New York City's First Lady A Bad Mom ... Or Just An Honest One?

May 27, 2014
Originally published on May 27, 2014 12:32 pm

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice.

Today we want to focus on the latest high profile bout in the mommy wars. New York City's first lady, Chirlane McCray, stepped into the fray with comments about her struggles when she first became a mother. Now the comments came as a part of a lengthy profile in New York Magazine which was about a lot of topics, including how she and the mayor met, how they function as a political couple.

But for some reason, the comments that grabbed headlines from the New York tabloids were these. McCray said, quote, "I was 40-years-old. I had a life. Especially with Chiara - will we feel guilt forever more? Of course, yes. But the truth is I could not spend every day with her. I didn't want to do that. I looked for all kinds of reasons not to do that," unquote. The New York Post put McCray's photo on its front page with the headline "I Was A Bad Mom." For that, the mayor, Bill de Blasio, demanded an apology as well as one from The Daily News which featured the headline "Didn't Want To Be A Mom." But other commentators have given that treatment a New York salute, saying she was just expressing what most people feel at some point.

We wanted to talk about this whole thing, so we've called Brigid Schulte. She's a staff writer at The Washington Post and author of "Overwhelmed: Work Love And Play When No One Has The Time." She's a mom of two, and she wrote a blog post about this. Raakhee Mirchandani is a features editor for the New York Daily News and a mom of one who also wrote about the controversy - and Jamila Bey, a journalist, radio host and mom of one. Welcome to everybody. Thank you all so much for joining us.

BRIGID SCHULTE: Thank you, Michel.

JAMILA BEY: Thanks for having us.

RAAKHEE MIRCHANDANI: Thanks.

MARTIN: So Brigid, you responded to this controversy in a recent column, a blog post, for The Post called "Oh, The Bad Mother Police Have Been Out In Force Again." Who are the bad mother police? And why are they out in force again?

SCHULTE: The bad mother police are all of us. There is still so much ambivalence in our society about working mothers and the role of mothers and women in society. There is a lot of evidence - social science evidence - that shows what we expect of mothers is higher than it's ever been before. And we expect mothers to be completely self-sacrificing and we'll give up everything and anything to spend all of our time with our precious children. And the time studies show we actually do.

MARTIN: So do you think that - what did you think of McCray's comments overall?

SCHULTE: I thought that she was absolutely on-point that there is an awful lot of difficulty. It's a very tough transition to go from being a single person with your own identity to all-of-a-sudden being a mother and everything that that entails in our society. And the choices then that lay - that are lain out - laid out for you in a way that - men do not face those same choices. Your horizons become an awful lot narrower.

And when you go on into the article in the New York Magazine, she talks about what she ended up doing. She cut back her hours. She ended up driving to and from carpools. She ended up taking care of not just her kids, but both she and her husband's aging parents - aging mothers. It certainly sounds like she's not just a good mother, but a pretty fantastic mother.

MARTIN: Raakhee Mirchandani, your paper, The New York Daily News, ran a smaller headline on its front page about McCray's comments that read "Didn't Want To Be A Mom," as I said. Now Mayor de Blasio asked your paper and The New York Post to apologize for those headlines. You wrote a column saying that that was uncalled for. And I thought it was particularly interesting, and I'm glad you could be with us, because you had just come back from maternity leave yourself. So how do you respond to this?

MIRCHANDANI: Actually that - I wrote the column the day that I returned from maternity leave. So I spent the whole day - the whole week, really, leading up to that - being worried about going back to work, what that was going to be like. I walked into the office. I did - probably what most moms do - I cried on my way to work. People asked me how my daughter was. I cried then. I felt - the whole day I was crying. And after two days of being at work, I mean, I can't imagine not being back. So there's that piece of it.

The apology part for us, for me, was really difficult because there was nothing to apologize for. We weren't judging her. Especially - she was judging herself. And I think that when you want to go ahead and do these New York Magazine interviews or other interviews, and then you want to - you also want to be able to control the way the press responds, you can't do that. You don't get to give the interview and then control the response too.

