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book review

“America the Anxious” book makes me a better feminist

It’s rare for me to read something that changes my mind about an opinion I’ve argued publicly, but that’s exactly what happened when I read Ruth Whippman’s new book, America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks.

finalcover-americatheanxiousI tore through the first few chapters while trying to help AJ build a new fence for our chickens, a bit of multitasking that did not end well. Not surprisingly, non-fiction reading and power drills do not go hand-in-hand.

In part, I was rapt by the book because I know its author. Ruth reads this blog, and occasionally we get into spirited debates about the direction that feminism is taking or whether Eckhart Tolle is a ray of sunshine or a total sham.

So naturally, I read the book with a mind to the good-natured disagreement that she and I would get to have about what she’d written.

In the first few chapters, she criticized several ways I’ve pursued greater happiness and self-improvement over the years. On the topic of Landmark Education, in particular, I found myself mentally defending what I’d found helpful about it, even though I usually bash the rabid evangelistic tone of Landmark in other company.

There’s also a highly provocative chapter on parenting that will be sure to crack you up or leave you bristling depending on your views on attachment parenting.

Ruth is British, and that remove gives her a unique and dispassionate view of our American obsession with happiness. Her observations are shrewd, well researched and cut to the quick. As much as I feel the pull to educate Ruth on the finer points of mindfulness and why it’s not just another attempt to bypass reality and head straight for Happiness-ville USA, I want to focus here on the brilliance of her overall argument and how she changed my mind.

It was her chapter on positive psychology that really slayed me. She lays out how the positive psychology movement is funded almost entirely by some rich guy with a right wing agenda. It turns out that certain folks with lots of money think it’s a good political strategy to convince people that their happiness has more to do with their mental attitude than the circumstances of their lives. In other words, if we are good students of positive psychology, then our happiness or lack thereof is our own damn fault, and has little to do with structural causes like access to education or a decent-paying job or healthcare or a safe neighborhood.

After taking all of that in, I was tempted to re-write the piece I had written defending feminism’s version of positive psychology. Instead, I’ll just say this:

Thank you for writing this smart, funny, thought-provoking book, Ruth. I now agree with you that various strategies for self-improvement can distract us from the most significant structural causes of unhappiness. No matter how much I learn to boost my confidence as a woman or think positive, the fact is that I live in a country that has created structures that make it harder for me to be happy. So I’m re-focussing my energy on efforts to topple those damn structures. I’m talking to you, America, and your parental leave policies and lack of affordable childcare that rank us among the worst in the world.

As an American with an inclination towards self-improvement, this is an uncomfortable book to read. But it’s that productive kind of discomfort, like a long, hard look in the mirror. You’ll walk away from this book humbled, sober, and a bit more awake.

Tools that help me through perplexing parenting moments, part 1

In order to encourage more cooperation around daily tasks, a friend suggests the genius idea of having your 4 year old earn video time, which he loves, by doing things like putting on his clothes, cleaning his room, taking his dishes to the table. You launch into the new plan with optimism and vigor, and lo and behold, he earns 15 minutes of video time and is standing in his straightened up room all ready and dressed for school. He wants to watch the video now, which you didn’t consider, since now there are exactly 14 minutes until you need to leave for school, but what the heck? You want him to enjoy the fruits of his labor in hopes that this earning video time system will continue to work in your favor. You crack open the laptop and will the red bar on Netflix to move a little faster so the video will start. He joyously watches Lightning McQueen and Tow Mater in a variety of highly gender stereotypical scenarios and you enjoy some “uninterrupted” time to chatter with the baby while he squirms in his bouncy seat while making sure the lunches are packed and finishing your oatmeal. You hear the requisite music signaling that Tow Mater has emerged victorious again. The video is ending. You walk up to your son and say, “We’re going to close the computer now. You watched your 15 minutes that you earned today. Good job.” And as you move your hand towards the screen, he erupts with animal yowls and starts kicking your side. “It’s really time to close this, honey. And I’m not going to let you kick me.” You reach out with one arm, trying to calm the kicking legs and close the screen with your other hand. Animal screams ensue and he launches towards the laptop, knocking it off of the table.

If this scenario sounds even vaguely familiar to you, read on. If not, I either 1) want to know your secret and welcome you to leave a lengthy comment including as many instructional details as possible or 2) think you might be kidding yourself.

Surprise! This scenario happened in our house not long ago. And though the details vary, we run up against similar moments on a daily if not hourly basis.

