Once upon a time, a woman named Kim Brooks left her four-year-old in the car, with his iPad, on a cool and overcast day, when she ran into a store to quickly pick up an item. When she came out five minutes later, he had been kidnapped! — No, just kidding: he was perfectly fine (of course he was fine). But she wasn’t fine: a bystander (of the concerned variety) had seen her leave her son and come back. Instead of expressing their concern in person, the bystander recorded Brooks re-entering the car and driving away, and then called the police, who in turn issued a warrant for her arrest.
Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear is the book that came out of Kim Brooks’s experience: part memoir, part sociological study, and a fascinating overall read that I would recommend to all parents. Brooks not only explores the overtones of both fear and one-upmanship that surround parenting in this particular cultural moment, but also digs deeps to expose (some of) the roots of those overtones. Why do we approach parenting with such great fear that we, or the world, are going to irrevocably screw up our children? Why is parental competition so vicious? Where has our tolerance for differences in parenting styles gone? In part, the answer is because we live in a moment of where parenting has been elevated far above its historic importance — particularly for mothers. Brooks writes of her own experience,
For more than six years, I’d been embracing, or at least blindly accepting, the assumption that a woman who has small children doesn’t just become a mom. She becomes Mom — that is her name, her station, first and foremost the essential thing she is. In a New York Times op-ed, Heather Havrilesky wrote, “Motherhood is no longer viewed as simply a relationship with your children, a role you play at home and at school, or even a hallowed institution. Motherhood has been elevated — or perhaps demoted — to the realm of lifestyle, and all-encompassing identity with demands and expectations that eclipse everything else in a woman’s life.” (p. 170)
When I was pregnant with Anselm, I was in graduate school, taking a full course load. I wrote papers, went to classes, read interesting things. I had hobbies. Yet for those six-ish months of public, visible pregnancy, it was like all of that disappeared: not because I wasn’t interested in them anymore, but because nobody else was. If someone asked how I was feeling, they meant in relation to my pregnancy. If someone asked how things were going… they meant in relation to my pregnancy. It was like I wasn’t myself anymore, but instead had become this title, “Mother” (or perhaps, at that point, “Expecting Mother”). It was crazy how quickly that switch flipped. I see it now, too, when I’m out with my children, and acquaintances address me as “Mom” rather than using my name.
Although this is all super-duper annoying, I don’t put it down to malice on anyone’s part — nobody is actively trying to discard or denigrate the aspects of my life that aren’t related to mothering. It is, however, indicative of the way many of us think about parenting, even if only subconsciously: that when someone becomes a parent, that is the thing for them. Everything else is (or ought to be) shoved aside to make room for being a parent. Don’t get me wrong; I love my kids and I take parenting pretty seriously. But being a mother is one aspect of my being, not its totality.
Brooks talked to Jennifer Senior, author of All Joy and No Fun, for insights into this cultural shift:
[Jennifer] Senior offers several theories about how [what sociologist Annette Lareau named “concerted cultivation”] became the accepted standard for middle-class parents. She refers, for example to a century of shifting attitudes about the role of children, one of which the sociologist Viviana Zelizer calls the “sacrilization of child life,” a shift in which children became “economically worthless and emotionally priceless.” Senior speculates about social changes brought on by women’s full-fledged entrance into the workforce over the past five decades, and how this movement has stoked fears about the quantity and quality of time parents (but especially mothers) devote to their children. As Hilary Levey Friedman explains in Playing to Win, a heightening sense of class anxiety permeates much of twenty-first-century American life, and a symptom of that is the fact that parents now view their children’s educational achievement, prestige, and future success as “the only protection, dicey as it may be, against future family downward mobility.”
Senior also details the unprecedented expansion of choice that has changed the way parents approach matters of family life large and small. “Not long ago,” she suggests, “mothers and fathers did not have the luxury of deciding how large their families were or when each child arrived. Nor did they regard their children with the same reverence. . . . They had children because it was economically necessary, or because it was customary, or because it was a moral obligation to family and community.” By contrast, for many parents today from the middle class and above, caring for children is not an obligation or a necessity, but a long-anticipated life decision; we take on parenthood after a level of deliberation and preparation that would have been foreign to our grandparents or even our parents. And because we have our children later, because we have fewer of them, because many of us really, really want children if and when we have them, our identification with both the parent-child relationship and the work that parenting entails takes on enormous significance.
When child-rearing is something most people do for one reason or another (economic necessity, religious obligation, creating future warriors for battling rival tribes, and so on), when birthrates are high, parenthood common, children abundant and well integrated into various aspects of communal life, a baseline level of cooperation and benefit-of-the-doubt-giving pervades. But when being a parent is elevated to the most important thing you will ever do, a thing you in particular have chosen, a special duty and responsibility that only some accept, the stakes rise. If parenthood is no longer just a relationship or a part of “ordinary life” but instead a new kind of secular religion, then true tolerance of each other’s parenting differences becomes a lot more complicated and a lot less common. As Paula S. Fass writes in The End of American Childhood, “Once having children is defined as an individual choice, American parents often imagine that when they do not succeed or are less than completely successful . . . it is somehow their fault. Having made the choice, they are somehow obligated to do it right.” But obligated to whom? (pp. 48-9)
All of that makes sense to me. Because of several historical and social convergences (smaller family sizes, contraception, the shifting “worth” of children, and the rest), parenting is now seen as an extremely high-stakes endeavour. And if the stakes are high, then we are compelled to find and practice The Best Way, to know in our bones that we are doing it right, and that therefore those who chose other ways are doing it wrong. Parenting is something that needs to be “won” over and against other parents, including our friends and even our spouses.
But in seeing parenting as something that has winners and losers, as a situation where there’s only one right way (though nobody really seems to know exactly what that is) we succumb to a mentality that is fundamentally unhealthy and unsustainable — for children and parents alike. Small Animals is a breath of fresh air in many ways, inviting us to reexamine our assumptions, lower the stakes, and loosen our grip — even just a little — on the anxiety-driven need to do everything perfectly. Kim Brooks isn’t a perfect mother. Neither am I. And that, I think, is exactly how things should be.
Explore more: Crime statistics | LetGrow.org | Kim Brooks (official website) | Study: No Child Left Alone: Moral Judgments about Parents Affect Estimates of Risk to Children | Jennifer Senior’s TED Talk