On Christmas day, the New York Times ran an article titled “The Relentlessness of Modern Parenting.”
From the article: “Parenthood in the United States has become much more demanding than it used to be. … Mothers who juggle jobs outside the home spend just as much time tending their children as stay-at-home mothers did in the 1970s. …The time parents spend in the presence of their children has not changed much, but parents today spend more of it doing hands-on child care. Time spent on activities like reading to children; doing crafts; taking them to lessons; attending recitals and games; and helping with homework has increased the most.”
I thought that was fascinating and so I reported it to my own mother over Christmas dinner. She greeted the news with a roll of the eyes so intense that I worried she may have sprained something. She was a stay-at-home-mom in the 1970s and ’80s and will tell you that she spent quite a lot of time tending to her children, thank you very much. Absolutely. And the fact that I can recall entire “Days of Our Lives” plotlines from 1985 isn’t relevant to this conversation, probably.
The Times article suggests that more and more parents feel societal pressure to engage in “intensive parenting — constantly teaching and monitoring children.” A mother was quoted: “There’s this sense that something is wrong with you if you aren’t with your children every second when you’re not at work.”
But is parenting really any more demanding today than it was in the past? Maybe it’s more emotionally taxing, but it seems silly to think that shuttling kids between soccer and piano lessons in 2019 is more demanding than parenting through the Great Depression, or a world war, or without indoor plumbing. Our foremothers used large, metal broom-things to beat the dirt out of their kids’ clothes. That’s what they called doing the laundry.
Modern parents have washers and dryers. We have disposable diapers and baby monitors and automatic breast pumps that are highly efficient and make a woman feel only slightly like a robot cow. And, we have the internet.
The internet is like the smartest, funniest and most helpful, but also the most deeply paranoid and toxic friend you know. In just the past week I have turned to Google for information about night terrors, snow boot reviews, and the Tooth Fairy’s going rate these days. All very useful information.
But the internet can also fuel unhealthy comparisons to other parents and trigger feelings of inadequacy. The Times article cites growing economic anxiety as the major reason parents today feel compelled to parent so intensively. We push our kids into the best enrichment programs, the best schools, the best careers, because the economic stakes are so high.
That’s all true, but I think social media is making the parental anxiety situation infinitely worse. Social media is giving parents (and everyone else) a warped sense of what is normal. We see the perfectly choreographed Instagram posts from well-groomed, well-off women. Here is Well-Groomed Mom taking her five children snowshoeing, then to a post-snowshoeing math tournament. Here is Well-Groomed Mom and her goldendoodle wearing matching pajamas, making pancakes together. Here she is performing at the White House with her family’s barbershop quartet. You know — just normal mom stuff.
Parenthood is a tough occupation, and whether or not it is any more demanding today than it was in the past, it’s certainly not any less stressful.
My mom did not watch soap operas all day long when I was little. Just sometimes. She was great, actually, and very involved with my life and education, the PTA and the Girl Scouts and the carpool. But the most valuable thing she did as a mother was make sure that my brother and I knew every day that we were loved and protected.
That last bit is maybe all that we parents really have to do for our children. Most of that other stuff — the polished Instagram posts and the perfectly well-rounded lists of extracurricular activities — that’s for us, not them.
This post originally appeared in The Wenatchee World.