99 Problems

Published on March 17th, 2014 | by Nina Aron

13

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.

babyblanket

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.

emmett&mama

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.

coolkids

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.

emcoffee

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,


About the Author

Nina Aron

Nina Renata Aron is an Oakland-based writer. She holds a BA in Russian History from Columbia University, an MA in Russian & Eurasian Studies from Harvard University, and is 5 years into a PhD in Anthropology and Gender Studies at UC Berkeley. She currently works for a global health nonprofit on efforts to strengthen blood safety policy and maternal and child health in the former Soviet Union and beyond. Nina is a compulsive reader of book reviews, and enjoys collecting records, recipes and dollhouse decor. She is at work on a novel.



13 Responses to NINA ARON on Why Middle-Class Parents Are Awful

  1. Misti says:

    “Too often “community” just means competition.” Exactly. Love this so much, thanks for sharing.

  2. Yes. All that is good in the universe, yes. Thank you. I want to highlight more than half this article. However, this: “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.” That is what the competitive middle-class mother community needs to understand, because at the heart, I believe, is what drives the insanity that has become American Motherhood. They think they can control everything in their parenthood life. But, no. They just can’t. No one is in control. So they deflect, defer, project. It’s ugly. And if you can step outside of it long enough, you might just end up on the floor in fits of giggles. How ridiculous it all looks.
    I was reminded this weekend about what Philip Larkin poem, and this drives my parenting moreso: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
    They may not mean to, but they do.
    They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.”
    At the end of the day, if I know I made my child feel loved, then that, above all else, is what is important.

    • Nina Nina says:

      Casondra, thank you for your comment and for the fantastic Philip Larkin poem! Think I’ll have to hang it on my refrigerator.

      • Anastasia says:

        Not a mother myself, I still appreciate this eloquent and cheeky intervention. Without diminishing its strength in specificity, I find it making super useful if indirect commentary on more than just middle-class motherhood. Thanks for this, Nina!

  3. Claire says:

    Thank GOD I’m not the only one who feels like this. Thanks so much for sharing. As my wife and I prepare to have kids, we’re struck by the “hand wringers, safety zealots, sugarphobes, mediaphobes, amateur allergists and “enrichment” fanatics” as you say and which most of our acquaintances are. Our philosophy is to spend time with our kids rather than make sure to have all organic juices and 16 after school activities (or whatever). We sort of figure if we just hang out with them and show them we care everything should turn out ok.

    • Nina Nina says:

      Claire, thank you! I laughed at the line “our philosophy is to spend time with our kids rather than make sure to have all organic juices and 16 after school activities.” My parenting philosophy is definitely mostly just hanging out with my kids and…so far so good. Thank you for reading, and good luck to you and your wife!

  4. Kristina says:

    I understand you wanting to tell your story of finding your own path in parenthood that didn’t follow some standard routine, but who says you are forced to follow the standard routine? In some instances, yes, your hands can feel tied. But ultimately you make your own choices, and you choose your own happiness.

    As a parent, least of your concerns should be whether or not you are cool or a dork! By the time your kids are teens they are going to think you are a dork anyway. It just seems like backtracking to fault the parents who you feel like are faulting you, and then I am faulting you for faulting them. See how it’s still all part of the same ugly cycle?

    By its very nature parenting gives you plenty of reason to be anxious. Yes, sometimes we DO need to be reminded with words in a book to calm down and relax. Sometimes we do need those communities of yoga, storytimes, support groups, however not perfect they might be.

    Yes, tolerance, diversity, peace, and joy are awesome ethics, but we all reach them in our own ways. We cannot force them through any set of lifestyle ideals. So if what works for me is living in the suburbs, being immersed in ‘mom culture’, and being a health nut, can’t that just be OK without sparking another debate and creating another division?

    Do you feel like I am not absorbing the right sentiment of your article?

  5. Nina Nina says:

    Kristina, I really appreciate this thoughtful comment. I think we are in agreement that we all reach for (and hopefully achieve) peace and joy in our own ways, and while my piece certainly playfully takes aim at a few parental habits I find alienating, I absolutely do not think I know any more than any other mom and I don’t intend to tell anyone how they should parent or what they should find meaningful. It really is my journey through what I think is an incredibly challenging time for a lot of people, especially women.

    There is a lot of talk about how hard motherhood is in our culture, but until fairly recently it was often represented in caricature, like a “working mom” (as if there’s any other kind) in a power suit carrying a baby and a briefcase and looking crazy/helpless. I sought with this piece to write the kind of thing I wish I’d read while I was contemplating parenthood or while I was pregnant: something that just says IT’S OKAY. It’s okay to not love every second, it’s okay if they don’t brush their teeth for one night, etc. And to anyone who finds that sense of IT’S OKAY-ness in a play group or yoga class or anywhere at all, I say that’s fantastic. That’s the dream! I wish I had found more of it sooner and hold out hope that I’ll continue to forge relationships with great parents as my kids grow.

    The reason I poke a bit of fun at some of the parents I’ve dealt with is that they aren’t just deriving meaning from quinoa or cloth diapers or Montessori schools, they aren’t even just proselytizing. They’re passing judgment from what I consider a pretty intolerant, often very classist place. And that they tend to be the kinds of people who self-identify as progressive and tolerant—well, it’s hypocritical.

    You say that parenting, by it’s very nature, is anxiety-producing, and I think that’s where I’d disagree. I think much of what parenting lit/culture has done is naturalize behaviors that are in fact socially constructed. (What Jennifer Senior’s book does beautifully is show the ways that this social construction has evolved). Of course we sometimes worry about the survival, health and happiness of our children: the basics. But the professionalization of parenthood has come to make people feel bad or seem “bad” for NOT worrying enough, and that’s what I think sucks.

    I also totally hear what you’re saying about the continuing cycle of fault-finding, but I find it refreshing to exchange ideas about this stuff. In the end we’re all just trying to do our best with the tools we have. I thank you for reading and commenting!!

  6. Katherine Pinson says:

    Thank you so much for writing this. It is absolutely spot-on!

  7. Jenn Berney Jenn Berney says:

    “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.”

    This resonated with me so much (and yet here I am reading about parenting…), especially the part about becoming less harried and brittle. Since having a second child and feeling even more stretched in every direction, I think I’ve tried to make that my mission, to invest as much time as possible on what feeds and rewards me for me, and hoping that self-care makes me a better human and also a better parent. Thanks for articulating that so beautifully.

  8. Queen says:

    Loved the article. It reminded me that the next time someone or some article tells me I am “doing it wrong”, to look at my kid, see if he’s happy and then shrug it off.

  9. Amy Cherko says:

    This wonderful essay perfectly described so much of what I’ve been struggling to articulate. Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

We love comments, feedback and critique but mean or snarky comments will not be published. MUTHA staff (of one) is away through June 27th - please leave your comments but moderation/posting may delayed. We'll be back soon!
 

Back to Top ↑