me” written on them:
To all the UNSELFISH MOMS out there who traded sleep for dark circles, salon haircuts for ponytails, long showers for quick showers, late nights for early mornings, designer bags for diaper bags & WOULDN’T CHANGE A THING. Lets [sic] see how many Moms can actually post this. Moms who DON’T CARE about what they gave up and instead LOVE what they got in return! Post this if you LOVE your LIFE as a mom ♥
Barf bags disposed of? Good. Where do we begin?
It’s absurd, clearly. And could be dismissed on grounds of breathtaking inanity. Nevertheless, in its clumsy way, it highlights what is a commonly held belief: that good motherhood requires a denial of personal pleasure and a negation of the self.
What’s especially offensive about this particular manifestation, however, aside from the hectoring tone and the gratuitous misogyny (“Let’s see how many Moms can actually post this”), is the implication, often made, though rarely so inelegantly, that “Unselfish Moms” should not simply rejoice in their children but should rejoice in all they have given up to be their mothers. As if the joy in the sacrifices (and what a driveling list they present us with: salon haircuts for ponytails? Designer bags for diaper bags?) is a prerequisite of bona fide motherly love, and a mother who doesn’t draw masochistic pleasure from such slavish self-denial is not properly fulfilling her role.
Yes, we know it. Motherhood comes with a million small costs, requires a million different compromises, and sometimes may even require taking a slightly shorter shower. But there is something a little sinister about the way the kick-me brigade harps on. And it makes me wonder, Why are they so aware of the costs in the first place? And—more to the point—why oh why must they insist on carrying on about them so?
In any other walk of life we laugh at them, the Pharisees, who make such a song about the giving and such a dance rejoicing at the cost. And we can’t help but ask ourselves: What are they really after? What’s in it for them?
Yet somehow the Martyred Mothers get away with it. Partly, I suppose, because for the fathers, at least, what price is a little sanctimony, if it means escaping from their share of the chores? And partly because the other mothers—who take on their motherly chores in a more brusque and businesslike fashion, and are often in search of shortcuts—tend to feel a little sheepish about their anti-zeitgeist behavior. I know I do. Or did. It’s what drove me to write this book.
When the prevailing culture encourages mothers to confuse love for subjugation and when it endlessly reiterates and reinforces the same truth—that a mother who puts her own needs first is a bad mother and a freak of biological nature—it’s tempting (though in our heads and hearts we know it can’t make sense since we mothers never actually stopped being rational) to nod agreeably and say nothing, to smile obediently and shuffle quietly on.
Take, for example, the following concept: Me Time.
It’s a ludicrous phrase and these days, to be fair, it’s used as often in jest as in earnest. Nevertheless, the notion remains. And it reeks of a deodorized-panty-liner simpering-style femininity. Men don’t talk about having “Me Time.”
Me Time is the specialty of busy moms—moms who spend all day rushing around worrying, and who, every now and then, it is generally agreed, deserve a break from doing things for others: a few quiet minutes, after dropping off the kids at school, to sit down with a cup of coffee and a muffin, perhaps. Or, better yet, an afternoon in a health spa with the girls, discussing husbands and kids to the soft sounds of electronic lounge music.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with any of that. I am only saying that implicit in the Me Time notion, no matter what form it takes, is the assumption that all non–Me Time is Other People’s Time.
But of course it isn’t. Yes, mothers spend much of their time tending to the requirements of their family. (Martyred Mothers far more time than they need to.) But then again, most adults spend much of their time tending to the requirements of others. It’s called being an adult. It’s called having a job. Mothers care for their children not because of some nature-given selflessness exclusive to them, but if anything because of the opposite. It’s in a mother’s interests to tend to her children because she cares massively—more than anyone else—about her children’s welfare.
We look after what we care for. Me Time is all the time. It’s called My Life, and it is always up to us how we decide to spend it.
The following sections are divided loosely into the chronological stages of motherhood. They are most adamantly not a guide. They are far from foolproof—in fact, they are not for fools at all. I don’t aim to offer answers, rather to throw into the morass of blandness, sentimentality, and neurotic hyperactivity a few pragmatic suggestions and long overdue questions.
I only speak from my own experience as a modern, educated, middle-class woman who is more truculent than most (perhaps), especially when expected to jump through what may seem to others as harmless enough hoops. I don’t think they are harmless. That’s the point. They achieve nothing, they waste our living time, they encourage us to gloss our lives with bullshit. And the simpering demeans us.
There has never been a moment when I wasn’t grateful to be a mother, but there have been many moments when I felt bewildered and alienated by society’s inflexible expectations of me as a mother. And my sense of guilt at my failure to feel as blandly fulfilled as I knew I was meant to feel only intensified the sense of isolation.
So here are some potentially liberating observations for mothers and future mothers who might sometimes find themselves feeling the same way.
Copyright © 2014 by Daisy Waugh
Meet the Author
Daisy Waugh is a weekly humor columnist writing on family for The Sunday Times of London, among other publications, a presenter on BBC radio, and a novelist. She lives in London with her husband and three children.
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I purchased this book after reading a recommendation from Parents Magazine. She had a lot of very strong opinions that put other parents down for the way they choose to parent their children. This book seemed very judgemental and degrading to those she did agree with. I don't choose to do a lot of things other parents do but I also wouldn't call them names and think they are stupid for doing it. Parenting is a very personal and very difficult and we all do what we think is best for our children. Even though i have a more relaxed parenting style as she does, I was offended at how she spoke about other parents and felt she even gave some dangerous advice.