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In Search of Migratory Moms

There’s a certain type of New York woman who attempts to have it all: perfect family, perfect looks, perfect life. What can anthropology explain about this exotic tribe? Wednesday Martin, author of Stepmonster and the upcoming Primates of Park Avenue, breaks it down. 

Wednesday Martin studies Hamptons moms in their natural habitat.

I find them fascinating. 

For several summers now, I’ve been watching them party, preen and parent on the East End. Now, I’m writing about it.

Let me explain. I’m an author, social researcher and mom of two boys. I lived in Manhattan and did summer shares out here for years before I married and had kids—but then I landed in another world. A world of gorgeous, ambitious women with kids and lots of unspoken rules: rules about play dates, what to wear, which school and camp to choose. Once I got over the culture shock (I was raised in the Midwest), I decided to draw on my background in anthropology to do fieldwork in my own backyard, studying the Manhattan moms I run with. That meant following them to the Hamptons, their summer migratory habitat and a place I love.

As summer winds down, here are my thoughts on why we do what we do—and what it all means.

Surprising Findings
Most of the privileged women I know who have kids are a far cry from stereotypes like Mrs. X in The Nanny Diaries. True, many don’t work. And yes, they put time and energy into looking great. But they’re anything but lazy. In fact, they’re unprecedentedly busy being the chief administrators of their children’s lives—and remarkably anxious about getting it right. 

That’s in part because privilege creates options—which napping consultant, Norland nanny or stroller to choose? These might sound like great “problems” to have. But we know from the psychological and neuropsychiatric literature that too many choices make us stressed and can even lead to depression.

This tribe is also stressed out by the relatively new belief that a mother is supposed to interact with and enrich her child all the time, or else he’ll fall behind—making her a bad mom. Compare this to our moms, who sent us off to school and then did housework, went to work or played bridge. They weren’t thinking about motherhood 24/7

Coping Like a Monkey
One thing that strikes me over and over about this tribe is that we deal with stress the same way nonhuman primates do. While you may see a group of Manhattan moms lunching at Tutto or talking at Physique 57, I see female Papio cynocephalus—savanna baboons—grooming one another. Primatologists call it pro-social, or affiliative, behavior—a way to self-soothe while bonding with others. Or take a group of women paddleboarding—it’s more than ab work. They’re affirming their tribal identity with every stroke, saying, “This is what we do, this is who we are.” Being part of a tribe (or troop, if you’re a baboon) can help you feel—and even be—safe.

Bizarre Tribal Practices 
I never cease to be amazed by the extreme sex segregation of my tribe. Often, one of its members will spend summers here with the kids (and nanny), while her spouse goes back and forth to the city. She becomes very independent, very close to her female friends out here—so close, in fact, that their cycles may even synchronize. Then in the fall, there’s tremendous readjustment for couples as they segue into fall and readjust to life in Manhattan—and life with each other—so arguments are to be expected.

Gift exchange is also very big out here. Historically and in our evolutionary prehistory, being a guest was risky. Ranging far from your natal group, you might encounter hostile strangers. Giving a gift was a way of saying, “You can trust me, see? Now please don’t kill me in my sleep!” Today, vulnerable guests still appease their hosts with a candle or bottle of rosé when they show up for the weekend. And those bags you got after events all summer long? Eons ago, we cemented social relationships at banquets—and sometimes sent guests home with our female kinfolk as brides to seal the deal. Think about that next time you’re hauling home some swag.

Why We Do It
As a species, Homo sapiens are migratory. In the past, seasonal migration was dictated by need: To avoid freezing to death, we went somewhere temperate. To avoid starving during times of scarcity, we went where there was food. Today, seasonal migration patterns are more a matter of choice. But we’re looking for the same thing: that place-specific sense of safety and abundance. Going to farm stands, “foraging”—even if it’s for a great dress at Calypso or a book for your child at BookHampton—these practices satisfy primitive needs that have shaped us for millennia. 

Today in Manhattan and the Hamptons, my tribe lives in a state of ecological release—meaning, it’s no longer a struggle to survive. In fact, quite the opposite is true. 

But here’s what’s also true: We’re still running on the same age-old software our ancestors did—and that’s not going to change.

Wednesday Martin, Ph.D., is a social researcher who lives in Manhattan with her husband, two sons and two stepdaughters. She’s the author of  Stepmonster ($25, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) and the upcoming Primates of Park Avenue: An Anthropological Memoir of Uptown Motherhood, available in 2015.