I’m going through a difficult time. My husband is underemployed, and my job is very demanding and consuming. The hardest part is not seeing my kids as much as I’d like. And when stay-home mothers from my largely affluent suburb want to make small talk about their recent trip to Turks and Caicos or how they are so overwhelmed — though they have no jobs — with the task of adding a sunroom to their house or planning their child’s bar mitzvah, I want to clock them. I used to be a nice, patient person, and I would like to be again. In truth, I know I have many blessings, including a gorgeous rental home, two happy and healthy children, and a supportive family. But creeping bitterness makes me unable to do the suburban schmooze, and I don’t want to be that way.
Cranky in Connecticut
The Mamele replies:
Oy, can I relate. It does seem churlish to whine when we don’t live in Darfur, are not coping with major family illness and have not woken up to find that we’ve switched bodies with Ann Coulter.
But on the other hand, it is hard to be resolutely middle class among the upper-middle class. We Jews have acculturated into the mainstream in a way our foreparents never would have dreamed possible. (You know the Jewish woman who is grimly determined to get into the no-Jews country club? She gets a nose job, changes her name, takes elocution lessons, gives loads of money to the WASPs’ charities and finally gets voted in. At the new members’ dinner she accidentally spills her soup in her lap and yells, “Oy, gevalt!”, then quickly looks around and adds loudly, “Whatever that means.” That is a joke from a bygone era, in a big way. Now goyishe celebrities say “oy” and the gatekeep-y haters of Jews have moved on to barring the door against more recent and/or more déclassé arrivistes, like Mexicans.) But while we’ve been moving into the mainstream, the mainstream has been moving on up, much like the Jeffersons. There are de-luxe apartments in the sky-y-y-y all around us, and we still feel that we’re on the outside looking in. In Manhattan and many of its bedroom communities, it’s easy to feel like a have-not on a family income that would make someone’s eyes bug out in Oregon.
And it is hard to be a liberated Mamele, bringing home the bacon (or kosher turkey bacon, or vegan pressed-leaf bacon, don’t distract me from my metaphor, please) and frying it up in a pan and never ever letting your husband forget he’s a man… except when you remind him of his manliness by criticizing him for not making more money than you. I suspect that some of your hostility at the demoiselles of Darien is really displaced resentment at your husband. It’s hard to live in a half-changed world, in Peggy Orenstein’s memorable phrase — feminism has wrought a lot, but we still have to juggle, we still don’t have universal affordable childcare, we live in a world where most of us actually need two incomes to cling to the middle class, and we expect our men to be enlightened but also to out-earn us. Yow.
My aunt Belleruth once told me something brilliant: The thing that draws you to someone is also the thing that will drive you the most crazy. I don’t know what attracted you to your husband, but I can imagine kindness, gentleness, humor, creativity, artsy-ness — all these things are wonderful, and the tradeoff for them may be that he’s not cut out to be a Master of the Universe. Does it help to remind yourself why you were attracted to him in the first place? Can you talk about your ambivalence with him? Can you plan date night to get back in touch with why you love him? Might you consider couples therapy, or even individual therapy to deal with your own Superwoman burdens? (I know, I know — with what time?)
As for the Wicked Witches of Weston, I see a few options: Tell yourself that their lives are shallow and meaningless, so that you may feel superior. Treasure your reality-check friendships with your fellow working moms, wherever they are. (Bogie and Bacall had Paris; you’ll always have Instant Messenger.) Write off the locals with no perspective and no sense of humor, but do seek out the few with whom you can roll your eyes at the excesses of the others. There’s comfort in community. Some of the rich ladies may actually be cool, and even have a bit of envy of your working-babe life. When you must interact with the Desperate Housewives, steer conversation away from the horrors of yacht upkeep and toward safer shores: TV shows, schoolteachers, Britney’s lack of pants. And skitter back to your minivan as quickly as possible. When I was miserable in high school, my mom used to say “All you need is one good friend.” It sounds so mom-like, but it’s true. (Well, you also need to feel that you’re connecting with your spouse. Work on that, too.)
Marjorie Ingall writes The East Village Mamele column for the Forward and is a contributing writer at Self magazine. She has written for many other magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times, Ms., Glamour, Parents, Budget Travel, Food & Wine, Wired and the late, lamented Sassy, where she was the senior writer and health editor. She is the author of a humor book, “The Field Guild to North American Males” (Owl Books, 1997), the co-author of a sex-ed book for teenagers, “Smart Sex” (Simon & Schuster, 1998) and a former writer/producer at the Oxygen TV network.