Children who grow up in the typical fourth turning crisis era are extremely over-parented. The New Silent/ Homeland generation is no exception. I think there are various reasons for this trend and they are often driven by fear of the future. Parenting has become a market place for many conflicting theories and they all thrive on fear and insecurity. If parenting philosophies are our currencies, our children are the investment objects. And when it comes to our own flesh and blood, there is no such thing as second best.
In the early 2000s the attachment-parenting trend accompanied by the theories of Dr. Sears started to make encroachment into the American middle class. The philosophy of attachment parenting is based on attachment theory in psychology. Since infants become attached to adults who are sensitive and responsive in social interactions with them, a close relationship with parents, mostly the mother, has to be fostered to optimize the child’s socio-emotional development. This includes extended breastfeeding, co-sleeping and positive, non-confrontational forms of discipline. The trend co-evolved with environmentalism, perhaps because they both tend to appeal to the same audiences, usually the better-informed and highly socially and ecologically conscious consumers in urban areas. The environmental component reintroduced the idea of cloth-diapering, pureeing ones own baby food and strict adherence to organic and natural products. For some mothers it meant foregoing hospital births in favor of giving natural (non-anesthetic) homebirth with the help from doulas and midwives in place of doctors. This new birthing practice was a reaction to the sterilization and professionalization of childbirth in general and partly a reaction to the inexplicably high incidence of c-sections in the U.S. Attachment parents seem to foster a general skepticism of traditional medicine and some even forego vaccinating their children lest the vaccine may cause serious side effects and/or be promoted to pad the pockets of a well-lobbied pharmaceutical industry.
At the same time several feminist intellectuals noticed a growing trend of highly educated women foregoing career opportunities to stay home with their children. Thus the “opt-out revolution” was born. (No pun intended.) And truly, if a mother is to follow the rigorous principles surrounding modern motherhood where is the time for anything else? For some of these mostly Generation X parents this is also their own way of defying their Silent and early Boomer mothers who used to adorn their daughters with latchkeys before hurrying out the door in their undying efforts at shattering glass ceilings back in the 70s and 80s. The “opt-out theory” has been widely criticized pointing out that the statistics don’t support the theory. Stay-at-home moms are mostly undereducated, younger and of Hispanic culture. Not that it really matters much because it’s the relative change within the socio-economic segments over time that is interesting, not the absolute numbers between categories at a given point because they fail to measure change. Yet a tendency towards female domesticity could be more reflective of external factors such as unemployment, wage stagnation and workplaces growing more hostile towards the needs of women.
Add increasing competition for college admission, poor economic prospects and increasing disparaties between haves-and have-nots, and you have a wide battle turf where worn out, nerve-frazzled, self-doubting mommies can fight out or at least compete with their mommy peers with semi-religious fervor.
“Are You Mom Enough?” was the notorious headline Time Magazine featured last month. And it’s the question that so many mothers ask themselves every day. In a state of perceived or real societal crisis there are no second chances, and you only get one stab at raising a kid who can aspire to achieve at least a cheaper faux version of the American Dream. Would you forfeit that opportunity only to pursue your self-indulged career objectives? For many women this is the existential life-altering question they ask themselves the day they decide to stop to renew the prescription for their contraceptive pills.
But do they have to? For feminists like Elisabeth Badinter, whose book “The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women” was recently translated to English, that very question is evidence of how much the feminist movement has been set back by modern ideas of motherhood. By guilt-tripping prospective mothers for choosing epidurals, day-cares and baby bottles, women can once again be placed into their Stepford homes. Only this time they spend their days wearing their babies in fair-traded organic cotton slings while reading labels at the Whole Food aisles and studying The Baby Book. And all while getting no more credit for it than spit-up on the pillowcase next to them. Badinter’s point is that with the high stakes involved in parenting these days, very few women are going to choose to procreate. And those who do better get ready to give up whatever identity they had worked on the thirty-something years before baby was born.
But as Darkmouth professor Amy Allen says in a recent New York Times op-ed, the controversy might be based on false dichotomies, wherein which feminists keep buying into the idea that feminine reproductive spheres are far less valuable than the “masculine” spheres of production. The problem is thus one of value perception where the tasks that typify child rearing – child care, education, emotional connections – become “priceless”, meaning that nobody is willing to pay the price or consider the credentials for mastering these skills in the productive sphere. So not only does the mother forego income while her kids are small, but the time and efforts she put into it is worthless on her résumé as well. Staying home with young kids can then become a double whammy.
It is probably true that in parts of the world where feminine jobs are more highly valued (teaching, caregiving etc.) parental leaves and subsidized child care are not only the norm, but more daddies and male caregivers find their ways into these areas as well – sometimes with pride. In Scandinavian countries I don’t even think there is a term for the Mommy Wars. At least it is not a public controversy. And if it were, it would be labeled the more gender neutral “Parent Wars” as fathers usually have a more central role in their children’s lives.
From my own personal experiences the dichotomy has been false one as I often included elements of attachment parenting as sort of a lazy default mechanism more than a conscientious decision. It was just easier for me to sleep with my kids during a time when I had to care for twin babies, one with a pesky reflux problem, a three-year-old and two part time jobs with management responsibilities. I was completely drained and co-sleeping was the only way I could get any shut-eye. Secondly, I couldn’t figure out how all the fuss around bottles and formulas would be any easier to deal with than strapping on a double nursing pillow. Since I could work from home, nursing while working settled a lot of potentially frustrating moments and gave me time to concentrate on my computer work at the same time.
But even as more flex-time and communication technologies make multitasking easier, there may still be areas where blind allegiance to the attachment mantra would be to the detriment of the mother and where the child’s benefit is likely to be insignificant or perhaps even worse. At least if mom is left to do most of it. And this is what I see as a potential change maker in the future.
I think one of the issues the New Silents/ Homelanders (born 2004+) will deal with might be related to having been “over-parented”. Attachment parents are by no means the only “type” of parents who overparent, but overparenting does reflect the idea that when it comes to parenting more is always better. But what if less is more? Counter-movements such as those who polemically embrace self-ironic labels such as “worst mom ever” and “slacker mom” might have a point when they argue that kids who are used to being stimulated and catered to 24/7 come with unintended side effects. If they have never been exposed to boredom or loneliness might some important life lessons be missed? And what signals are we sending our children when mommy put her own destiny to a halt just to help her child along the very same destiny path? What does mama do when she can’t break back into her field of work again after a decade long domestic hiatus? When she gets a divorce? These are some of the questions the New Silent/Homeland generation might be asking in a few years, just like their parallel generation did 50 years ago, which brought about the feminist revolution. Prepare for a new wave of feminism in some years and for our children not to parent the way we do.