MARTIN: You're saying, like, put your big girl pants on and just take it.

MIRCHANDANI: And if you want us to apologize, ask me yourself. Don't send your husband out there.

MARTIN: OK. But of all the things that the paper wrote about in that magazine article, why is it those were the pieces of the - that became the headline? I mean, "Didn't Want To Be A Mom," is that - I mean, the article itself is - what? - 10,000 words? It's about her political formation, how she sees politics. Tell me - I mean, I know that that's not your own piece, but why was that the headline? Why - that was the only thing worthy of conversation?

MIRCHANDANI: I mean, there's - she did say, I mean, you did quoted it earlier when she says will we feel guilt about it forever more - something along those lines. I think that it's perfectly fair for the press, for us, for anyone to question that - to want to know more about that part of the story.

MARTIN: Jamila, what do you think?

BEY: OK, see, the old Jamila would be incensed and would scream shame, shame at this point. But the Jamila that, you know, really wants to consider the larger issue here is this. This is a woman who for two score had her own life, and all of a sudden in her arms, she held the future. She's looking at a culture that does not support mothers, particularly black ones. She's looking at a culture where she knows her earning potential, her likely career trajectory is diminished - not always. But in her case, likely so, because of this human being who requires all of this support and all of this help. And she is the person who will be blamed for the failures and OKed for successes.

Motherhood is hard. We have very little support from the government and, of all women, this one knows that. We are best, and I want to make sure that I am very clear when I say this. There is another issue to this. This is a black woman having black babies in America, and the urge for black motherhood is not as great in this culture. We do not get rewarded the way that most moms get rewarded.

MARTIN: Celebrated.

BEY: Yeah, that's the word.

MARTIN: So do you think - so tell me what you're responding to here. You feel that Chirlane McCray was, first, being honest and then what - the criticism is what?

BEY: She's being honest, and the criticism does not take into account the very real fact that some women are helped more in motherhood and other women are just told bear it, handle it. That was your decision, and how dare you not feel that a baby is a panacea to fixing your life.

MARTIN: Raakhee, can - hit a little bit more on the politics of this with me. One of the things that you talked about in your column is the fact that when they needed the city to fall in love with their family, New York's first family they trotted out their kids, one follicle at a time. Looking at the - for those who aren't familiar with the fact that both kids have pretty amazing hair...

BEY: Oh, yes.

MARTIN: ...And, you know, that has become kind of a thing. Is part of your argument here that if you're going to use your family for political purposes, you have to take it when it doesn't - it isn't as easy? Is that part of the issue here?

MIRCHANDANI: I mean, I think that, you know - so they put - they had Dante in ads. Chiara was out there. It was the afros, the flower crowns. And when it suited them, and when they needed the city to be like, oh, my God, this is the family I want to get behind. You guys, I get it. They use the kids. She gives this New York Magazine interview. She talks about her kids. You don't get to pick and choose now the coverage that comes after. And if you're going to tell me that these are going to be the hallmarks of your administration - this kind of transparency, this openness. And then our coverage doesn't read like a Hallmark card the next day, you demand an apology.

MARTIN: Why - I guess I still want to ask the question - why is that your coverage? I mean, part of the question is - part of their argument of this piece is that the personal is political and that the struggles that people have as parents are shared, and that other people - they use that to inform their politics, that people need more support for their families. I guess my question is why is that the coverage - that - her feelings about being a mom? I'm just curious about that.

MIRCHANDANI: I mean, I found that to be a really interesting piece of the story. There was lots of stuff in the story that I already knew, that a lot of us already knew. This was really interesting. It's the reason why we're talking about it today. I didn't really expect to hear that from her. And it sparked a conversation and that - I feel like is perfectly fair.

MARTIN: Go ahead, Brigid.

SCHULTE: Well, I think that absolutely having a conversation is really what we need to be doing, but I don't think about this, particularly. Yes, they're a political family. She put herself out there. But out of a, you know, several thousand word article that one paragraph that is a fairly common feeling for pretty much any mother out there to be - to then be labeled as a bad mom, and to say that she didn't want to be a mom. I think that's taking it a step too far, frankly.

