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The Primates of Park Avenue Are Going Ape-Sh*t: A Conversation with Wednesday Martin

Tuesday, June 2, 2015
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Wednesday Martin’s book, Primates of Park Avenue: A Memoir, has gotten all of New York talking. And it only hits the shelves today. Martin, who holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Yale University, considers herself a cultural anthropologist. By rooting through the social research, Martin turns an academic eye on a small “tribe” in a big town: mothers on the Upper East Side. 


As an Upper East Side mom of four children, I was quite interested in learning more about Wednesday’s findings. We sat down in her office to discuss, only interrupted by a call from her nanny reporting that her son was happily ensconced in a eucalyptus steam shower. She was ready to chat.



What were your goals in writing this book?


I really wanted to crack the cultural code of a world that I landed in and didn’t understand. I wanted to understand this world where women looked so beautiful at 8:00 am for drop-off, where there was so much competition for a size 0 and the plum spot at the best music group, where men and women were sex-segregated. My social researcher antennae went up. I thought it would make a great story to figure it out using anthropological and social research. I had moved from the West Village and it was clear, the Upper East Side (UES) was a very different place. I wanted to understand this one particular version of motherhood and childhood. However you judge it or however you think about it, it’s a very unique ecological niche for studying mothers and children.


Personally though, in addition to the cracking of the code, what were your personal goals in doing this?


I really just wanted to try to understand this world where I landed and felt I didn’t understand.


And you thought writing the book would help?


I did. As I went through the process of trying to get my kids into playgroups and music classes and schools, that’s when I got interested in reviewing the sociological and anthropological literature about motherhood worldwide. I wanted to see it in perspective. I really did a lot of research on the anthropology of childhood and how it’s different where, and it confirmed that we do it really differently than anywhere else in the industrialized west, and it’s reduced to a concentrated sauce on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Nowhere have we more turned childhood on its head from its evolutionary script than where privileged parenting prevails and one of those places is the Upper East Side.


What reaction have you gotten from the people in your tribe and the people youve listed in the acknowledgments section, now that youve published this? I would say some of it is a pretty focused skewering, particularly of the moms of the kids in your sons classes. Were you surprised by the reaction? Was it what you expected?


I just have friends who are posting about it and Instagramming about it and being really supportive and that’s really what I’ve heard. I aimed to write a book that looks at a whole culture, not judgmentally. Everywhere you go in the country, there are mommies struggling to find a way to fit in with other mommies. One thing that really occurs to me is that we like to talk about aggression and competition in the workplace, like Sheryl Sandberg does, but there’s also, whether we like it or not, there’s aggression and competition in the workplace of stay-at-home moms. That was one part of the book. But there’s also cooperation and friendship, which is another really important part of the book that people don’t seem to write about as much. The big part of the book for me is the dramatic arc: starting out in a culture I didn’t understand and coming out on the other side with friendships with people I really admire. These are highly educated women who take their charity work and motherhood very seriously. But it doesn’t mean that parts of it aren’t funny. Just like some parts of it are touching.


So you feel your message, because of the way you ended the book, should be taken as a positive?


It tells a story that many mothers experience about winding up in a new community and trying to find a place and I was lucky to do that. And really, it’s a book that does not name names. That’s really not the point. It’s about a cultural analysis, sometimes a fun and funny accessible one.


 At the beginning, you recount being ignored by the other moms at your school, rejected for playdates, etc. What specifically made you think this was because you were a newcomer to the Upper East Side?


Because women are primates above anything else. Wherever there’s a rigidly hierarchical society, that will happen. It’s not even particularly unusual. And I didn’t take it terribly personally. Many women were really welcoming and warm and nice but sharp elbows are notable.


But couldn’t it have been other things? Does it have to be that just because this is repeated in the primate world (which is very interesting), it couldn’t have been for some other factors? Maybe the moms were busy or distracted or maybe it was just a bad fit among the people you met. Does this have to extend how everyone on the Upper East Side behaves if a newcomer comes in?


