Published on March 17th, 2014 | by Nina Aron13
NINA ARON on Why Middle-Class Parents Are Awful
With the recent publication of Jennifer Senior’s “All Joy and No Fun,” I’ve been hearing and reading a lot about middle and upper middle class American parents, and thinking even more than usual about why they’re such a tiresome lot. In many ways, Senior and the dozens of others who’ve written on the subject in the recent past do a good job explaining why, but their tone is often too mild, too empathetic: toothless. “All Joy and No Fun” aims not to castigate but to contextualize parenthood and childhood as cultural concepts, and help people understand why they feel so much more pressure to be perfect than they might have in decades prior. And the gesture stands out in a genre that typically relies on anecdote, not history, to make its arguments. It’s a welcome approach, even if it doesn’t always make for riveting reading. (“Kids used to work. Now they don’t.” Et cetera).
Fortunately, I’m not trying to make parents feel better or sell a book. So, to put it bluntly: middle class parents today are awful. They’re hand wringers, safety zealots, sugarphobes, mediaphobes, amateur allergists and “enrichment” fanatics. In the parlance of their children, they’re dorks. That I tend to refer to parents as a “them” at all, when I have two young children of my own, is telling.
I entered into the covenant of motherhood at 29, with all the trappings of adult shit-togetherness one might hope to have acquired by that age. I had a robust education under my belt—albeit in fields that would ensure precarious employment for the rest of my life—and was pursuing a PhD, following which—don’t get excited—employment prospects would remain grim. Nevertheless, I had a handsome, successful new husband, a friendly dog, a sunny book-lined apartment in Berkeley, California, and a ten year old station wagon just begging for car seats.
Most importantly, I wanted a baby keenly. I grew up with two sisters who were and are my closest friends and fiercely loving parents, and always knew I’d make a family someday, probably on the young side. Given to caprice, and capable of falling in love with everyone from professors to bartenders to elevator repairmen, I’d had several opportunities in my youth to begin this experiment. But I didn’t. I waited, dutifully, responsibly, until it seemed to me that the proverbial ducks of upward mobility were in a row, and then I went for it. For my husband and me, certain luxuries were still remote: a mortgage, a college savings account for our fetus, a 401(k) to ensure we didn’t burden him in our golden years. But generally, we felt ready.
Until we met other parents, that is. The preparedness we thought we’d achieved felt like a joke compared with couples a decade older and twice as established. Many had careers, owned property, and were ensconced in marital unions that looked as stable and as humorless as those of many friends’ parents when I was growing up . It wasn’t sexy, but it sure was intimidating. They had thought of everything! They had bought everything! From baby wipe warmers (lest junior’s walnut-sized rear encounter any cold realities) to mysterious things like Boppies and Bumbos and BreastFriends, which all seemed to just be shapes, industrially produced materials in various shapes, and were $50 a pop.
I came to my alienation early, when it became clear that attendance at pre- and peri- and post-natal yoga had become a form of membership in an exclusive—nay, elitist—club. But as our child grew, and we had a second, the mentality native to a certain subset of American parents became part of my husband’s everyday life, too. It was equal parts anxiety and self-righteousness, and it was palpable on playgrounds and later, in preschool. I won’t catalog here its numerous manifestations, or our many conversations relaying the latest episode in the drama of our parental inadequacy, and I don’t have to; most readers are by now familiar with what I call mom-shaming. But whatever you’re imagining, I invite you to turn it up a notch. This is the Bay Area: childhood here involves a lot of pricey wooden toys imported from Europe, virtually no sweets (unless farmer’s market stone fruit counts), and the area is afflicted with a rampant televisionlessness I consider dangerous. Most of my friends are raising children in Brooklyn and think they have it bad. But from my vantage point, the childhood that may be precious in Park Slope can be downright preposterous here.