Since my recent tangle with anxiety, I upgraded “figure out how to set boundaries without Jo going completely ape or if he does go ape, have a plan” to the top of my list, since it was, largely, anxiety provoking.

I’ve found some great resources, so I’m going to share them with you in this little multi-part series, as I have the time.

1) The Whole-Brain Child


This book is super cool. It gives very direct and simple explanations for why our children can react in the ways that they do and how we can work with the actual brains that our children have to help them. The single most helpful thing in this book for me was its clarity on what you can reasonably expect from a child and what you can’t. Since I often feel like understanding Jo’s motivations and reactions is like trying to speak a familar-sounding but completely foreign alien language, I found those distinctions really helpful.

It’s unrealistic to expect them always to be rational, regulate their emotions, make good decisions, think before acting and be empathetic–all of the things a developed upstairs brain helps them do. They can demonstrate some of these qualities to varying degrees much of the time, depending on their age. But for the most part, kids just don’t have the biological skill set to do so all the time. Sometimes they can use their upstairs brain, and sometimes they can’t Just knowing this and adjusting our expectations can help us see that our kids are often doing the best they can with the brain they have.

And like all parenting books that I end up loving, this one helps you understand yourself and your own reactions too. After all, parents also have brains that were once children’s brains. And they do an awful lot of the same things.

There are also great sections of the book that are designed to read to your kid. They describe the upstairs and downstairs brain, the different sides of the brain and different ways that kids can work with their brains to help them move through various states of upset. I wasn’t sure how the book would fly with Jo, but he keeps asking to “read the brain book again,” so I think I’m going to break down and buy a copy, now that I had to return ours to the library.

This goes without saying, but as you read these little nuggets describing things I’ve found helpful, please share yours too. Cause we all know it takes a village. And since few of us actually live in a village, we can at least take refuge in a helpful string of blog comments in a nebulous space called the internet.

Read it: Tears and Tantrums

I go through cycles as a parent when I feel unfettered and fabulous and others that leave me worried, ashamed and inept. The last few months have been the latter, and I’ve done what I usually do when I’m utterly baffled by raising my son–I place a minimum of 5 parenting books on hold at the library.

And then I cart them home. I read the first part of a few chapters of one and then they sit until I have to renew them. And they sit some more. When the final return date threatens, our house looks like a child development study hall after 8pm. I cram.

Last night I read through page 73 of this one:


It was recommended on my Facebook page by one of YOU, radical readers. I must say, it’s a real doosey.

The take home message: babies and kids need to cry and rage. A lot more than you might think. Solter’s main point that I’m digging is that there are many sources of stress in children’s lives, even if they’re well cared for. And that they have a few ways of resolving that accumulated stress: play, laughter, talking and crying or raging. Often, this stress builds up in their bodies over time, and a seemingly insignificant event, like being handed a broken cookie or having to put their shoes on, can trigger a crying fit or rage-a-thon. I love this, because it helps me feel more compassion when J flips out over the fact that I cut up the apple instead of leaving it whole. Sure. Maybe it really is all about the apple. But it could also be about a kid snatching a toy away from him at daycare yesterday. Or when I grabbed his arm and told him NO! when he was walking away from me in the parking lot that morning.

The way I understand it, it’s not that they are actively remembering the prior stress when they’re freaking out about the apple. Rather, their bodies remember, and they are trying, through tears or tantrums (!) to resolve that stress.

I relate to this book because I do the same thing. We’re in the midst of a big move. (Yes, escrow closed! And I’m excited not to need to use that word again for a long time.) I don’t do moves well. I’m pregnant. We have a very physical, rage-y toddler. So it is not uncommon, once we put J to bed, for me to sit on the couch, start talking with A, and when he looks at me in a particularly kind way, I’ll just lose it. Tears upon tears. And some sobbing. Little patches of snot on his shoulder. And then I heave a few sighs and feel better. Stress resolved. For the moment.

Solter tells stories of parents recognizing when their kids need to cry and holding them close, somewhat immobilizing them for a bit, and then they (the children) tumble into a sob festival. Afterwards, they’ll be all relaxed, sparkly and at ease. I actually tried to get J to cry this morning when we were playing before I dropped him off at daycare. He’d had a pretty surly morning, so I thought maybe we could sit down and have a good cry. I did the gentle hold. Told him it was okay for him to cry. And he did have a few half-hearted wails. And then asked if he could get down.

Maybe he didn’t need to cry? Perhaps he’s more of a rager. Sigh. Either way, it helps me to see the rage and tears as a way for him to relieve some built up pressure in his system. That way, I won’t get too fixated on the apple.