I think that we’re primates. And I think that we’re subject to a whole range of behaviors about dominance hierarchies. I think there’s both cooperation and conflict. I got to see all of those things. This wasn’t a one-shot deal. Not everyone without exception was the same way. There were welcoming friendly people. But I don’t think I’m the only person who feels that there are places on the UES that you go where things are very exclusive, maybe even a playgroup. But there are Park Avenues and Upper East Sides all over the country. These things are specific to the niche I looked at, but it happens everywhere. People in India are saying they experience a version of this. It’s another universal thing about arriving somewhere new with a child. You want to do your best.


You mention your sample size is about 150 people. Do you feel thats representative of the entire culture and neighborhood? Who were they, in general?


They were women from playgroups, schools, playgrounds. I think that they were representative of that group of women. I think there is variation, always, in a population, but basically, they were highly educated women, most of them in their thirties, who took motherhood seriously, their vocation as mothers seriously, their vocation to be beautiful very seriously. They did a good job at it. To me they seemed like a specific culture.


Do you think there was any adverse selection, that the women willing to talk to you about their experiences arent representative of the larger culture?


I think what I noticed was that so many women, when they found out I was writing my book, came to me and said “do you know about this or that?” When you’re a mommy living on the UES, there’s a lot – if you have irony and insight – that you realize about the world you live in, so they shared this stuff with me. I think that the people who wanted to talk to me had some insight and found their world interesting. They had a sense of the UES being a specific place in Manhattan and UES motherhood as a thing unto itself that was interesting and worth examining and sometimes funny and sometimes over the top and sometimes touching.


Ill give you a few examples of things you pointed out about moms on the Upper East Side: apologizing for a mess that wasnt there. Saying where your kids go to school as a way of identifying yourself among the tribes. Planning way way ahead. Obsessing over kids schedules, camps, living situation, finances. Putting on make-up before drop-off. Feeling anxiety about parenting. Do you think these are unique to the UES? How does this differ from affluent neighborhoods in Houston or L.A. or Denver?


I don’t know because I didn’t go to the other places, but I have had so many women write to me saying “this reminds me so much of Houston” or “so much of outside Tennessee.” I think what all these women have in common is the ideology of intensive motherhood. The sociologist Sharon Hays talks about it a lot and says it’s really specific to privileged people as opposed to how some of us grew up when our parents could just open up the back door and tell us to play. When I was little, doctors told my mother to just let me play alone in my room and the yard because kids needed that.


The ideology of intensive motherhood (because let’s face it: mothers still are mostly primary caregivers especially in the world we’re talking about) dictates that moms should be enriching their children at all times. When the children are playing with Legos, you should be engaged and trying to enhance that experience. If you’re cooking with your children, it should be a pedagogical experience. It’s not enough now if you’re a privileged mother to tell your child to find a quiet place for her homework and tell her just to do it. It’s not enough to sit there with your child while they do their homework. In some communities, you’re supposed to go to the school open house math night to learn the math so you can really understand it so you can be a better learning coach, occupational therapist, and psychologist to your child. This is historically and culturally unique and very specific to niches like the UES where there’s a lot of wealth and women are not full-time working outside the home.


I don’t put anybody down. A lot of people call these mothers, “oh, they’re so neurotic and so over-involved and they just need to leave their kids alone.” Really? But if they do leave their kids alone, then the culture tells them they’re bad mothers. So I think they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. It creates anxiety if you yourself are responsible for making sure that you’re providing your child with the very best childhood on every measure. That is unduly stressful and makes it uniquely pressure-filled in ways that it hasn’t been historically. That was one of the things I noticed and felt myself. Still feel sometimes. And I have a lot of sympathy for people who feel that. I don’t care if people say it’s a first-class problem or a 1% problem. I believe no life is more inherently worthy of study than another. I thought it was important to understand this part of motherhood.


 


I have to ask: did you really have a co-op board interview in your bedroom while you were in bed, pregnant, on bed-rest, wearing a jacket and pearls? Seriously?


Yes! I was on bedrest. My husband talked to the board about it and they said “no problem.” I thought that meant we didn’t have to do the interview, but it meant they would come to me!


 Wife bonuses. You say male primates of Park Avenue subjugate their dependent females by controlling female access to resources”….


Not all of them! Some of these men are wonderful partners.


