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Sunday, May 12, 2013

A Mother's Day Essay In Praise of Pioneers

Most strongly held views of parenthood make heroically unrealistic assumptions about what parents ought to know about parenting. This obligation for omniscience spans familiar divisions among parenting reformers. Regardless of whether they favor Tiger Moms or children’s self-esteem, parenting advocates today agree that parents know – or ought to know – how their parenting decisions will affect their kids. Parenting handbooks abound, each promoting diametrically opposed views of what parents must do to assure their child’s well-being. As Ann Hulbert has argued in Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children, however, these books’ popularity has always been rooted more in current political and cultural fashions than in any rigorous data or method. Pick a book, any book -- Chua or Spock or Rousseau or Ferber – and you can rest assured that your choice will not contradict – or be confirmed by - any solid social science. Your book instead will likely reflect what you and your social set would have done anyway. To paraphrase Marx, the parenting handbooks are pure super-structure, one's personal untheorized prejudices, base. Parenting theories are just comforting nightlights to reassure new parents who do not like facing up to the reality that raising a kid is a shot in the dark.

Keeping in mind our fundamental ignorance about what makes kids do well, I would like, on this Mother’s Day, to celebrate parenting pioneers who had no such comforting illusions to cling to. In particular – naturally – I want to praise my own Mom, and other working moms from her generation.

My parents had their first child in 1961 and their last in 1970 – a decade in which social norms about women’s roles in the workplace were just beginning to shift. They did not have any movement to join or role models to follow on Twitter. In particular, if you were a smart, public-spirited, and hard-working young female lawyer in 1960 who wanted to make a difference in the public sphere, there was no comforting nightlight, no camp to which you could attach yourself to delude yourself with the false hope that you knew what you were doing. Nowadays the lines are well-defined, the factions each have their battle cries that have gone viral – demands that one get tigerish or instead get in that Park Slope helicopter and hover, forego having it all or instead lean in. Back in the early 1960s, there was pretty much just Dr. Spock inducing female guilt in a "Mad Men" world.

Only after the last of our two daughters departed for college this Fall could I sit back and reflect on what a daring and scary decision it must have been for Mom to undertake to raise four children while pursuing a demanding legal and governmental career. Maria and I counted as a working couple – but working as two professors was nothing compared to the work that my parents undertook.

My Mom and Dad founded a law firm (Munger, Tolles & Olson – then Munger, Tolles, & Hills) just about the same time that my oldest sister was born. They were involved deeply in political reform in southern California in the 1960s. During the 1970s, Mom and Dad moved to Washington, where my Mom headed up the Civil Division at Justice while my Dad served as White House Counsel to President Ford. When Mom became Secretary of HUD and dad became chair of the SEC in the mid-1970s, they were facing hours and job stress that, looking back, I can only dimly imagine.

Mom was not a passive cabinet member: She was doggedly determined to make her Department work well in an age in which its mission – urban housing for low-income households – was, on the eve of the Reagan Revolution, increasingly under fire. President Ford noted in his autobiography (page 353) that “[h]eads of departments and agencies could appeal to me [from decisions of the chief of staff] – and they almost always did. (HUD Secretary Carla Hills was particularly adept at this, and she won three out of four appeals. She marshaled facts and figures to support her positions most effectively).” Thirty-eight years later, I still meet HUD veterans who look nostalgically back on Mom’s leadership, praising her devotion to the housing mission, her extraordinary work ethic and comprehensive preparation for every bureaucratic joust, her lack of ideological axe-grinding.

I was ten years old when Mom embarked on this experiment in mixing intense work with parenting. Two years later, Carter won by a hair, but Mom did not let up as a lawyer and, later, as U.S. Trade Representative for Bush I. During those narcissistic teenage years, I did not – of course — have the slightest appreciation for, or interest in, those enormous black binders with straining metal hoops that Mom brought home to master for the next struggle over CDBGs or UDAGs. Somehow she had to balance those enormous black monoliths against the needs of four kids. (Speaking for only myself, I was a handful – no less snarky than I am today). Looking back with an empty nester's eyes, I am dumbfounded that the household could run at all – that everyone was fed, dressed, and educated; that school plays and piano recitals, were all duly attended; holidays, all celebrated; family trips, all planned and executed.

Everyone survived to maturity and became gainfully employed. Some of us repeated the process: Mom and dad now have five grandkids. One of those grandkids – Sarah Hills, a U.S. Coast Guard Academy third-class cadet and my youngest daughter — yesterday hoisted a set of pennants on the USS Eagle, the Coast Guard’s training “tall ship,” as it pulled out of New London for a six-week training voyage. The day before, Emma, our oldest daughter, finished her exams as a Yale junior – just in time to work on the commencement play of the Yale Dramat for which she serves as Treasurer.

Standing on the dock in the rain next to Emma and waving goodbye to Sarah, Maria and I were, of course, bursting with – pride? Yes, but also heaving a sigh of relief. We now know that, far from being able to claim credit for our kids' wonderful characters (and I'll spare you the parental boasting), raising our kids was mostly a shot in the dark. It somehow worked out. Looking back, many of our best child-rearing decisions were sheer luck and our worst, carefully planned disasters.

Unlike Mom, however, we labored under the delusion that we knew what we were doing, because we had lots of our age cohort cheering and critiquing us along the way while we attempted to succeed as two working parents. We had our pick of the dogmas and handbooks from which to choose reinforcement of our prejudices: Ferber yes, “self-actualization” no. It was easy for us to pretend that we were conducting a skillfully choreographed dance routine instead of a wild sprawling leap of faith.

Mom did not have any such comforting illusions. She took the leap nonetheless. A newly minted empty-nester who only now appreciates what a daring and difficult leap that was, I stand amazed and grateful.

Posted by Rick Hills on May 12, 2013 at 11:42 AM | Permalink

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