Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

16 MAY, 2013

No Kidding: Women Writers and Comedians on the Choice Not to Have Children

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“Motherhood Personality Disorder is a complex, interfamilial compulsion fueled by estrogen, culture, religion, and the Family Values Industrial Complex.”

Mother’s Day has come and gone, and with it history’s finest letters of motherly advice. But while most people have a mother or mother-figure to associate with the holiday, far fewer than half are a mother or mother-figure, placing the occasion on a spectrum from irrelevance to alienation and discomfort for them. Those of us who have chosen not to have children harbor particular unease around the implicit cultural value judgment embedded in this holiday — after all, what does it say about a culture when its only national holiday celebrating womanhood celebrates women’s uterine capacity or adoptive aspirations?

In No Kidding: Women Writers on Bypassing Parenthood (public library), comedy writer Henriette Mantel rounds up a troupe of female entertainers and authors whose essays explore various facets of what it means to be happily childless — or, as one contributor aptly puts it, “child-free.” Most women desisted from motherhood by their own volition, and some by nature’s, by way of reproductive health issues and painful surgeries, but all share a contentment with the final product of not reproducing. And though some of the essays hang dangerously on the precipice of defensiveness and apologism, perhaps this is due to their authors’ genre rather than gender — great comedy, after all, relies heavily on self-derision.

In the foreword, actress and comedian Jennifer Coolidge, with equal parts heart, humor and humility — a trifecta that recurs across the essays — points her inner radar to a lifelong inability to multitask as a tell-tale sign that motherhood is beyond her abilities:

I knew my limitations at a young age. I was very aware of my inability to multitask by age five. I admitted this to my mother when I came in from playing, spit out my chewing gum, handed it to her, and said, “Mom please hold my gum, I’m going to the bathroom right now, and I can’t handle both.”

Mantel sets the stage in the introduction:

Years ago, I remember watching The Tonight Show with Joan Rivers, who was the guest host. Gloria Steinem, who was about forty years old at the time, was her guest. In her usual obnoxious way, Joan said to Gloria, “You know, my daughter has been the biggest joy in my life and I can’t imagine not having her. Don’t you regret not having children?” Gloria Steinem didn’t miss a beat. She answered, “Well, Joan, if every woman had a child there wouldn’t be anybody here to tell you what it’s like not to have one.” Joan looked at her like that thought had honestly never crossed her mind. It was a true gift for me to be able to pull together writers who are here to tell you “what it’s like not to have one.”

Because, after all, there are many ways to leave meaningful legacy besides childbirth:

[Legendary anthropologist] Margaret Mead suggested that the generative impulse could be expressed in other ways, such as passing ideas on to the younger generation through teaching, writing, or by inspiring example.

Korean-American comedian Margaret Cho pens one of the collection’s finest, most disarmingly witty essays:

Korean children get a lot of fuss made over them, I guess because life was tough in the old country, and it was a big deal if you survived. There’s a big party thrown when you are one hundred days old, followed by another when you make it to one whole year. My parents took a lot of pictures of me at these parties, although I don’t remember a thing as I was really drunk at both. From the pictures I see the cake though—all these big multicolored rice cakes, each pastel stripe a steamed layer of pounded and steamed rice flour, not sweet like birthday cake but a delicious treat all the same. It looks like a chewy Neapolitan ice cream, or a gay pride flag made of carbs. It’s the best and I want it, but I think wanting that cake isn’t enough reason to have a baby.

[…]

Babies scare me more than anything. They’re tiny and fragile and impressionable—and someone else’s! As much as I hate borrowing stuff, that is how much I hate holding other people’s babies. It’s too much responsibility. Of course they are lovely and warm and adorable, and it’s so funny when they decide they like you and hold you in return, but I am frightened of doing something wrong that will alter them forever. Give them a weird look and they might be talking to their therapist about me fifty years later.

[…]

It might not be a fear of kids themselves, as in truth I usually get along with them pretty well. They like my tattoos and my uncomplicated child/adult face. They identify with my orange shoes. I look like I would let them get away with stuff, and I do. My fear of having children is that, frankly, I just don’t want to love anyone that much. I have my own problems with love, and I have processed and played the same games for a lifetime, but what if I had to do that with someone I actually MADE?! (Or went all the way to China and adopted. This is not a joke—I have long thought I would adopt one of those baby girls from China, because really, who’s going to know the difference?)

