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My Blue Heaven

Was Ernest Hemingway’s, say, an “American Life?” Karla Faye Tucker’s? If Benjamin Spock’s was a typical, as opposed to merely a virtuous, American Life, one would have to stipulate its privileges—upper-middle-class New England upbringing, summers in Maine, education at Yale, rowing on an Olympic gold medal team, prosperity, fame, and, most important it seems, a flexible and energetic personality that continued working and changing until his death at ninety-four. But of course, one of the advantages of privilege, and the reason to seek its perquisites for everybody, is that it allows the individual flexibility and largeness of soul.

Doctors, like the unusually tall, take naturally to being authority figures. With the Vietnam War, the tall, famous Dr. Spock was drawn, by logical stages through his concern for children, into the anti-war movement. Encouraging people to resist the draft was to many a popular cause, and he was a hero in those quarters, but of course the other, hawk, part of the population turned on him. Spock drew an unusual amount of vitriol in a time when, after all, many people were goaded out of their accustomed roles to express moral positions; he was not the only modest academic or public servant provoked by government intractability to step out of his chosen field. But commitment, tolerated in actors or writers, was savagely resented in people like priests or doctors—people who might actually have moral authority and therefore couldn’t be dismissed or faintly derided. Now his child-rearing views, in reality mild counsels of consistency and firmness, were assailed as “permissive”; he was accused by Spiro Agnew and Julie Eisenhower of having personally created the generation of spoiled brats who refused to go off and kill Vietnamese, and get killed themselves.

Few public figures thus assailed have regained their footing. Though the whole experience animated his sense of civic conscience enough to make him run for president in 1972, on the People’s Party ticket, in one way Spock’s effective life was over. In another, he was freed for an old age of continued work and self-development. He divorced, remarried, brought out new editions, adopted macrobiotics and meditation, continued to speak out on political issues.

The first Mrs. Spock, Jane, was in her way also an “American Life,” an intelligent woman overeducated to an expectation of a self-realized, “fulfilled” existence, the sort of faculty wife who turned up at parties in one’s college years, apparently unhappy, on pills and vodka—the very sort of woman Betty Friedan wrote so sympathetically of as needing a life of her own. Advanced in his child-caring views, Spock did not examine his views about the nature of women and motherhood—he would eventually do so but, as so often, this would happen too late for his first wife. By the 1970s, an emerging women’s movement resented that he, a man, presumed to tell women about their natures or their duties. When in 1971 Gloria Steinem told him he was considered a symbol of male oppression “just like Freud,” he was dumbfounded.

It would take a younger woman to influence him to revise his conventional belief that women were uniquely qualified and contented to be mainly mothers, and to make a more realistic assessment of the complexities of this role. Spock’s views, not surprisingly, came from his own upbringing, but also from his medical training and his exposure to psychoanalysis, with its antifeminist bias. In his autobiography (Spock on Spock [1985], written with Mary Morgan, his second wife), he later recanted—“It is indicative of my sexism that it took me three years of discussions with many patient women before I fully understood the nature of my sexism,” but this has somehow the sound of the star chamber. His biographer, Thomas Maier, is scrupulous in telling us Spock’s defects as father and husband; and all biography tells us that powerful and creative lives often entail behavior that makes them hard on the people around them. But if we share the modern preference that a good biographer be the “conscientious enemy of his subject” (unlike the nineteenth-century projects to praise), Maier cannot quite qualify. Spock was evidently, mainly, too good a person.


Julia Grant cites a study of the mothers in parent-education groups that found that middle- and upper-class white Christian and Jewish mothers were more likely than white working-class and African-American mothers to favor a developmental, Spock-like perspective rather than emphasizing “specific behavioral conformities.” Why? Are those mothers the products of their own first few years? Of their Jewish or upper-class culture? Or of their genes? The failure or difficulty of psychological theories is that they have not produced a nation of well-adjusted, happy adults—which must be the object of any style of parenting—and so our soul-searching into parenting continues, in the service of which both genetic and cultural theories have returned to challenge the well-entrenched psychological explanations of the way we are.

