Lori Gottlieb wrote possibly the worst book about marriage of this young millennium. Now she's set her sights on parenting — and what she has to say is surprisingly non-terrible.
You may remember Gottlieb as the lady who posed this question in the Atlantic a few years back: "Wouldn't it have been wiser to settle for a higher caliber of 'not Mr. Right' while my marital value was at its peak?" Then she wrote a whole book to demonstrate that the answer was yes, and to "show, in grim detail, the accident that my dating life became so that you could make choices you wouldn't look back on later and regret." Choices like holding out for a guy you were crazy about rather than just somebody who you thought might make a decent dad. Of course, some of Gottlieb's dating foibles may not have been "accidents" — for instance, she wrote so nastily about an overweight boyfriend whose "fatty cum that tasted like cream" that he felt compelled to contact us to set the record straight. In general, she came off as someone who'd graduated from being mean to her exes to being mean to women at large.
So what does this wise cultural critic think about raising kids? As it turns out, nothing terribly controversial. Again in the Atlantic, she argues that by focusing too hard on their children's happiness and never letting them experience a moment's discomfort, American middle-class parents are setting kids up for a lifetime of therapy. This argument isn't new. Indeed, you've probably already heard plenty of criticisms of it: that it focuses too much on well-off kids at the expense of those whose parents could never afford therapy in the first place, that it romanticizes an era of perfect childrearing that never existed, that it overstates the extent to which today's parents and teachers actually overprotect kids. I've harped on this last one ever since people started attacking the everybody-gets-a-trophy culture in which my generation was supposedly raised — where were these trophies, I want to know, the day I failed throwing in gym?
Gottlieb's speaking to a pretty select group here — she writes that "if you're reading this article," you probably belong to the demographic she's talking about. Even assuming that everybody who reads the Atlantic is wealthy enough to identify with private tutors and guitar lessons and welcome weekends at four-year colleges (a pretty big assumption), there will likely be plenty of readers who don't recognize their moms or dads in Gottlieb's portrait of the hyper-coddling modern parent. To her credit, though, Gottlieb acknowledges the extent to which she's actually writing about herself. There's a level of disarming self-deprecation in her essay that was absent from Marry Him. She describes failing to tell her son about her friend's cancer treatments: "commenting on her head scarves, he'd asked me if she was an Orthodox Jew, and like a wuss, I said no, she just really likes scarves." And she writes,
I never said to my son, "Here's your grilled-cheese sandwich." I'd say, "Do you want the grilled cheese or the fish sticks?" On a Saturday, I'd say, "Do you want to go to the park or the beach?" [...] But after I'd set up this paradigm, we couldn't do anything unless he had a choice. One day when I said to him, "Please put your shoes on, we're going to Trader Joe's," he replied matter-of-factly: "What are my other choices?" I told him there were no other choices—we needed something from Trader Joe's. "But it's not fair if I don't get to decide too!" he pleaded ingenuously. He'd come to expect unlimited choice.
Some parents write about their child-rearing anxieties as if they're universal, when they're really just freaking out about their own kids, and it's admirable of Gottlieb to make her personal freak-out explicit. She also seems to have attained a certain serenity that her earlier work spectacularly lacked. She writes,
[U]nderlying all this parental angst is the hopeful belief that if we just make the right choices, that if we just do things a certain way, our kids will turn out to be not just happy adults, but adults that make us happy. This is a misguided notion, because while nurture certainly matters, it doesn't completely trump nature, and different kinds of nurture work for different kinds of kids (which explains why siblings can have very different experiences of their childhoods under the same roof). [...] Maybe we parents are the ones who have some growing up to do — and some letting go.
This is a message I wish she'd gotten much earlier, when she was telling women that if they just made all the right dating choices, then they'd be rewarded with a happy marriage and family. But now that she's wised up to it, it's worth repeating: whether you're looking for a partner or raising a kid, it's worthwhile to remember that there are some things you just can't control. And trying to control them often causes more harm than good.
How To Land Your Kid In Therapy [Atlantic]
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