In stark contrast to the last book that I read Maid (review here), I recently finished Primates of Park Avenue: A Memoir by Wednesday Martin, which exposes the “mommy culture” of the wealthy residents of the Upper East Side in Manhattan. The title is in reference to the author’s background in anthropology and her interest in studying people and cultures as well as the behaviors of our evolutionary ancestors.
We meet Martin in 2002 when is she is considering moving from downtown Manhattan to the Upper East Side. Sadness from 9/11 still lingers in the air and her family needs a change. According to Martin, it is more commonly the woman’s duty in many animal species, including humans, to find a place to live. On this quest, Martin meets Inga, a former Danish model turned realtor, who becomes Martin’s informer into the elite New York City cultures. Quickly, Martin learns that the Upper East Side is reserved for the city’s crème de la crème and is more exclusive and hoity-toity than the Upper West Side. Learning that housing applications are exclusive and intrusive, Martin gets a first glimpse at what it’s like to live in a society where status, looks, and money are essential for survival.
Martin has a young son who becomes ludicrously significant for her social capital. According to Martin, an Upper East Side mommy’s ‘worth’ can be reflected (in part) by her child. Pouring time and energy into her son’s appearance, education, and social life becomes a necessary chore for Martin if she is to fit in with the other Upper East Side mommies. The child in this society is not only a symbol, but a tool for these mothers. Playdates between two children can lead to friendships between the moms and invitations to exclusive social events can even translate into business opportunities between the fathers.
With her anthropological background, Martin seeks to understand her ecosystem in relation to other human cultures as well as animals. The childrearing practices of Upper East Side mommies seemingly goes against nature. In many other animal species ‘childhood’ just isn’t a ‘thing.’ A little bird cracks out of its egg, it is helpless for a short period, and then it is promptly kicked out of the nest. ‘Childhood,’ i.e. the period when offspring is past the point of infancy, but is still young and vulnerable, is extraordinarily lengthy in humans for some reason. Martin explains that childhood may have evolved into what it is today to help parents with the work and childrearing, which therefore makes it possible for a woman to bear more children. In non-Western, non-developed societies we see that children take on work and other responsibilities earlier. In this way the child is an asset to the parents. Conversely, in many Western, developed societies, children are a liability (as crude as it is to say) to parents. In these societies, parents pour their resources into their children and children contribute virtually nothing in return (again, as crude as it is to say).
Upper East Side mommies take parenting to the extreme from an anthropological perspective as they jump through hoops to get their little ones into an elite nursery school and shell out college tuition prices for private schools. Although Martin is shocked by this culture, she cannot help but be allured by it. In what seems like no time, Martin is walking the walk and talking the talk. To blend in with the other mommies, she begins to dress up for school drop off and frequents barre classes to achieve a knowingly, unrealistic figure. Falling deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole, Martin admits that she has gone native, i.e. she has transitioned from observer to willing participant of the culture.
Primates of Park Avenue is equal parts amusing and insightful. This story of the .001% of Americans (probably even smaller!) is so un-relatable that at times reads like fiction or satire. Deep down, however, we see that these women are not caricatures rather they are complex and deal with real struggles like finances (believe it or not), infidelity, and the deaths of loved ones. If you enjoy reality television and are interested in something lighthearted yet vaguely academic, then you will find amusement in The Primates of Park Avenue.