ISSUED BY PUBLISHER
In her introduction, author Wednesday Martin asks herself “who were they really, these glamorous, stylishly turned out women with sophisticated babies?” (2). Answer Wednesday’s question with your group. Who are the women of the Upper East Side really? Is there an Upper East Side in your town? Did your conception of these women change after reading Primates of Park Avenue? Why or why not?
On page 8, Wednesday discusses her strong desire to fit in with the mommies of her new neighborhood, and for her son to fit in by extension. She writes that from her studies in literature and anthropology, she knows that “without a sense of belonging, and actually belonging, we great apes are lost…. Particularly female ones…do not fare well.” Do you think that all people feel this way to some extent? What about all mothers? Is wanting to fit in and feel a sense of community particularly important for new mothers?
Why do you think Wednesday Martin chooses to frame the beginning of her memoir as an academic study? Does the format add humor? Does it give greater credibility to the author? Both? Think about how you would describe your own world anthropologically. Are you part of a tribe? If so, which tribe?
Discuss the way gender figures into life on the Upper East Side, according to Primates of Park Avenue. Wednesday writes on page 24 that “in Manhattan, the woman is in charge of finding a place for the family to live.” What else do the women seem “in charge” of in Manhattan? Of what are they decidedly not in charge?
“Women on the Upper East Side, particularly women in their thirties and women on the downhill slope of middle age, are utterly attuned to and obsessed with power” (83). Consider this power obsession in connection with Wednesday Martin’s obsession with acquiring a Birkin bag. What is the implicit connection between expensive handbags and power? Does owning a Birkin on the Upper East Side make one more powerful? What is your tribe’s “it” bag? Is it a “fetish object”?
Many of the women in Primates of Park Avenue are described as hyper-dedicated, particularly when it comes to their bodies. Describing a workout class in the Hamptons, Wednesday Martin writes that these women, herself included, put themselves through hell “to bond with their fellow tribe members, but also to measure up to, and to take the measure of, others, day by day, evening by evening, event by event, class by class” (129). Does their physical appearance symbolize something intrinsic? Something about their worth? What is the connection between the body and the person, in the case of an Upper East Side mommy?
What surprised you the most about Wednesday’s memoir? Which aspect of these women’s lives feels most foreign to you and your life? Which aspects feel more familiar?
How does the loss of Wednesday’s unborn daughter, Daphne, change the course of the story? Do you think losing a baby changes her perspective on life- particularly life on the Upper East Side?
Compare and contrast Wednesday Martin with her new circle. How are they similar? How do they differ? According to what you’ve read, does Wednesday retain her subjective view of this “tribe,” or does she become too similar to be subjective?
“From an anthropological perspective, these wealthy women who seem and are so fortunate are also marooned in their sex-segregated world” (162) writes Wednesday Martin about the marriages she sees all around her in New York City. She describes these so-called arrangements as “fragile and contingent and women are still dependent… on their men” (163). Does sex segregation and complete dependence on one’s partner seem strange in the twenty-first century, or do these marriages seem relatively standard? Do you agree with Wednesday that these women are perhaps in a less enviable position than one might assume? Why or why not?
Consider the ways in which anxiety is described in Primates of Park Avenue. Do you agree that “having too many choices is stressful” (178), or that a luxurious lifestyle ultimately leads to more- not less- unhappiness?
Discuss the title of the memoir: Primates of Park Avenue. Do you agree, as the title suggests, that these women who live a certain kind of lifestyle on the Upper East Side are really no different than any other women anywhere? Are we all just animals, doing what we can to survive and create the safest, most favorable conditions we can for our families?
Primates of Park Avenue is ultimately a testament to the strength of all women to endure the pain that so often accompanies motherhood. In her grief, Wednesday discovers another side of the beautiful, competitive women around her: love. In her time of need, these women came forward and offered emotional support and understanding, bolstering the bond between women of the same tribe who know “just how closely the territories of mothering and loss overlap” (198). Discus this “secret,” as Wednesday coined it, with your group members. Why do you think motherhood, in particular, feels so deeply connected to loss?
Did you believe everything Martin claims? If not, what specifically did you not believe and why?
Did you ever think it was inappropriate and insulting for Martin to compare these women with baboons and gorillas? Did you ever change your mind? If so, why?
Did you buy Martin’s assertions that this behavior is just tribal and how it works in this tribe? Why or why not?
Did you ever feel embarrassed by these women? Did you ever feel resentful, like these women portrayed us all in a bad light?
Do you think these women set back women’s equality? If so, why? How do they do this?
What did you think about the whole process of getting your kid into preschool? Do you think it has merit?
What do you think about parents using their kids as status symbols? In the age of Facebook, do you think everyone is like this, regardless of financial or social status?
Do you think Martin sold out? Even though she claims everything she and her husband did, they did for their children, would a better lesson to teach them have been to stand your ground and stay true to your values?
Martin observes that the ‘Have-Most women looked the most carefully put together and the most beautifully turned out, and generally had the most children’ p44. Besides the fact that they can afford more children and afford to hire nannies to help, why do you think the Have-Most, highly educated women would have the most children?
On page 47, Martin states that ‘preschool directors were very, very powerful people.’ Do you think this holds true outside of wealthy communities?
Martin describes how pregnancies were planned around the admissions process for school. Do you believe this? Is it comparable to parents who hold back their child only to give them an academic advantage? What do you think of these tactics? Do you think they have any real affect?