Comedy and fashion writer Bonnie Datt shares her tragicomic solution to the cultural pressure for childbirth:

“Okay, here’s the truth I can’t have children:” I told my cabdriver somberly. I attempted to look distraught, my lips quivering. And my ploy worked. Finally this man, who’d relentlessly argued that I would change my mind about my decision to not have children, clammed up and began focusing intently on the road. Yes, after years of being told by complete strangers that I didn’t know my own mind, I’d finally learned the secret to get people to stop insisting, “You’ll eventually want to have kids.” I just had to lie about it.

[…]

I should have just told them to butt out, but I was raised in the Midwest, so this rude option never crossed my mind. Thus was born my all-purpose taxicab “confession.”

SNL’s Nora Dunn takes head-on an inconvenient truth about the perilous potential of motherhood:

In the current abortion debate, there is no talk of children. Those who are anti-abortion never mention them. They seem to be the same people who want to cut food stamps and get rid of social programs that might help children and mothers. They never talk about nineteen-year-old fetuses. They don’t talk of war or hunger or about how much it costs to buy shoes and socks and how hard it must be to have children without a washer and dryer. They never seem to take into account who the father is, or who the boyfriends might be. I never wanted to have a baby if I wasn’t positive I could give it a wonderful life and my undivided attention. I didn’t get that from my own mother. When I was little, I didn’t understand that there is no such thing as undivided attention. My feeling was I needed to become a good mother to myself before I invented a child that needed one.

Author Laurie Graff examines the root of the palpable pang she feels when bombarded by images of idyllic family life during her Facebook voyeurism:

That pang is about feeling out of step with the stages of life more than of having missed out on them. This is not to say that I haven’t, for maybe I have, but I have also been too busy to notice. Good, bad; up, down; I continue to stay the course. Still part of the non-civilian us, still in the city, I still continue the pursuit of my dreams. It’s who I am and how I live.

Writer, director, and comedian Debbie Kasper delivers a deadpan quip:

I was always too self-centered and irresponsible to have kids. I know that never stopped many others, but I am a narcissist with a conscience.

In an essay titled “Mother To No One,” writer and crossword-constructor Andrea Carla Michaels illustrates just how deep the bias of our cultural expectations goes with an anecdote wildly amusing on the surface and rather poignant at its heart:

A dozen years ago, when I was approaching forty, my eight-year-old niece Hanna asked me, “Aunt Andrea, are you married?” I said, “No, are you married?!” She seemed alarmed and asked, “Why would I be married?!” and I said to her, “Well, why would I be married?”

She folded her arms and said, “You’re weird.” “Good weird or bad weird?” She grumbled that she hadn’t decided yet.

But it was already so clear to her at eight that people were married and had kids, and if you didn’t, you were “weird.” It’s amazing how young those attitudes start. This “chat” with my niece didn’t prepare me for the now-daily shock of being mistaken for someone’s mother.

I overheard my other ten-year-old niece Alexa patiently explaining things to her six-year-old brother, who was piecing together family relationships. He asked who I was the mother of. Alexa dramatically turned to Ricky and exclaimed, “Aunt Andrea is the mother to no one.”

Playwright Jeanne Dorsey considers the ambivalence of motherhood, reminding us of Hamlet’s great insight:

It is not an experiment in which I will have the chance to participate. Motherhood is not in the cards for me. Is it a loss? How would I know? I’m too busy living. I am blessed with a full, healthy, and interesting life. And then every once in a while, true to my gender, I ask myself: How would I feel if I were someone’s mother? And how would that someone feel about me? I will never know. “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

In an essay titled “The Pathology of Motherhood,” comedian, actor, and TV producer Valri Bromfield playfully proposes the inclusion of Motherhood Personality Disorder in the DSM-5, the next edition of the psychology bible that is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, placing it in the Cluster D category of overly intrusive/dissociative disorders:

Motherhood Personality Disorder, or MPD, is a complex, interfamilial compulsion fueled by estrogen, culture, religion, and the Family Values Industrial Complex.

She lists several of the diagnostic features:

  • Intrusive preoccupation with offspring
  • Episodes of major martyrdom
  • Intermittent cooking and cleaning

She itemizes the three main subtypes:

PARANOID TYPE: This type presents in cases where the expectant mother has seen the film Rosemary’s Baby and clings to the hope that she will give birth to the demon child. (Note: Only diagnose MPD if the delivered baby does not present signs of being the offspring of Satan.)  

DISORGANIZED TYPE: This subtype has the greatest impact on the patient’s family. From the ages of two to sixteen, the offspring must be transported everywhere by grandparents or other guardians, as the mother is habitually preoccupied with behaviors incompatible with child supervision, such as: an inability to find her car keys, sleeping, watching “her show,” or intoxication; or the patient is simply not available, perhaps because she is attending a Zumba Fitness Party or because she flew to Cairo in a manic state earlier that morning.

