On Monday, Juliet and Ryan basically solved the gender gap in employment and identified it as a consequence not solely of differences between men and women, but also of a misinformed American definition of success. Or something? I’ve had a stomach bug so dehydration might have rendered me confused. But let’s go with that summary, and allow me to dip my own toe into the water of American Dreamz and their post-modern consequences by offering up a scathing review of our nation’s parenting. As always, my friends, YOU’RE WELCOME.
I’ve been a mother for ten months, which naturally makes me an expert on it—for proof, check out my previous posts. In addition to being a mother, I am a person who has a lot of opinions, all of them correct. And my reaction to American parenting is similar to the one my father would yell when times were getting a little estrogen-heavy in my childhood home: “EVERYBODY JUST CALM DOWN!!!”
By the way, in case you were thinking of skipping this post because you’re not a parent, might I interest you in the possibility that American parenting, like American working, like American lots-of-things, is reflective of a sickness that resides within each of us, vis a vis, we are all trying to prove ourselves. At work, on the playground, at the PTA, on the dating scene, we have reinforcements in this quest from a culture that tells us we are constantly in control of every outcome: prenatal testing, online profiles, amassing of wealth*. We are victims of our own success as the richest nation on Earth. Our greatest strength is also our greatest weakness.
A lot has been written on parenting recently, and since I like to read information that validates my already-formed opinion, I will mention to you some of my favorites: Bringing up Bebe (in which an American expat proves that besides surrender, the French now do THREE things well: wine, cheese, and parenting); Sh*tty Mom (a tongue-in-cheek parenting guide for those who have a sense of humor about the whole enterprise); and this article, which I discovered last week and basically confirms everything I’m about to say WITH SCIENCE AND NUMBERS:
Picture with me, if you will, a playground: that magical place where children release their energy and urine, where parents release their children and dreams, where games are played and imaginations are ignited. The playgrounds I frequented during my childhood probably resembled the ones you remember: a couple of swings, a rickety seesaw, an aluminum slide. (The streets of Compton were tough even then for a white girl. JUST KIDDING! Grew up in an upper middle-class suburb whose residents didn’t want to be taxed for community improvements.)
Over the years, playgrounds have kept pace with parenting, in that they have become more ornamented with elements of perceived enrichment over time. No longer does a child have to imagine a fairy-tale-like structure in which to play; one has been provided by your local toy manufacturer. In my day (and yes, I say this with a monocle over one eye and an aged, hoarse voice), a kid could be perfectly content with an old pail and a pile of mud for hours. On today’s playground, that kid is a booger-picking outcast among today’s trilingual karate-chopping ballerinas who fire their own pottery.
I don’t begrudge kids their cool toys, nor do I resent the improvements that come with time. But there’s also this: my son’s current favorite toy is a beige carpet sample square that my husband retrieved from Home Depot as part of a basement renovation project. That soft-block primary-color-laden learning toy I spent twenty bucks on at Babies R Us? “Meh” (direct quote).
Which makes me wonder if the point of it all is not them, but us. “We’re just so BUSY,” parents say to other parents on that playground, as if a schedule without room to breathe is a badge of honor. “Our lives are CRAZY,” they intone in an ongoing competition of Who’s Doing More. But is anyone really the better for it? The “intensive” moms in the above study were more depressed than their less-busy counterparts; kids are shuttled around to learn activities they’ll eventually forget (oh, I’m sorry, what–your child is now a diplomat because of that year of Mandarin she took when she was six?); everyone arrives home exhausted. Overstimulated heads are placed upon pillows so that it can all begin again tomorrow, and in their drifting-off moments, parents comfort themselves with the thought that they are giving their kids the world. As if that is to make up for not giving their kids themselves–flaws and all.
I’m a working mom, and I battle guilt over every second I don’t spend with my son. But I also know that my own introversion and painful social awkwardness could have used a little less time clinging to my own stay-at-home mom during my early years. In the end, we’re all going to do it a little wrong and a little right while wondering, always, if we’re doing too little. Especially compared to the PTA President or the Girl with 1,000 Facebook Friends or the CEO or this a-hole:
In my not-so-humble opinion, we need to stop taking ourselves—and everything else—so damn seriously. Whether we’re pumping our kids full of “enrichment” or ourselves full of expectations, we could all stand to CALM DOWN a little and take some time to look around…to play, even. Yesterday, I groaned in stomach-cramping pain on the couch as my husband fed our son his pureed sweet potatoes. Husband shouted that there was a deer in our neighbor’s backyard and I forced myself out of a supine position to stagger over so I could look out the window and share the moment with them. I’m pretty sure our son couldn’t see shit, but one day he will, and someday after that, he’ll remember that he had a mom and dad who took a second to behold beauty and share it with him. Hopefully that will make up for that episode of Dexter he watched, and the cheap toys, and the languages he didn’t learn.
*I love America, to be clear. And I am all for capitalism (Romney 2012, in fact). I just think that if you’re on the right side of the economy, it’s a little too easy to delude yourself into thinking the world revolves on your settings. Now excuse me while I go make a bunch of money and fit my life plan into a spreadsheet.