You know, yes, have that - you know, maybe this is good that we're having this conversation. But it certainly felt like when you use breathless language like this is an astonishing confession. Was she a quote-unquote neglectful mother? You know, and this is a confession that would horrify most moms. Well, in fact, it really didn't.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're having our weekly conversation about parenting. We're talking about the debate over New York City first lady, Chirlane McCray's, comments about motherhood that came in a lengthy New York Magazine article. Our guests are journalist Brigid Schulte, Jamila Bey and Raakhee Mirchandani. Raakhee, do you want to talk a little bit more about that? Can I throw a theory out here?

MIRCHANDANI: Sure.

MARTIN: What - is the theory that - I mean, this is a candidate that the New York tabloids did not support? I mean, is part of it that if this had been a candidate that the New York tabloids did support, do you think that there might have been a different reaction?

MIRCHANDANI: No, I think that's overly simplistic.

MARTIN: I mean, I'm thinking about the coverage of somebody like Betty Ford, for example. When Betty Ford talked about her - the former First Lady - talked about her struggles with alcoholism. You know, I wonder - very open about it - and then went on to have a very distinguished career as a treatment advocate for addictions - you know? - that was celebrated and applauded.

MIRCHANDANI: But why is it so shocking that this was the piece of the story? I mean, had it been any other part, everybody would've been happy with the coverage, and we wouldn't even be talking about it today. It was interesting. It was a shocking admission. We want to talk about it.

MARTIN: Brigid?

SCHULTE: I don't see what's so shocking about it. And, frankly, why wasn't there a question of, you know, where was dad?

MARTIN: Jamila, what about it?

BEY: Good point. I love that question. I also want to point back to something that your other guest said a moment ago about, you know, trotting the kids out with their afros and everything. So if the, you know, again I want to call attention to this racialized language here. If the kids had straight, curly, blonde locks, would that have been different?

You know, these children have beautiful hair, and they were not used as props. Everybody trots out their family when it comes time to run for an election. Nobody complained about Rick Santorum's brood when they came out and had picture on picture. If you're watching Pennsylvania coverage, you know, especially that last one he lost years ago. But it is the way that politics is done. And to try and call out this particular family and saying that the lamentation of a mother who's said what every other mother has said. You know what? Sometimes I didn't want to do that. You know, sometimes I wish I was my own identified individual, not somebody's mama. You know, to call that out and try and diminish her for that - to try and say that she's a bad mother or, you know, neglectful, that's just - that is yellow journalism. That is unnecessary, and, frankly, it's really hurtful especially to those of us who look like this woman and feel as she has before.

MIRCHANDANI: Just to be clear...

MARTIN: I thought you said you were going to be like the old - this was the new Jamila. You were going to be all calm about it. I'm sorry.

BEY: Oh, that's right. Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: Go ahead, Raakhee.

MIRCHANDANI: Just to be clear, no one is saying that anyone has to be just somebody's mother. And I was very clear about that in my piece. I don't want to just be my daughter's mother either. I am my own person. I am my own woman. I'm a managing editor at a major metro daily. That's a whole - that's obvious.

My issue was the apology. You cannot control the media's response. When you put yourself out there, you are not allowed to control the response too. You cannot control the story. And then you cannot demand an apology through your husband from the New York tabloids.

MARTIN: Did you really find it shocking, Raakhee? As a columnist, I feel like I can ask you this. Did you really find it shocking that she had a difficulty, at times, and did not find the unalloyed joy in being home with her kids all day long? You didn't find that - you found that shocking, yourself, really, honestly?

MIRCHANDANI: I found pieces of her statement shocking. I looked for all kinds of reasons not to do it, trying to avoid her daughter. I found that shocking, absolutely.

MARTIN: Brigid?

