Published on August 15th, 2016 | by Meg Lemke0
LET’S GET OURSELVES TOGETHER: An Interview with Elizabeth Isadora Gold on the Power of THE MOMMY GROUP
Some MUTHAs may hear the phrase “mommy group” and cringe. There’s a certain stereotype of the modern mama mafia, ladies circling to clutch lattes (slash pinot gris) and trade insider secrets while sneering at a rival toddler’s juicebox brand—as sent up in satires like Julia Fierro’s Cutting Teeth. Which is just juicy fiction (though quite recognizably set in the brownstone Brooklyn neighborhood next to my own (the even-more-infamous Park Slope)).
Elizabeth Isadora Gold tries to peel away these layers of cliché about modern motherhood in her memoir/cultural study blend The Mommy Group. She follows seven (real) women, including herself, who met-up regularly in their first two years as parents. Between them, they experience such trials as a divorce, post-partum mental illness, and learning about a child’s special needs, all along with common first-time struggles with sleep/feeding/returning to work/transforming radically in lifestyle and identity fooreeeveerr…. Gold visits other parenting groups elsewhere in the country, observing commonalities across diverse communities of support. “When women get together to tell the truth about their lives, amazing things happen,” writes Jennifer Baumgartner about the book’s inspiring message. Gold goes so far as to argue that a parenting group can act as political consciousness raising, leading not only to mothers’ personal empowerment, but, ideally, seeding collective action towards broader social change.
I sat down for this conversation with Elizabeth Isadora Gold at a tiny cafe that ironically does not boast a stroller-friendly reputation. But that left it quiet enough to record her. And it’s really close to my apartment. Because yep, you guessed it, The Mommy Group is set smack in actual Park Slope. Except, Gold’s cohort started up a year before my kid arrived and I joined the mama-meetups that left lasting friendships in my and my daughter’s life. So my first jealous thought on picking up her book was, Damn, someone else got to write this first. The obvious critique is that despite what publishing trends put up front on shelves, not everyone with kids resides in this same dense/walkable/privileged set of streets in NYC. (Though many book editors happen to…). Gold acknowledges that challenge, but believes that wherever parents are, there’s ways to get ourselves together and help each other through, and she includes nationwide resources in an appendix. She hopes this book will reach all the many MUTHAs who report feelings of isolation after a child comes into their lives, wherever they live. – Meg Lemke
MUTHA: Was it “Meltdown in Motherland,” your piece on post-partum anxiety in the New York Times, which lead to you writing a book on parenting groups?
ELIZABETH ISADORA GOLD: At the time I published that article, in 2012, post-partum anxiety as opposed to post-partum depression was not as well understood. We’ve come far in the past five years. I found my own diagnosis by googling in the middle of the night until I hit on Postpartumprogress, which is an amazing resource—I cannot speak well enough about the site and its founder, Katherine Stone. They had a checklist, “In plain Mama English….” I checked every box on it, which I had not been checking on the depression versions.
That was a tremendous relief—that I hadn’t just lost my mind. Well, I had lost my mind, but that it wasn’t in a way discernable only to myself.
I drafted the essay when I was about a year out from my peak of having had this illness—which I still consider myself to have, not “having had.” It was hard as hell to write. I’m used to writing memoir; I know that this is the deal—but it felt pretty damn exposing. The piece received a shockingly large response, both positive and negative. The fact that my story had reached and helped even one person, much less so many, was amazing and super gratifying. Then there were comments like, “Well, in the olden days, women just sucked it up….!”
MUTHA: The NYT reaches such a wide audience that the comments are some of the worst—well, that’s not true, there are far worse…
ELIZABETH ISADORA GOLD: They upset my husband, who wanted me to stop reading, but I found the comments fascinating. What do they really think used to happen? Women had lobotomies. Women were institutionalized, they became alcoholics, or drug addicts. They continued having babies and then killed themselves. Post-partum mental illness didn’t just “go away.” Then there’s the “third-world women don’t get negative emotional reactions about birth” line of arguments. Yes, they do! It’s not like we have great record-keeping in societies where women are kept more separated and subjugated. If you have Sharia law, you’re not exactly expertly querying women about their post-partum mood disorders. Though, it’s complicated to any kind of cultural comparisons.
MUTHA: So how did this get you to the broader story in The Mommy Group?
