When the parenting memoir Primates of Park Avenue opens, its author, Wednesday Martin, and her husband are facing a common new-parent problem: Their living situation no longer feels right. They have a son now, and their hip, downtown New York City neighborhood, once so much fun and so full of interesting acquaintances, suddenly feels “dangerous”—all “kamikaze cab drivers, throngs of rushing people, jackhammers, and car horns.” They find themselves lamenting their lack of “access to playgrounds,” and Martin hasn’t made any friends at the neighborhood Mommy & Me yoga studio. It’s time to move on.
But Martin and her family don’t head out to the suburbs. Instead, they re-locate to the most rarified and socially stratified bit of real estate in New York City: Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Here, Martin is sure she’ll find “a better childhood” for her son, along with green space aplenty in Central Park.
But she doesn’t. After she enrolls her son at a prestigious preschool, the moms she meets there—well-dressed, buff-bodied Manhattan Geishas, as she calls them— completely ignore her. If she addresses them, they ostentatiously turn their backs on her, having determined, she writes, “that even the most basic and commonly observed tenet of the social contract— returning a greeting—was for chumps.”
Martin comes up with a solution for dealing with her new situation that makes for compulsively readable comedy. Having studied anthropology in college and read avidly about primatology, she decides to use her specialized knowledge to study her surroundings as though she were on assignment in the African savanna. If she’s landed among the Mean Girls of Madison Avenue, no matter: They’re humans, after all, just another group of primates with hierarchies and social norms to be decoded. She will try to join the troop.
For all too many women, motherhood has become a brutal, uneasy life stage, where everything from buying the right stroller to getting a teen into college is considered a test of personal worthiness. The conventional explanation for this is that the United States lacks so many basic modern family supports, such as accessible and affordable child care, that mothers wind up leaving paid and fulfilling work to take care of their children, an unpaid and often under-appreciated task. And then they rationalize that decision by subscribing to what Judith Warner, the author of Perfect Madness, the 2005 book that has become the bible of this sort of thinking, calls “The Mommy Mystique.” Instead of planning the perfect resume, or asking the government or her spouse for help (probably futile, in any case), the modern mom, especially if in the upper middle class, seeks fulfillment in planning the perfect party for a six-year-old.
The Stanford sociologist Marianne Cooper has recently flagged another contributing factor: our ever-growing income and wealth inequality. In her book, Cut Adrift, she shows the multimillionaire families of Silicon Valley going through their days petrified about their children’s future, obsessing about their education because they are afraid that in a world of ever more limited opportunity for upward mobility, their progeny will not be able to remain in place unless they excel in all things. All of this is at play in the tribe of women that Martin encounters on the Upper East Side.
Martin soon realizes that as a low-ranking primate attempting to win acceptance from a new troop, she is being hazed and harassed in the hope that she’ll leave. After getting “charged”—that is, having a woman deliberately walk into her, forcing her to submissively step aside—Martin decides that what she needs is a “talismanic object”: a prestigious and desirable prop she can wield to show this troop that she means business. She remembers the primatologist Jane Goodall's low-ranking chimp Mike used metal kerosene canisters to take command of his group, “running at them dragging big, noisy, unfamiliar things by their handles, banging them and swinging them through the grass like scepters.” The equivalent for a New York City mom? A bag, the more expensive and prestigious and harder to obtain, the better. So Martin convinces her husband to buy her a Birkin, the legendary Hermès handbag, so that she can swing it from her arm as she strolls the streets of the Upper East Side.
Martin seeks out representative experiences, too. She attends Physique 57 classes, where women scramble for the best spots in the room, and spends her summers in the Hamptons—where a woman driving a black Maserati flips her the bird. Eventually, she achieves true acceptance, which she describes this way: “I have been invited to a gathering of high-ranking females at the dwelling hut of a wealthy and powerful chieftain and his wife.” This may be the only time a Sutton Place triplex belonging to a hedge fund titan has been described in this fashion.
Once she is safely on the inside of the local troop, Martin finds that the women in it are “ruthless in their advocacy for their offspring,” and have turned mothering into a vocation. Yet by devoting their lives to their children, “marooned in their sex-segregated world,” as Martin puts it, they have given up their financial independence. They are dependent for their status on the men who earn the money and pay their bills. Divorce can lead to exile from the tribe. So can a spouse’s business setbacks. No number of Chanel pocketbooks, Lanvin flats, SoulCycle exercise classes, and fun with the girls can hide this fact. As a result, all too many of the women use Ativan and alcohol to get through their days and sometimes-sleepless nights.
And this is where Martin’s anthropological shtick runs up against—well, against Martin herself. Once she gains acceptance—or “goes native,” in anthropology speak—she doesn’t subject herself to the lacerating observations she makes of the others in the troop. It’s an understandable dodge, but it’s unsatisfying, all the same, because now she’s a wealthy full-time Upper East Side mother too. What has she done in her life that the other mothers, seemingly better set up, at least financially, cannot achieve? How does she manage to avoid turning to the wine cellar or prescription pad to get by? How does she avoid viewing her children as status objects and mirrors, like the women around her? For that matter, what does it feel like to need a spouse in order to afford the handbag you must have to gain prestige and acceptance in your world?
Instead of providing us with answers to these questions, Martin and a friend run the numbers on what it costs to maintain status as an Upper East Side wife (about $95,000 annually—for hair, clothes, Botox, and the like—“on the low end”) and congratulate themselves on being “cheap dates” compared to their peers.
The book ends on a high note, when the women of the Upper East Side rally around Martin during a time of family tragedy. It’s sad, triumphant, and heartwarming, but it’s not enough. Martin could have broadened Primates of Park Avenue and made it a valuable contribution to the burgeoning literature of parenting and marriage in the age of inequality. Instead, she settles for giving us a fun and sometimes moving romp through a world that most of us will never experience firsthand. If we’re lucky.