 . and that several women let you know that a common practice was a year-end bonus for wives, which may be outlined in a pre-nup or may just be given out of largesse or withheld for any reason. Ive talked to lots of people and everyone is most surprised by this finding. No one has heard of it. How many people confessed to this? Are you sure this is really what was happening? And also, as a corollary, just because a husband is successful, why does that mean he cant have a marriage based on love and partnership?


It doesn’t mean he can’t. It just means that worldwide, where women are economically dependent and control the offspring and men control the resources and the society is rigidly stratified, the status of women will be lower. What’s interesting about this question is that all the women writing about it and talking about it online are saying “mine is not like this,” “oh, we do it differently,” “I want one,” “I don’t want one,” “this is the worst thing I’ve ever heard of,” “this is the best thing I’ve ever heard of,” “why shouldn’t I get one?” The conversation it sparked has plenty of women saying, “yeah, I get one” but I get it like this or like that. What surprised and interested me is women using it to negotiate economic dependency, saying this is one of the ways that I equal out my marriage. It was just one little detail of so many interesting things that women told me about their lives, but then the conversation spun off to “if you stay at home, should you be compensated for taking care of the kids?” Women are saying it’s a hard job and they should be compensated for it.


 Are these women just from the city or from all over the country?


I’m seeing online women from all over the country and from the city. People send me the comments. I don’t really go to the sites.


But the people you spoke to originally, it just came up in conversation that women told you they were getting these bonuses?


Yeah, I asked these women to tell me about their lives and their culture and they told me. They talked and I listened and this is one of the things they told me about.


Multiple people? And its a bonus based on their performance thats in their pre-nup?


All kinds. All the ways that I described. Sometimes women say it’s a thank you. Some say I just get part of my husband’s bonus, period. I could give examples but I don’t want to be too specific. No matter what people say, I do want to protect people.


You said about downtown that it reminded you there was a world outside the one I was trying to break into, a world I understood. It was a place where women worked…” You must know that many women work on the UES.


Yes, I know that, but those aren’t the women I studied.


Obviously I can find you lots of women on the UES who work.


 Yes, but you just can’t do fieldwork with them because you can’t follow them to the office! To make the obvious point, I was studying this particular group of women but of course there’s a huge variety of women on the UES! It’s one of the things that make it so interesting. There are plenty of women who work, it’s just that they weren’t the ones hanging out with me after school, after playgroup, on the playground or at luncheons, because those women were in the world of work all day long. So that’s how that ended up happening.


It came across more like women didnt work on the Upper East Side.


That’s obviously not true! I just studied and hung out with the women I had access to. It would be great to do a study with working women all across the city with children and follow them to work and see how they’re negotiating childhood and motherhood and work.


Book number two!


Ha!


You seemed at certain times like you were being a bit judgmental of women who stayed home. What was fundamentally wrong with being an Upper East Side stay-at-home mom? The Upper East Side obviously isnt the only place where men and women divide the labor with one in the workplace and one at home. What was the issue with it?


Nothing’s wrong with it and I don’t judge women who stay home. I just look at the worldwide ethnographic data to look at the power structures in relationships if one person is bringing home resources and the other one isn’t, but I understand why women stay home and I did it for a time when my children were born and I had a great time with my kids. It was important. What’s really sad is that we’re so hypocritical about motherhood. We say it’s the most important thing, but then we degrade it culturally. When you’re sitting at a dinner party and you say you’re a stay-at-home mom, the conversation just ends; they’re not interested in talking to you anymore.


I think that the women who I know are caught in that cultural contradiction and I think it’s destructive and I don’t judge them at all for deciding to stay home. What I question, first of all, is if so many women who stay at home are really choosing to stay home and if that’s an actual choice or a false choice. I’ll give you an example: one woman told me, “I had my absolute dream job in marketing, not just in marketing but a niche within it,” and she was thrilled. Then she had a three-month-old baby. She asked her firm if she could wait to go back to work until the baby was six months. They said no, you have to start now. Then she asked if she could have a flexible schedule. The answer was no, you have to come full time. “So,” she said, “I chose to stay home with my baby.” Was that a choice? That’s what I like to ask.


