What’s Making Us Miserable

I don’t usually do “response” posts, but a friend shared this on Facebook last night, and I had a whole lot to say… more than felt reasonable in a comment!

I was excited to read the article! Maybe I would discover some paradigms I had been unwittingly buying into that were making me unhappy. I enjoy having my illusions shattered! And in her intro she reveals that she parented both with and without the internet, and that she had noticed huge differences. That made me realize that a lot of my conflicts around parenting with my own mother are mostly about access to information: I have way more than she did. I couldn’t wait to delve into the differences and become a happier mama!

Unfortunately, this article didn’t do that for me.

The crux of the piece is that despite having more access to information, “modern” mothers are less happy than previous generation because we’re overwhelmed. She then lays out a list of “myths” that this excess is apparently driving is to believe. Once we break free of them, we will be happier more fulfilled parents. As a new mama who consumes a ridiculous amount of parenting and baby related media online (from a variety of sources) I ought to be an ideal candidate for the change in perspective she is offering!

But before we get to her list, take a look at this bit:

Fast forward twenty short years (inserting the internet half way through), and few mothers I meet would say the same. Though most are striving, hardly any of us are actually arriving at a level of self-assuredness and satisfaction proportionate to our dedication and investment. In fact, the amount of self-doubt I’ve experienced in my own post-internet parenting has been exponentially more than my pre-internet days, even though I know about a kajillion more things than I did then.

How can this be? How can such a wealth of information be both increasing our understanding AND decreasing our sense of self-worth?

She claims that the reason we doubt ourselves as parents is because our brains were not wired to handle all if this information. She does not say how much information we ARE wired to handle or mention any studies on this, it’s just “less than this” and “take my word for it.”

But take a look at that first paragraph again. Contemporary parents are STRIVING she says, but we are not satisfied. Maybe that’s because the state of if the nature of the act if striving.

If I’m striving to be a better parent, what does that entail? It entails self examination. It entails being willing to admit when I’ve made a mistake and being ready to change my mind. It entails humility. And yes, that comes with some self doubt. I don’t doubt my parenting decisions because I’m overwhelmed by too much information – though I respect that there IS a lot of information out there and that many parents do indeed feel overwhelmed by it – I doubt my parenting decisions because I’m testing them and evaluating them. Doubt is baked in, it is not a side effect to be done away with, it’s an integral part of the process.

Yes, intuition can be lovely and helpful, especially as a parent. But many parents don’t always feel an intuitive sense about every single thing. Or they may simply want to know more about a given topic. Why is my baby doing this? When is this stage likely to end? How do other parents deal with X? I you’re not privileged enough to have a great source of parenting info (like a stellar parent or friend or pediatrician) the magic of he internet is, well, sort of magical in those situation.

Now lets dive into just a couple of the myths.

3. A desire to stay home with your kids signifies a lack of intelligence, motivation, or competency.

Which corner of the parenting internet, largely populated by blogs by stay at home parents, is perpetuating this myth? Where on earth is she getting this and how does it have anything to do with our supposed overload of information?
Maybe in the deepest depths of the parenting forums some working parents comfort themselves by talking shit about stay at home parents. But I can’t think of a single online publication that subscribes to this idea. Everywhere from babycenter to scary mommy seems to take a similar stance: some moms work. Others don’t. That’s cool.

4. A desire to work outside the home signifies a lesser degree of love for or attachment to your kids.

See above.

10. Our children’s questionable choices reflect bad parenting on our part.

I’ve never met a parent, my own included (and they were certainly parenting pre-internet y’all), who didn’t feel that way at least some of the time. And while many parents work their asses off and do a great job, and their kids still make poor decisions sometimes because they are human beings, you know what? Sometimes bad parenting does lead to shitty outcomes. It happens. Again, that’s why we question ourselves and strive.

11. There is a right way to parent.

If there is one thing that having a ridiculous amount of parenting information has ever convinced me is NOT true, it is this statement. Many people had access to more limited information (like their parents for example) seem to think this though. “Well that’s the way I was raised, and I turned out just fine” etc.
Maybe some days I wish there was one right way, but the magic of the internet gives me a little window into hundreds upon hundreds of parents parenting in vastly different ways and still yielding largely positive results.

14. Asking for help is a sign of weakness.

This is certainly an idea that is prevalent in our society, but again I don’t think it has anything to do with contemporary parenting or our supposed information overload. Parenting forums are full of people doing just that – reaching out and asking for help – and while responses can vary I have never seen another parent respond with “why weren’t you good enough to just deal with this on your own?”

A couple of her myths did ring true for me, as ideas I sometimes suffer from and ideas that are sometimes perpetuated by the onslaught of information available to me.

6. Balance is what we’re all seeking.

This one hit home for me. I never feel less balanced or at home in my own skin than when I’m worried about balance. And yet I keep falling for it, believing that the mythical balance between parenting, work, and adult life is just around the corner and just out of reach.

9. We’ll feel joyful about our mothering experience once everything’s lined up and organized.

Yeah, totally. Ugh.

Go read the whole list, and if you are suffering from any (or all) of these myths, please do try to take comfort in the fact that they are largely untrue. If you got something useful out of the breakdown of myths, I’m glad, and I’m not here to shame you. Certainly, there are parents who are suffering.