ELIZABETH ISADORA GOLD: A book editor did reach out to me after the NYT published, but I didn’t want to write a whole book on post-partum anxiety. It sounded too depressing and anxiety producing! I responded to her with a pitch about my mother’s group, instead, which I had been thinking of writing about all along.
As a nonfiction writer, what do you look for? You look for a story. By the time our children had turned two years old, I realized what an opportunity my mother’s group presented, as we’d passed through a dramatic structure. You don’t often get a story with a contained group of characters, a beginning, middle, and end, three-act structure, all the while knowing there will be a moment of resolve. The story fell in my lap—and I wondered if I’d have the guts to write it. My life was fair game, but what I needed was the courage to say to these women, who while they had heard I was a writer, knew me foremost as a mother: “I want to use our stories.”
MUTHA: Did they all agree?
ELIZABETH ISADORA GOLD: They were surprisingly agreeable. Most were forthcoming and a few only slightly less forthcoming. What was amazing, they all agreed to me drawing from the emails, text messages, and facebook posts we’d shared. Memory is fallible, especially when you’re a sleep-deprived new parent—in my case a medicated, sleep-deprived new parent. But here we had this ongoing record of middle-of-the-night confessions. It’s was such rare private material; you don’t write a text message thinking it’s going in a published book. I’m a magpie and save everything, but I admit I saved it in part realizing it was great material. Though, to any of my friends from the book reading this, honestly, I do save everything…
MUTHA: You weren’t just spying on your mother’s group?
ELIZABETH ISADORA GOLD: That’s right, I just got in it to spy.
MUTHA: This book focuses on your unique experiences, such as difficulty conceiving, loss, a traumatic birth experience… can I say traumatic?
ELIZABETH ISADORA GOLD: I prefer a “shitty” birth experience. Because we were fine. It was an unplanned c-section. I had a “normally traumatic birth.”
MUTHA: Then you follow on to the post-partum anxiety you experienced. But other mothers in your group also experienced loss, one was left by her partner just after she gave birth, one’s child developed special needs–so this book is partly about how having a hard time was not, in fact, unique.
ELIZABETH ISADORA GOLD. Everybody had a hard time—everybody did!
MUTHA: Parenting groups, I have found, can help you take perspective. Is that the story of this book? That hard things are happening to women everywhere, but coming together we realize the commonalities.
ELIZABETH ISADORA GOLD: Absolutely. Several of us had experienced miscarriage; most of ended up having c-sections; all of us experienced difficulty going back to work; we all had issues with our partners; and if not all of us had major financial issues, enough of us did. We were an acknowledged privileged freaking group of women—in New York City, all well-educated, on some spectrum of middle class, with partners (even “Anna,” who in the is left by her husband—he continued to be a co-parent)… and we had this much struggle. What happens to women who don’t have all these advantages?
What does it say about the state of child-bearing in this country? It’s not going to be “easy,” ever, that’s honest. But if we were so deeply unprepared for the on-the-ground experience of motherhood, what does that say about our culture, our legal system? These were the questions slapping me in the face. The fact that I had to have two miscarriages before I realized other people in my life had gone through miscarriage. The fact that I had to have a c-section to have people open up to me, to confess that they never felt the same after their c-sections, or even to explain that for them, it was no big deal, but still to share their story with me.
We are resistant to sharing these stories with each other, until we realize that we all have a story. We need to grow up learning about what is real in the life-cycle of our bodies.
MUTHA: Certainly part of the privilege of the group also reflects the isolation of many couples in New York City, who aren’t often part of larger family structure. This city is a beacon for a particular part of career-driven individual who flocks here from “somewhere farther away…”
We live in the same neighborhood, Park Slope, Brooklyn. I went into mommy groups as well in the year after my daughter was born—the book’s scenes felt truly familiar. (It’s hard for me in this interview not to just delve into the specific characters, the pediatricians/lactation consultants/etc. that I recognized). I became close to other mothers—and fathers—and my groups were instrumental in shaping who I am now a parent. But I have thought about how that was true partly because I didn’t have the cousins, high-school friends, etc. nearby at hand.
