Kveller Book Club: Our Discussion of In Praise of Messy Lives by Katie Roiphe – Kveller
Skip to Content Skip to Footer


Kveller Book Club: Our Discussion of In Praise of Messy Lives by Katie Roiphe

Welcome to another installment of the Kveller Book Club! This month, we read Katie Roiphe’s essay collection
In Praise of Messy Lives

In addition to being a successful journalist, Roiphe is what some might call a “love her or hate her” writer, a “provocateur,” and, devastatingly honest, which some people just can’t stand. She even cops to her complicated relationship with the reading public in the introduction to her book where she quotes a piece of hate mail in which her writing is faulted for “the destruction of our civilization.” Whatever you think about Roiphe, though, she tackles topics close to all of us–including divorce, competition amongst parents, narrow-mindedness, and feminism. Here’s what some of our contributing editors thought of the book, and we’d love to hear from you, too. Please chime in!

: Hi, friends. Let’s start by talking about the very first essay in the book, “The Great Escape,” in which Roiphe writes of the “moral disapproval” she feels from her peers and from society about the fact that she’s divorced and has a child. She writes, “We seem to be laboring under the fashionable illusion that if we put all of our energy into making our children’s lives ostensibly perfect, then they will be. And those of us who have separated or divorced have rather spectacularly failed in creating that perfect environment.”

I’ve never been divorced (and obviously hope to never know from it), but I do have a few peers who are and I can honestly say I feel no judgment toward them. Rather, I feel genuine sympathy–I imagine the road ahead will be terribly rough for a while. Have either of you sensed this kind of judgment in your peer groups? Do you think Roiphe has a valid point here?

: Well, I can speak from a point of comparative authority since I have been divorced. I filed for divorce as the mother of two young boys who were then 3 and 1. It was a scary, horrible time. When I got divorced, we moved in with my parents. They were and are amazing, and gave their house and lives over to us completely but it created an unusual dynamic, perhaps best illustrated by the time I yelled at my kids once, and they looked at each other sheepishly and said, “Please don’t tell our parents.” I said, “Um, I AM your parent.” They looked at each other with confusion, and then one of them asked me, “Who are Gram and Pa, then?” Hmm.

I can laugh about it now, but my parents were playing the role of steady homeowners/emotionally sound married couple that I desperately wanted to play, both for myself and for my children. I felt embarrassed by my situation, and self-loathing on many levels. I was very self-conscious about the perception of me as a “failure” because I was living with my parents.

In my experience, when people feel like they are being judged by others, it’s not so much because other people are passing judgment on them, but rather, because they are judging themselves out of self-consciousness and insecurity. I felt VERY self-conscious and insecure about my living situation, much more so than being divorced. I wonder if Roiphe felt that judgment because she was judging herself? She’s a pretty sharp critic…I wouldn’t be surprised if she turned that sharp knife of criticism on herself.

Adina: I want to jump ahead to the essay “The Feminine Mystique on Facebook.” Here, Roiphe derides the practice of putting our kids’ pictures in place of our own on our Facebook profiles. She says this is a symptom of a much larger problem related to losing our identities when parenting. What do you guys think? Are we losing ourselves if we post a picture of our kid instead of our own on Facebook?

: I am really struggling with the answer… I guess I’m in the never land between the answer I want to give (“Don’t be ridiculous! Of course I still know who I am and what I want and of course I haven’t given myself up for my girls!”)… And the answer that may be closer to the truth (“I’ve given up my dream of a tenure-track position because there is just no way to make it work without having a nanny raise my kids, and that’s not the kind of mother I want to be.”)

Of course the real truth is probably somewhere between the two…

Jordana: A good friend of mine recently expressed concern that by having kids, she would be forfeiting a degree of her personal ambition. I do think–and hate–that “you” as a person suddenly becomes subsumed by being a “mom,” and do feel to a certain extent that Roiphe is right: the picture of your kid instead of you on your Facebook profile does exemplify that phenomenon. Of course, the inverse is also true: is someone somehow more “themselves” if they got a blowout and are wearing lipstick and are giving a “come make love to me” look in their profile pic?

The truth of being a parent is far more complex: it is simply not possible to “only” be a professional when you are a parent. Working plays into being a parent just as being a parent plays into work, explicitly for some (those who write about parenthood, for example) and implicitly for basically everyone (figuring out how the hell you are going to finish writing the brief when you have to go to a stupid recorder concert, your baby is vomiting, and your babysitter is home sick with the flu).

I really don’t think “overdevotion” is the main problem of modern parenting. I think the main problem is the fundamental lack of self-assurance and an internal compass. Roiphe, like many, spends a hell of a lot more time in this book writing about what she and other parents look like than she does on how her actions will affect how her kids turn out. My sister has coined a great saying with regard to parenting that I’m going to close with here: “Nature or nurture, it’s still your fault.”

Katie Roiphe

Adina: Yes. Agreed. I have no compass. But seriously though, the fact is that the brutal logistics of raising kids, especially doing it without outside help, often precludes the realization of these professional and aesthetic dreams. Maybe there are millions of stay at home moms who want to go back to their law practice or to teaching their sixth grade class, but can’t afford to hire help, and so they stay home and subsequently wear sweatpants every day because they’re going to get food flung on their sweaters anyway, and therefore they are less inclined to post a picture of themselves on Facebook.

