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Thursday, March 16, 2006


It's Hard Out Here for a Mom: A review of The Mothers' Group by M. Elizabeth Clark

The Mothers' Group
By M. Elizabeth Clark
(Hutton Electronic Publishing, 2006; $21.95)

"With spit-up cascading down her sleeve, Molly Schafer, at 36 bid good-bye to life's ambition. She grabbed the nearest dishtowel, rubbed the white mess into her top then fastened Julia into her highchair. Molly glanced out her kitchen window at the stubby Sycamore trees. It was September but they were pruned bare. Somehow they looked bored too."

And so begins M. Elizabeth Clark's book The Mothers' Group, a tale of four wealthy women who live in San Francisco and take mothering in the age of anxiety to extremes most of us can't even fathom. They are bored; they are anxious; and they are extremely wealthy.

But are these mothers for real? As if to prove they are, just last week my local paper featured a full color photo spread of a charity event in San Francisco called the "Snuggly Soiree." As I checked out the photos and noted the descriptions that pointed out which designer made which outfit worn by the mothers and children in attendance, I was reminded that yes, people do live the way the mothers in Clark's book do. They have money, all the things money can buy, and children who pose nicely for pictures. And as I checked out the photos I wondered if the mothers pictured also were as unsettled and insecure as the women in Clark's book.

Clark's four unsettled mothers--Molly, Jennifer, Claire, and Elise--are all wealthy but by different means. Molly and Claire have husbands who earn the big bucks while Jennifer and Elise were born into wealth. Three of the women had high powered careers of their own before quitting their jobs to stay home with their newborns. Of the four women, Jennifer is the only who decides to return to work as an architect after the birth of her son.

Molly, Jennifer, Claire, and Elise also are members of an elite and exclusive San Francisco mothers' group. We see how they deal with spit-up, clothing choices, weight gain, preschool mania, and dads who are rarely home because they are either working or sleeping around, as well as how they deal with the politics and pressures of the mothers' group. The book is reminiscent of a soap opera in which the mundane lives of its characters are inflated in such a way as to be almost unrecognizable to those of us whose lives are filled with sweatpants and Happy Meals.

However flamboyant the characters seem, I like how Clark chose uber-wealthy mothers to illustrate her point that women who "had it all" in the working world tend to take very seriously their new careers as mothers. I like being allowed a glimpse into the chaotic and bizarre world of the rich, too. It is so easy to poke fun at the characters in the book; their actions and reactions seem so outrageous.

Yet once you strip away the trappings that make this story such a fun read, you begin to see the similarities between these four women and other women who have quit jobs to stay home with their kids or who are attempting to juggle work and parenting. The transition can be difficult for many women, regardless of wealth or status. As Judith Warner wrote in her book Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety:

"I came to believe that all mothers in America, in differing ways and to different degrees, were caught up in The Mess. And that's because the climate in which we now mother is, in many ways, just plain crazy.

...It's us--this generation of mothers. And it's the way our culture has groomed and greeted us. Mixing promise with politics, feminism with "family values," science and sound bites and religion and, above all, fear into a combustible combination that is nothing less than perfect madness."

The four women characters in The Mothers' Group could have been interview subjects of Warner's; they seem to uphold her hypothesis in a way that's both exaggerated and also understandably real.

Clark spends a lot of time developing the characters in her book. I enjoyed knowing them so well, but I found myself wondering around page 300 if I would ever know the plot of the book. What was the point of telling the story of these four women's lives? Was there a point? But eventually connections are made, changes take place, stories are played out, and the meaning becomes clear: At some point every woman decides how she wants to reconcile her life as an ambitious goal-oriented career woman with her life as a mother. For some, more children and the development of a stronger family life make sense. For others, a return to the workforce gives them the happiness they found lacking as a stay at home mom.

I won't tell you which of the characters in Clark's book does what, but I will say that Clark leaves you feeling hopeful, which is always a nice way to feel when you are reading a book that may have just a tiny bit of your own life in it. Because ultimately it doesn't matter if you drink venti drips with room for cream or espressos made for you by your housekeeper--if you are insanely bored or deliriously happy--once you become a mother you become a member of one big mothers' group. What Molly, Jennifer, Claire, and Elise figured out--as we all must--is how to make the most of that membership.

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