by Vicki Larson
The joke around my house has always been that it’s a good thing my sister and I weren’t boys or we’d be total geeks.
Our parents didn’t “do” sports.
They didn’t watch them, read about them or participate in them or encourage us to. The last time my dad had played baseball was as a kid, barefoot on the streets of the Bronx with a broomstick handle as a bat and whatever he and the neighborhood kids could scrounge up to pass for a ball.
There wasn’t much in the way of sports at the public schools I attended, either — way before Title IX came into being. P.E. was nothing more than volleyball and square dancing in ridiculous blue cotton onesies. Not to diminish volleyball and square dancing, but to paraphrase former vice president candidate Sen. Lloyd Bensten, I know sports and they’re not sports.
Thus, I am not very competitive. True, I had a certain reputation at Whitestone Park where I spent hours smacking a hardball against the “handball court” — actually a support wall for the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge — and tossing a Frisbee until I could get it to sail across most of the park’s length. Few wanted to take me on when it came to handball and Frisbee.
But that was about it.
So it was a bit of shock for me to be thrust into a competitive world when I became a mom. Oh, not the Little League, soccer and basketball games that my two boys participated in while I watched, happily, on the sidelines and bleachers. I mean other mothers.
Somehow, mommying became a competitive sport.
It didn’t happen immediately. In my new moms playgroup, we were pretty much united in our inexperience and sleep-deprivation. The mystifying things our babies did brought us together, not apart.
Then one day, when their kids’ personalities and talents started becoming apparent, moms took control — and credit — and began spinning their kids’ accomplishments as if they were all White House spokeswomen.
I first noticed it the year my firstborn somehow got “The” elementary school teacher. The mothers whose kids also got “in” walked around as if their entire family just been asked to join the Bohemian Grove, while the mothers whose kids were denied access into the coveted classroom were jealous or bemused, or both.
The moms started jockeying for position — who’d bring her the morning coffee, who’d bring her favorite sweet, who’d have her over for dinner, who’d organize her surprise birthday party, who’d hand-make the costumes and props for the play — all in an effort to assure their child title of teacher’s pet.
Each mom raised the bar just a little higher.
“What the heck’s going on in that classroom?” my friends whose kids were in the other classes asked me as they observed from the playground sidelines some of the holier-than-thou behavior of the kids and moms. I didn’t know quite how to answer; it was surreal.
As it turns out, there were several teacher’s pets, but only one favorite, according to a conversation my son unfortunately overheard one day. “You’re my favorite student,” the teacher said, leaning over a pretty, well-mannered, overachieving blonde — the daughter of a pretty, well-mannered, overachieving blonde.
A few days later, my son had a shocking announcement. “I want to kill myself.”
He was 9.
His dad and I took it seriously and talked to the teacher, principal and therapists. But the pressure to be perfect took its toll on more than just him, a boy with some learning issues but who tried really hard. “The” teacher left many diminished children and mothers in her wake.
Ever since, I’ve noticed more and more moms who push themselves and their kids to be perfect — or at least appear that way to others. And perfect is often some cookie-cutter version of success — high GPAs, top SAT scores, a list of extracurricular activities custom-made to impress. Nothing that celebrates creativity, originality, resilience, emotional intelligence — all traits that will be essential in the new working environment our kids will be entering in a few years.
Of course, there have always been moms like that; they used to be called “stage mothers,” a name mentioned in hushed tones with a whiff of distain. It wasn’t a good thing, and although many managed to get their kid “success,” it was not without a lot of misery along the way. And, in the end, it often resulted in alienation and best-selling memoirs that did not reflect kindly on the mom, to say the least.
And, just like the mothers in China who continued binding their daughters’ feet, we moms are guilty of perpetuating this insanity. Women who define motherhood by putting their children at the center of their universe have infused mothering with stress, anxiety and guilt in their quest for perfection.
We’ve all become stage mothers, and sadly our kids have suffered, too. They’re just as stressed — and entitled.
As conservative parenting psychologist John Rosemond writes in a recent column:
“In the 1960s, women decided they would no longer stand for being limited in any arbitrary way. In the new millennium, women submit to arbitrary limits as soon as they have children. In the 1960s, women complained about men treating them as if they were mere objects. Forty years later, women allow their children to treat them as mere objects. In the 1960s, women began demanding a new kind of respect. Today, women teach their children that women exist to solve their problems and fetch.”
Next year, my youngest will be a junior in high school, and parents and kids will amp up the pressure as they try to outdo each other to get into “The” school — a mom’s last real shot at micromanaging her kid’s life.
Not at my house, unless my son wants to go for the top, in which case I’ll be happy to give him whatever support and encouragement he needs.
And any mom who looks askance at me, well, she can just meet me on the handball court.