ELIZABETH ISADORA GOLD: We are a city of immigrants of all types. And that’s why I looked back at prior generations in the book. Though, my mother was a certain type of ’60s/70s feminist, where anything that smacked of “organizing” as women around motherhood—well, I don’t want to say it was “bad politics,” but basically she was ready and willing to advocate for abortion rights but less concerned with maternity leave. And I (and she does now, too) think they are part of a continuum.
MUTHA: But second-wave feminists did fight for universal childcare. I recently interviewed Mary Dore, director of She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, who is also mother in Park Slope. She spent twenty years making a film about the founding of the feminist movement. Watching the film, it presented reproductive rights and childcare as dual threads… Though I think women when who fought for universal daycare now see women choosing to stay home as mothers, this can create tension. But privatized daycare was not actually the ideal they proposed.
You’ve expressed you want the book to have a political impact. How?
ELIZABETH ISADORA GOLD: I started with the concept that my mother’s group was an unintentional consciousness-raising group. But I want to go back to my grandmother’s generation. She had her first child at the tail end of WWII, and ended up with three boys. She and my grandfather were storekeepers, in a very working-class neighborhood much like a traditional shtetl. Her mother, who was an immigrant, died young, and she had no other close female relatives. So, my grandmother created an old-style community of women, bringing together other Jewish moms in the neighborhood, who were all working their butts off full-time behind the counters of these mom & pop stores.
That whole 1950s feminist mystique thing? That didn’t really apply to working-class women. My grandmother never went to college, it was the Depression, but she also wasn’t an “unhappy housewife.” The parallel between my group—all working women figuring out motherhood and relationships and careers—was more similar than what my mother ended up doing in my childhood. The reason I skipped my mom’s generation was because while subsidized childcare was an important issue for early feminist movements, by the time I was a child efforts were focused on parity within the workplace. Though I should say, my mother’s actually a potter…
MUTHA: Parity in pottery.
ELIZABETH ISADORA GOLD: She’s a hard-assed feminist. But she had my grandmother, and I spent a lot of time with my grandmother as a kid. And, P.S., I spent a lot of time with her girlfriends, because they were still an intense community together into their older age!
MUTHA: My own mother started a childcare coop in my hometown of Seattle, which influenced me to start one in Brooklyn, out of my mother’s social group. (For the first two years, the majority of my childcare coverage came from within the cooperative, swapping with other families.) My parents had moved from the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest—she similarly didn’t have her family, either. I distinctly remember growing up in these other mothers’ homes.
ELIZABETH ISADORA GOLD. Do you still have contact with those families from your childhood, are you friends with those kids, grown up?
MUTHA: Not me so much, but my mother has kept her friendship with the other moms.
ELIZABETH ISADORA GOLD: My dream is that my daughter will grow up remaining friends with the children from our group.
MUTHA: You also include stories of different parenting groups across the country. What did you draw from these stories?
ELIZABETH ISADORA GOLD: Well, first let me say that in my vision, I would have included many more examples—but I wrote the book on a deadline and while working other jobs. But I did an enormous amount of research, visited as many groups as I could, talked to people, and tried to be representative of what I observed. The purpose was to show that we have more in common than not—that while race and class matter, a lot, I think core issues cut across circumstances. It’s mostly about class, about money—the real difficulties of parenting come down to financial resources.
My conclusions? Women in this country are screwed. Families in this country are screwed, but women in this country are especially screwed because of the high-proportion of single mother-led families and lack of national, subsidized childcare. For example, there was a recent article abou the struggle for people who work night shifts. It’s emotionally debilitating and there aren’t enough options, those available are too expensive—in order to work a barely minimum-wage job. But the kid has to go somewhere—and if you don’t have family, what are you supposed to do?
When mothers organize, they solve problems together—like setting up a babysitting coop. Or setting up a place to vent, which becomes de-facto group therapy. Ideally we’ll get to community and policy change. But, I don’t think governmental shifts come without organization of individuals. If we can get women to come together and discover common ground, it can lead to political realization.
MUTHA: My understanding is that feminist consciousness raising groups had a planned “summing up” stage, a feeding back to centralized call-to-action—is that actually happening in mother’s groups, though?
ELIZABETH ISADORA GOLD: I think that was and wasn’t true, in that period. What I see now is awareness raised by published writing on the topic, particularly from our generation–Generation X. Our feminist mothers fought for an ideal future, but the version we’re getting is a lot different than expected. So we’re saying: wait a minute, wait a minute, stop the presses. We hear these voices in the recent books coming out, in publications like MUTHA Magazine or Slate’s Elisa Strauss.