We are more likely to believe that genes can affect us now that we can see them, as William Wright’s summary of recent genetic research, Born That Way, points out. Wright is attempting to explain in layman’s language the present state of the ancient nature-nurture debate, especially some recent discoveries about the human genome. Though it still seems hypothetical, he predicts a growing ability to find the actual locations on the gene of certain forms of human behavior—developments which promise to take the field beyond its former reliance on anecdotal, relatively unprovable reared-apart-twin studies and family or group coincidence, sociology rather than biochemistry.

According to Wright, the results of recent biological research suggest that there are more things inscribed in our DNA than we have been willing to believe, including even aspects of behavior like “inhibition” that were always thought to be conditioned by the environment. Although genetic researchers’ methods of measuring behavior still seem woefully open to dispute, Wright is quick to support their claims. He maintains that reared-apart-twin studies and other efforts by social scientists to prove the influence of genes have convinced many (including him), and he is distressed to find that they are vulnerable to criticism on the part of people (some of them distinguished geneticists) who, he says, mistrust genetic determinism and wish to discredit the idea of a genetic influence on behavior, as well as the generally skeptical who continue to hold the old-fashioned view that heredity and environment shape us fifty-fifty. The parent may well ask: Does the exact proportion really matter?

Whether two reared-apart twins having the same recurrent nightmare that their mouths were filled with fishhooks strikes you as genetic or, as it does this reader, merely weird, we all sense or “know” at some level that some things are innate. Our language and our experience of the world are impregnated with this sense, for instance when Bill McKibben, arguing for one-child families, makes the point that we can override a “deeply ingrained sense that there’s something inherently selfish about not being willing to have children” (italics mine), which explains the “residue of uneasiness, even of shame,” that surrounds the subject of contraception. And every parent of more than one child knows perfectly well that children are born with differences, even if, for several reasons, we have hesitated to accept one idea in particular—that intelligence could be hereditary. We can bear the idea that a diabetes gene could be found and eliminated, we may have hopes of uncovering the strain of violence that has been suspected to run in families, yet intelligence genes are the subject that has dared not speak its name because of attempts to associate intelligence with race. Wright’s account of the factionalism that affects research into these questions, though it may not convince us of the power of genetics, will certainly dispel any ideas the reader may have had about the dispassionate nature of science, its purity, and its definition of “truth.”

It does seem clear that accepting some genetic influence on our behavior is a necessary part of learning to manage the elaborate combination of biological and environmental factors that must be considered in the upbringing of any child—genes, culture, family, experience, luck. Meredith F. Small, professor of anthropology at Cornell, arguing for the important role of culture in human development, concedes only a limited role for genes: “No research so far has categorically shown that any particular gene or set of genes is alone responsible for a particular pattern of behavior,” the qualifying words “particular,” “categorically,” and “alone” seeming to confirm a certain unavoidable role of biology.

Small considers that we might accept the “temperament” as inherited, and that temperament is “the filter through which each one of us interacts with life.” However much of our behavior is determined, autonomy surely remains to us. Our genes affect how we will affect our environment, and our environment will affect how our genes affect our behavior, a circular relation that conforms pretty much to what we all mean when we say that so-and-so has inherited her grandfather’s turn for music, and we have to find the money to pay for her lessons.

Of course we would have to come from a family or culture that values music. Small concerns herself with the influence of culture, whose importance was dismissed by the behaviorists once Margaret Mead was seen to have missed certain features of Samoan life. Our intuitive observation that a Catholic child in Philadelphia has a different culture from that of a Jewish Californian, say, and thus will develop different food preferences and views of things, has flown in the face of authorized thinking, but we now have “ethnopediatrics,” which is looking at infant care in different cultures and, to no one’s surprise, is finding that differing child-rearing practices reproduce cultural differences. While Calvin Trillin broods about not having talked to his six-week-old daughter, the Mayan baby is put in a hammock in a “dark recess” in silence: good mothering in Guatemala, but not good preparation for an American law school.