CATATONIC TYPE: This has been found to be the most adaptive type for the MPD mother with teenagers. The patient lies motionless in bed staring at the ceiling and soiling her clothes, but otherwise does not really give a shit. The patient’s children often take advantage of this particular presentation of symptoms, as it facilitates the use of the family home for underage recreational activities, since, when friends’ parents later ask if the mother had been present at the time, the juveniles can reply honestly in the affirmative.

Under Prognosis, she concludes:

With treatment, MPD patients can hopefully achieve partial remission, eventually replacing their child(ren) with several dogs or cats. While personal hygiene suffers with this intervention, the replacement of obsession objects can allow for the eventual reintroduction of human children and grandchildren, but only under strict supervision.

No Kidding: Women Writers on Bypassing Parenthood features contributions by writers, comedians, and politicians like Cheryl Bricker, Cindy Caponera, Jane Gennaro, Judy Morgan, Carol Siskind, Suzy Soro, Amy Stiller, and more.

Thanks, Kaye; public domain images by Nikolas Muray via George Eastman House

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15 MAY, 2013

Fail Safe: Debbie Millman’s Advice on Courage and the Creative Life

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“Imagine immensities, don’t compromise, and don’t waste time.”

The seasonal trope of the commencement address is upon us as wisdom on life is being dispensed from graduation podiums around the world. After Greil Marcus’s meditation on the essence of art and Neil Gaiman’s counsel on the creative life, here comes a heartening speech by artist, strategist, and interviewer extraordinaire Debbie Millman, delivered to the graduating class at San Jose State University. The talk is based on an essay titled “Fail Safe” from her fantastic 2009 anthology Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design (public library) and which has previously appeared on Literary Jukebox. The essay, which explores such existential skills as living with uncertainty, embracing the unfamiliar, allowing for not knowing, and cultivating what John Keats has famously termed “negative capability,” is reproduced below with the artist’s permission.

If you imagine less, less will be what you undoubtedly deserve. Do what you love, and don’t stop until you get what you love. Work as hard as you can, imagine immensities, don’t compromise, and don’t waste time. Start now. Not 20 years from now, not two weeks from now. Now.

Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design is an absolute treasure in its entirety, the kind of read you revisit again and again, only to discover new meaning and new access to yourself each time. It was preceded by How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer and followed by the recent Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits, both excellent in very different but invariably stimulating ways.

Images and audio courtesy Debbie Millman

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13 MAY, 2013

How to Worry Less About Money

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What Goethe can teach us about cultivating a healthy relationship with our finances.

The question of how people spend and earn money has been a cultural obsession since the dawn of economic history, but the psychology behind it is sometimes surprising and often riddled with various anxieties. In How to Worry Less about Money (public library) — another great installment in The School of Life’s heartening series reclaiming the traditional self-help genre as intelligent, non-self-helpy, yet immensely helpful guides to modern living, which previously gave us Philippa Perry’s How to Stay Sane, Alain de Botton’s How to Think More About Sex, and Roman Krznaric’s How to Find Fulfilling Work — Melbourne Business School philosopher-in-residence John Armstrong guides us to arriving at our own “big views about money and its role in life,” transcending the narrow and often oppressive conceptions of our monoculture.

He begins with a crucial distinction, the heart of which echoes James Gordon Gilkey’s 1934 advice on how not to worry. Armstrong writes:

This book is about worries. It’s not about money troubles. There’s a crucial difference.

Troubles are urgent. They ask for direct action. … By contrast, worries often say more about the worrier than about the world.

[…]

So, addressing money worries should be quite different from dealing with money troubles. To address our worries we have to give attention to the pattern of thinking (ideology) and to the scheme of values (culture) as these are played out in our won individual, private existences.

While modern money-advice tends to fall into two main categories — how to get more money and how to get by on less — Armstrong points out that this bespeaks our culture’s fixation on troubles rather than worries. He writes:

This is a problem because the theme of money is so deep and pervasive in our lives. One’s relationship with money is lifelong, it colors one’s sense of identity, it shapes one’s attitude to other people, it connects and splits generations; money is the arena in which greed and generosity are played out, in which wisdom is exercised and folly committed. Freedom, desire, power, status, work, possession: these huge ideas that rule life are enacted, almost always, in and around money.

He draws an analogy from the philosophy of teaching, which distinguishes between training and education:

Training teaches how to carry out a specific task more efficiently and reliably. Education, on the other hand, opens and enriches a person’s mind. To train a person, you need know nothing about who they really are, or what they love, or why. Education reaches out to embrace the whole person. Historically, we have treated money as a matter of training, rather than education in its wider and more dignified sense.