It doesn’t mean that I’m judging women who stay home but I want to push at that issue of whether it’s a choice and what happens to power in relationships if you do go in that direction. And by the way, what do we expect wealthy women who can technically afford to stay home to do? Do we expect them to say, “Yeah, I’m going to put my child in substandard daycare where there’s a terrible ratio of caregivers to children, too many kids, the caregivers are turning over a lot (because that is the state of the U.S. childcare system) and I’m going to pursue some work on some abstraction.” Of course they’re not going to do that! Why should we expect women without any support to have some single-handed fix for a national childcare crisis. I feel very passionately about childcare, Head Start, Every Mother Counts (www.everymothercounts.org). Those things are very important to me. And by the way, that’s something I learned on the UES. Be charitable. Do something about it. You have the resources to do it, so do it. I really think it’s important and I really admire that. I just wish, like motherhood, it wasn’t culturally degraded relative to paid work.


Non-profits. You discuss charity lunches and galas. At times, it seemed like you thought it was much more of a social thing without seeing the good that these non-profits are doing. Many of them couldnt even run without the help the moms were giving.


They do a lot of good, but as a social researcher, I wanted to study the social apparatus that springs up all around it: the socializing, the events, the luncheons. They go together in our city and that’s one of the best things. People don’t just write a check, they want to be affiliative and sit together and be tribal and have their charity and that’s a fascinating thing to study. That’s one thing I learned is to get involved with causes that I care about, like the Head Start at the Children’s Museum of the East End (CMEE) (www.cmee.org) and New Knowledge (www.newknowledge.org), which is a family think tank where I’m on the board. I learned that from the women around me. I’m very interested in these women who were managing to be involved in non-profits with kids, managing households, working on the couples’ place in the world, supervising their renovations. I really admired how their charity work took priority.


Do you feel that you represented what you just said to me now in the book? Do you think that came across, that you have a deep respect for women who do charity work?


I think I wrote with admiration how women were really charitable to me when something terrible happened. The book changes a lot and becomes about how people are not just made up through conflict and aggression. Cooperation and being affiliative are really important. That was an important part in my personal story. I’m quite sure that I write that important work gets done and real money gets raised. It’s just that as a social researcher, I’m not going to shy away from looking at the strangeness of the cookie jar going for $40,000 at the school auction. It all goes together. Some aspects of it are pure altruism, some are conspicuous consumption. I’m not judging. I just want to peel these layers back.


Lets talk about the flirting. Not only do you say you openly flirted with the married father of your sons classmate, but you also say that you tell your husband somebody better flirt with me before you go out. You say, What, I wondered, was the point of life and having a body you worked on like crazy if you didnt have fun flirting the women I studied were somehow above things like flirting. How is it a negative? Maybe the women you studied didnt feel it was appropriate to flirt with their friends husbands.


I think what I just noticed is that I wasn’t in France or the West Village anymore and that it was a sex-segregated world. My inner social researcher really noticed these things. Personally I noticed it. It’s just different from ecological niche to ecological niche, downtown, Paris and Rome. As modern metropoles go, Manhattan and the UES are very fascinating. I have friends who all the time say “I really miss the way men look at me in Paris” after they’ve been there for several weeks. Some people like it. Mostly it was just a question of noticing it.


Okay. The charging of women. You claim that women routinely walk aggressively down the street directly into the paths of other women and then hit them with their bags or otherwise intimidate them as some sort of ritual behavior on the UES. I have not seen this. I am not a social researcher nor have I staked out a street corner to observe, but this dynamic seems totally foreign to me, something that I havent ever experienced or seen. Could it be that the women were just really preoccupied and it wasnt intentional?


Sometimes they could be preoccupied, sure. But I also think sometimes that women intentionally do try to stake out their own space. It might be unconscious, but it definitely happens. So many women now say “this happens to me when I’m shopping!” or “this happens to me when I’m walking down the street.” I don’t think it’s just the UES. I think humans are territorial and attuned to power in subtle, fascinating ways that I don’t think are necessarily bad. I’ve definitely been on the receiving end of it enough to want to watch it and I’ve definitely heard from lots of women that they have been too.


For anyone who has gone through IVF, the idea that someone skips cycles in a month to avoid having kids in bad birthday months seems well most people in that situation are dying to have kids at any cost. Do you feel badly about including that as a joking anecdote?