Carla: I have definitely struggled with that, and I’m judging myself for it–I don’t need Roiphe’s help there. There are many ways to understand this phenomenon, and I’d like to add one more–the impact of the culture in which we are parenting. I think the end result of many of the blog posts about parenting and the top 10 lists of what to do and not do as parents and the endless parenting books is that we mothers (and I do think it’s different for mothers) end up with the message that there is a right way to parent, and if we’re going to be as successful at parenting as we were at our careers (as many of us in Roiphe’s demographic were), then we have to do everything right. As I’ve written before (this is kind of my standard rant), that’s just not true. Not only is there no such thing as a perfect mother or a “right” way to raise children, but even if it were possible to do everything right, that’s still no guarantee that our kids will grow up to be happy, healthy, smart, productive, etc. Shit happens, human development is complicated, etc.

Nonetheless, the message remains that we are supposed to devote the same energy, attention, intelligence, research, thoughtfulness, good judgment, consistency, etc., to parenting that we did to our former careers in order to be successful. If it was OK in our former life to identify ourselves as our career, why is it not OK to identify ourselves as mothers?

Adina: Speaking of being moms who only wear sweat pants, what did you think about the essay titled “The Perverse Allure of Messy Lives”? In this one, Roiphe uses watching Mad Men as a springboard for talking about how we no longer do things just for the pleasure of them (three martini lunches and extra marital affairs, for example). She writes that we are fixated on the wholesome and the healthy and she asks if we are actually any “happier than Don and Better Draper, or are we just doing yoga or Pilates or getting overly involved in our children’s homework or ‘working’ on our relationships” to basically ignore the problems inside of our compass-less brains?

Am I square or does it sound not fun to bring babies to all night parties and drink scotch to the point of obliteration? If I’m being honest, indulgence, in my life, involves two glasses of wine with dinner or a nap in the middle of the day, or maybe watching three straight episodes of Homeland on demand before bed. Am I a square who doesn’t know how to enjoy life? Or am I just too tired?

Jordana: Yes, Adina, you’re square! Not really. Look, there is a value in kicking back on the couch at the end of the day with Homeland (or perhaps Downton Abbey) and a glass of wine (or perhaps scotch). But I think Roiphe does sense something afoot: there is a phenomenon of erring toward holier-than-thou-ness in today’s parenting rather than fun. The pendulum has swung the other way, and now, unlike the 50s, fun for us parents is something not had, but rather stolen. People are VERY prone to say things to other parents like, “How did you get to go out to see a MOVIE?’ or “How did you get to READ A BOOK?” or “HOW DID YOU GET TO GO OUT TO DINNER?”–implying that if you were a really good parent, you’d know damn well that your ass belongs on that couch googling BPA-free food containers when your kids are sleeping (maybe even staring at the poor sleeping kids themselves to make sure they are breathing?) rather than any alternative.

HELLO, MIDDLE OF THE ROAD! Can we please be friends, middle of the road? Because I don’t want to snort coke or drink myself into a stupor while my kids wander through someone else’s house in their pajamas, nor do I want to never read or go out again just because I have kids. Surely I can get some support on that one.

Carla: On one hand, I do agree with Roiphe–our culture is all about being the healthiest we can be, and raising the healthiest kids we can, and it establishes an unattainable level of perfection. On the other end of the spectrum, I grew up with alcoholism and chaos in my childhood, and it makes me wonder about Roiphe’s glorification of her childhood. Having been there, it’s actually not that great. Obviously, some sort of balance would be preferable, but all things considered, I’d rather raise my children with a focus on health and wellness.

And with regard to going out and having a life–there is one point worth making about that. It’s EXPENSIVE. When you consider the cost of dinner and/or a movie and a babysitter, you can easily quickly drop a couple of hundred bucks or more for a night out. Why does nobody mention that when they keep encouraging couples to have a weekly date night?

Adina: Carla, yes, totally, we need to talk more about the nitty gritty of how to do it. How do we go on more dates when money is tight? How do we find the time for ourselves? No one really explains how it works. I think it’s easy to find a community of moms. Once you have a baby you realize everyone has a baby. But it’s not easy to find a community of moms who are honest and make each other feel supported instead of making each other feel shitty, even if it’s passively.

Carla: I think what frustrates me most about Roiphe’s book is how she fails to account for her struggle. I would take her more seriously, and empathize more if I felt like she was being authentic and honest. Instead, I kept getting the sense that she somehow saw herself as above it all, as if she had figured it all out–single motherhood, being a working mother, not losing herself in all of it, etc. I just don’t believe it. Even if she has figured it out, there must have been a journey in there somewhere, and I want to hear that. Instead, I just felt judged.

Whether you’ve read Roiphe’s book or not, we’d love to hear your thoughts on the topics above. Join our discussion by leaving your thoughts in the comments below, and then check back here tomorrow for an interview with Katie Roiphe.

Skip to Banner / Top Skip to Content