September 13, 2010


Two pieces in yesterday’s New York Times caught my attention  One, by The Times’ ombudsman Arthur S. Brisbane, addressed the paucity of obituaries celebrating women’s lives. The other, by “Motherlode” blogger Lisa Belkin, analyzed the decision of a group of academic psychologists to declare parenthood the pinnacle of human experience. Both Brisbane and Belkin were well-intentioned, but both missed the implications or their arguments on the connection between parenthood and women’s lives.

Brisbane was addressing reader Mike Sponder’s complaint that The New York Times seems to publish women’s and men’s obituaries at a 1:8 ratio. “Women rarely die, it seems,” Sponder quipped. Brisbane turned over Sponder’s observation to Times obituary editor Bill McDonald. McDonald wrote that the Times has to “narrow the field to those who made the largest imprint and possibly found fame or notoriety in the process.” Given where women were seventy or eighty years ago, when most of these dead people were born, there’s not much chance that they’d make the cut. Brisbane urged McDonald to look harder, contacting organizations such as NOW to cast a wider net.

Belkin wrote this week’s Times Magazine’s “The Way We Live Now” column about a new configuration of  the hierarchy of needs Abraham Maslow posited in his 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Maslow theorized that people have to meet low-level needs first (food, shelter, safety) before they can contemplate reaching their full potential, or “self-actualizing.” The tippy top of human experience these days? Parenting. That word used to be thought of as a noun, Belkin noted, but these days it’s a verb whose infinitive form is “to parent.” Belkin was appalled by the new hierarchy.  “Most of all,” she wrote, “it raises the question of whether to sanctify parenting has gone a bit too far.”  The psychologists who put parenting at the top of human experience, just above finding and retaining a mate, she wrote, have lost their sense of perspective. Parents, she proclaimed, are supposed to be making themselves unnecessary, since the goal of parenting is to raise self-sufficient adults.

Maslow wrote his essay when many of those appearing in current Times obits were born. In other words, his organizing principle of human behavior informed the worldview of those now in their seventies and eighties — as well as obit editor Bill McDonald. By telling McDonald to look harder for notable women, Times ombudsman Arthur Brisbane didn’t challenge the fundamental assumption that greatness and notability appear primarily in the public sphere.

For her part, Lisa Belkin missed a critical bit of demographic data. Academic fields, especially psychology, have largely been feminized in the last seventy years. When Maslow was busy focusing on self-actualization in 1943, he was writing as a man for a mostly-male audience of academics and practitioners. The group that reconfigured Maslow’s hierarchy doesn’t resemble Maslow and his peers. Belkin didn’t mention in her condemnation the possibility that women, who continue to perform the bulk of parenting responsibilities, likely made up a large part of the academic psychologists who declared mating and procreating the pinnacle of human experience. She didn’t consider that for the first time women have had a chance to value their own roles, to publicly declare that what they do (we do) privately matters as much as or more than anything else transpiring on the planet.

While I, too, am grossed out by the self-indulgence of my generation (and myself) at times, I want to make sure to celebrate this new hierarchy of experience. This ranking values something that has historically been private and unworthy of note. If we follow the reasoning of McDonald, Brisbane, and Belkin, humans who spent and continue to spend much of their lives raising the next generation to be healthy, independent adults aren’t worthy of obituaries in the Times.  If we follow Maslow.2, perhaps we have to rethink what it means to make an impact publicly, since, for the first time, an academic discipline has privileged what has traditionally been women’s private sphere.

Maybe it’s time for editors and reporters to acknowledge more fully that creating families and caring for others (parenting, nursing, teaching…) at times may well be the way we humans make “the largest imprint,” whether we find “fame or notoriety in the process.”