Struggling With Parenthood In Utopic 'Motherland'
Park Slope has become the "it" neighborhood to raise a family in Brooklyn. The new novel Motherland gives a tour of the neighborhood's brownstones, European coffee shops and personalities — in particular, the mothers of Park Slope, who definitely have a certain look.
"She might wear a Baby Bjorn. She's incredibly concerned about organic milk. You might see her walking down the street with a slightly expensive stroller, a kid inside it, and a dog kind of pulling them all half the way down the street," author Amy Sohn tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host Laura Sullivan.
"It's really a way of thinking more than it is a household income," Sohn says of the affluent mothers.
While Motherland zeros in on the lives of Park Slope parents, it's more focused on partying and infidelity rather than diapers and teething.
One mother is trying to keep the truth about her son's paternity from her husband. Another character is adjusting to being a single mom after her husband leaves her for a transexual. And a gay dad, uncomfortable with his partner's decision to adopt another son, turns to alcohol and sex with strangers he finds through an iPhone app.
Sohn, who lives in Park Slope, admits she's writing about her neighborhood as if it were interesting. She calls her novel an imagined soap opera of what might take place behind her neighbors' closed doors.
High drama aside, Sohn is commenting on something very real. She believes parents of her generation, those in their late 30s and early 40s, are putting too much pressure on themselves to have a perfect family.
"What happens in Motherland is it comes back to haunt them," she says. "All the sort of utopia they've tried to create kind of shatters before their eyes and they're left to really look around and wonder what an honest life is and who they really are."
These types of parents are realizing that the utopia they've constructed around family is partly a myth, Sohn says.
"The way that they're reacting against that is to kind of pretend that they're not moms and pretend they don't have these responsibilities and misbehave a little," she says.
Sohn has dubbed these types of parents as the "regressives": parents who behave more like 20somethings than 40somethings, all the while terrified of admitting the difficulties of marriage and parenthood.
"It's almost a substitute for the real kind of rebellion that takes genuine courage," she says.
Instead of confronting problems like whether to have more children or if they need to go back to work, they leave their responsibilities at the door of a party.
But Sohn doesn't point the finger at women themselves. She says there's a real lack of community support that existed when she was growing up in Brookyln in the 1970s.
Even though Park Slope has seemingly transformed into a neighborhood that's got it all, Sohn says she's noticed some parents turn inward when dealing with parenting issues and not to their friends or parents.
"Where are we getting our advice about child rearing? From random strangers on the Internet messages boards," she says. "It's not a good place to go when you're trying to figure out how to get a child to sleep through the night."
Some of Sohn's neighbors weren't too fond of her portrayal of Park Slope residents in her last novel, Prospect Park West. Now, she's become a bit of a persona non grata in her neighborhood.
"I have been wearing sunglasses, somewhat intentionally," she says.
Luckily, most of Park Slope is empty now and on vacation.
"Once we hit Labor Day, it's all about getting the kids back to school," she says. "They're going to be onto their own family and own school supplies and they'll forget to be mad at me for being such a rabble-rouser."
LAURA SULLIVAN, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Laura Sullivan.
Park Slope has become the it neighborhood to raise a family in Brooklyn, and the new novel "Motherland" takes an unflinching look at the neighborhood's parents, and in some cases, parents behaving badly. The characters are fictional - at least mostly fictional, says author Amy Sohn - but the mother Cheryl looked familiar to many upper-class enclaves in cities throughout the country.
AMY SOHN: She might wear a BabyBjorn. She's incredibly concerned about organic milk. You might see her walking down the street with a slightly expensive stroller, a kid inside it and a dog kind of pulling them all half the way down the street. It's really a way of thinking more than it is a household income.
SULLIVAN: These are wealthy parents, wealthy mothers by everyday American standards, but they're not what you would consider the uber rich of Manhattan.
SOHN: Those people stay in Manhattan, I think. Although increasingly, they are coming to Park Slope, Brooklyn, which raises a lot of interesting questions about what is Brooklyn mean to people anymore, because I'm a Brooklyn native - I grew up in Brooklyn Heights in the '70s and '80s, - and that was not a place a lot of people wanted to live. And there's just been such a shift in the last 20 years in terms of Brooklyn becoming a destination, and this is just to my parents who were sort of that somewhat first wave of bourgeois breeders in the '70s. And to people like that, the whole point of life was getting out.
SULLIVAN: Mm. So how much that you write about in "Motherland" is real, and how much is pumped up just for the narrative of the novel?
