Beasts of the Suburban Mild: Part One - By Christy Stillwell

August 06, 2012

Posted By: Shaunescy

A muscular flank, a well-tanned arm, the swing of a bag over the shoulder, a shiny leather satchel, or maybe a canvas tote with lots of pockets from which are pulled healthy snack food, game boys, ipads and iphones. The toddler hoisted on the hip, skirt adjustment, sunglass smear. Big, aviator shades. Tall leather boots.

You find these mythical creatures at the playgrounds, coffee shops, rec centers, museums, city pools, soccer and football fields. They drive large cars. The tank seems to be a requirement of those raising our young. Fleets of them circle  the parking lot or the pickup zone. God help you if you cut in front of one of them, want the same parking space, or try to turn left with no turning lane. You’ll get the finger,  the horn, or worse, the smug drive-around, nosing that combat vehicle up onto the curb as if it were a VW Rabbit.

This type is rarely idle. She’s always off to a workout, a job, a lunch date, an errand. She’s on her phone, texting, making a list; walks away while still talking to the camp counselor. She rarely makes eye contact, never appears to have the time for, nor any interest in, making new friends.

Yet I’d argue that this white, middle-class mother, though she will never float in a bathtub through a flood-ravaged city, faces a daily war of her own: a battle against suburban misery. Her domestic satisfaction is belied by the grim mouth beneath those big sunglasses, the stand-offishness, and the crossed arm-petty humor, often involving filial tear-downs or spousal loathing.

This is not a diatribe against the stay-at-home mom, the affluent mom, the working mom, or the used-to-work mom. If I sound like I dislike her, it’s only because I am her. She is me, on various days of any given week. What I’m commenting on is the stagnant air I feel in my white, straight, maternal world. I feel it during the school year at end-of-the-day pickup,  piano lessons, planned play dates and especially at sporting events. Suburban misery can often disguise itself as an extreme desire to win. Tight silences on the pool deck, the unwavering gaze at the gymnastics mat. At the soccer field, which is big and open, the sideline screamer really opens up, her throat veins bulging like rope: Anna ! What are you thinking ?  Get it together out there!

There’s a threat to it all, the way the moms sit on the side and make small talk.  You can get good information here: what’s on sale where, who has the best, freshest ground beef, where to order with free shipping, who’s the best instructor, which teacher  to pursue, which camps attract the poorly behaved.  But what riles me most is the absence of genuine feeling.  Real admiration or a sudden outpouring of affection for your child will shut this crowd up like a cop in a bar. Reports are fine: detailed updates on your child’s reading levels, math proficiency, height or weight percentiles. These must be accompanied, however,  by self denigration of some sort. Negativity neutralizes. If it’s all positive, it’s bragging, a no-no. A high reading level or a first place ribbon must come with a confession. A bad habit, say. Nose picking. A mouthful of cavities. Wretched eating habits.

A ban on genuine feeling usually means that there is something genuine going on. It may not be cheery, but it’s the real thing. The competition,  the filial tear-down, the massive cars and those big bags are all a loose cloak thrown over the misery I believe to have three distinct but related components:  marital fury, maternal boredom, and self loathing.

The marital fury comes from work.  A lot of these women, if you get them talking, will start ripping on their spouses. Inevitably, this is some form of marital competition over misery, as in, whose is worse. This pain game has been dividing households for decades. For a long time, it divided mine: I felt like  I’d give anything to be the breadwinner,  when in reality, it would be terrifying to have to relinquish control over the domestic grounds, and then be told what to do by somebody else. And what, I asked myself, could I possibly do that anyone would want to pay me for? I majored in liberal arts, for god’s sake. What I’ve gotten good at is folding laundry, organizing closets, keeping up with cleaning supplies, pantry snacks and the meat drawer. Oh, and the running list of who needs what: haircuts, teeth cleanings,  toenail trimmings, new shoes, new clothes, new books, help in which subject and how often.

How could any of this be applicable to anything but the domicile? Even if I did get paid, I’d never get out of the twenties. I’d be lucky to get in the twenties at all, especially the upper twenties, where some lucky administrative jobs are salaried. The thirty thousands? The forties? Forget it.

A mom friend who used to teach high school science—ten years ago—recently applied for part-time work in the elementary school kitchen. Serving food. Is this selling herself short or is this where we’re at?  Is the professional come-down real or perceived?

My husband used to come home talking about  how his job was idiotic  and useless. What I heard was: It’s your fault. I ought to go out and get a job just to ease his pain. What in god’s name did I do all day, anyway? He’d take my pain over his any day of the week. My pain would feel like a vacation .

Which brings me to maternal boredom. It’s not the same thing as not liking one’s children, or not enjoying motherhood. It is simply the drone of The Watch. We’re the park rangers of the world, the slow beat cops. Our partners go into the world comforted that we’ve got this covered, the food, the health, the domestic. And by god, we do. I see a lot more dads with their babies, cooing to them in the front carrier, giving them bottles, present at birth and just spending time. That’s great. But I’m talking about the fleet of women who do the bulk of hauling here and there, those who will recognize this mutual-if-silent agreement,  the one we all intermittently resent, even if most of us are unprepared to do much about it. In so many ways, I am the dreaded Soccer Mom, the very one I loathed in college, vowed I’d never become. To avoid it, I almost didn’t have kids, and when I did, I was sure they’d never play soccer.

Surprise. I did and they do.

Which brings us to self loathing. What went wrong here? Is there no way to avoid this beastly suburban life? In a town like ours, where we’re all different shades of the same white,  we like to say this is a great place to “raise a family” or “to be a kid.” Safe and sound. Is that just a euphemism for boring and same?

I know that in spite of arguments, endless divvying up the chores, and marriage counseling, things didn’t change in our house until three things happened:

1. Our kids got older

2. My husband quit his idiotic job and got another, less idiotic one

3. I gave up trying to contribute financially and just worked on what I was good at, managing the house and writing fiction.

….stay tuned….to be continued….

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