Maria Tumarkin, now a Melbourne historian, is never a bore. ... for the most part her account is fascinating, even exhilarating, and there is barely a dead word in the book.
Robert Dessaix, The Age
... even the English language becomes in Tumarkin?s hands a defiantly idiosyncratic tool. Thanks to this highly individual voice, Otherland is another smart and provocative read.
Judith Armstrong, ABR
Mining the Mother LodeThe Age
18 April 2009
Amid an avalanche of child-rearing advice, Maria Tumarkin finds a simple message to transcend time and tan-trums.
IT HAPPENED well before I acquired, seemingly overnight, a set of my very own child-bearing hips. One of my father's most enduring friendships crumbled under the weight of a newborn baby.
My father's friend and his wife became parents rather late in their lives and, from what I understand, only after a protracted and demoralising fertility battle. The arrival of their healthy son was thus nothing short of a miracle and, understandably, the new parents lost their heads. My dad, however, could not bear the frenzy that overtook the couple, the way they worshipped relentlessly on the altar of their baby boy. To my father, who by that stage had two kids of his own, this "cult of personality" around a new baby was indefensible and intolerable.
I must say that, until recently, I have blamed my dad for the abrupt end to the friendship. After all, what business was it of his how his friends, or anyone for that matter, raised their kids? I believed then, and I believe even more now, that no one has any moral right to throw stones at other parents unless their parenting styles involve firearms or chain-saws (when stones will only get you so far).
Few things in this life are more infuriating than the evangelical zeal that overtakes followers of certain child-rearing "schools of thought" when they stumble on those of us who haven't yet been "saved". Yet now that my sister and I have made a serial grandfather out of our dad, I understand more and more how his friendship could fall apart.
Dad, I get it now.
Over the years, I have watched some of my friends metamorphose into the so-called "alpha parents" - the propo-nents of the corporate model of parenting, complete with best practices, goalposts and annual performance reviews. At first, I assumed that our differences over kids and child-rearing would simply end up in that slowly filling "we agree to disagree" basket, together with our voting preferences and views on skinny jeans, clitorodectomy and the Middle East. After all, I was hardly a great example of anything other than my own particular kinds of failings, limitations and self-delusions.
But I discovered that I could not put these differences out of my mind, not because I felt entitled to judge my friends but because what we were doing with and to our kids were not, or not merely, some personal quirks or eccentric-ities. Beyond the fads and brands, the sheer struggle for sanity and survival - beyond the different, desperate ways in which we tried to stay in control of our lives - our choices were "us". They spoke loud and clear of our values and our aspirations, however foolish, of what we thought made for good people and what we thought mattered above and beyond everything else.
"Powerful cultural forces encourage parents, particularly mothers, to live their lives through their children," writes Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent and author of Paranoid Parenting. The parenting industry, he argues, is so successful because it incites parents "to gain identity through their child-rearing style" and then "turn their parenting style into a cause". That's why, we can extrapolate, the stakes are so high in the so-called "mummy wars" - a deeply obnoxious term, in my opinion, which manages both to fetishise the experience of motherhood and to make it seem more banal than an Anzac biscuit at a fund-raising fair.
But there is identity and identity-lite, just as there is parenting and parenting style.
In our culture, where the ideas of life and lifestyle are used interchangeably, and no one blinks, should we be sur-prised at the speed and ease with which parenting becomes a parenting-style? Yet we must make an age-old distinction between the style and the actual substance, because parenting cannot be reduced to the sum total of our consumer habits, brand preferences and designated gurus, to where we position ourselves on that proverbial continuum between autocratic and democratic child-rearing.
This stuff may seem of utmost importance to us, but in the end all of this is transient - fluff, delusions and vanity. If the basic tenet of parenting ("the second-oldest profession", as Erma Bombeck famously called it) is not to harm, then how do we do just that? How do we encourage in our children, to paraphrase Joan Didion, the willingness to accept responsibility for their own lives "from which self-respect springs"? Don't tell me these are not big waves of questions that smash everything in their way.
As to the uneasy relationship between identity and parenting, there is identity as a cause - which Furedi is warning us against - to be championed, fiercely defended and waved into other people's faces as a flag. There is, of course, identity-lite as an assemblage of statements, both outwardly and inwardly directed, about ourselves: I am a cool, successful, on-the-ball parent and when I struggle, I do it in an endearing and inadvertently hilarious way that makes you want to hug me. And then there is identity as a lifelong process of self-begetting and self-revelation. And this kind of identity is inevitably activated and affected by having children.
Raising kids, says my friend psychologist Anita Milicevic, is a catalyst for a profound self-disclosure. It is, in other words, a monumental coming-out. As parents, we are forced continually to explore and confront our innermost selves. No wonder, then, that our relationships and friendships can become exposed, redefined or seriously tested.
Before she became the Booker Prize-winning author of The Gathering, Irish writer Anne Enright wrote a beautiful and very funny book on her experience of motherhood, entitled Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood. In fact, she wrote quite a number of illuminating and almost hypnotic essays on the subject, never cheerful but always uplifting. The tone of her writing works against both of the prevalent registers in which the transformative powers of parenting are usually written about in our culture - the earnest and the breezily self-deprecating.
"I thought childbirth was a sort of journey", she writes, "that you could send dispatches home from, but of course it is not - it is home. Everywhere else now, is 'abroad'.
"A child came out of me. I cannot understand this, or try to explain it. Except to say that my past life has become foreign to me. Except to say that I am prey, for the rest of my life, to every small thing."
This "foreignness" - in ourselves, our past, the world and people around us - is a testament to the sheer force with which the experience of having kids can uproot us and throw us around. And how foreign we must seem at times to those around us, especially our long-suffering friends and relatives, who do not have kids and who cannot therefore pay us back by subjecting us to the same eruptions of mind-boggling weirdness and hysterical insularity.
