Play Dates Are Not Enough

After last week’s post, I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways that living in a society basically built around the sanctity of the nuclear family affects us. I’ve been thinking about how it affects me, and how we try to push back against it. I’ve been thinking about that post about being post nuclear in the single family home. And I’ve been feeling like a massive failure.

I’ve been feeling like a fraud.

The thing is, we may work very very hard at it. We may try to integrate ourselves and our family into our larger community. We may try to challenge nuclear ideals. But at the end of the day? Or rather not the end of the day, let’s not talk about the end of the day, let’s talk about 1pm on a Monday.

At 1pm on a Monday we are a nuclear family. We are two parents who are married to each other struggling to raise a child together in an isolated home. We are stuck in the same shitty paradigm as everybody else. At 1pm on a Monday, that is when I start texting my wife about how impossible my day feels. About how lonely I am.

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Because the thing is? Living in a nuclear family, it is incredibly isolated. It cuts off meaningful connections and it leaves us alone. For me, it’s being alone with a baby all. the. damn. time. with hardly a break. For my wife, it’s hurrying home from work to jump into household chores and baby care because she knows damn well that by 5pm I’m barely hanging on by a thread. Parenting is hard, parenting is allowed to be hard, it’s maybe even supposed to be hard. Things that are worth doing are often hard, and helping tiny people grow is a big fucking deal, I get that. But the fact that by 5pm every single day I feel like I’m barely hanging on, barely holding it together, barely getting by? That’s not ok. That’s not parenting. I refuse to believe that that feeing of despair is just part of what parenting is. No, that’s nuclear family isolation.

This is not a happy post.

Every pressure imaginable is pushing us into isolated nuclear bubbles. Social pressures, economic pressures, cultural norms, even the way many of our laws are set up, they’re all geared towards this one set up, this one way of living. I’d love to be doing something else. Some days I’d love to be doing anything else. But getting there is difficult. We’ve actually talked with other families about other options. But it always comes down to the same thing in the end: “this is what’s best for my family right now.”

We lived collectively for a year, and for various reasons it didn’t work out. What’s “best for my family right now” is living in a tiny two bedroom apartment that we can barely afford, far from most of our friends in the city. Because we think of ourselves (the three of us) as one family, because my wife and I are committed to making decisions together but not equally committed to anyone else, because we are responsible for this one newish little life that we created, we find ourselves unwittingly making decisions that isolate us. Here we are, desperately tired, desperately trying, just desperate.

Enter the play dates.

I am not knocking play dates. Play dates are fine. Play dates can even be good, they can even be great. They’re just not enough. They’re no antidote. They’re no cure for this sickness. You bring your kid over or I’ll bring my kid over and for an hour or two we’ll smush our two isolated nuclear families together! The parents will try to have a conversation about how fucking tired we are while the kids play on the floor, only our conversation will be punctuated by the never ceasing “oh no don’t go for his eyes sweetie!” and “we are gentle with our friends” and “you don’t need to steal her toy, here you can have this toy!” After a short while the isolated nap schedules will kick in and someone will have to go home before someone has a complete meltdown. It will pale in comparison to the kinds of gatherings we had with friends before children, but we’re so starved for any connection, that it will momentarily feel oddly rejuvenating.

“Today was nice!” I will tell my spouse in the evening, “I feel like I’m going to be ok!”

But I’m fucking not going to be ok.

Play dates are like taking an aspirin every morning instead of asking why the hell you wake up every day with the same headache. They mask the symptoms instead of addressing the problems. And worst of all, they make it possible for us to pretend that the symptoms are just a normal part of having kids, of having a family.

There are whole empires made on talking about how difficult and impossible being a parent is. And I’m part of that, I write for some of those places, and I do think it’s nice to find humor in the impossibility of it all sometimes. But what if that wasn’t all there is? What if it didn’t have to be this hard? What if I didn’t have to e so lonesome I felt like I was going to have a breakdown every single day? What if we could meaningfully connect with our communities instead of living in isolation? What if we could do more than just play dates? Because it just is not enough.

Musings On Generational — And Intergenerational — Parenting

American parenting is a strange beast. I’m sure there are oddities about parenting in every culture and every country, but this is the one that I am directly experiencing the weird in. Like anyone else, American parents have our fair share of things that we do simply because they feel “normal” to us (like basically everything. we. do. with. baby. gender, for example) but we also have this weird obsession with science. At a certain point, doctors and scientists started studying (and speculating about) the way human babies develop. More or less since then, the modern way to parent has been the way that is based upon a body of ever changing scientific information.