I loved pregnancy, which keeps one tethered to a sense of purpose not generally available to graduate students. It’s fun. And weird. And people are nice to you. And though the fog of early motherhood was much less transcendent than I’d hoped (or been led to believe), I learned to love motherhood, too, and still do, more and more every day. Punishing as they can be, both pregnancy and motherhood were things I knew I’d revel in. But “parenthood”? Ick. Joining the ranks of parents meant, to me, acquiring a lameness that was profound and indelible. It’s just not a team I ever wanted to play for, and finding my place within it has proven extremely challenging.
I did try. I did the yoga and went to playgroups, and made plenty of casual mom friends, but the whole thing never really took. I’m simply not able to stomach the imperious “advice” on offer, the compulsive experience-sharing and comparisons between one kid’s tantrums or motor skills or poop and another’s. Though women are still trying desperately to strike a balance between work and family life (not to mention the hundreds of other interests we may have), the average playground experience usually just consists of pretending we have it all figured out. I make sure my children attend every birthday party and maintain a healthy roster of play dates and other activities, but in many ways, I’ve opted out of mommy culture. As an ardent feminist, I sometimes balk at my own negativity. How could solitude be better than seeking sisterhood? How could the loneliness of raising children across the continent from my family be preferable to spending time with other mothers? It makes me sad. But the truth is, time alone, or with friends without kids, is more satisfying than anything I’ve found in my efforts to seek “community” among parents. Too often “community” just means competition.
These days, just reading about reading about parenthood irritates me. Why? Because it’s lame! Because I don’t care about the many ways I should feel like shit or how women do it in France. Because we could be using all those precious hours spent trying to absorb expert wisdom on how much screen time is appropriate for our children with our children. Or—just as important—rediscovering ourselves, so we can be less harried, less brittle, less diluted versions of ourselves to our children. So we can have fun! Because that’s what contemporary parenting seems not to be—ever.
Most of the efforts I see around me, to shape our children’s development, seem like a desperate hedge against a future where our children are people, with deep psychological complexities, resentments, regrets. With heartbreaking sadnesses, fears, and dreams we can’t make come true. And while I understand the impulse to control our children’s destinies, it is simply a futile exercise, one which any parent who hopes to have a satisfying life must let go of. Love and support and stories and adventures and opportunities we can give them (and we ought to feel grateful that we can). And we can hope that those will lay the groundwork for big, bountiful, joyful lives. But we can’t ultimately protect our children from pain or uncertainty. My own parents seemed to do most everything right and still they ended up raising people who have experienced the full spectrum of human emotion, who have dealt with depression, addiction, anxiety, heartbreak, stress.
I now live in a different sunny apartment, in Oakland, not Berkeley, with my best friend, not my husband. He lives in his own sunny house a few miles down the road. And my friend, bless her soul, is like an aunt to my children—just another present, available, funny, loving member of the village I believe it takes to raise them. The choices I have made have been difficult, but have allowed me to prioritize my own wellness—physical, emotional and psychological—and my own pleasure in ways that too many mothers don’t or can’t. That said, the amicable dissolution of my marriage, and the successful co-parenting relationship we’ve established, feel like objects of intense curiosity, scrutiny, and sometimes disdain from many of the parents in my midst. I write this, surely at least in part, to defend myself against the judgment I sometimes perceive (and which I’m probably sometimes just imagining). But I also write it to remind women that, like fat in Susie Orbach’s famous formulation, guilt is a feminist issue. And shaking off a bit of it, however you choose to do that, will likely make you feel better about yourself and your life as a parent.
We don’t need books to tell us that parenting is rewarding, or that it’s hard—some days hair-raisingly so. And we shouldn’t need books to tell us to loosen up. What we need is a grass roots movement for parental sanity, maybe even coolness, without the competition. Many parents I know, overwhelmed by the demands of daily life, would benefit immeasurably from a sense of genuine community rooted in the things progressive parents like to think they care about, like tolerance, diversity, peace, and joy. And so, dare I say, would our kids.