The long-time sage of America women (or at least a certain group of us), Anna Quindlen, has just published a new memoir, “Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake” (Random House).
In it, the novelist and former New York Times columnist tackles some of the Big Truths of parenting using her trademark ability to express thoughts that many of us have entertained but never fully formed, or articulated quite as well.
She agreed to let me post an excerpt from the book that I found personally spot on. (I also saw this passage as an antidote to the more accusatory sections in the other all-the-rage book just out, “Conflict” by Elisabeth Badinter. I wrote about that polemic and then posted a follow-up interview with Badinter.)
Here, from a chapter called “Generations,” is a bit of Quindlen’s memoir:
From natural childbirth to discipline without corporal punishment, from sex education to gender equity, those of us of a certain age spent decades suggesting, even openly opining, that our mothers were a bit behind the curve. We sat in the living room and talked about how breast was best, how Lamaze breathing worked, how reading to babies would pay off. It is a tribute to the patience and the discretion of our aunts, grandmothers, neighbors, and mothers that, in the main, they did not reply, “Oh, girls, get over yourselves.”
Perhaps because of the changes in the lives of women during our formative years, we grew up thinking of ourselves as distinct, even special. The good news is that we outgrew this, one of the clearest benefits of getting older. It’s true that my mother fed her babies food from jars while I made the food for my own. It’s also true that she didn’t have a sitter five days a week, that she couldn’t call for takeout when all five of us were clamoring for dinner, takeout being one of the unexpected linchpins of female freedom in our time. The closest thing my mother had to a wind- up baby bouncer was her arm and hip.
Of course we now accept that they were heroines, the ones who mothered so many. And so were the ones who worked when married women weren’t expected to work at all, and unmarried women who took jobs as secretaries and nurses and teachers, paid less and yet happy to be paid at all. When the doors busted open, the doors to medical and law schools, many smart women my age were contemptuous of what had been traditional female jobs. Medicine meant being a doctor. Education meant being a university professor. We wanted to have a secretary, not be one. Eventually we learned that that was shortsighted. The most pivotal figure in a birthing room is the labor- and- delivery nurse. Our children spent more time with their teachers on any given day than they did with us.
But there’s another moment of truth I’ve learned to recognize, and it’s the moment when we realize that other people, most often other women, often women of another generation, are not what we so conveniently expect them to be. It’s that moment when we realize that we — we! — were prejudiced, that we lapsed into stereotype based on sex. It’s what I felt when I learned about Charlotte Curtis paying the bail money. It’s what I felt when I talked with an eighty-year-old about her abortion, or discussed strategy with a woman who was once a union organizer. “I learned to play them like a violin,” she said of her male peers.
— From “Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake,” by Anna Quindlen. Copyright © 2012 by Anna Quindlen. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.