"I don't discuss parenting in polite company," my brother quipped when asked about his recent experience as a new father. I can't blame him: I used to get nervous when conversations veered into the realm of politics or religion, but those arguments are nothing compared with the minefields of breast-feeding, vaccinations, sleep training, and disposable diapers.
How did parenthood get so ideological?
With the rise of niche experts catering to parents increasingly split along political and class lines, parenting within reason has become the latest casualty in the culture wars. The potent mix of anxiety and affluence has provided rich terrain for a flowering of parenting books and websites promising the security of knowing in minute detail exactly how to best care for your child. The effect can often be the very opposite of that promised peace of mind.
The parenting discussion boards are like the 24-hour news cycle of the infant set – except Rush Limbaugh and Rachel Maddow are on the same show, loudly passing judgments on the most intimate of life's decisions.
While the parenting books can occasionally be helpful, the increasingly diagnostic climate surrounding childhood has led to the unrealistic notion that children can somehow be perfected, and kept perfectly safe from harm. Expert authors may have MDs and PhDs, but they also have marketing departments and books to sell.
Honest titles like "About as Happy as All the Other Socioeconomically Similar Children on the Block" and "Your Kid Will Fall Asleep Eventually, Regardless" are not going to cut it. I know authors who were contractually obligated to put 'happy' in the titles of their books. Happiness sells.
Political, class divides in parenting
Trends like exclusive breast-feeding, baby wearing, green parenting, and the like are more popular among the highly educated and privileged professional classes. They require a lot of time and money. Working- and middle-class parents worry about their children; necessity often forces them to embrace a less frenetically indulgent parenting style.
There's some evidence that liberals and conservatives favor different parenting models as well. Berkeley linguist and cognitive science professor George Lakoff described the core political division as that between "strict father" and "nurturing mother" moralities. Conservatives also tend to value traditional sources of the sacred like church, whereas liberals are more likely to be invested in the purity of their food (breast milk; organic, nongenetically modified foods) and environment (cloth diapers, recycled everything).
Why parenting became so high-stakes
Though it seems to have reached fever pitch as of late, the ideological "intensification" of parenthood might actually be nothing new. Sociologist Peggy Nelson suggests that it began with the children of baby boomers. The demographic glut of their offspring was competing for university spots and middle-class careers in an economy that seemed to be offering less and less for the moderately privileged. The year 2010 was the biggest college class in history.
The number of college-bound young adults is expected to decline in the coming decades, but try telling that to new parents anxiously prepping their kids for the pre-K-to-Ivies pipeline.
Noncoincidentally, the intensification trends in parenting also occurred at the same time that women were joining the workforce in growing numbers in the 1970s. "The symbolic terrain became much more fraught as women were trying to prove that they weren't losing anything by working … or being the übermoms they set out to be if staying at home," said University of Virginia sociologist Allison Pugh. In fact, working women today spend more time with their children than did stay-at-home moms of the 1950s.
The kids really are all right
Research has shown that people tend to find excessive choice paralyzing – particularly in the realm of parenthood, where every decision can seem life altering. Regardless of what the copious number of parenting books available might say, there is no one practice or device that is going to alter the outcome of your child's life. Everyone I've spoken with agrees that the children are fine.
The kids really are all right. It's the parents who might drive themselves insane. In a BabyCenter poll, 94 percent of mothers reported feeling not only guilt but shame about issues ranging from working outside the home to letting their toddlers watch a little television.
Silencing my guilt
In order to preempt my own guilt-prone perfectionism, my goal while pregnant was to become a "good enough" mother. That's easier said than done in this climate. Ultimately, you have to parent in a way that makes you comfortable. This will mean competitive übermom all the way for some, but not for all. In the grand scheme of things, I think less is more.
I still have the occasional guilt-induced anxiety attack about not breast-feeding my son for the full six months advised by experts, even though I think moving to bottle-feeding has made me a better mother with more energy to sing with, talk with, play with, and enjoy my child.
It's a refrain I use whenever I need to talk myself off the perfect-parent cliff – the battle hymn of the moderate mother. No tigers here.