“Is it supposed to feel this hard?” I still find myself asking the sky after eleven years of parenting. It sure as hell didn’t look this hard for my mom who regularly played tennis with other neighborhood moms, smoked cigarettes and put zero thought into the toxicity of what she fed me – microwavable French fries in a red box painted on the inside with silver chemicals for better crisping. As I see it, the late 1970’s-1980’s was the Golden Age of parenting – not because parents were doing good things – but because it was the crossroads of benign neglect and convenience, a few thousand miles before knowing the ill effects of every. single. thing. Back then, ignorance was bliss.
Today, instead of working on our backhands and letting Alex P. Keaton and Jessie Spano parent our kids via a “very special episode” on TV, us parents are having tough conversations with our kids about things like consent, racism and school shootings – all while we micro-manage their screen time, fix a nutritious dinner and knock back a handful of supplements for our “adrenal fatigue.”
I’m sure every new generation of parents believes that they have it harder than those before them, but everyone before us can suck it because somewhere in the space between when our moms first had babies and when we became mothers, the world learned a lot of new things. And many of those new things are in major opposition to how our parents parented us, and rightfully so. Ignorance may be bliss, but it also breeds serious problems. One of which is that here we modern parents find ourselves with no map, blazing the trail on many aspects of child-rearing in the 21st century, while a digital world screams at us with an overload of information and judgment. No wonder it sometimes feels like a daily struggle. What we are trying to achieve with our own kids was not modeled for us.
Here are just a few foreign concepts we are making up as we go:
-Healthy, home-cooked meals. Most of us were not watching our moms (or dads) plan a meal around food allergies, a healthy balance of vegetables, proteins and carbs, or any limiting of artificial ingredients and sugar (except for the kids of “health nuts,” who were forced to eat wheat germ. My condolences.) Can you imagine not worrying about sugar ever in your parenting journey? Parents of the freezer-meal generation weren’t talking to us about healthy food and the difference between oranges and orange-flavored Squeez-Its. Everything was food to them, as long as they could buy it in a grocery store (or gas station). So it’s no surprise that figuring out how to feed our families nourishing meals – and then taking the time to shop for and cook those meals (a whole other feat) – feels like we’re going against our genetics and decades of learned behavior. Where are the hand-me-down cookbooks and recipe files with the kinds of meals that actually support our family’s health? Oh right, we’re the ones writing them.
-Equalizing our marriages. Most of our parents subscribed to the idea that child-rearing was women’s work. Both parents believed this to be true, and so most of the women did all of the work related to raising the kids: laundry, cooking, grocery shopping, PTA, crafting sweet homemade Halloween costumes, tending to sick kids, holiday shopping, renting a VCR for the sleepover, plus about ten-thousand other things. Dads maybe dropped in here or there for the occasional baseball coaching or camping trip. Today, many of us moms don’t believe we should be the keepers of everything parenting-related, and luckily more dads are wanting to be involved too – something we didn’t grow up seeing. It’s bound to feel clumsy because we are having to set the standard for what a more equal partnership means, even when we don’t actually know what that looks like.
-Interacting with the Internet. Can you imagine what it would be like to not know the answer to everything? Think of all the virtual rabbit holes about car seats and BPA our parents didn’t find themselves going down. Don’t get me wrong, the Internet is definitely a huge help in day-to-day living. Our parents probably would’ve loved to pull up directions to birthday parties, gymnastics schedules and Ambrosia salad recipes. But today, because of the Internet, we are expected to figure everything out ourselves. What’s that rash on your kid’s back? Look it up. Is this a good time to sell your house? Look it up. Best family-friendly hotel in Hawaii? Look it up. Long division with decimals? Look it up. The Internet has made us all our own doctors, realtors, travel agents, teachers – and that’s all well and good if we weren’t also simultaneously engaged in the daily minutia of raising children, and possibly even working too. We are wearing too many hats and are expected to know so much more than any generation before ours, and this needs to be acknowledged. Even though knowledge is the power that helps us make better and healthier choices for ourselves and our children, the mental tax of doing so is hefty, and for me shows up in the form of anxiety, brain fog and fatigue. So Mom, maybe this is why I seem stressed and anxious when you remember motherhood being so much more simple. It was. Now please stop trying to feed your grandkids Skittles behind my back.