Indianapolis Newsboys buying brass checks in a newspaper office, 1908

The U.S. National Archives, public domain

Underpinning our money worries, Armstrong argues, are four main questions that have far less to do with our financial standing than with psychoemotional and social factors — questions about why money is important to us, how much money we need to achieve what’s important to us, what the best way to acquire that money is, and what our economic responsibilities to others are in the course of acquiring and using that money. We’ll never overcome our money worries, he argues, unless we first recognize those underlying questions:

Our worries — when it comes to money — are about psychology as much as economics, the soul as much as the bank balance.

Key among Armstrong’s strategies for alleviating such worries is developing a good relationship with money, which parallels human-to-human dynamics:

One thing that’s characteristic of a good relationship is this: you get more accurate at assigning responsibility. When things go wrong you can see how much is your fault and how much is the fault of the other person. And the same holds when things go well. You know that part of it is your doing and part depends on the contribution of your partner.

This model applies to money. When things go well or badly, it’s partly about what you bring to the situation and partly about what money brings. What money brings is a certain level of spending power.

What you bring to this relationship includes imagination, values, emotions, attitudes, ambitious, fears, and memories. So the relationship is absolutely not just a matter of pure economic facts of how much you get and how much you spend.

In discussing research indicating that more money, after a certain threshold, doesn’t mean more happiness, Armstrong offers a necessary definition of happiness:

When we talk about happiness, what do we have in mind? Probably a mixture of buoyancy and serenity; you feel elated but safe.

The relationship money has to these attributes, he argues, is “real but diminishing.” While money can buy the accoutrements of buoyancy — chocolate, weekend getaways, expensive shoes — many people feel unhappy despite having these. His explanation, echoing the philosophy of Alan Watts, leads to the obvious conclusion:

Money can purchase the symbols but not the causes of serenity and buoyancy. In a straightforward way we must agree that money cannot buy happiness.

Market scene, 1922

The Field Museum Library, public domain

Since Armstrong’s main argument is premised on the idea that our culture is geared toward addressing troubles rather than amplifying well-being, which parallels the disconnect that Martin Seligman observed in the field of psychology when he founded the positive psychology movement, it comes as no surprise that Armstrong’s key construct in solving the conundrum mirrors Seligman’s philosophy of flourishing over “happiness.” Indeed, Armstrong argues that while serenity and buoyancy are appealing, they fall short of reflecting what people really want out of life:

Most people realize that they really need to do things for other people. There is a deep fear that one’s life will be lived in vain — without making a contribution, or a benign difference, to the lives of others.

[…]

Flourishing means getting on with the things that are important for you to do, exercising your capacities, actively trying to “realize” what you care about and bring it into life. But these activities involve anxiety, fear of failure and setbacks, as well as a sense of satisfaction, occasional triumphs and moments of excitement.

And yet this is in no way a motion to flatten the full dimensionality of the human experience:

A good life is still a life. It must involve a full share of suffering, loneliness, disappointment and coming to terms with one’s own mortality and the deaths of those one loves. To live a life that is good as a life involves all this.

While the things money can secure — like power, influence, and access to resources — may not be shortcuts to serenity and buoyancy, Armstrong argues, they are inextricably linked to flourishing by enabling you to pursue the things that are important to you and, in the process, to contribute to the lives of others. Here, the relationship between amount of money and potential for flourishing doesn’t flatline the way it does in a more narrow conception of happiness:

Armstrong’s key point, however, is that while this correlation of growth might be directly proportional, money isn’t a cause of flourishing but an ingredient in it, a mere resource with which to build the life we want, catalyzed by virtue:

Money brings about good consequences — helps us live valuable lives — only when joined with “virtues.” Virtues are good abilities of mind and character.

Reminiscent of Ben-Franklian virtues like temperance, frugality, and moderation is another essential skill in alleviating our money worries — the ability to distinguish between wants and needs. The need-desire distinction, Armstrong suggests, is useful in warding off mere desires, like the longing for the latest shiny gadget, even if it’s of little utilitarian value, or that sleek new bike, even if the old one works perfectly fine.

If we want to be wise about money we should resist the impulse to follow our desires and concentrate instead on getting what we need.

Need is deeper — bound up with the serious narrative of one’s life. “Do I need this”? is a way of asking: how important is this thing, how central is it to my becoming a good version of myself; what is it actually for in my life? This interrogation is designed to distinguish needs from mere wants. And that’s a good distinction to make.

