Sunday, February 04, 2007

the parent trap

If you are in Oz, you might have read this article in Saturday's paper. Jane Cadzow reporting on parental guilt and the burden of raising children in today's world. Like all articles on parenting and children, I devoured it immediately. And like all of these articles I read, I was left feeling really ambivalent about what it meant to me.

Cadzow points to a number of things about how the role of children and parenting have changed throughout history to argue that children have gone from being smaller version of adults (with adult responsibilities and one assumes almost no parenting needs), through the removed from the adult world phase (via wet nurses, nannies and boarding schools, outsourced parenting) to come to occupy centre stage in today's world and in the lives of parents.

Now there's hyper pressure to get it right, to raise geniuses, to attend to a child's every need. For adults to sacrifice themselves and their time to maximise their children's happiness, growth and development and to become experts who will be held fully accountable for a child's every flaw. To surrender personal leisure time, sleep and goals to facilitate maximum exposure, to take children into worlds previously reserved for adults alone.

She argues that this is bad for parents and for kids. Parents are run ragged, guilt ridden and doomed to failure - since kids are indeed humans and not capable of perfection. They are tired and missing out on their own lives. Their children are growing into unhappy hot house flowers, whose every passing emotion is analysed and adjusted and who are increasingly incapable of living their own lives unassisted. "Whiny, passive, self-centred and cheerless", says one journalist quoted by Cadzow.

Part of me agrees with all this. I see the extent of angst so many parents (particularly mothers) go through about the millions of day to day issues they have to make a call on and it seems like so much wasted energy. I see the guilt that wracks otherwise rational intelligent adults over the smallest of problems or judgements from others and it seems so disproportionately self-punishing. I see the way parents feel shamed when their child behaves badly or displays poor judgement - even when such things are rare occurences - the way they become defensive or punishing or embarassed over the learning experiences each child must surely go through.

And I recall, as well as reflect on, the tremendous power of independence as a child. The way in which I learned from the mistakes I made, the way in which I was left to take responsibility for the world I created for myself. I also suspect, from expereince and observation, that in many ways children develop despite parenting rather than because of it. I sometimes wonder what lurks beneith the desire of parents for perfect children, for approval as perfect parents. I wonder why parents let this happen to them, why they take the pressure and guilt on instead of being OK with life's imperfection.

But then there's the other part of me. The part that feels the regular confusion and frustration of reading articles/having conversations/being told about society's fascination with how we parent. About the explosion of (often conflicting) knowledge about what is and is not good for children and what parents should and should not do. If parents have come to over think parenting, then so have social commentators and non-parents alike. Hardly a day goes by when we aren't being told about the crimes of the (all too recent) past, breast vs formula, solids too early or late, toilet training at what age and in what way, co-sleeping or controlled crying. Every choice studied, scrutinised and no doubt to be demonised at some later point.

Women's magazines carry headlines about how Brittany Spears' nights on the town make her subject to visits from child welfare - as though the choice to leave children with a nanny or five whilst enjoying oneself out of the home (underpants or not) make her a mother so unfit to parent that her children should forcibly be removed from her care. Other celebrity mothers have been similarly slammed for losing or gaining weight, for having nannies or not, for carting children with them whilst going out to work, or leaving them behind, or not working at all, for posing nude whilst pregnant or being ashamed of their pregnant bodies, for staying in a bad relationship or leaving one.

In the context of broader social change the the pressure on parenting is not entirely surprising, and there are a few points in Cadzow's article I would take issue on.

For a start the changing nature of work and workplace commitment places pressures on families that didn't used to be there. Cadzow claims working hours haven't fundamentally changed in 40 years, but even if this is true (which I think is not the real picture), those hours are now spread across a greater span of time, are less predictable and more likely to involve travel and home absence than ever before (we may not be clocked on whilst sleepign ina hotel room in another city but we sure aren't being active parents either). More jobs are casual, contract, short term and part-time, many more people cobble a working life together through managing a number of employment situations than sticking on one job for many years - a job more likely than not where your boss knew your kids by name and maybe even let them hang around if they were off school or a bit off colour.

40 years ago very few people worked on weekends, and Sundays in particular were absolutely family time. In the retail sector alone we now have 7 day a week 24 hour a day trading. Sunday quite possibly involves working - if not in the paid workforce then in the domestic sphere via a trip to Bunnings to get the new guttering or the supermarket to do the weekly shop. There can be no doubt that for families, time (even if not reduced in quantum) is most certainly more fractured. And this means parents feel the pressure to be more 'present' for children when they are together.

But I also think that while parenting has becoming an obsession in some respects, children have become far more marginalised beings than they used to be, rather than the centre of the universe as Cadzow asserts. Certainly we now see children in places they used not to be (like expensive restaurants and fancy resorts) and we do see parenting talked about and debated in forums that would once have seen such discussion as entirely beneith them (like daily newspapers). But many of the places in which children were once welcome, indeed quite central, have diminished over time. The vacant land and wild places of the suburban fringe, the parklands that offered more than fenced in uber safe playgrounds, the streets that hosted billy cart races and ball games, the community recreation parks and pools that were cheap and friendly, the local footy oval where the locals practiced their games.

