Tuesday, 1 April 2014

There Is No "ME" in Children. It's Really That Simple

All the Hoopla: But Who Is REALLY  Competing?

This morning, I read a link an old high-school friend supplied in which the author, a professional writer, decried the efforts modern parents put into making their children's childhoods "magical."  It was more specific - speaking about how modern moms put too much effort into it, and declaring that she is now "done making (her) kid's childhood 'magical.'"

The piece appears in the Huffington Post, and it actually contains some intersting, and in my mind, spot-on, observations about designer parenting.

But the post struck a somewhat larger point to me.  

For a start, this sentence: 
Since when does being a good mom mean you spend your days creating elaborate crafts for your children, making sure their rooms are decked-out Pottery Barn Ikea masterpieces worthy of children's magazines, and dressing them to the nines in trendy coordinated outfits
My initial reaction to the piece was, "whom is the writer really talking about here?"  Who actually spends days and days creating "Pottery Barn Ikea masterpieces" for his kids?  

Personally, I've never owned a single thing from Ikea and find most of their products too modern and linear for my tastes, and my son has not a single thing from Pottery Barn.  

Let's face some likely facts here - people reading a blog on Huffington Post are almost surely from what David Brooks (borrowing, as it were from Parisians who it turns out coined the term) calls "BoBos" = the bohemian bourgeoise. 

That is to say, upper middle class (or higher), largely urban people who inhabit the trendier places of our trendier cities.  They don't typically live in Sioux Falls.  Think the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  Or Palo Alto, California.  Or perhaps Hancock Park or Los Feliz in Los Angeles.  (One place they do NOT live is San Francisco, where the locals have realised that children are simply not compatible with a selfish, hipster lifestyle, and thus kids have almost completely disappeared).

Solipsistically, we all know these sorts of people.  Some of us are at risk to be one of them.

This lead me to the next question, which is, what is driving what is, in reality, a competition?  And, who is really the competitor?  Is the goal, as the author implies, really about "making your kids' lives 'magical,' or is it in fact, trying to convince yourself that you are a good parent, more to the point, to communicate to your friends and peers (your competition, if we are being honest) that you are?

Such a competition would likely be laughable to people in the lower middle or working classes.  This is a malady in Menlo Park, not Oakland.  It's really yet another fake 'crisis' being created by the chattering classes.

I would argue that most of the Pottery Barn parenting, which in my view is somewhat corollary to what I would call Williams Sonoma housekeeping, has little to nothing to do with making your kids' lives magical, and much to everything to do with making your own parenthood magical.

I am not the most sentimental person in the world, as I am reminded often by family and friends, but my own childhood was, as I recall, a special time.  Not sure I would call it "magical," but it was a time filled with fond memories.  And these memories, I think, are not filtered through rose-coloured glasses.  Those memories are filled with friends, with my siblings, and with my mother and my father.

If I am being perfectly honest, I think that a lot of this competition stems from the guilt that many modern parents feel because, frankly, they do not make space in their lives for their kids.  And being "super achievers," we want to be told what super mothers or fathers we are.  We feel guilty because, in the relentless pursuit of "me" activities - careers, awards, recognition for being a brilliant executive or researcher or journalist - we have outsourced our children to an army of nannies and day care and consultants.

Here is a stark fact: if you feel that you need to have a Pottery Barn childhood for your kids, you likely are NOT a good mother or father.  Period.  

This is not meant as a judgment or a condemnation of the super achieving mom.  Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook and Lean In fame comes to mind.   Sandberg has done a hell of a lot, and she is a brilliant businesswoman.  

Is she a great mom?  Maybe, but I suspect the answer is "no," if we are again, being perfectly honest.

It's OK.  We cannot be great at everything.  It's not an attack.

My mother was a great mother because, in my opinion, she made sure that there was space in her life for us.  My wife is a great mother for the same reason.  Is either an achiever like Sandberg?  If either wrote a book, would anyone (besides me) buy it?  The idea is laughable.

Similarly, it is just not possible to be a great CEO and a great parent.  

In my job as a mathematical analyst, one of the things I am tasked with is to make economic models to demonstrate the impact of various choices.  Economics is, among other things, a way of demonstrating the consequences of the allocation of resources.  It does not "judge" those choices.

Like it or not, our time is a resource.  It's not, in many ways, unlike money, or iron ore, or crude oil.  It's not unlimited; its value is not absolute.  We make choices on whether to use gold to make jewellery or computer parts.  It cannot be both simultaneously.

The same is true of our time and our lives.  Every minute I spend networking (like Sandberg) or enhancing my skills (like Sergey Brin) is a minute that, necessarily, I cannot spend "making my son's life magical."  It's as simple as that.  

My own father was a surgeon.  He had the chance at one time to become the head of a medical school.  He almost surely could have made more money or become more eminent in the medical community.  He chose not to.  I am sure that personally, I could be a better parent.  I probably should spend a bit less time on work and more with my son.  I hope that the choices I make are the right ones.  Some days I am not sure.  

I also could be more successful in my career if I made other choices.  Some things I find more important.

But I am not under the illusion that I can be great at everything I do, and no amount of lying to myself about "quality time" as I shove my son off to a nanny so I can go to yet another conference to develop my career or ride off to save the world changes that.

And buying a "magical" childhood for him at Pottery Barn to impress my friends won't, either.


Anonymous said...

I have chosen to not use my graduate degree so I can stay home with my kids. You and I both live in the luxury of being able to do it. My husband and I make great financial sacrifices to make this work, but still we can. I have chosen to cobble together work to bring in extra income since I am such an expensive broken horse, but every project I take on I must be able to take my son boxing, check on my daughter's school work and make their food from the least processed food available. We are privledged and most moms I know who sacrifice a life outside of the home are liberals from all different SES. I think your conclusion that these lean in moms are all part of some liberal kabal is a little misguided. I do love that you and your wife have put your son first. It was a no brainier for us the day our oldest was born. No one could have taken care of her like me! So when I was working on my dissertation for my PhD and our second surprised us, it was again a no brainier that I would walk away from my PhD and raise our son. Bravo for a piece written during a time of backlash against breast feeding and women staying home with their kids!

DWBudd said...

Thanks for the comment.

I agree that in the modern world, it is becoming a luxury to be able to make certain choices with respect to our families. I'm not sure if the sea change that took place in the 1970s and 1980s with respect to women in the full time work place is cause or effect, however. With two incomes, the purchasing power of a family is certainly increased, and that simply has to have some impact on things like house costs. Also, with all the talk about the flattening of income growth for the middle class since about 1975, I have never - not once - seen a researcher ask if the introduction of women into wage competition has had an impact?

It's not necessarily true, but it seems at least possible to me that, if the workforce is suddenly increased by 50 or 60 per cent, that would have an impact on wages. I would love to see an analysis.

But yes - we now live in an economy where a lot of families do not have the same choice or options, and it is a bit of a luxury.

But my point was actually not about the middle and lower-middle class families. In fact, I think it's very unlikely that these are the cohort who spend thousands of dollars on a Pottery Barn bedroom for their kids or a gift bag-matched, themed birthday party.

Sorry if the implication comes through that I think that this is a liberal kabal, or even a comment about liberalism. This one is a cultural trend I think that does not discriminate based on politics.