Small feels that we can take profitable lessons from infant care in other societies, especially about breast-feeding and sleeping arrangements. One might think that anthropology can go too far in its genial delight in ethnic variation—she does not convince us that we have much to learn from the Paraguayan Ache tribe, who have the custom of pushing a live child or two into the grave of a dead father. But in general, her observations are instructive, for instance that the natural human sleeping arrangement for infants in every society except the industrialized West is in a room with adults if not in the mother’s bed, and these societies have a much lower or nearly nonexistent rate of sudden infant death syndrome. If it is hardly surprising that different cultures have differing conceptions of the normal, what is surprising is the American reluctance to absorb new information from other cultures. When it was learned from studying Asian infants that to put them to sleep on their backs reduces the rate of crib death, the numbers in the United Kingdom were reduced by 90 percent between 1981 and 1992, in the Netherlands, Australia, and New Zealand by 50 percent, but far less in the US “because this change in pediatricians’ recommendations has been less publicized and less well accepted.” (The latest edition of Spock, though, unequivocally gives the mnemonic: “Back to sleep.”)

In his 1985 autobiography, Spock pointed out that the biggest issues for children were political—better television regulations, better child care and education. He asked, “How do we get them?” and his answer was “Political activity—for parents and professionals both.” Thirteen years later, Cornel West, professor of philosophy of religion and African-American studies at Harvard, and Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist and parent activist, team up (it is revealing of the state of things that these two people—male, female, black, white—devote a considerable number of pages to an apologia explaining why they are speaking out together) to discuss the same issues, with some practical political suggestions.

One could disagree with their method of presentation (heart-wringing case histories and catchy subheadings, the whole addressed to “moms” and “dads”), but not with the objective of their polemic, which seeks to offer constructive measures by which American parents can retake some of the ground lost to the influence of popular entertainment, poverty, governmental indifference, and public hostility—to mention a few of the causes they find of the decline of the family in America. While politicians preach family values (with no agreement about what these are), West and Hewlett argue that American policy has never been more anti-family, with both political parties about equally hypocritical and destructive when it comes to their failure to affect television programming, remedy marriage penalties in the tax code, improve day care, and so on. They point out that in the era of the GI Bill, a time when families were presumably far less dysfunctional than they are now, the tax codes were in fact full of pro-family bias, which must have helped. Hewlett and West encourage a national parent movement, along the lines of the American Association of Retired Persons, which could help parents have the same power as the elderly, to influence child care, housing, education, and other policies important for the family.

They also argue for a reexamination of the father’s place. Where the other studies have focused on the plight of the mother, especially the working mother, here the concern is for the alienated father. Father has been marginalized and needs to be returned to involvement and responsibility. To this end they believe that the Promise Keepers and other male-bonding movements are a positive development, or at least are better than nothing; West, a professor of religion, seems to find the religious emphasis of many of these groups acceptable, while Hewlett, in their joint conversation with a Promise Keeper, is less sure. She believes that women are suspicious of religion because “throughout history it has been used to control and terrorize” them.

But West and Hewlett agree that “as we move into the twenty-first century, it is clear that relying on free and invisible female labor as the wellspring of our social and human capital no longer works. Modern women are intent on a fair measure of self-realization, and besides, the economic facts of family life preclude a return to traditional structures.” From here we are asked to make a rather long leap to their conclusion that “over the last thirty years, divorce reform and the enormous expansion of our welfare system have conspired to make it extremely difficult for a large proportion of American men—somewhere between a third and a half—either to live with or to stay in effective touch with their children.”

The implied but unexplored connection between female “self-realization” and the following paragraphs, which look at the alienation of fathers, deserves to be questioned, or, at least, examined. Are the authors implying that female self-realization (the vaguely pejorative phrase with its overtones of self-indulgence) precipitates divorce? If so, isn’t this the question: Why is it that the moment women get a measure of self-realization, they don’t want men around, or men don’t want to be around them? The basic problem lies with the causes of divorce, which Hewlett and West don’t get into, saying only that men have suffered a “loss of power…in the family.” Wouldn’t it be more helpful to question the utility and future of an institution based on “power” and its corollary, powerlessness? There must be a more functional model of marriage based on, for instance, love, cooperation, financial stability, or dynastic succession.