I think the point is that motherhood is a vocation in certain places and mothers advocate for their children however they can, and in some places it might mean making sure that your child has every advantage, including not being the youngest kid in the class, not falling behind. People have been redshirting kids forever. I think that planning a pregnancy is just part of the ideology of intensive motherhood. I think that for anyone who has gone through IVF, I wish them luck and have nothing but compassion for them having had my own harrowing experiences with fertility. I just remember thinking, “Oh god, I didn’t even get pregnant at the right time!” But pregnancy is a gift and only in certain ecological niches is there pressure on women. I read it as a pressure. And I don’t judge mothers trying to give their kids every advantage, I really don’t. In fundamental ways we’re wired for it.


You claim that you went native after acclimating to the ways of the UES in order to fit in, presumably for the sake of your children. You spend a whole chapter discussing your pursuit of an Hermes Birkin bag, including a day when you woke up exhausted from ruminations about breaking some unspoken but important rules about the etiquette of Birkin acquisition. You got a blowout while you were in labor. You went out and bought a $600 pair of shoes for a moms night in evening. That wasnt any other UES mom. Thats just what you did. Why do you think you needed to go to these extremes when most women here dont necessarily do these things?


I don’t think we can say that most women don’t go to those extremes. I think it’s an extreme body display culture. I think there’s an extreme pressure to be beautiful. I don’t think I would have done it if I were the only one. We’re living in a culture where female beauty is highly valued, for good and for bad and for neutral. I absolutely assimilated and adjusted to that. It’s something that happens that’s called habituation. It happens to animals and to people. You change up your game and your practices to fit in better with the world around you and you adjust your own expectations over time. I don’t think there’s anything bad about the fact that I started to enjoy taking better care of myself, wanting to look good. The UES is a beautiful place to look at women. There’s nothing wrong with that. But yes, I did assimilate. I’m not saying every single woman on the UES gets a blowout when she’s in labor, but it’s more likely to happen there than in some other places in the world and that’s what really got my attention. High pressure, high stakes, high glamour motherhood.


Exercise and belonging to a group: Im referring to Physique 57. What was so wrong with liking an exercise class? Why did you want to make eye contact with other women while they worked out and felt snubbed when they didnt? It seems like you felt that was something bad done to you that somehow reflected poorly on the women working out. Couldnt they have just been working out?


They could’ve just been working out! I didn’t feel it reflected poorly on them. I felt that I really noted the disconnection in the room compared to other exercise practices that I had seen and I noticed the level of seriousness about it. These classes are really hard. For example, Physique 57 is very notably different from Soul Cycle (which I’ve never been to), where my friends say they’re whooping and sweating and yelling. They’re just different practices. I saw it through the view of tribalism. It wasn’t that I felt personally snubbed; it’s that I felt the aggression and competition in the parking lot and the intense focus in the jam-packed room. There was very little sense of connection. Everyone was in their own world. It was very serious business as opposed to some exercise practices that are based on an ethos of fun and connecting. This was a very different one which is why I wanted to study it and understand it.


The last chapter of the book was just so heart-wrenchingly, beautifully written and just so moving. It was so touching and I’m so sorry for your loss and your friend’s loss. It was awful. After that, you say at the end of the book that the things you had cared about and focused on now seemed ridiculous. Why had I ever cared so much? you say. You realize through the loss of your daughter, Daphne, that the UES women werent who you thought they were. Surprisingly, unexpectedly, the mothers, many of whom I had dismissed as unfriendly, self-involved, and shallow, showed me what they were made of, showed me what motherhood is. You were ashamed and confused and relieved in equal parts that youd dismissed these women too quickly.


How do you reconcile how you felt at the end of the book with all the things you said at the beginning of the book? What real learning was taken away and how do you feel? Maybe you didnt mean it, but it seems like the beginning is more judgmental of this particular clan and that at the end, you come around. But it wasnt really until the last chapter.


To me, there’s an arc to the story. What I saw first was all the differences: how these women were so different from everybody else, what separated them, what cultural practices they used to establish and reinforce their tribalism. What I came to later, after Daphne died, was a firsthand understanding of what I had learned about and studied, which is that we’re still cooperative breeders. We always raised our children in a dense network of kin and fictive kin and we’ve just been split off from that. It’s really unique in our evolutionary history to have to mother the way we do now. It’s amazing to me that having dispersed from our kin, living neo-locally, many of us being economically dependent on our husbands. It’s amazing to me that women are able to forge the connections that they do.