SCHULTE: You know, one of the things that really struck me the most in all of this coverage is when you look at who controls the media. You know, who's running the show? Who's making the calls for what is a story, for what the headlines are? You know, the Women's Media Center recently put out a report, and it's pretty much the same. It's not women. Women are not usually making these calls.

And I think that this really shows, you know - I'm a mom. I've got two kids. I have certainly struggled with feelings of ambivalence and guilt and fear for their future. And I love them more than life itself. You know? So that motherhood is nuanced, and it's complicated. And I think that if you had more - I think all those studies will show - if you have a critical mass of diversity, of people making decisions, you're going to get different decisions. You're going to get different coverage.

MARTIN: What about, though - but all of us have been working in major media for a long time, so let's just take Raakhee's point seriously which is that you don't get to then demand an apology. You can't have it both ways. You can't put your transparency out there and your honesty out there and then be mad when somebody takes it in a direction you don't like. What about it?

SCHULTE: Well, you know, I suppose there is a point to that. You know, we're all - you know, we're all in this sort of mix of journalism. And everything's faster now. And you say stuff, and people get to think what they think about it and certainly tweet about it. That is, you know - there is a certain point to that. I guess my question goes even further back to who's making the decision about what is a story.

MARTIN: I am interested in how - Raakhee, I'm going to put you on the spot here. But, as you said, you put your politics out there, then you don't get to, you know, complain about how people take it. I will be interested if how - if you've been in it a little longer - you just came back from maternity leave. I will be interested if, you know, how your babysitter feels if you find her gossiping about you and saying, oh, you know, she just doesn't want to be home with her kid or something of that sort. I will just be curious if you're, you know, when you're in it a little longer whether your perspective might be different?

MIRCHANDANI: But I - right - I mean, of course, I've been a mom for six months. In the greater scheme of things it's, like, five minutes. I get that. But I don't, you know, it doesn't really matter to me whether the babysitter's gossiping, probably. But I don't want to be her full-time mom. I'm really clear about that. I'm sure most of my friends agree they don't want to be someone's full-time mom.

MARTIN: So what is it that she said that you still find so shocking and worthy of the whole attention of this article?

MIRCHANDANI: I think the - I could not spend every day with her - fine. I looked for all kinds of reasons not to do it. And then the other piece that says will we feel guilt forever more - about what? And then the follow-up of, but I have lots of pictures of her - one-month birthday, two-month birthdays. It's like she almost caught herself, mid. And was, like, but I have lots of pictures, so that, you know, I'm feeling guilty. But I have all these other - I have pictures of one, then 2-month-old birthdays to - you know, I do love her.

MARTIN: OK. We're going to check back with - Brigid, how many years in have you got? How old is your oldest?

SCHULTE: Well, my son is 15...

MARTIN: Fifteen?

SCHULTE: ...And my daughter is 13. And let me tell you, you know, do I - am I soaked with guilt and remorse? I mean, wait till they get the report cards when you're, like, oh, no, was I not paying enough attention? Did I - you know? - if I had only done something different.

MARTIN: Oh, and you forgot to get the eye exam, right?

SCHULTE: You know, there's just - there are so many ways to fail your children - you know? - with these standards that we have. It's really tough. It is tough to be all things to all people at all times which is what we do expect mothers to be.

MARTIN: Jamila, I'm going to give you the final thought.

BEY: We have to love our kids, and we have to do the best. We are - it's a thankless job, and there's not enough support. And there's certainly not enough government support for us raising up the smallest and youngest citizens of this country. I think we need to stop attacking mothers and admit you've got the hardest job there is. Do your best and thank you.

MARTIN: Jamila Bey is a journalist and mom of one. She was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios along with Brigid Schulte, a staff writer with The Washington Post and author of "Overwhelmed: Work Love And Play When No One Has The Time," also a mom of two. Raakhee Mirchandani is a features editor for the New York Daily News, and a mom of one - Happy Mother's Day, mom - first one. She joined us from our bureau in New York at NPR New York. Thank you all so much for joining us.

MIRCHANDANI: Thanks so much.

BEY: Thank you.

SCHULTE: Bye.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.