But it is important to see that this is not the same as the “modest versus grand” distinction. Our needs are not always for the smaller, lesser, cheaper thing.

The ultimate purpose of purchases, he argues, is to help us flourish. His strategy for mastering the needs/wants balance thus rests on not conflating this dichotomy with familiar ones like basic/refined (“a distinction about the level of complexity of an object”) or cheap/luxurious (“a distinction to do with price and demand”). Instead, he recommends a seemingly counter-intuitive approach — to consider our needs first, without taking price into account.

But, ultimately, Armstrong points out that the things most essential to our flourishing — despite what our monoculture might dictate — are often unrelated to material goods:

The crucial developmental step in the economic lives of individuals and societies is their ability to cross from the pursuit of middle-order goods to higher-order goods. Sometimes we need to lessen our attachment to the middle needs like status and glamor in order to concentrate on higher things. This doesn’t take more money; it takes more independence of mind.

Still, the material and the spiritual are inextricably linked:

There are quite profound reasons why we should care simultaneously about having and doing. Both are connected to flourishing.

What we do with our lives is obviously central to who we are. What we expend our mental energy on, what we put our emotional resources into, where we deploy courage or daring or prudence or commitment: these are major parts of existence and are inevitably much connected with work and earning money. And we need these parts of existence in order to find proper application in activities that deserve our best efforts. We don’t’ want to reserve our central capacities for the margins and weekends of life.

Despite certain cultural stereotypes, Armstrong points out that, precisely because of these parallel forces, doing well and doing good don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and there could in fact exist a straight positive correlation between intrinsic worth and extrinsic, material reward:

At an individual level, one is trying to find a way of making this happen in one’s own life. But because intrinsic worth isn not just what is good for me, but what is actually good, this is a public service as well. It’s not greedy to want to make quite a lot of money — if you want to make it as a reward for doing things that are genuinely good for other people.

In considering yet another essential difference — that between price and value — Armstrong makes a key distinction, which most of us intuit but can rarely articulate with such eloquence:

Price is a public matter — a negotiation between supply and demand. A thing’s price is set in competition. So the price of a car is determined by how much some people want it, how much they are willing to pay, and how ready the manufacturer is to sell. It’s a public activity: lots of people are involved in the process, but your voice is almost never important in setting the price.

Value, on the other hand, is a personal, ethical and aesthetic judgment — assigned finally by individuals, and founded on their perceptiveness, wisdom and character.

Armstrong finds a certain artfulness to the issue of managing our money-worries:

Ultimately, one is cultivating an art — one of the minor political arts, the art of domestic finance. By saying that it is an art, one is getting at the idea that there are multiple motives and rewards, which are integrated. There is an aesthetic or order — a physical beauty that is connected to neatness and clarity — like the beauty of the periodic table, or the elegance of a mathematical equation, or the rightness of a note in a sonata. It is a classical beauty.

In a chapter considering the problems of the rich, who are able to use money to fulfill their desires, Armstrong writes, with a wince and a wink at the “hedonic treadmill”:

Money does not liberate people in the way that we assume it must.

[…]

There is a very imperfect relationship between desire and flourishing. Desire aims at pleasure. Whereas the achievement of a good life depends upon the good we create. And the opportunity to follow whatever desire one might happen to have is the enemy of the effort, concentration, devotion, patience and self-sacrifice that are necessary if we are to achieve worthwhile ends.

Armstrong goes on to outline a number of practical strategies for improving our relationship with money and thus mastering our worries, concluding with a wonderful anecdote of a man who epitomized that relationship at its healthiest: Goethe.

'The civilized ideal: elegance and devotion to work.'

Jonathan Joseph Schmeller, Goethe in His Study Dictating to His Secretary John, 1831

From his many writings about his own experiences, we know that he was determined to get well paid for his work. He came from a well-off background but sought independence. He switched careers, from law to government adviser so as to be able to earn more (which made sense then; today the trajectory might be in the opposite direction. He coped with serious setbacks. His first novel was extremely popular but he made no money from it because of inadequate copyright laws. Later, he negotiated better contracts. He was very competent in financial matters and kept meticulous records of his income and expenditure. He liked what money could buy — including … a stylish house-coat (his study has no heating). But for all this, money and money worries did not dominate his inner life. He wrote with astonishing sensitivity about love and beauty. He was completely realistic and pragmatic when it came to money but this did not lead him to neglect the worth of exploring bigger, more important concepts in life.

Complement How to Worry Less about Money with The School of Life’s How to Find Fulfilling Work and How to Stay Sane.

Quoted text excerpted from How to Worry Less about Money by John Armstrong. Copyright © 2012 by The School of Life.

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