walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_Practically Perfect In Every Way_, Jennifer Niesslein

Shortly after Teddy was born, A., C.'s would-be-daughter-in-law-if-marriage-were-involved, came over and gave me a copy of the magazine Brain, Child. She also loaned me _Liberated Parents, Liberated Children_ and recommended Dr. Sears, who I already knew about. A. is amazing.

One of the founders of Brain, Child, Niesslein, recently wrote a book about a couple of years she spend exploring the world of self-help. This was done in the nature of a series of experiments, starting with _Clearing Your Clutter with Feng Shui_, proceeding through _Relationship Rescue_, _Authentic Happiness_, the FlyLady, BeliefNet and assorted other sources of self-help on a wide variety of topics. I was somewhat disturbed by the number of these sources I was personally familiar with. Not hugely disturbed; I wrote a self-help thing myself that lives on my website and I periodically get e-mail from random strangers about its contents (this is distinct from the reproduction thing on my website).

Niesslein is a little younger than I, has a degree in English, and had her child much younger than I had mine. She's also a smoker. Further, having been raised by people who seem loving, attached and relatively sane, her leftover issues from her upbringing are considerably different from mine. This collection of differences resulted in a major difference in our experience of self-help. Yes, self-help stuff is critical and damaging to one's self-esteem, even when it helps one develop a set of habits that help one Take Care of Business (whether that's paying the mortgage off sooner, writing a will, developing a filing system, regularly clearing surfaces of stuff or whatever). However, by comparison to my upbringing (rigid and abusive JW's), the criticism in self-help enables me to feel somewhat normal without increasing my overall level of unhappiness and rage.

Not so much for Niesslein. Lucky her.

I think most of our differences of approach can be chalked up to those differences in family background (lots easier to be dismissive of Bowlby when you grew up cosleeping and you have good relationships with your mother and sisters). For example, my mother's housekeeping standards included raking the carpet after vacuuming to remove the marks left by the vacuum, cleaning the slats of the horizontal blinds weekly, also cleaning the baseboard heaters (inside and out) weekly. You might wonder how she found the time to do this; she didn't. My eldest sister did it until she was old enough to babysit, then I did it. My other two sisters opted out entirely, finding other sources of spare change (I don't know the details but I have a rough idea and I still find it shocking; let's just say it didn't involve my parents). When I had other income, my mother paid someone else to do the work, and at that point was forced to accept their standards of cleaning rather than impose her own, uniquely crazy approach.

As a result, my primary use of self-help for residential upkeep/improvement involved finding ways to let the clutter build up without going binky-bonkers -- that is, learning to be a slob. It took a lot of hard work, and a certain amount of cleverness in terms of finding very fast ways to do the stuff I couldn't stop myself from doing. When I learned that Niesslein got to the ripe old age of 30 without a filing system, I had to take a break from the book for a while. I had a filing system when I was _8_ (don't blame my parents for this one; I take the blame myself). I had a purging policy before I was out of junior high school. (For the files. My sisters had eating disorders. I have food allergies. That was more than enough for me.)

While I was in agreement with Niesslein in principle about avoiding exercise, in practice, I think even at my most inactive I probably got a lot more than she did. Further, my entree into self-help for physical matters was substantially different from hers. I came to the fitness/diet/exercise stuff with a solid belief in Basic Needs and Listening to What One's Body Tells One. Unless I misunderstood her, the level of mind-body disconnect she experienced was substantially more than I have ever experienced. Let me tell you, that was a surprise.

I knew from reading Brain, Child that she was a lot more avoidant of parenting literature than I am. I'm no longer convinced that is true. Certainly she talks a good game, but then she refers to Hulbert's _Raising America_ in a footnote, along with the more recent _Huck's Raft_ (I'll be ordering that one shortly; didn't know about it). I think she may be sincere in avoiding the advice-specific, research (and historically) spare instances of parenting literature, but that may be more of a front than anything else. Hard to know, really. It's abundantly clear from reading the magazine (and this book) that her parenting style is well within the large space that I consider reasonable. She's got issues with Sears (and Bowlby, but that may be the second-wave feminist in her talking), but her parenting strategies at least substantially overlap. Her comments on sleep-weaning were a little weird; I think weaning Caleb must not have been particularly traumatic. In any event, she vastly prefers to rely upon her own (excellent) instincts, but is then brought up short by the way her son takes after some of her habits (the remark about the ledger listing people's infractions is particularly amusing).

_Practically Perfect_ is, essentially, a memoir of a Self-Help Seeker who discovers what Seekers always discover: the journey changed them, but staying home might have had the same effect, or a better effect. You just can't tell. Even better, Niesslein both places Self-Help against Making a Difference -- and notes that you can probably hurt yourself Making a Difference, as happened, to some degree, with her experiments with Self-Help. Best of all, Niesslein firmly keeps an eye on how life circumstances influence what kinds of Self-Help are even possible (especially with the Bach financial books, but also with things as simple as walking for exercise).

While memoirs and Self-Help books are both ubiquitous, this particular intersection of the two genres is definitely NOT. I can easily imagine a future world in which this carefully documented use of self-help literature is grist for someone's theory about women in the early 21st century. But in the here and now, it's a fascinating read, enjoyable and thought-provoking.

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