I confess: As a Ph.D.-carrying mother of two and student of human behavior, I couldn't resist reading Primates of Park Avenue, the provocative memoir about motherhood on New York City's Upper East Side, released this month.
The book's author, Wednesday Martin, who has a Ph.D. in comparative literature and cultural studies, approached her observation of Manhattan motherhood through a purportedly anthropological lens. She describes the experience of raising her two children amid a backdrop of play dates and primate politics: power displays, affiliative behaviors and some not-so-affiliative behaviors. (There's also quite a lot about shoes and handbags.)
Since its release (and even before), the book has received a lot of flak about the depth of its anthropological dressing, about whether its portrayal of Upper East Side mothering is accurate, and even about the accuracy of Martin's claims regarding her own life. But what interests me isn't so much the book itself, as the way it has struck a cultural chord.
There are plenty of books about rich people and plenty of books about motherhood. But something about this one prompted 77 reviews on Amazon.com, 250 ratings on goodreads.com and dozens of articles, all within 10 days of its release. Clever marketing played a role, to be sure, but that's not enough to explain the book's cultural currency.
At Salon.com, Laura Miller suggests the book's appeal is "blatant":
"Martin promises a voyeuristic window on a lifestyle that many people clearly envy, whatever they may protest to the contrary. Dishy tales of the strange behavior of rich people is an established genre, whether we're talking about historical novels set in the Tudor court or the posher precincts of the 'Real Housewives' franchise. What we want from this genre is to vicariously revel in aristocratic luxury while being assured that the people who possess it are our moral inferiors. Maybe all that money turns them awful or maybe you just have to be awful to get it."
A desire to simultaneously admire and disparage the very rich is surely part of the story, but the book isn't only about the 1 percent (or the 0.01 percent) — it's about mothering in the 0.01 percent. And that makes the book at once more relatable and more threatening.
The book is relatable because parents are parents, whether they drive taxis or own hedge funds. "Parenting is a great equalizer," quips a post at HuffPost Parents. "Whether we are suburban moms hoping for a good nap out of our toddlers or renowned actresses or CTOs or television personalities or political big shots, we're parents."
So, Primates of Park Avenue isn't just about the super-rich; it's about an aspect of super-rich women's lives that other mothers can potentially relate to — something we can share across economic and geographic divisions. I can't walk in your Manolo Blahniks, but I know what it's like to worry about your own child.
Yet, precisely because it impinges on aspects of life that most mothers can relate to — and care deeply about — the book is potentially threatening. The threat stems, in part, from the culture of "intensive mothering" that Martin herself criticizes and participates in. In the book, Martin explains:
"The cult of 'intensive mothering,' peculiar to the West and specific to the wealthy, was certainly a plague upon the mommies I studied. Sociologist Sharon Hays, who coined the term, defines intensive mothering as 'a gendered model that [compels] mothers to expend a tremendous amount of time, energy and money in raising their children.' Constant emotional availability, constantly monitoring your kids' psychological states, endlessly providing activities, and 'fostering' your children's 'intellectual development' are all expected of women of means, Hays observes, and failing to nurture them comprehensively, or just letting them be, borders on neglect."
This ideal of intensive mothering may be more common among the wealthy — who have the luxury to allocate time, energy and money in more flexible and extravagant ways. But it isn't restricted to the top 0.01 percent — and it certainly isn't restricted to the Upper East Side.
The problem is that mothers who subscribe to the ideals of intensive mothering are made uneasy by their own (inevitable) limitations. (And here I offer a second confession: I think intensive mothering is bad for mothers and bad for children, but that isn't enough to prevent me from sometimes judging myself by its unattainable standards.)
The ideal mother needs more time to cook homemade organic meals, more energy to foster her children's development and more money for enrichment courses, school tuition — and so much more. That makes the top 0.01 percent a guide to what the rest of us are failing to deliver. So, to the extent our voyeurism reveals something imperfect — even dystopic — we can heave an enormous sigh of relief. We're not failing quite as miserably as we thought we were.
Could the fascination with privileged parenting, then, have a root in anxiety?
I invited Gwen Dewar, an anthropologist and science writer who founded ParentingScience.com and blogs for BabyCenter.com and Psychology Today, to speculate about people's fascination with the mothering practices of the Manhattan elite — the parents who worry about getting their children into the right nursery school as the first step toward their Ivy League college of choice. She offered these observations:
"Parents tend to worry about or regret their financial shortcomings. They feel guilty that they don't earn enough to get their kids private music lessons or academic tutoring. They feel guilty that they aren't sacrificing more of their time shuttling their kids to extracurricular activities. They worry about how they will ever afford to send their kids to college. When they hear about the world of New York private preschools, it helps reassure them that their own lifestyles aren't so bad after all. There are limits to what parents should be spending their time and money on, and these wealthy New Yorkers — be they real or apocryphal — are examples of what happens when people exceed those limits."
If the allure of Primates of Park Avenue is rooted in anxiety, it's an anxiety to get things right — for ourselves and for our kids. It's an anxiety smack at the intersection of parenting (the equalizer) and privilege (the threat). We all want what's best for our kids — and sometimes that means making sure we know what "best" is.
Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo