On Shelter

Today’s new parents did not grow up in the most secure homes. Our parents divorced in record numbers— close to one in three— and made independence a priority over security.1 They were, many of them quite proudly, hands off. Rejecting their parents’ paternalism, they decided they were going to level with us, to be straightforward and honest and raise us to be freethinkers. Many of us were latchkey kids, watched ridiculous amounts of television, and became our parents’ confidants, their "friends."

Watch some ’70s TV and see if you can find a euphemism or a "don’t worry about it."2 Nope. What you can find: poverty, racism, and natural disasters. Our parents weren’t, as a generation, particularly parental. We weren’t coddled, to say the least. Many of our homes were broken, in one way or another.

So as a new generation of parents, we’re overcompensating. We are, proudly, hands on. We’re carrying our babies around in slings until they can walk, researching the hell out of our school districts, and asking our pediatricians five thousand questions at our routine well-baby visits. We’re trying to provide the best, most nurturing environment possible, and in the process many of us are driving ourselves crazy.

We are ambitious, trying to be the very best parents we can be, even if it means a certain level of martyrdom. The result: we are nurturing to a fault. I can’t tell you how many weird sleep arrangements I’ve heard about. The only way one family I know can get any sleep is if the mother and the child sleep in the bed and the husband sleeps on an air mattress on the floor.

We’re in a tough spot, really, when it comes to creating a nest for our family. We’re trying to do a better job than our parents, but since we’ve eschewed their help, we’re cobbling together a parenting strategy from the Internet, our friends, and whatever memories we have of happiness as children (thus, the recent Sesame Street: Old School DVD release and Playskool’s revamped Sit ’n Spin). We have an overload of information— plenty of it ridiculous, much of it contradictory, very little of it ringing completely true to us.

As if that weren’t enough pressure, we’re also really, really busy. How many couples do you know who can easily afford to have one parent stay home full-time, or to have both partners go part-time? Gen X employees work 45.6 hours a week on average, and more women are in the workforce than ever.3 It’s even more challenging to create a warm and nurturing environment when it’s a struggle just to find time to vacuum.

Even those of us lucky enough to work a couple of days a week at home, or to telecommute, are tied to our e-mail or BlackBerries even when we’re away from the office. (In May 2009, CNN.com called this weisure, as in work plus leisure.4 The name actually is appropriate, because it is an ugly word and the intrusion of work into every second of our home lives is kind of gross, too.)

Couples are piecing together a living wage from multiple jobs per family, some full-time, some part-time, some work-at-home, so both parents have hectic schedules to manage. Add to that the kids’ schedules, and you have a cluttered calendar leaving far too little room for relaxing and enjoying one another, but plenty of room for regret and frustration and a sense that life is living you rather than the other way around.

The Baby Boomers were laissez-faire about a lot of things when it came to child-rearing. Mostly through ignorance but also by proclivity, they weren’t too concerned with protecting their kids from cigarette smoke or lead paint, let alone the unvarnished ugliness about the world. Many are the ’70s children who skipped directly from learning about Columbus and his ships to a lesson in oppression and hegemony. Think the women of our parents’ generation did the equivalent of a hundred Google searches trying to figure out if it was okay to have a glass of wine in the third trimester? Please. The cork was out of that bottle before you could say Electric Company.

And yet, in our rebellion against our parents, we’ve arguably gone too far in the other direction. The shelter we’re providing our kids is a little too . . . sheltering. If we raise our kids too much in reaction to others— our parents, the so-called experts, the other parents on the playground, the medical establishment— we’re guaranteed to make just as many mistakes, only different ones. But if we encourage our kids to be kind and generous and we trust our own instincts about all the other stuff, we may just be able to create a happy household for our family.

© 2010 Ada Calhoun

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