The way our friendships and relationships could be tested by our different ideas about child-rearing is, in fact, pro-foundly illuminating. Yet when articles discussing friendships tested by the incompatible parenting styles pop up in the media, they usually gravitate towards the grotesque. There are countless (sometimes hilarious) pieces defending or la-menting the surprising levels of intolerance many of us feel towards other people's kids (otherwise known as OPK). And then, of course, there is good old competitive parenting - a true comedy staple.
Writing in London's The Sunday Times, Lesley Thomas has fun describing the dog-eat-dog world of parenting ri-valries. "The contest between parents - mothers in particular - about whose method is best is a serious business. If you don't agree, well, there's blood on the nursery floor."
Thomas tells the story of Larissa, an advertising executive, whose young family shared a villa in Ibiza with an old friend and her toddlers. The friendship did not survive the holiday. "We came away not speaking", Larissa tells Thomas, "because I gave her child some juice without watering it down. We'd been friends for years and years. You'd have thought I'd spiked it with arsenic."
Yet conflict over parenting philosophies is not all a comedy of manners (or, in the case of undiluted juices, an out-right farce). Divergent child-rearing philosophies can do much more than simply occasion outbreaks of hysterical pa-renting.
Good relationships can be devastated by the inability of partners to reconcile their different parenting approaches. Sharp contrasts in beliefs and practices around child-rearing can give rise to the inter-generational conflict within fami-lies, in both muted and "all-out war" forms. First-generation migrants often struggle with the culturally alien parenting idioms and philosophies. And it is not all surface stuff - when to burp, how to toilet-train, how much to dilute the bloody juice. Some of the differences are fundamental.
Perhaps, fiction is best able to deal with the ways in which these differences are always ready to erupt and redefine relationships and allegiances. In Christos Tsiolkas' recent lauded novel, The Slap, an out-of-control toddler is slapped by a non-parent at an ordinary barbecue and I cannot begin to tell you what happens next. The novel's central dramatic premise does not feel like an artful conceit. On the contrary, it is totally head-to-toe believable.
"For something we tend to think of as 'natural'," Tsiolkas said in an interview, "having children now is often a con-tested arena of philosophies, politics, morality. It is an obvious, fruitful, interesting, complicated area to explore. The way we treat our children says a lot about our culture and our society. Obviously."
The reviewers were also convinced by the explosive, illuminating and dramatic potential of the novel's premise. This is Louise Swinn in The Age: "Our opinions on how we bring up our young can unite and separate us, and highlight the differences in the way that we live." And this is Delia Falconer in The Australian: "The novel's central premise is engrossing, the kind of water-cooler topic that sits on the fault line of a great slew of contemporary preoccupations and beliefs, for what causes more fraught debate these days than the subject of childhood?"
The subject of childhood causes "fraught debate" in my family too, between me and my only sister. Or it would if we did not live on different continents and I did not artfully try to avoid the topic at all costs. My sister believes that children (at least to a certain age) and adults occupy radically different worlds, which come together around meal times, family holidays and other designated spaces and occasions. I have dragged my now-adolescent daughter, ever since she was a toddler, to writers' festivals, dinner parties and on to interstate and international flights. And not simply because I was raising her on my own. The continuous interpenetration of our worlds has always felt right and natural to me.
My sister believes in parents as the boundary setters: the gatekeepers as well as the law enforcers. If this is the cor-rect job description, then I quit.
All of this is normal, of course - part of the rich tapestry and all. These are big questions with the potential to divide and injure, as well as to bring closer and to transform. Of course, when we do not have answers to the big questions thrown up by having kids, we can always hide behind the confidence-inducing backs of the parenting experts. It no longer takes a village to raise a child, but it certainly takes a village to tell that child's parents what they are doing wrong and how to fix it. Some experts call this trend "outsourcing". Apparently, we need experts to tell us just how much we have become addicted to experts.
It is easy enough to laugh off celebrity super-nannies, baby whisperers endorsed by Oprah, and parenting coaches who charge more than top oncologists. But the invasion of the experts is far more subtle and pervasive than that. Our experience as parents is laced with vulnerability, with not knowing, with stumbling in the dark. Yet in our culture we don't do "not knowing" well, even though "not knowing" is not at all the same as ignorance. In fact, without "not know-ing" there would be no learning and no change. And parenting is, of course, the biggest trial-and-error imaginable. Yet terrified of being lost, we seek out ready-made answers, which can only, at best, take care of the surface stuff. And so we have parenting styles, fads, causes, slogans and self-immolating gurus - but little actual parenting.
I am listening to the Friday talkback on Life Matters with Richard Aedy. The topic is what makes for a good child-hood. The panel is all-male (nothing wrong with it). Richard asks the esteemed panelists if they had a good childhood. And what do you know: apparently all of them did. Stable, loving families, freedom to roam about; 1950s-1960s - the Golden Era of Childhood. The switchboard is full. People are ringing up from across Australia eager to share their views. Child-rearing is a big talkback topic. A winner. I listen to people talk about things I supposedly agree with - security, stability, nurture, emotionally healthy relationships - and I feel all alone.
Then 84-year-old Nora from Victoria calls. "As a great-granny," she says, "I have a longer perspective than most callers. Four things matter - only four things. Love, listening, trust and justice." Somehow the way Nora says it cuts across all the layers of meaningless crust that have grown on and around these words and I hear them anew. Love. Listening. Trust. Justice. That sounds about right. These are the bridges across the Great Divide. I turn off the radio half-way through the program. After Nora, what more is there to say? -- Maria Tumarkin's latest book, Courage, was pub-lished by MUP.