Society is no longer prepared to bear the costs of these resources and it is perhaps inevitable that as the world outside has diminished for kids the world inside has had to grow in compensation. Where once children may have expected to live in the same suburb all their lives, cheek by jowl with extended family and other kids they went to kinder and school with, owning their streets if you like, they are now just as likely to live in a different city or even country to anyone they have known from their childhood. They are more often strangers out of the home and with this comes a greater reliance on parents to mediate the world outside and better furnish the one inside.

Few would argue against the proposition that the world has fundamentally changed too, that even as adults we experience a hyper reality we couldn't have imagined as children. Our parents raised us in an age before computers, mobile phones, accessible international travel, even universal exposure to TV. Before anyone had to remember a PIN, let alone dozens of them. Before we ever heard the term productivity in relation to our performance in the workplace. It is not surprising then that raising children in an age where many of us struggle to stay abreast of the contemporary world creates fears about what will happen to our children if we do not adequately prepare and skill them. A more intensive world may well require more intensive parenting.

Family size is also a building block of parenting, and as those (increasingly rare beasts) who elect to have more than two children will attest, much changes as the number of heads multiply. A significant part of this is necessity - there being only so many hours in a day to attend to children's needs - but a different kind of dynamic opens up when parents no longer constitute the majority. Authority works differently when you are outnumbered, the politics of acceptance dictate that siblings play ever greater roles and economies of scale come into full flight. Statistics on domestic labour support this - parents actually do less work when they have three children then two, and yet less when they have four. That more families have two than four children would seem to suggest that more families would be parenting more intensively.

But all of these tunnels in the rabbit warren connect up for me at some point around judging the present by the past. The world moves on, we as individuals move on. We all like progress. No one would choose to go back to the time before we discovered antibiotics, or before we could turn on a tap and drink safely. Most of us would refelct on our childhoods and find space for improvement. The drive to get parenting right, get it more right, is connected in with all the other things we try and improve. Progress is about change and change brings with it anxiety. Trying to do it better involves criticising the past, moving out of our comfort zone and standing in conflict with others. There's tension and hurt feelings and disagreement about what the future holds and how best to get there.

But it is inevitable too, and in the end surpasses each of us as individuals and our own individual anxieties and blindspots. So yeah, I think we could lighten up a little. I think parents could take themselves and each other less seriously and do more to maintain their perspective. But I don't think we should or can give up on the project of moving forward and becoming better parents.


Blogger k8tykat said...

a friend of mine [who had three children of her own] gave me some sage advice before the birth of my first child 4 years ago.

remember, you shouldn't live in your childs world, children live in yours.

i always found that this gives me enormous perspective when i'm feeling the stress of parenting and decicsion making.

3:34 am  
Blogger Steff said...

Wow that was fantastic - beautifully written and thought provoking

12:14 pm  
Blogger A "Mother of Two" said...

There is a lot of press on what and what not to do as a parent. We read everyday about someone being a 'bad' parent and how all a child's evil go back to the parent.

I think we need to stick to what we know is right as a parent and use for the media for information, not direction or instruction on parenting.

8:33 am  
Anonymous Jennifer said...

I'd love to see you submit this article for wider publication; it is beautifully written.

I have a theory about why we're at this particular pass in parenting history: it has long been a tenet of Western parenting that you "do better" for your children than was done for you. This made a lot of sense when grandparents and great-parents grew up in abject poverty, on farms, without education, without shoes (so the saw goes), etc. We haven't learned to "un-do" that response -- we HAVE to make our childrens' lives better than our own because THAT'S how you do a good job of parenting. But, when *most* of us grew up pretty much having what we needed, in the lap of middle-class comfort, what's left to "out-do"? Sure, I don't smoke cigarettes or host cocktail parties at home and send friends home rip-roaring drunk as my parents did (but, hey -- they were just keeping up with the Joneses!), but I really have to fight (and honestly, often fail) my urges to protect my son from the "wrongs" of my childhood. Unfortunately, this often means buying him too much stuff or putting child-friendly meals on the table every night when there are two adults and one child eating the food, etc. etc. I hope I'm not rambling and that you see my point.

In any case, here's to be comfortable being the parents that we are, loving our children as we do, and leaving the judging to some other place and time.

4:27 am  
Anonymous alice said...

You've done it again (as usual)--put everything together so well it brings tears to my eyes.
My husband makes fun of me for reading parenting books ("How to talk so kids will listen..." "Don't sit on your kids" etc.), but at least they get me thinking about how to improve my own parenting--and my own life/world (thank you k8tykat for that comment!).

2:01 am  

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