What do you think of Martin’s discussion of how other cultures put their kids right to work while ‘in the industrialized West… our children are expected to do next to nothing until late in the game’ p52? Why do you think this shift in attitude came about? Do you agree with Meredith Small’s famous observation that ‘children of the Anthropocene, our current geological era, are “priceless but useless”’ p53?
‘It was as if I had no life or identity before them, as if my children had given birth to me” p54. Do you think this feeling is characteristic only of affluent, wealthy communities? If not, how does it apply to regular people?
When Martin is finally no longer ignored, it is because an Alpha Dad has accepted her. Martin suggests that the women now ‘felt [she] had been vetted and approved’ p65. Do you agree? Or do you think it is because they either feel obligated to accept her because such a powerful individual has and they fear repercussions or because they think maybe associating with Martin will help their standing in some way?
Martin often seems to attribute some of the bad behavior as tribal or as a method of protecting children. For example, once the Alpha Dad had ‘vetted and approved’ her, it was okay to accept her into the fold. Why do you think Martin does this? Do you think she honestly believes this? Or do you think she is just saying it because is now friends with these people and doesn’t want to hurt their feelings?
In the section about the Hermes bag, Martin notes: It was not simply “Get out of my way” but something more pointed: “I don’t see you. Because you don’t even exist” p71. Is it worse for someone to be overtly mean? Or is it worse for someone to completely ignore your existence? If the latter, do you believe men do this as well? Or is it primarily in the domain of women?
Martin discusses how status revolves around securing the “impossible-to-gets.” However, even though she makes a point of reinforcing how difficult these processes are, Martin always seems to be successful, i.e. the house itself, her son ends up in the most prestigious school, she gets the Hermes bag, etc. Does this make you question the accuracy of her statements?
At some point, did you stop believing Martin’s genuineness about not really caring for all this nonsense?
When Martin discussed the Berkin bag issue with her friend Nunokawa, Nunokawa offers that the quest for such ludicrously expensive and rare items is not necessarily superficial and silly. He argues that by doing so, the woman becomes a scarce and more valuable commodity herself: “Going after and procuring something previous and scarce, we are also trying to rejuvenate our own scarcity, to reinvigorate the sense of everyone in our society of our own value” p84. Do you agree? Why or why not?
Martin observes that at co-ed parties, there is a distinct lack of playful interaction between men and women, that like “geishas, however, [the women] were above sex. Sure they had babies, so we knew they had had sex. But their bodies, put through such rigorous paces, tended to so meticulously, turned out so carefully, were purified and not for earthly pursuits” p107. What do you think about this?
“… the more stratified and hierarchical the society, and the more sex segregated, the lower the status of women” p130. When it comes to the women of Park Avenue, do you agree that the segregation according to gender reflects the inferior status of women? Do you believe that it is of their choice as well as the men’s? Or do you think the women say that as a defense mechanism?
“…if you don’t earn money, your power is diminished in your marriage” p132. Do you think this is the case with the women of Park Avenue? Why or why not? Do you think this is the case in general, male or female, regardless of financial status? Why or why not?
Discuss the following quotes:
Sociologist Sharon Hays, who coined the term, defines intensive mothering as “a gendered model that [compels] mothers to expend a tremendous amount of time, energy and money in raising their children.” Constant emotional availability, constantly monitoring your kids’ psychological states, endlessly providing activities, and “fostering” your children’s “intellectual development” are all expected of women of means, Hays observes, and failing to nurture them comprehensively, or just letting them be, borders on neglect. p144
Regarding the quote above, this primarily occurs with WEIRD peoples- “anthropologist Jared Diamond’s acronym for Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic peoples” p137. Do you think this is an accurate assessment? Why do you think this developed? Do you think it hyper developed in the UES? If so, why? Do you think this is advantageous or disadvantageous to children? Do you think it came about due to genuine concern for children? Or is it more about the parents- living vicariously through their children, bragging rights, etc.?
The harried tale of ‘Primates of Park Avenue’
Heller, Karen. “The Harried Tale of ‘Primates of Park Avenue'” Washington Post. 14 July 2015. Web. 11 Oct. 2015.
Is the Upper East Side “wife bonus” a real thing?
Paquette, Danielle. “Is the Upper East Side “wife Bonus” a Real Thing?” Washington Post. 18 May 2015. Web. 11 Oct. 2015.
The New Misogyny: Taking Aim at the Women of the One
Martin, Wednesday. “The New Misogyny: Taking Aim at the Women of the One.” The Huffington Post. 4 June 2015. Web. 11 Oct. 2015.
Poor Little Rich Women
Martin, Wednesday. “Poor Little Rich Women.” The New York Times. N.p., 16 May 2015. Web. 11 Oct. 2015.
Privileged Primates and The Mothers Who Mock Them
Lombrozo, Tania. “Privileged Primates And The Mothers Who Mock Them.” NPR. 15 June 2015. Web. 16 Oct. 2015.
Upper East Side housewife’s tell-all book is full of lies
Vincent, Isabel, and Melissa Klein. “Upper East Side Housewife’s Tell-all Book Is Full of Lies.” New York Post. 7 June 2015. Web. 11 Oct. 2015.
‘Wife Bonus’ Author: My Critics Hate Women
Scutts, Joanna. “‘Wife Bonus’ Author: My Critics Hate Women.” The Daily Beast. 16 June 2015. Web. 17 Oct. 2015.