But I think by and large our suffering isn’t due to too much information. Here is a short list of places I think it does come from:

1. Parenting is hard.
2. Lack of meaningful support.
3. Lack of representation and information for many types of families.
4. Some people think it’s ok to tell parents what to do.
5. Economy is total shit and global capitalism is screwing us over.
6. PARENTING IS HARD.

7. Bad ideas about parenting, which we absorb without realizing it from all kinds of sources, sometimes even our own families.

I think on the whole it is always a good thing to challenge the ways that people feel bad, and people doing the labor of parenting certainly need that. I guess I’m just ultimately sick of being told that these are “modern” problems, and the implication that we would be happier and better parents if only we didn’t have so much darn information! I have a copy of What To Expect from the 1980s, and I am damn glad I have other sources of info!

Yes, the internet can be overwhelming. But the thing I’m most overwhelmed by on the internet is people on the internet telling me how overwhelmed I must be by the internet.

You Have To Guess – Pronouns For Babies

I was visiting a friend who has two kids, both boys, holding my son on my lap. My son was wearing a pink onesie and a pair of dark blue overalls.

“I think she wants to play with this!” the younger one squealed, holding a toy car in the air.

The older of the two stared at his brother, “that’s a BOY!” he announced, “you say ‘he’ not ‘she!'”

“Well that’s ok, he doesn’t really care yet,” I said to both of them.

A few more minutes passed, and then the older boy said “but how can you tell that it’s a boy?”

It was a loaded question for me. Some of my closest friends are transgender, as is my child’s generous sperm donor. I am constantly aware that any identity we put on him may be discarded by him at any time in favor of something else. His other mother and I, we are just his parents, we don’t own him. He may not be a boy. He could be a girl, or even something else. That is ok with me because I love him for who he is, I love him just for showing up to this amazing world, not for any particulars about him that I pretend to know.

I looked at the child standing in front of me “well, you have to guess.”

“Oh. Ok.”

It made sense to him. It makes sense to me too, actually.

***

At least two adults in my child’s life currently use gender neutral pronouns. More than that identify as some form of transgender or genderqueer. So unlike the typical nuclear family, it wasn’t necessarily obvious to us that penis = boy = he pronouns.

The decision to gender our child is not one we have taken lightly. First of all, we recognize that it is just that, our decision.

We could have chosen a different way. We could have chosen to give our kid a more gender neutral sounding name, and to insist upon gender neutral pronouns until they were old enough to articulate what they would like to be called and how they would like to be addressed. In many ways, this idea was attractively radical. Instead we chose to allow him to be labeled “boy” and use masculine pronouns, but while constantly providing him with other options and reinforcing that we are ready to switch at any moment.

Calling our kid “he” may be an educated guess, but it is a guess.

So why’d we do it? Here’s a few reasons:

1. Babies do not self identify, at least not as far as we know. All parents, to some degree, project an identity onto their very young children. I DONT THINK THIS IS NECESSARILY A BAD THING. Projecting a placeholder identity onto a baby helps us to think of them as whole people, and to relate to them and empathize with them. Empathy is probably one of my biggest goals as a parent, and I want to give myself the tools to do so. It is really really hard to relate to someone without an identity, which is part of the reason we name our children rather than waiting until they can name themselves.
As long as we recognize that the placeholder identity is just that – a placeholder – then I think it can be a very good thing, and that can include gender. The problem arises when we, as parents, become so attached to the placeholder identity that we won’t listen to our children tell us who they really are.

2. We have to live in this world now. Raise your hand if you remember baby Storm. I fully support Storm’s parents decision to do what they believed to be best for their child, but to be perfectly frank I simply am not equipped to deal with that level of negative attention.
Our child has to live in the world as it is, right now, and so do we. We are already asking his extended family members to get used to a lot of ideas and practices that aren’t totally familiar to them. Gendered pronouns feels like an area where compromising with wider culture is ok for us.

3. Baby names are hard. We needed to pick a name that we both liked, and that we would still like after saying three thousand times a day. There were very fee named that fit that bill, it turns out, and there were absolutely zero gender neutral names that did.

4. Odds are we are right. Most people are cisgender, and so it is very likely that won’t ever mind the pronouns he has been assigned or wish to change them. Obviously there is no guarantee, nor should there be, but if we are going to make a guess, statistically this is the most likely option.

5. And if we’re not right, we’re ready to be flexible! I am able to feel good masking a guess about my child’s gender that is just that – a guess – because I know that I am ready and willing to be wrong. My wife and I work very hard to avoid making assumptions about who he will be in the future. It’s actually easier than I thought it would be. Babies change every single day, why in the world would I think I could predict who he will be or what he will like five years from now?

As soon as he is old enough to start exploring and articulating his own identity, we plan to follow his lead as much as possible. But until that time, we have to call him something. We had to guess. Our guess is “he.”

Note: this post was inspired by a question from a reader. If you have any questions about queer families, this particular queer family, or the rejection of nuclear values, feel free to leave them in the comments, or ask on social media. It just might become a blog post!