Today, as I prepare to attend the three classes my kids are enrolled in on Tuesdays, I decided it was a good time to tell you about All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. I happened to turn right to a chapter called “Concerted Cultivation,” which seemed apropos to the moment; for all I know, any of the chapters would have felt this way.
During the first of last week’s onslaught of Tuesday classes, I settled into the bleachers to flip through the book and pretend to watch Charlie knock a bunch of orange cones over in a gym. I sat up sharply when I came across a single word: uncertainty. Somehow this one word resonates more than the other thousands I have read in books and essays on modern parenthood and cultural contradictions. Uncertainty would actually be a better title for her book, albeit less snappy. Here is her point regarding uncertainty. For millennia people viewed childhood, if not exactly the same, similarly. They saw children as a way to make extra income, to help on the family farm. They did not sentimentalize or coddle children, nor did they afford them any particular protection. Didn’t we learn in Anthropology class (or was it Environmental Sociology?) that they used children in the coal mines prior to canaries to test the air quality? Children are much better diggers than canaries, after all.
Over a wink in time, we have completely altered the thinking about parents and children; no longer their employers, we are now their protectors, and we make a career out of getting them a career. Only, we aren’t quite sure what that career should be, since the landscape of employment changes so rapidly in our time. No longer can we rely on the college education, or even graduate education, as the gold standard for our children. What seemed the symbol in America of ultimate achievement for generations is crumbling before our eyes, and we are scrambling in the rubble to rebuild; yet, we seem to be trying to build something new from the top down. Rather than watching our children develop skills and preferences and directing them toward activities that appeal to those strengths, we throw them at a myriad of activities that may or may not interest them and shuttle them onto the next thing before they can even stop and decide whether they liked the last activity.
Margaret Mead, the celebrated anthropologist, wrote about how parenthood was changing in the 1940’s and ‘50’s, and observed even then, “We find new schools of education, new schools of diet, new schools of human relations, sprung up like mushrooms, new, untried, rank like skunk cabbages in early spring. And we find serious, educated people following their dictates.” In other words, we have no folkways to guide our parenting. We are anxious because we don’t know what’s coming next.
When I was 14 years old and at a slumber party with friends, we discovered cookie dough ice cream for the first time. At my inaugural tasting, I recall a feeling of incredulity that the whole time the world had been spinning, we were completely unaware this amazing flavor was out there waiting to be discovered. It was probably the first time I truly understood the value of invention. Maybe I should be embarrassed by this admission, but I’m not. Cookie dough ice cream is damn good stuff. My girlfriends and I sat around that evening passing the pint, digging for dough nuggets, and talking about how there could be other things out there that hadn’t been discovered yet. I’m sure that when I went home, I told my mom all about it and begged her to buy some. What I failed to mention to her is that my friend had gotten one of those AOL CD-ROMs in the mail, and that we had also tried out something called the world wide web that night. Or if you like Godfather references, you could say I took the cookie dough and left the Internet.
I could have lied just now and told you that my eureka moment in recognizing my own inability to judge the next big thing was something profound like reading The World is Flat. But I like this story because it’s more like real life; our capacity to comprehend and anticipate what’s coming next is just waiting to be distracted by little balls of cookie dough.
Modern motherhood is fraught with concern over doing things right. We enroll our kids in too many classes and try to control what they do in school, which friends they pick, what subjects they pursue. This shit is bananas. When schools give kids piles of homework—is this based on any evidence? Or are we just scared that they might not learn what they need to know, so we practically throw the books at them? Do we even know what they need to know?
So yeah, that whole Internet thing upended how much our lives could change in the span of a day, and month, a year—and we didn’t even realize it was happening at the time. But I think we don’t need to know what lies ahead to make decisions about our children. We don’t need, as Nora Ephron puts it, all the “Mozart CDs while…pregnant, doing without the epidural, and breast-feeding your child until it [is] old enough to unbutton your blouse.” Those things aren’t wrong or bad, but we don’t need them to be good mothers. Perhaps we can simply go back to motherhood the way it was before we began to scramble; therefore, while I will enroll my children in some extracurricular activities, I do solemnly swear this week is the last of the horror that is The Tuesday of Three Classes. I invite you to do the same.