Thursday, June 16, 2011

Pamela Haag's "Marriage Confidential"

Pamela Haag earned a Ph.D. in history from Yale after attending Swarthmore College. She has worked as director of research for the American Association of University Women and as a speechwriter, and has written for the American Scholar, the Christian Science Monitor, the Michigan Quarterly Review, the Huffington Post, and NPR, among others. She has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Mellon Foundation and a postdoctoral fellowship at Brown University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Marriage Confidential: The Post-Romantic Age of Workhorse Wives, Royal Children, Undersexed Spouses, and Rebel Couples Who Are Rewriting the Rules, and reported the following:
Uncannily, my copy of Marriage Confidential opened right to page 99 on the first try! And on this page, we find ourselves cruising the aisles of a high-end organic supermarket, with a new baby and lots of anxious moms afoot.

Here, I’m mulling the transition to new parenthood as it’s done in what I call the “post-romantic” age. I humorously refer to children as “the new spouses” in marriage, but in order to make a serious point: Although children in some ways are less central to marriage than ever before, since we have more single mothers by choice, more deliberately childfree marriages, and more deliberately chosen parenthood, I argue that once a marriage does decide to have children, those children can quickly become the sole emotional focal point of the family. They’re the ones who set the tempo of life, and become the center of intimacy and attachment. In short, a marriage can become a parenting marriage, one that’s almost exclusively defined by the mission of parenthood.

When I was growing up, in contrast, we had the “children’s table.” Adults had their world when company came over, and kids had theirs. Parenthood had a certain nonchalance. But that’s not the parenting style today. Instead, we’ve got a menagerie of hyper parents, helicopter parents, very attached parents, and tiger mothers.

In this passage—which is not, alas, representative of my book, because it’s a moment when I’m reflecting on my own experience, and for the most part, my book isn’t a memoir—I’m observing anthropologically the ways that mothers (myself included) appear self-conscious and very focused on “enrichment” activities for their child, even when they’re doing something as banal as grocery shopping. In fact, this supermarket became one of my favorite places to eavesdrop on parenthood in action.

I comment that having a baby today is to be plunged into a world where “fun” dare not venture forth unaccompanied by “learning.” My page 99, while not representative of the book, is a humorous, self-deprecating example of the relentless quest to make every moment of our children’s lives a “Learning Moment.”

Some sentences from page 99:
…I could almost imagine my son’s neurons withering because I wasn’t talking enough or pointing out interesting, edifying, neuron-forging things to look at.

…Like garrulous color commentators tasked to fill the lulls in a baseball game, they’d exclaim, ‘That’s an orange,’ their laughin’ and learnin’ words echoing in the cavernous, artfully restored warehouse….

Oddly, my overwhelming feeling in those days was one of intense self-consciousness, and this characteristic seems the most different from my parents’ era: Has a generation of parents ever been so acutely aware of itself as parents?
Learn more about the book and author at Pamela Haag's website.

--Marshal Zeringue