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.
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.
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.