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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Mothering at Mid-Career: When the News is Too Much
July 26, 2011 - 12:34am

This weekend, my Facebook feed was full of news. And it was four stories, in particular, that cropped up again and again: the Norway attacks, marriage equality in New York State, the weather, and Amy Winehouse. (Apparently my friends aren’t following the debt ceiling debates with any urgency.)

Now I suddenly feel like I’m on Sesame Street: which of these things belong together? The Amy Winehouse story, tragic though it is for her family, friends, and perhaps even her fans, seems so different from the other stories as to belong in a different category altogether—not news, precisely, but celebrity gossip, perhaps. And yet there it was.

The other three make sense. The Norway attacks were horrific and shocking. The news is full of the unexpected — in fact, it sometimes seems that there’s a paradoxical effect of news reporting in that the shocking and unexpected get so much coverage that they start to seem normal and expected. But even in our over-hyped media environment the attacks in Norway got our attention, especially when we discovered that the news had got it horribly wrong, and this was the work not of Muslim extremists, as the initial reports speculated, but of a right-wing Christian extremist. I keep hoping to hear someone try to make an analogy: that as this bomber is to most of Christianity, so Muslim terrorists are to most of Islam — anomalous, dangerous, and misguided. If anything positive were to come out of these attacks, it would be a renewed attention to extremism of all kinds and an end to the sloppy kneejerk anti-Islamic thinking that seems to have infected our media.

The weather story also makes sense. Extreme weather—though it’s getting to be increasingly common—is still something out of the ordinary, and therefore newsworthy in and of itself. Add to that the deaths caused by the weather, and the persistent suspicion that this is the “new normal,” brought about by global warming, and you get an irresistible news story. And, of course, people like to gripe about the weather, and Facebook is the perfect place for that.

On the other hand, the story out of New York seemed like a pure feel-good story, the kind we get all too rarely. Finally legal weddings of long-together couples are great fodder for the news, and we so rarely get good news that this story, this weekend, seemed particularly welcome. It’s precisely because this wasn’t a sad story, in other words, that it seemed to belong with the other two, counter-balancing them but also speaking to a large population. And unlike the Amy Winehouse story, these other stories have obvious implications far beyond their own borders.

But, to be honest, I’ve seen more Amy Winehouse links in the last day or two than all the other stories combined. I don’t think it’s just the celebrity angle. It’s the deep sadness that we all feel when we see great promise denied, great possibility cut short. It’s no surprise that many, if not most, of my Facebook friends are parents, and while most of us aren’t old enough to be Amy’s mother, we see her, perhaps, as a lost child. The losses in Norway are also of children, young people, people with families, and on a much greater scale — but they haven’t yet become personal and individualized as this story is.

When Kurt Cobain died I was in my first year of teaching in my tenure-track position. I was stunned and shocked by his death, and I remember bringing it up in class—and getting almost no response. Cobain was younger than I, but much closer to my generation than to my students. For whatever reason, his music hadn’t touched them, and his story didn’t resonate. Amy Winehouse is part of my students’ and my daughter’s generation, only six years older than many of them. Will they respond to the story as to a freak show, or will they see a disease, a victim of addiction, a tragic warning about celebrity culture?

I keep the news on in the car much of the time, and my son and I end up having great conversations about what we hear. When we talk about this weekend’s events, I hope he’ll recognize that to the families of the Norway victims, Amy Winehouse’s death is just a rumor, a distraction—as it is to those who have lost loved ones to the devastating heat. But the three sad stories of the weekend all add up to stories of waste, of loss, of death and destruction that could have—should have—been avoided. We need the wedding stories to remind us that, contrary to the image presented by the front page, not all the news is bad these days.


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