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I am not immune to any of this.

I love learning what we know about how our brand new people grow and develop. And while this topic was of interest prior to having a kid, having a baby makes baby science exciting in a whole new way. What could be better than learning about him and what he is going through?

But of course, the nature of scientific knowledge is that it changes. New studies are done and we learn new things. It also tends to come packaged with a heavy dose of culture and implicit bias, while masquerading as objective fact. So if I’m excited about the scientific body of knowledge (about babies) currently available to me, and I’m making parenting decisions BASED ON THAT INFORMATION AT LEAST TO SOME DEGREE, that means I’m going to come to different conclusions than say, my mother did while raising me, or my grandmother did while raising her. That’s fine, except when it isn’t.

Here is the part where I wish I had a more academic bent and had the time to really delve into this. When did it this tendency start? How did science-based parenting take hold? Does it serve a particular function? I don’t know exactly, and those questions sound more like an anthropological thesis than a blog post to me, but I can make some tentative observations. I hear more about parents doing X Y and Z because “that’s what doctors were telling them was best” starting AROUND the birth of the nuclear family (but that’s a rough estimate and maybe it was earlier, I don’t actually know and I’m not claiming to). So what’s the connection? Again, I’m not qualified to suss that out. Maybe there’s no connection.

But I will say that, today, in the parenting world that I live in, this model of parenting absolutely serves to help uphold the nuclear family. I see it around me all the time, I see it in my own parenting, and I even see it in the parenting attitudes of the generation that precedes me. Our ever changing parenting strategies keep us isolated from our elders (for those of us just starting our parenting journey) and our descendants (for those of us with adult children).

Every once in awhile I hear someone say “people just do whatever their parents did and don’t even question it!” I usually end up wondering if these people live on the same planet as me. That has not been my experience as a parent, nor my experience talking with other parents.

Many of us are reinventing the wheel here, with very little ancestral knowledge at all about what children need and how to help them thrive. I love and respect my mother, and I am actually a Millenial mothers who actually will, sometimes, take parenting questions to my own mom. Sometimes her advice is very good, the hard-won knowledge that comes only from experience. But other times? She’s just telling me what he pediatrician in the 80s told her. This is particularly true when it comes to breastfeeding, since breastfeeding culture was all but completely eradicated in this country by the infant formula companies. My mothers mother was actually told NOT to breastfeed, that formula was the better and safer option. When my mother was breastfeeding in the 80s, she couldn’t get advice from her mom on the subject, so she just had the doctors.

And now, here I am, breastfeeding 30 years later. I would love it if there was breastfeeding knowledge, passed down through generations of nursing parents, that I could tap into. But there just isn’t. Instead, my wonderful mom says things like “well what they told me, when I was breastfeeding you, was…” My mother breastfed for five months (she wanted to do six, but life got in the way) and only ever in the cross cradle position. I have been breastfeeding for nine months and an aiming for the world health organization’s recommendation of two years, and my child currently prefers to nurse either side-lying or sitting up in my lap. These differences create barriers in the discussion, even when everyone is being very sensitive and gentle with each other. And on those occasions when we forget to be gentle, it’s much worse.

The ideal of the nuclear family is that when children grow up and start their own families they get to do things their own way. The ideal of the nuclear family is that children do grow up and start their own families. Generational strife, regardless of why it happens, serves to keep us isolated. Here we are, in our single family homes, not really even hearing each other. Younger parents seem to feel that their own parents aren’t hearing them, aren’t respecting them as adults. Older parents seem to feel hurt and rejected by the changing trends of parenting, and when their children insist upon things that look very different to them, they often respond with “well you turned out just fine!” It seems to me that, like with so many other aspects of our highly generational culture, with parenting we all tend to view whatever things were/are seen as normal and good during OUR OWN time parenting as “right” and everything else just seems off.

So what do we do? How do we combat the tides pushing us deeper and deeper into the nuclear family, even when we hate it? How are we supposed to cope when it’s 3pm and we’re alone in our home with our children feeling so tired and lonely and wishing it wasn’t like this? How do we respond when we feel resentful of our elders’ advice, or when our elders seem wounded by our differences?

