Throughout most of human history the job of raising children has been strictly “women’s work,” and like all of the other things that fell into that category (e.g., cooking, housekeeping) it required a set of “job skills” passed down from women to their daughters. Girls were expected to help out with their younger siblings in a kind of generational on-the-job training program that ultimately lead to a societal assumption that all women are naturally gifted caretakers. I’m not going to dismiss the possibility of a genetic “mommy instinct,” but I will assert that this kind lifelong learning at the feet of “the master” lead to more realistic expectations about the job and greater confidence in carrying it out at a younger age.
In much of the world this continues to be the experience of girls. I’m not saying that it makes them better parents. What I am saying that this experience means that they are less likely to get tied up in knots about it.
Parenting is still something we learn on-the-job, but most of us today don’t start learning it until we have a baby of our own. Like any new job, there’s going to be anxiety, self-doubt, and moments of feeling out of control. Add to that the fact that most of us have internalized, at least at some level, the vestigial message that being a “good” mother is an instinctive part of being female. Then subtract the very real day-to-day support of older, experienced women (grandmothers) and the hands-on help of younger women (12-year-old daughters). And finally, calculate in the reality that most young mothers now have jobs outside their home (or the nagging feeling that they should) and husbands who aren’t as fully engaged in parenting as they might be, and we’re looking at an equation destined to produce anxiety.
An enormous industry has arisen to fill the void left by grandmas, one that produces thousands of new book titles, studies, theories and warnings every year. And while I’m sure that each one is issued with the best of intentions, many mothers experience it as a flood of things they should know and do, but don’t.
A few years ago, the subject of parental anxiety was the topic of our monthly parent education session. Mothers voiced their frustration and concern that it seemed like whatever they did they were somehow failing their children. They feared they weren’t patient enough. They were concerned they weren’t providing enough of this or that kind of experience. They worried about diet, exercise, role-modeling, emotions, sleep, television, toy choices, attachment, separation, you name it. It was a tense and somewhat angry meeting.
Finally, our parent educator Jean Ward, a wise, calm, experienced woman, said, “Listen, if you do what the parenting experts say 35 percent of the time, you’re the best parent in the world.” As she let that statement hang there, the release of tension from the room was palpable. I have no idea where she came up with that statistic, or even it’s true (although I suspect it is), but if I could have read the thought bubbles around the room, I’m sure they would have said something to the effect of, I can do that.
A companion phenomenon that I’ve observed as a preschool teacher is that the most anxious women tend to be first-time mothers of 2-year-olds, and they always become noticeably less anxious over time, just as what would typically happen with any new job. And most of them are downright cavalier by they time their child is ready for kindergarten. It’s all about experience. If they’re bringing their second kid to preschool, they come in exuding confidence. And if they have a third, they seem as wise and calm as any grandma who ever lived.
I’ve not written about fathers in this post because, to be honest, it’s very rare to come across one who is tied into knots over every aspect of his parenting, even among stay-at-home dads. Of course, it could be a function of our notorious unwillingness to confess weakness, especially to other men, but I suspect it has much more to do with the fact that we aren’t as burdened with the weight of historical expectations. Men tend to be “graded” as parents almost exclusively on effort and earnestness, which in my view is really how it should be for parents of either gender.
I believe that infants and babies whose mothers give them loving comfort whenever and however they can are truly the fortunate ones. I think they’re more likely to find life’s times of trouble manageable, and I think they may also turn out to be the adults most able to pass loving concern along to the generations that follow after them. – Mister Rogers
Update: In the comments my friend Floor Pie reminded me of a serious omission. I was inspired to write this by a powerful rant over on Offsprung called "Victims of the Mommy Wars". Thanks Toby.