Step on the sidewalk these days, and you'll run smack into the new culture of parenthood: strollers clog the sidewalks in Park Slope, flared jeans and halter tops wink from the windows at Baby Gap, and hipster parents teach their kids to rock out to Bob Dylan and the Clash. Or take a trip into cyberspace, where otherwise well-mannered women (and some men) stage vitriolic child-rearing battles on urbanbaby.com.
And then there's the rampant "mommy media." Pick up any magazine, and you'll find clear instructions on the right (and, more often, wrong) ways to raise your children. A recent New York magazine cover story even discussed the deadly ramifications of … praising your kids too much. (The latest issue spotlights "The Hot-Mommy Cult.")
When she first became a mother, Amy Wilson, author and star of the innovative, witty new solo show Mother Load, was ideal prey for the glut of baby expertise. She's a Yale graduate with a successful acting career, including stints in TV, film, and on Broadway. With such demanding, high-profile accomplishments under her belt, she reasoned, how hard could parenting be? And so the educated high achiever and self-described "perfectionist and control freak" set out to master her newest task.
Only this was no ordinary assignment. Unlike the pressures of college or the travails of forging an acting career, "motherhood was the first thing I've taken on where the standards are impossibly higher than anything else," she says.
Overwhelmed by the sheer volume of (often contradictory) information available, she realized she was not enjoying parenting; instead, she was merely "staggering through."
She quickly became frustrated and disgusted by the high-pressure bubble of urban parenthood, where preschool applications are often filled out before a baby's sex can be determined and a snooty mother (the notorious "sanctimommy") will snidely critique the ineptness of your child's inorganic afternoon snack at the neighborhood park.
Nowadays, there's not only a right way to be a mother, there's even a right way to be pregnant (think Angelina Jolie, perfectly toned with a stylish "bump") and a right way to give birth. And with titles like "The Right Start," "One Step Ahead," and "Leaps and Bounds," kids' catalogs immediately telegraph the desperate need to make the "right" choices to stay ahead of (and in) the game.
But, Wilson claims, "you can choose to ignore it." It's certainly not easy, but in Mother Load she skewers the cutthroat cult of competitive parenting, blending sarcasm and humor to concoct a frank, honest, "in the trenches" account of guerrilla mommyhood, without perfection or apology.
To bring her colorful stories to life, Wilson joined forces with longtime collaborator and childhood friend Julie Kramer, who directed and developed the production. The two theater artists—who previously collaborated on Wilson's show A Cookie Full of Arsenic—first presented Mother Load to a predominantly female audience in their hometown of Scranton, Pa.
The show was a hit, even if the audience couldn't directly relate to the pressures of urban parenting. To build on their success, Wilson and Kramer decided to bring the project to the big city, and they set off to further polish and embellish the material for audiences in New York, their adopted hometown.
Amy Wilson (Photo by Sue Barr)
Although the show takes aim at the particular problems of mothers, Kramer and Wilson also worked to make the themes more universal.
"So many of us can relate to the idea of wanting to do the best possible job that you can do [with anything]," Kramer says. "We all have so many options and opportunities, which is great, but it can also make us crazy."
Wilson agrees, recalling the reaction of her husband's Wall Street co-workers, who instantly connected with her hapless search for elusive perfection.
"This is a show about trying to listen to your inner voice and understanding that you know yourself and can trust yourself," Kramer adds. "You have to accept that there's only so much you can do."
Both Wilson and Kramer cite the trend toward having children at a later age as the reason for motherhood's hyper-professionalization. Having children in your 30s means you've had time to be out in the world pursuing life on your own, Wilson points out. And if you've excelled in your career, you're all the more determined to excel as a parent.
Rather than soberly investigating its topic, Mother Load unearths comedy from the drama of motherhood, according to Kramer, and this distinguishes it from much that is written about contemporary parenting. She also praises the show's dedicated theatricality as an invaluable tool for both communicating and connecting with audiences—Wilson plays various characters and uses her children's toys as props, creating an adult playground that nudges audiences toward whimsical exploration.
But playful props aside, this is theater with a purpose, and Wilson wants mothers to learn to relax and dismiss the critical voices that threaten to overwhelm them. She personally tries to live by a yogi master's mantra, "Be here now." But she knows it isn't easy.
The show, she says, has helped her learn to enjoy being a mom without constantly berating herself. It's a daily battle, of course, but well worth fighting. Now the mother of two young sons (2 and 4) with another baby on the way, she finds that focusing on the task immediately at hand is a good beginning.
"When I sit down to read stories to my kids and don't worry about my Treo, sit-ups, or the perfect healthy dinner, all of the other stuff goes out the window," she says.
Wilson has also created an interactive forum on her Web site, www.motherloadshow.com, where she encourages other mothers to share their stories.
"Women who are mothers often do not feel community on a daily basis," says Kramer. "Motherhood is something that is expected, but not admired or valued."
Fittingly, Wilson describes the audience's reaction as "the laughter of recognition."
"It's cathartic," she says. "People will be laughing, but the mothers will be howling!"
Mother Load runs from April 21 - June 16 at the Sage Theater. For tickets, call 212-279-4200. Visit http://www.motherloadshow.com for more information, including video clips from the show and an interactive forum.