I don’t know.

I don’t know.

I don’t know.

I know that I am deeply lonely. I’m lonesome. I know that I need help, and more often than not that help ends up (and should be) intergenerational in nature. I know that I have said harsh things without meaning to. Once, I was asked if I needed a walker for my kid, and retorted sharply that of course I didn’t need a walker because walkers are bad and are practically death traps. It didn’t occur to me afterwards that the asker had of course used a walker with her own children. Of course the phrase “death trap” sounded accusatory to her. After that conversation both of our hearts were broken, perhaps needlessly.

I had hoped, that in writing this up, I would come around to some sort of answer. I would discover the way that we can keep the things that we like about parenting differently than our own parents, and discard the emotional mess it often creates. But other than a vague “um maybe we could all be a little nicer?” I’ve got nothing. There is no uplifting end to this blog post.

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I don’t want to, as my mother would say, blow smoke up your ass.

The nuclear family is hurting me. It is hurting people I love. It is maybe hurting all of us.

Baby Gender: Nine Month Addition (Part Two)

Last week, we talked all about many of the ways that baby and toddler clothing is heavily and aggressively gendered, and how that gendering causes even progressive parents to normalize traditional gender roles. I shared a little bit about what my family does to try to combat that (we give our child both boy AND girl clothes now, that way when he’s old enough to form preferences, he has actual options). Today, I want to dive into a couple of the other ways that I’ve noticed gendering around having an older baby.

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But first, I want to mention a few comments that I got on that first post (mostly from good friends, and on social media rather than here on the blog itself), and maybe clarify a couple of points. Here are the two things that I hear whenever I talk about this stuff:

1.) Why don’t you just shop at the thrift store?

I do! The vast majority of my son’s clothing that I (or my wife) have actually picked out has come from our local thrift store. But most thrift stores have the same issues — clothing separating into “girl clothes” and “boy clothes” — so shopping at the thrift store doesn’t, in my experience, help me avoid aggressive gender binaries at all.
And honestly? There are items that can be much harder to find at thrift stores, and sometimes they are things that we need. This has happened to me. And when it happened when we had two quarters to rub together, yes, I picked him up some baby leggings while I was out grabbing diapers.
But even without that, I think that it’s important to talk about what goes on in conventional retail environments, because what we are talking about is how culture affects us all. My mother, for instance, when she wants to buy a present for my kid, does not go to the thrift store. She goes to a big box store, and what she meets there is an overwhelming pressure to buy him something suitably masculine.

2.) I select clothes based on durability and I don’t care what color it is!

I get some version of this every time I talk about how children are gendered in our culture. It’s an attractive notion, kids are hard on clothes, so we should just be looking for clothes that are sturdy and high quality, and everything else is secondary.
Except it never really works that way because we live in this culture, and we are not immune to the constant reinforcement of the gender binary. What we are looking for as parents is going to vary some because we are humans and have preferences (for example, many parents feel like overalls are good sturdy baby wear, but I find them to be obnoxious to get on and off and not all that flexible, so my kid is more likely to be rocking stretchy pants of some kind). And again, the stores have a boy section and a girl section, they do not have a sturdy section. So where do you start? Do you assume the boy clothing is sturdier? Do you start in the “appropriate” section and only move to the “inappropriate” section later? This stuff matters, and it’s stuff that I think about.
In my case, I’m trying to push back against aggressive gendering, not just not perpetuate it. The reason for that is that most of the rest of the world is participating in gendering my child very actively. If I’m neutral, he still doesn’t have real options. If me and my wife don’t go out of our way to make sure he has some pink, he’s probably not going to have any (that’s not actually strictly true but for the most part it is).
Also, to be quite honest, I am an artist who is obsessed with colors. I live for colors. I cannot imagine not caring what color my kid is wearing. Of course I care. Colors are awesome.

Ok then, let’s go.

Gender For Nine Month Olds

1. Language: Every Single Compliment is Gendered

We have talked to a few people who are close to us about gendered language and compliments, so I’m not including those people in this. This is more about the general public and those outside of our immediate sphere.

It happened a little bit when he was a tiny baby, but there was more variation. For every person who called him “such a handsome little boy!” there would be another person calling him a “beautiful baby!” But he doesn’t get called a beautiful baby much anymore. In fact, the older he gets, the bigger he gets, the more active and independent he gets, the more gendered the language has become. What do I mean by more gendered?

