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The Parenting Obsession

It's a constructed reality and a mixed blessing for our kids and our sanity.

By Vanessa Richmond 24 Jun 2009 |

Tyee contributing editor Vanessa Richmond writes the Schlock and Awe column about popular culture and the media.

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John minus Kate because of the eight?

Yesterday, America's two most famous parents filed for divorce. It's not really any surprise.

"As always, my first priority remains our children," said Kate last night. She's the mother on John and Kate Plus 8, a reality TV show about two parents' efforts to raise their twins and sextuplets.

"Our kids are still my number one priority... My job is being the best, most supportive and loving father that I can be to my kids, and not being married to Kate doesn't change that," said John.

Their divorce announcement is the main story in the tabloids, bumping the previous top story, "Gisele Bundchen, Tom Brady Expecting a Baby!" and other top-five stories, "Matthew McConaughey and His Girlfriend Expecting Second Baby," and "Report: Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick Welcome Twins!"

Some people are starting to (unpopularly) point out that our current interest in kids and parenting is neither normal nor historical. The "parenthood" concept is, in fact, a recent invention, a type of obsession, and even a form of insanity. Some would say "parenthood" is responsible for divorces, like sweet Kate and John's, and other types of fallout, like, say, Kate's not-so-sweet temper. When humans can't stand the heat, sometimes we don't get out of the fire; we fan the flames and sometimes get burnt.

Blame Clara for 'Parenthood'

"I blame... Clara Savage Littledale, whose job it was to help invent American parenthood," writes Jill Lepore in this week's New Yorker. Littledale was the first editor of Parenting magazine, and helped create an industry that turned normal adults into parents, and normal parents into bad parents in need of saving.

"Stages of life are artifacts," writes Lepore. "Adolescence is a useful contrivance, midlife is a moving target, senior citizens are an interest group, and tweenhood is just plain made up." Lepore argues that parenthood at first seems different -- in that, duh, there have always been parents, and those parents have "always been besotted with their children, awestruck by their impossible beauty, dopey high jinks, and strange little minds." But she says "parenthood," the word, and our current understanding of it, dates only to the mid-19th century, and our idea of what it means is "historically in its infancy."

Life used to be like this, according to Lepore. You were "born into a growing family, you help rear your siblings, have the first of your own half-dozen or even dozen children soon after you're grown, and die before your youngest has left home." In the early 1800s, the fertility rate of American women was between seven and eight children (now it's just over two for American women, and about one and a half for Canadian women). Adults died by age 60, and almost every household had children in it. By 1920, only about 55 per cent of households had kids. Now, it's under a third.

Most people today don't grow up caring for young siblings or other kids, and don't know how to do even basic things like bathing or soothing babies. First-time parents can't count on grandparents anymore in most cases. And all of this means parenthood has become mystifying.

You are a danger to your kids

Into any scary, mysterious void come snake-oil salespeople. In this case, magazines and experts, like in Parenting magazine, arrived on the scene about a century ago, and turned child care into a science.

The public bought the idea that they were essentially a danger to their own kids and had better pay money for advice, that they'd better try really hard to do a good job, and they'd still inevitably fail. (Even though, as Lepore points out, kids are actually safer now than ever. In 1850, more than one baby in five died before its first year, by 1920 that had dropped to one in 20, and today infant mortality is at one in 200.)

Lepore quotes Littledale, the editor of that first parenting magazine, in her write up of why the new American Academy of Pediatrics was founded: "Once it was believed that the very physical fact of parenthood brought with it an instinctive wisdom that enabled one to rear children wisely and well. Parents knew best. Today fathers and mothers are unwilling to struggle under such a load of self-imposed omniscience. Even if they were, the facts would be against them. For in this country, various studies made in the last 10 years present incontrovertible data to prove that devoted but unenlightened parenthood is a dangerous factor in the lives of children."

Now, more people wait to have kids because they don't feel ready in light of it being so important and difficult. And being a parent is harder than ever due to "structural problems," says Lepore. "Most jobs are made for people who aren't taking care of children. The sharper the division between parenthood and adulthood, the worse those jobs fit, and the less well people who aren't rearing children understand the hardships of people who are. Employers are seldom asked to accommodate family life in any meaningful way; employees do all the accommodating, which mainly involves, especially for women, pretending that we don't actually have families."

And all of that also means parenthood has become a kind of magical ideal, a role impossible to actually fulfill due to time, personality or financial constraints -- think June Cleaver, or her modern equivalent, Angelina Jolie. Parenthood is not only supposed to take over our schedules and bank accounts, but transform our identities. When you have a kid, you're no longer an adult or an individual, you're a parent.

Gisele and the model life

All of the stories about Gisele Bundschen's pregnancy this week focus on her saying she's always wanted to be a mother, and that she thinks being a parent is the most important thing in life. Really? She didn't want to be a millionaire supermodel with a hunky, famous, quarterback husband? She won't stand back and be as pleased about those parts of her life?

But with idealization like that being hyped in various media outlets, it's no wonder (posed) photo shoots in fashion magazines of neglectful mothers smoking and even throwing plastic babies over their shoulders seem so salacious and exciting.

It's no wonder that the public is fascinated with stories of celebrity parents -- both those who follow the rules and those who fall short (like Britney Spears).

Look, parenting is a really important job. I hear from dozens of parents that their kids are the best things in their life. And it's impossible not to get swept up in the pressure and the mysticism.

But trying too hard at anything, and creating too many rules and expectations comes at a price. And transforming from an adult into a parent clearly comes at a price, one that John and Kate paid this week.

Related Tyee stories:


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