I want to address the topic of the “Mommy Wars” for a moment. Reviews of the book have said that I “transcend the mommy wars.” There is no fucking mommy war on the ground. I’ve never met a mommy in war with another mommy—not in close contact, who have actually met each other. Except like over whether the ice cream trucks can be in the playground. In general, parents are supportive of each other once they’ve met in person.
MUTHA: I don’t want to speak outside of the rarified world of Park Slope, but I have found that parent “networking” happens here—a desire to help and support the families you know that transfers into work, both career and “artwork.”
ELIZABETH ISADORA GOLD: It’s about time. People in places like Park Slope have the time and privilege to organize, but it’s still possible in other places and contexts. If you are working two jobs, and one is at Walmart, and you have to take the bus there, and are constantly on the verge of eviction—well, you might not have the time to grab coffee and bond with other mothers to get professional networking. But what you do have is a break room, with other parents in it. And you have people you stand next to—and some of them are other parents.
MUTHA: The “Mommy War” simply defined is mothers how are primarily care-givers VS mothers who are primarily bread-winners. And I don’t feel that has been my experience of the tension in the parents I’ve known. There has been a more complicated transference of influence and power relations—I learned how to become flexible in my work schedule because I saw other parents doing it, so I don’t have to be stuck in terror of disappearing from my career. I may be speaking to my own anxieties here, but I was able to figure out a balance by seeing what other families made work around me.
ELIZABETH ISADORA GOLD: Living in New York, I don’t know anyone who is a “stay-at-home mother,” really. We all work. The few people I know who are SAHM are in a different economic cohort entirely than the characters in this story. While the book has been criticized for representing the rarified atmosphere of NYC, my husband and I truly live paycheck-to-paycheck. Most families I know personally live reasonably considering the expense of the city, doing the best they can under the circumstances.
I also didn’t want this to be an advice book—which always leave you feeling that you’re doing something wrong. Like when we tried to do the Happiest Baby on the Block thing and our vacuum died in the middle of it. It’s impossible to do motherhood “right.” Once you are visibly pregnant, you become the repository—really the depository—of so much unwanted advice and attention. We’re all trying to raise happy, healthy, smart human beings. Maybe this is my hippie ethos, but I attach real meaning to the practice of reserving judgment. Unless you are putting the kid in danger—do what you need to do, parenting is hard enough.
MUTHA: So I have to say—some people gag at the phrase “Mommy group.” As I’ve rubbed up against that eye-rolling [wow that’s a vivid mixed metaphor], myself, I’ve wanted to convince women to try different groups until they find one they like—because for me personally, it’s lead to such a renaissance in female friendship, unlike anything I’ve experienced since I’ve been in college.
ELIZABETH ISADORA GOLD: I went to an all-female college in addition, so clearly I like to find myself in rooms full of women. (It should be mentioned I was a women-studies major, as well).
If you don’t like the group, get the hell out of that group and find a different. Advertise that you want people who are willing to talk shit!
It was an opportunity that I didn’t realize I would have. As soon as you hold that child in your arms, you are a different person, and you will find people to connect to in a truly new way.
MUTHA: Motherhood is an incredibly transformational and you feel drawn towards other parents—for me it was a great equalizer in that respect.
ELIZABETH ISADORA GOLD: I don’t know anyone who doesn’t really feel drawn towards other parents—when they have actually met. Towards other’ stories.
MUTHA: There’s an intimacy that develops, as playgroups move in and out of homes. After five years now, especially with the babysitting coop, I step into the kitchen of someone I’ve just met and open their cupboards…
ELIZABETH ISADORA GOLD: And you get comfortable parenting each other’s children.
MUTHA: And we have frank conversations about each others’ parenting! Sometimes it goes well, sometimes it does not. You learn, about what you can abide in someone’s parenting (or what you cannot) and that influences how you choose to spend time with them, with our without their kids.
ELIZABETH ISADORA GOLD: If you asked to see my c-section scar, I would show it to you. Nothing is off the table anymore for me after having a child, and sharing and creating this intimacy with other mothers. We walk around in such isolation as mothers, this connection is the only way we are going to change anything.