Serious questions about relationships get judged, too. One recent discussion involved whether a woman should reveal a previous abortion to her obstetrician when she hadn’t told her husband about it. Most commenters urged the poster to share with her doctor, just in case something happened. Then a Judging Mommy weighed in: “Am I the only one horrified to find that you cannot share this kind of information with your husband? You should seriously think about what you are doing when you bring a brand new life into this kind of relationship.” Thanks for that.
Psychoanalyst Barbara Almond , author of The Monster Within: The Hidden Side of Motherhood (try reading that in public while you’re pregnant) talks about the phenomenon of the “too-good mother,” who must do everything—from feeding to nurturing to educating—just right. She believes women who fit this model are really hiding their own mixed feelings about how motherhood has changed their lives. By showing zero ambivalence, they can avoid having to deal with those conflicting emotions.
The expectation of perfection—and the reality of not being able to meet it—creates frustration, Almond says. What safer place is there to lash out than an anonymous website?
Almond argues that we need to recognize the goal of maternal perfection as impossible. Children can’t be controlled in the way a high-flying Washington career might be. But people here achieve professional success by meeting impossible goals—working round the clock to hit an impossible deadline, win an impossible case or complete an impossible political comeback. Other parents might shout from the rooftops that perfection doesn’t exist. There would probably still be people in the overachieving quarters of Washington thinking: For you, maybe.
Alas, after I’ve dived deep into DCUM’s discussion boards, I find that this kind of thinking doesn’t help me much. Instead, I draw comfort from folks who tell me to follow my gut. I’ve been hanging onto the hope that a mother’s instinct will kick in when our child arrives. The more time I’ve spent on the site, the less likely that has seemed.
When I was in Ohio this month, my mom said something to me about not over-planning my life. You can’t know what the future holds, she said. Flying back, I sat next to a 25-year-old woman with a five-month-old baby on her lap. My first instinct was to look around for an empty seat to switch to. Then I realized I would be that woman soon. I asked her about the first months of motherhood.
“Just follow your instincts,” she said, smiling. It seemed like good advice.
“You cannot trust your instincts if you think about them too much,” Almond writes. The problem is, that’s what these message boards are for: Arguing over every question—with each argument spurring still more thoughts about each competing variable. Before long, you’re in a prognostication cycle, trying to game out how decisions like which lactation consultant you use or just how you tell the kids you’ve sacked their nanny, will influence life five or 10 or 15 years down the line. It’s not much fun.
This is why, when I found Lara Schwartz’s website, I wanted to be her friend. She’s “Adequate Parent” on DCUM. Her voice-of-reason posts prompted her to establish a website called Institute for Adequate Parenting. Its motto: Because Good Enough is Good Enough. Really.
Schwartz started reading DCUM as a guilty pleasure, “like Taco Bell or masturbation.” She saw a disconnect between the reality she knew, where parents don’t care much about others’ small, mundane choices, and the DCUM world where mothers argued about what other mothers might be doing to harm their children. Not pumping breast milk? Not feeding the kids organic? For shame!
In DCUM world, Schwartz says, moms act like mothering is a sophisticated, high-stakes profession—a way to continue “validated high achievement.” Because, if parenting wasn’t such a big deal, if it didn’t require intense intellect and attention, what then?
“It has to be or there would be no point in doing it—and I’d have to drink all day,” she says.
What annoys Schwartz the most about DCUM is the mommy fights. The obsessions with other people’s parenting, she says, make her embarrassed to be a woman. If more women are ever to have an equal number of positions of leadership and power—a true Washington concern—they need to stop scrapping with each other over the little stuff and start talking about the bigger issues that would really make a difference in parents’ and children’s lives.
Despite the annoyances, spending time on DCUM has had its benefits, Schwartz says. The lack of discussion about how to raise a generous child led to a resolution to help her daughter learn good citizenship. It’s also made Schwartz more humble.
“Believing you have all the answers is a mistake,” she says.
SUBJECT: Flame away—what are your most flame-worthy opinions?
A few days into the new year, the nasty nature of DCUM almost collapses on itself. Someone posts a topic asking people for their most unsafe-for-public-company opinions.
Within hours, there are more than 40 pages of answers. It starts with “I think that people who are having trouble conceiving should get over themselves and not expect the world to cater to them.” It quicky expands: “I think a lot of kids (not all) diagnosed with autism or ADHD are just poorly behaved kids with lazy/passive parents.” “Anyone who doesn’t vaccinate their children is a selfish, simple minded, easily manipulated conspiracy theorist.” “I think [stay-at-home moms] set bad examples for their daughters and I am embarrassed to be around people who don’t work.” “If you think it’s fine to have an undereducated nanny raising your kiddos, go for it while you have your high powered career!” “You’re a skank who can’t be bothered with divorce.” “I think there is a good chance that if you live in Bethesda or Potomac, you are an a$$hole!” “I think most of the women who complain about their husbands on these boards should thank their lucky stars anybody married their sad asses.”
After reading for a while, I have a hard time separating farce from reality. This site is making me crazy, I tell my husband. After I turn in this assignment, I will need to stay away from it. Especially when the baby finally comes, and I’m more confused than ever.
I’ve spent so much time there that I can already imagine what DCUM posters would say to me. “You sound like a very uncertain person and insecure. Are you sure you’re ready to have a kid?”
To them, I’d say, yes, I am uncertain. We probably aren’t ready—in fact, I know we’re a lot less ready than other parents. But if we wait until we really feel ready, we probably never will be. Anyway, it’s too late now. In 10 weeks, we’ll have a child. And, I think, despite all the things I don’t know, that I’ll be a pretty good parent.
Good enough to meet Washington’s standards? Maybe not.