SOHN: What I've created in "Motherland" is a cast of characters that I wish were my neighbors. You know, these are the sort of moms and dads behaving badly, the people not only struggling but really struggling in a transparent way. And I think, in a lot of ways, what I'm trying to do is respond to this 1950s mentality that I observe around me, which is this incredible fear of admitting how hard it is to be a parent, how hard it is to be married. I don't see a lot of people openly talking about this.
But I also think just something else is going on, which is that my generation of parents - late 30s, early 40s - is just putting way too much pressure on themselves and on the family unit. And so what happens in "Motherland" is it comes back to haunt them. All of the sort of utopia that they've tried to create kind of shatters before their eyes, and they're left to really look around and wonder what an honest life is and who they really are.
SULLIVAN: Because you're not talking about it being hard being a mother, working two jobs, waitressing in a down economy and those kind of stresses and struggles. This is something different.
SOHN: I agree. I mean, the predicament that most American mothers are in is very different from the predicaments that I'm describing in this novel. Most American mothers don't get to choose whether or not to work. That is an extremely privileged problem to have. And I think part of what I'm trying to do in this book is I'm writing about a sort of a subsegment of New York that I think could also be a subsegment of a lot of different American cities, because they're almost modern suburbs. They're urban, and yet they're very much like the suburbs in the sense that you don't have to go to the larger city to get your amenities.
And that is why we all wear the exact same not only style but shade of Birkenstocks or hunter boots in the winter and why the children are all wearing saltwater sandals, because we all shop at the same three stores.
SULLIVAN: I'm speaking with author Amy Sohn. Her latest novel is called "Motherland." Let's talk about an article you recently wrote for The Awl. It's called The 40-Year-Old Reversion, and it's about parents in their late 30s and early 40s. You call them the regressives. What do you mean by that?
SOHN: Well, what I've observed just the last couple of years - I have a 7-year-old daughter - is some of the school-aged parents, meaning parents of school-aged children, behaving a little more like 20-somethings than 40-somethings. And what I was really trying to write about was what I see as a little bit of a spiritual crisis among my generation of women in particular, where they're just struggling with this kind of utopia that they've constructed around family, and they're realizing that a lot of it might be a myth. And so the way that they're reacting against that is to kind of pretend that they're not moms and pretend that they don't have these responsibilities and misbehave a little.
And what I go on to say in the article, which is really the point of it that I think got missed by some people, is that it's almost a substitute for the real kind of rebellion that takes genuine courage, which is, do you go into couples therapy? Do you quit your job? Do you go back to work because you need the money and your husband needs the money? And even though it's going to be really hard, it's what's best for the family. And I think part of the problem, because I really don't want to point the finger at the women themselves, is that there's a real lack of social support and community. And I see a lot of just turning to private solutions instead of turning to each other. And I think that that's really a big shift from the way people thought about raising their children in the early '70s when I was born, where there was more of a sense of kind of a common future.
SULLIVAN: Do you think it's possible that parents of young children have been going through this life crisis all along and, you know, how every generation thinks they've started a new trend because it's new to them, or do you think is it that parenting young children is really different now than it used to be?
SOHN: I think that it's been hard for all generations. My parents' generation had kids really young. And the good thing about that is I think there was just a little less worry. You know, they weren't that far in age from their kids. The 1970s, people were worried about the economy. We had a gas crisis. It was just like, there was a lot less luxury, and, in my opinion, there was a lot more joy. So I wonder sometimes whether there's, like, I don't know, an overcorrection going on, whether we're trying to punish our parents for what ultimately was a really good job. I think they did a lot better than some of the moms and dads in my generation, partly because they were younger, and partly because they had much more important things to worry about than what brand of stroller they bought.
SULLIVAN: Now that you've aired Park Slope's dirty laundry, have you become persona non grata in your own neighborhood?
SOHN: I have been wearing sunglasses a lot, somewhat intentionally. The good thing is because we're in late-August, my whole neighborhood is empty. So I may not get the serious flack until people start coming back for the school year. But you know what the great thing about living in Park Slope is once we hit Labor Day, it's just going to be all about getting the kids back to school. They're going to be onto their own families and their own school supplies, and they'll forget to be mad at me for being such a rabble-rouser.
SULLIVAN: That's Amy Sohn. Her latest novel is "Motherland," and she's been speaking with me from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us, Amy.
SOHN: Oh, it's great to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.