-Managing screen time. Our parents don’t know how fortunate they were to just miss this trend. Sure, there was the television: an affixed box that lived in one room that my parents never told me to stop watching. But our kids are face to face with screens everywhere. I can’t even pump gas without my kids watching the screen shouting at them out their car window. Or the one inside the car. Restaurants now have built-in tablets at the effing table so I have two choices: eat my dinner in peace or say “no” for an hour. Us modern parents have to be the ones to guess what healthy screen guidelines are so that our kids will not grow up with hunchbacks, unable to make eye contact with other humans. There’s also the other minor issue that most of us don’t know how to manage our own screen time, so how the hell can we manage – and model it – for the kids? We are building the plane in the air here, people. A special shout out to the grandparents who love to shove phones and iPads into the grandkids’ hands. You know that screen-free morning you worked so hard for, fellow parents? Well it was just undone in two seconds because Grandma has the kids watching a lady with long nails cut into squishies on YouTube. Perfect. (And yes, that’s a thing.)
-Talking about tough topics. My parents never talked to me about racism. Or consent. Or sexism. Or bullying. Or suicide. We didn’t spend Sunday nights having thoughtful conversations about complicated issues that involved human rights, much less at a protest for anything. We were too busy watching America’s Funniest Home Videos. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but the closest my family got to talking about racism was making racist jokes, which always made me feel sick inside. And sadly, I know my experience is the norm for many privileged white kids. And somehow, us modern parents are expected to not only grasp these concepts ourselves, but are supposed to be able to teach our kids how to live in a world that’s bungled on all these aforementioned accounts. Many of us are taking a stab at these hard conversations, knowing that we have to say the opposite of what our parents said to us – something. Something humane and supportive of all people, that hopefully sparks progress and peace. Something that helps our kids to unbungle the world we inherited. No pressure, but we’re all counting on you to undo decades of unknown errors, future generation.
-Parenting with a philosophy. Did your parents stop to think about how they were parenting you – how they spoke to you, making sure to validate your little kid feelings and doling out punishments that did good rather than harm? Let me answer that for you: no, they did not. They responded to our needs and feelings with sheer impulse instead of second-guessing everything they said and did. This was good for them, and also bad for us. They did not spend hours at the library pouring over microfiche that contained the latest studies on the secrets to successful parenting. They didn’t have friend groups based solely on who wore their babies in a Snugli or how peacefully they could discipline you. Back then, how someone parented was the least interesting detail about a person. Old school parents also didn’t research all the nearby schools and choose the one that best fit your learning style. Knowing your learning style was not their job, nor were they looking at you long enough to even notice. They also didn’t give a lot of thought to how their actions (or inactions) might affect your feeling of safety or your relationship with your siblings. For latchkey kids (raises hand), it was like Lord of the Flies – everyone fighting for survival and you better not dare call Mom or Dad at work to tattle because even though you’d just been handcuffed to a closet rod for an hour, their answer was still going to be, “You guys, figure it out. And don’t call again.” We are the first generation to really question (overthink) how we are treating our kids as we parent them, and even though our kids are hopefully benefitting, it’s a lot harder to enjoy something when you’re trying so hard not to mess it up.
-Questioning our doctors. Our parent’s bookshelves weren’t filled with tomes about sleep, first-foods, vaccines, breastfeeding and alternative remedies for childhood ailments. They just asked their doctor – the one the whole neighborhood went to. There weren’t Facebook groups to ask, Yelp reviews to read or Google searches to do. Think of all the mental energy they saved. We also didn’t grow up seeing our mothers ask questions about routine procedures, much less saying no to them, or asking about alternatives, unless you happened to have a badass mama. We mostly saw a relationship where the doctor (usually male) had the power, his word was accepted as truth, and everyone followed it. Is it a surprise that as birthing women today, we are often dissatisfied with our childbirth experiences? We have updated information (which is actually ancient information) about what is most conducive to baby and mom’s well-being, yet we don’t have the skills to speak up about things in conflict to that, or to ask for something different. This is not our fault – we are fighting to find voices we weren’t taught to have. And the same thing goes on in the pediatrician’s office. We are having to teach ourselves how to be advocates for our children by trial and error.
-Tide Pods. No.
-School Shootings. I’m done.
The silver lining (non-toxic) here is that our children will have a primer for these things. There will be a nutritious-ish cookbook to pass down to them – unless of course hummus and quinoa are later found to be slowly killing everyone. Our kids will remember discussions about the neighbor kid who took his own life despite everything seeming perfect. They will recall our flawed attempts at explaining why people’s privilege is still wrongfully based on their skin color, and ideally, how we can help to undo this. My son and daughter will grow up seeing a more balanced marriage dynamic where their dad gets them ready for school in the mornings while I write my novel. And for these improvements, I’m grateful. But we can’t ignore that being an inventor of a new way of parenting is exhausting. And sometimes I wish I could just hit the auto-pilot button for a couple years. But I won’t. There’s too much at stake these days. And our kids are watching.