How do we reconcile the dictates of nature and the imperatives of culture? The authors seem to assume that “deadbeat dads” are the norm and society ought not to demonize them. “Yet, rather than create policies that help noncustodial parents connect with their children, all we seem capable of doing is cracking down some more on deadbeat dads—thin stuff in a country that leads the world in fatherlessness.” Hewlett and West would doubtless agree with Julia Grant that “as history shows us, we have all had to pay a price for assigning sole responsibility for children to mothers…” but this is a tradition costly to fathers and children alike. But West and Hewlett go further, to point out that “unlike new parents in other rich nations, American moms and dads are expected to do a stellar job without the benefits of a living wage, medical coverage, decent child care, or parenting leave,” and they would begin with these activist social prescriptions, swimming upstream against a tide of budget-cutting.

The American tendency is to smooth out the past and to vilify troublemakers; people we called patriots in the Sixties are looked back upon as draft- dodging whiners. Raising small children is an activity of unalloyed satisfaction. Mom was a serene and positive presence who had not been infected with feminism. But memory deforms history: the pleas, confusion, guilt of the mothers quoted by Julia Grant will bring it all back to anyone who has experienced those most harrowing of rewarding years.

Or maybe not. Among the interesting things Grant found was that people have a certain amnesia when it comes to the actual experience of mothering. She interviewed women who had written letters thirty years ago to Benjamin Spock or some other expert. Talking to Grant, the mother, looking back, would tell Grant how happy and easy baby had been. When confronted with their actual letters, desperate pleas for help with hyperactive, willful, destructive, ill, or unmanageable tots, the mothers were shocked. As after childbirth, the pain had been forgotten.

It is thus possible that simple amnesia, not hypocrisy and the convenience “of a deep and largely invisible reservoir of free female labor,” impedes rational discussion of parenthood in America. Julia Grant notes that

Despite—or maybe because of—the fluctuating family constellation in modern society, we [women as well as men] wish to retain a nostalgic notion of the mother-child relationship as the key to children’s well-being, the fulfillment of women’s identity, and our future as a society….

The wishful thinking that baby is better off at home alone with mother has always concealed the possibility that the exact opposite may be true. It could be that the reason American young people are so much a matter of concern—scribbling on walls, getting pregnant, gunning one another down in schoolyards—is that they had the rotten luck to be confined with some desperate, uninstructed, bored, addicted, immature, or lonely woman who might put them in a barrel. That such a beginning could be judged superior to one in which a supportive network of professionals (or other helpfuls—fathers, nannies, aunts, fellow tribesmen) backs up a loving parent with help, expertise, and materiel seems one of the more baffling mass delusions of our society. It is a delusion specifically contradicted by studies showing no difference between children in day care or home with mother,3 and one which plenty of other rich societies, ones having lower crime rates and higher educational achievement, and, seemingly less of a need covertly to control or punish women, do not share.

But the deeply entrenched notion that all women are divinely prepared for motherhood persists, delegating real concern for children’s well-being to this disadvantaged group. Today’s popular “experts” like Penelope Leach and Terry Brazleton repeat the notion of maternal importance without, it seems, much evidence, ignoring other signs that by defining concern for children as women’s work in a society that despises women’s work, we may be creating many of the social problems we are now seeing.

Is this sentimental idea of maternity universal? Its victims are not only children, but also the bewildered and often incompetent parents who are made to feel guilty for working or if they are not particularly suited to understanding small children. Real child care reform flounders in the hyperemotional and seemingly eternal debate about woman’s true destiny, which at bottom may be linked to some hard-wired male impulse to keep females occupied with babies. Whatever the case with males, Julia Grant’s investigation leads her to conclude that

learning to care well for children is not inscribed in female genetic coding. We learn to care for children in the context of the families and the communities in which we live. And as we can readily see, experts cannot solve the problems that beset American mothers and their families…. Maternal practices and discourse about children should become the concern of all citizens.

—a point most of these authors, but it seems no political figure, would agree with.

  1. 3

    See, for example, NICED Early Child Development Research Network, Child Development, Vol. 68, No. 5 (October 1997), pp. 860-879, which states as its conclusion that “childcare by itself constitutes neither risk nor a benefit for the development of the infant/mother attachment relationship…however, poor quality, unstable, or more than minimal amounts of child care added to the risks already inherent in poor mothering.”

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