Two things really. One is applying traditionally masculine adjectives (my son is called strong, big, brave by strangers who know him to be male, but rarely nice or sweet). The other is simply constantly including the gender as part of the compliment. So whereas someone might say:

“Oh you’re very big, aren’t you?”

or

“You’re a really big baby, aren’t you?”

we’re more likely to hear

“Wow you sure are a big guy, aren’t you?

All of these comments affectionately compliment my child’s size (he is large everyone!) but the last one is more gendered. “Guy” is not gender neutral, it’s a cultural statement about both maleness and masculinity. The next step, almost inevitably is “hey there big guy!”

It’s almost like people are constantly telling my kid that he’s a boy. It isn’t almost like that though, it’s exactly like that. He’s not simply good he’s a good boy. Even as a tiny child, I knew that being called a good girl was a specific thing, not only about goodness, but about girlhood. My child, who cannot walk yet, breastfeeds a jillion times a day, and loves stuffed animals just as much as he loves blocks, is being congratulated for his ability to perform traditional masculinity.

Pardon me but, what the actual fuck?

So what do we do? Well, we check ourselves constantly. We can’t control the world, and people on the bus are going to say what they’re going to say, but we can challenge ourselves to not fall into the same habits at home! And this shit is pretty ingrained, it is work to remind ourselves that confirmation bias exists, that he’s just as worthy of praise for being loving or kind as he is for being bold and daring, and that he gets to be a person first, and a gendered person second. But once you do the work (and keep doing it, and keep doing it) I find that it does get easier, and we get more creative with compliments, and we notice more amazing things about him that we might miss if we were allowing ourselves to mostly focus on boy things.

2. Language: A Tiny, Adult, Man

I just wrote a piece about this particular phenomena for ravishly.com, so I don’t want to delve too deep here. But there is an intense extreme to the gendered compliment, and as my child gets older, he gets it more and more, and honestly from people I wouldn’t have expected to hear it from.

He’s getting called “little man” all the damn time.

I doubt very much that this is a conscious decision in most cases, but it is a phrase particularly loaded with gender. If you don’t believe me, when was the last time you heard a presumed female baby referred to as a “little woman.” No, girls get to be children, but masculinity requires that my child skip boyhood altogether and perform miniature adult manhood right now.

No.

3. Language: All Toys Are Male, Unless They Aren’t

A really great thing about having a baby this age is that he really plays now. He knows what toys are, and he thinks they’re awesome. We keep most of his toys in a basket in the living room, and he happily crawls over to it and pulls toys out. Sometimes if other adults are over (friends or family) they play with him.

And they inevitably using “he” pronouns for 90% of the toys with faces.

Why is this? It feels like cartoon logic. Micky Mouse is the regular mouse, so he’s a boy. But Minnie Mouse is a girl, and you can tell because she’s wearing a bow. It’s actually indicative of how our society views gender as a whole (maleness and masculinity are normal, standard, whereas femaleness and femininity are exceptional) but it’s really blatantly obvious when it comes to the world of anthropomorphized animals.

The only toys that get called “she” are pink and have other gender signifiers, like a bow or some ruffles.

So what do we do? My wife and I use gender neutral pronouns for all of our kid’s toys. That may sound extreme and funny to some, but we want him to be able to actually pick the genders of various stuffed animals and things as he grows. We also don’t want him to grow up assuming that maleness is normal and femaleness is other, even if that assumption will likely afford him some privilege. It was difficult at first — this stuff is incredibly automatic! — but it has gotten easier. It’s even easier for us, I think, because we know so many people who use gender neutral pronouns themselves. So in our household, all toys get the singular “they” until our kid tells us otherwise.

4. People Can Just Tell

Confirmation bias is so funny. When we are out in public, if our kid’s outfit is at all gender ambiguous, people obviously have to choose which gender to assign to him. If they choose “boy” they often ask for me to confirm it, and when I nod, they look so smug. “I thought so!” they’ll say or “You can just tell…”

And I want to scream, what, what can you just tell? Is there something about the shape of his nose that is particularly masculine? Because that is my nose too!

Whereas, if they assume “girl”and ask, and I “correct” them. Well then, how could they have known? After all, he’s just a baby! They can’t be expected to assign the proper gender to him unless I dress him properly!