In the end, I stood in awe of that, how those women came out to do that for me. That part of the story came to the fore rather than the differences, rather than how they set themselves apart. When they told me their own stories, when they came to me, that’s when I realized, we have always been cooperative breeders. We have never done this by ourselves. Needing to do it by ourselves and being anxious that our children might die, might explain a lot of these behaviors that seem so bizarre to me. A lot of these behaviors might be ways you displace your anxiety. Not just that I won’t be a good mother, but the ultimate anxiety that my child might die. That was really what I saw in the end and that was the arc of the story for me.


In your recent New York Post article, you were basically lashing into the Upper West Side women, saying they were overweight with grey hair compared to the svelte Upper East Siders.


Let me just say something: the spirit of the comment was that the stereotypes of the UES and the UWS are this and they need each other to make sense and I like going back and forth. I’m not saying I was misquoted but the sentiment was that these are the stereotypes of the east side and the west side. Some of them are true and some of them are not


I have to be honest. After I read the book, especially after talking to you about it, your intentions seem so positive and yet some of the things you put in are, to an objective eye, I think a little, not quite incendiary, but they evoke strong reactions in people, east siders, west siders, in a way that almost suggests to me some sort of self-destructive instinct. People are going to be mad at you for saying these things, so why do you do it? Maybe you dont feel like youre doing it. Maybe you dont realize that people will respond this way. Youre obviously super bright and this was a well-written book, but people get very offended by what youre saying. All the west siders were saying, yeah, yeah, those east siders and then the Post article came out and they were like, hey! Now youre after us? Whats going on?


There’s responding to the book and then there’s responding to the way some things have been pulled out of the book. But as far as what I actually wrote in the book itself as opposed to what gets selected, I really strove not to make fun, but not to deny that some things about Upper East Side motherhood are funny. I don’t mean to sound like a total nerd, but I really did want to write a work about my personal experience in a specific place and to do a work of cultural analysis. I wanted to make a contribution to the literature on motherhood because I don’t think any mothers are more or less worth studying or any childhoods are more or less important. We need to learn about all of them. So I certainly didn’t set out to incite and I tried to be fair. I’ve had several friends say to me, “I don’t see how anyone reading this book could see that it was unfair or be unduly offended,” and I’ve mostly had that response.


I guess you have a particular point of view when you’re reviewing the anthropological, sociological and psychological literature. When you’re reviewing the social science on how people make their place in the world, it’s easy to say something that you think is quite neutral and then for there to be a discrepancy in how people living in this world feel about it.


 So no one has said to you that they’re upset by what has come out?


Look, it’s a fascinating topic. People are fascinated by rich people, especially rich women. They want to read a bunch of cliches and stereotypes and I do not think that that is what I gave them. That might be what they long for. I hope to have painted a more complex and nuanced portrait of a group of women who I found smart and interesting.


After our hour-long conversation, we chit-chatted nicely about our kids as I got up to leave. I told her I fully ascribed to the age-old “it takes a village” philosophy. She said we should all be very grateful for our “allomothers” (caregivers, family members, etc). Part of me found it hard to believe that she was unaware that her book had caused such a reaction and that she felt it was basically benign. She had taken such an academic, calm, almost pedantic tone with me that I started to doubt whether I had even read the correct book. But perhaps she truly does believe that her tome was a purely intellectual yet funny take on a unique community. Perhaps that disconnection from reality is also what happened when she arrived on the Upper East Side and started noticing things in her own way. 


As I walked out onto the street (on the Upper West Side, mind you – she had asked me to bring my passport when emailing me her office address), I felt frustrated and a bit incredulous by her take on the book. Yet as I headed down the block, I noticed another woman walking towards me and I have to say, I paused a bit to see if she was “charging” me. (She wasn’t.) You never know what you’ll find when you put an anthropologist’s hat on. Even one from the Central Park luncheon. 


A version of this interview will appear in the July issue of AVENUE on the Beach


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