When another mother told me that I had to make sure that my four-and-a-half-year-old daughter knew how to read before she started kindergarten that fall, I knew that I was in trouble. She explained that in the event that she didn’t read she would be put in the lowest ability group, and that would be the end. I was sure no mother in her right mind would risk ruining her daughter’s future and teaching her to read seemed like a small price to pay. But that was only the beginning:
We lived in Iowa City, a small university town in the Midwest; at that time most of the husbands worked at the university and the wives, all university graduates, were stay-at-home-moms partly due to ideology, and partly because of the limited employment opportunities in town.
With so much time on our hands and so little to do, our children became the focus of our attention, our prime preoccupation and a way to channel our creative and intellectual energy. They were a source of happiness, pride but also an endless cause of motherly concern.
Other children talked earlier, read better, ran faster (or in the case of our community in Iowa City: played soccer, danced, played a musical instrument, sang in a children's opera). The accomplishments of one child became her mother’s personal achievement and the direct cause for jealousy and anxiety of other mothers.
Luckily, as an Israeli living in the US I missed many cultural cues involving raising childen in a competitive environment. I didn’t understand, for example, the reward system in the American school. I was oblivious to the grave importance of soccer, and didn’t see why in such small classes some mothers were always present at the school.
What I did not miss was the tension is the air. I felt that the outward politeness of some mothers could not mask the pressure and competitive subtext of every interaction.
I am sure that most of the mothers were kind and care-free prior to having children; their new responsibility meant that they believed that the stakes, even at the elementary school level, were so high that everything in their children’s life was of the outmost importance. That solemn attitude did not leave much room for fun and light-heartedness, and being with other mothers became boring and exhausting.
While I was still in Iowa City I sensed that the energy in that small community was unhealthy for me and my family. I know that competition is a motivating force, but for me it became contagious and even poisonous. In theory I could have chosen to disengage, to have done things my own way, but still I did not see a way out from the ubiquitous competition outside the home.
The marriages of several parents among our friends did not survive those early years of child-rearing, and I am sure that the anxiety surrounding their children’s achievement did not add to the well-being of their relationship. I am also aware of some children who did not respond well to the pressures of their mothers’ over-parenting.
Being under a magnifying glass is not only hard on the child; it is draining for the parent. I feel that in a way I was saved by returning to Israel; my daughters enjoyed much more independence and became solely responsible for their success and their failure.
For me it meant that I was free to go on with my own life.