It's a dreadful story. In Japan last week a 35-year-old mother of two, a former nurse, strangled the 2-year-old daughter of a neighbor, enraged that the little girl had gained a place in the school she coveted for her own 2-year-old. Superficially, this is a cautionary tale about the wages of academic competitiveness. More than that, the Japanese press concluded, it's a symptom of the way mothers there are encouraged to sublimate their ambitions through their children.
While it's true that Japanese women remain far more bound by traditional roles than women in most industrial democracies, we should be wary of assuming that our own fascination with Mitsuko Yamada's story lies in how unlike us the Japanese are. The story stirs us up mostly because we have such an intimate understanding of that mother's feelings, at least in their germinal stages.
Stripped to its essentials, it's just another story of the Cat Race. This is the name devised by the British writer Celia Fremlin, whose lively mysteries -- now mostly out of print -- were brilliant disguises for her true passion, which was the covert exploration of domestic life, especially the lives of mothers and children. "The Cat Race," Fremlin wrote in her 1969 novel "Possession," "begins with our babies' births and goes on -- as far as I can see -- forever. The biggest birth-weight -- the rosiest cheeks -- the largest circle of playmates -- the highest marks. . . . We would be hard put to it, most of us, to say exactly what the race is about, whither it is directed, and what the prize. But we all know, instantly and without any doubt, who is winning at any given moment, and we know how the points are allotted. When someone's children go off youth-hostelling at an earlier age than the rest; when they put on a play all by themselves; when they read old-fashioned children's books, or come tops in Math, or play games that cover them in mud and tear their jeans -- all these are point-scoring phenomena for the mother concerned, though it would be hard indeed to say on what scale these very diverse activities can possibly be measured."
My mother tried to tell me about the Cat Race, but I felt the standard scorn of the feminist daughter. How invidious; how sexist; how not the way I planned to run my life, which would be marked by open striving for the direct rewards that really mattered.
Then I had children of my own.
Now I know that the Cat Race is one of the mightiest forces in human affairs, even if some of the details have changed. Now we do small-motor skills. Most flexible diet ("Have you thought of trying kelp? My boys just love kelp"). Least likely to be called to the principal's office. One chapter of my education stands out with particular clarity: When my son was about 18 months old, I took him to a birthday party, where another little boy (I'll call him Eustace. Meow.) was sporting a spectacular black eye. In an effort to be kind (and possibly to conceal some satisfaction at this advertisement of his mother's negligence?) I made commiserating comments about the way children his age collect injuries; my son, I said, fell constantly. Instead of accepting my offering, the other mother gave me a sadistically sympathetic look and said, "Huh. Interesting. I find that Eustace is really very graceful."
The Cat Race isn't confined to mothers, of course. Fathers, who have always stalked the sidelines of Little League with the intensity of giant stags, are increasingly apt to compete in events like Early Reading, Shunning Nickelodeon ("Oh, Basil only watches documentaries on tropical ecosystems") and even Sleeping Through the Night. Dads who act as primary caretaker may be the most competitive of all. This insight came to me when one such man, having established the superiority of his family's schooling plans, went on to initiate a conversation on the merits of different breast pumps.
Perhaps it's sexist, then, to persist in speaking of the Cat Race. But peel away the female connotations and the phrase still fits for its summoning of the universally cat-like: the soft-footed cunning; the implacability.
Few of us, of course, have lethal feelings toward each other's kids. The Cat Race is aimed not at other children, really, or even other parents; it is aimed at ourselves, and the places in us where we store the knowledge that we are hopelessly small to be trusted with the raising of people even smaller. The first, most insidious thing we learn when we have children is that we're supposed to be able to control their lives. Sanity comes with the understanding that this is impossible, but we never entirely unburden ourselves of this anxious charge.
Even under different circumstances -- a society that places an extraordinary premium on control; a woman with few other ways to reassure herself of her adequacy -- it seems more than a quantum leap from the self-soothing rivalries of our playgrounds to the mad case of Mitsuko Yamada. Yet to think that our little battles are cousins to murder -- distant cousins, but family still -- seems less far-fetched to me than I wish it did.
Marjorie Williams, a former Washington Post staff writer, is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.