Whenever I tell people the facts of my case– that I left my four-year-old son in the car for five minutes, in the carpark of a Target in Virginia; that someone recorded me doing so and called the police; that this single decision I made and its ramifications played out in my family’s life over the course of two years— when I recount these facts to some new friend or family member, to a reporter or colleague or radio-show host, they all want to know the same thing. “How did you feel?” they ask me. “How did you feel when you realised what was happening?”
It’s a simple enough question, yet it took me almost two years to answer it honestly. “I was scared,” I used to tell them. Or “I was shocked.” I would tell them I was angry or embarrassed or bewildered. And there was truth to all this. But the deeper truth was much worse. The deeper truth was that I felt as though I’d been caught doing something very bad, even if I didn’t understand what the bad thing was, exactly, or what the rationale was for its badness. I felt, I think, what just about every woman feels whenever someone attacks or criticises her mothering. I felt angry. I felt embarrassed. But beneath all that, I felt ashamed.
The hoary, cobwebbed old wisdom is that parenthood is supposed to make you a better person. In some ways, this is true. Parenthood offers the opportunity to engage in a deeply intimate relationship with a human who is dependent on you for all of his physical, emotional, and psychological needs. It demands patience, sacrifice, compassion, and humility. It stretches us in ways not many experiences can.
Parenthood and fear: Somehow, somewhere along the line, the two had become synonymous
But at the same time, I began to realise, there was something about it that made people worse or, at least, worse to each other— worse neighbours, worse citizens, worse friends. That something, I’d come to see, was not parenthood itself but the anxiety that so often surrounds it. Parenthood and fear: Somehow, somewhere along the line, the two had become synonymous. I began to feel, but I didn’t yet understand it. And so over the next two years, as I navigated my way through the consequences of what had happened in Virginia, I read and researched and began to challenge notions about parenthood I’d never before questioned. Where did parental fear come from, and what were the forces that sustained it? How had a biological imperative become a labyrinth of societal anxieties? How had we managed to take this thing – raising a child – that’s already next to impossible, and make it even f*cking harder?
The truth, though, is that right from the beginning I was as self-conscious and insecure and competitive about motherhood as I’d been about anything else in my life. As Adrienne Rich wrote in her memoir of motherhood, Of Woman Born, “I had been trying to give birth to myself; and in some grim dim way I was determined to use even pregnancy and parturition in that process.” And so the unappealing truth is that I came home from my very first prenatal appointment back in 2007, made myself a pot of decaffeinated Earl Grey tea and a plate of saltines, sat down at the dining table, and read every pamphlet, every brochure, every piece of printed information the nurse had given me, not just the warnings and prohibitions but the footnotes too, the small print elaborating the horrible fates that might befall me and my child if I failed.
Then I went on the internet and read more. I wanted to read every horror story, every guideline, every morsel of advice. I wanted to know everything that could go wrong if proper precautions weren’t taken: miscarriage, preterm labour, stillbirth, rare chromosomal syndromes, and emergencies that might leave me haemorrhaging on the kitchen floor. I read and read and read. “Terrifying,” I said to myself, determined to go over the material with my husband Pete the moment he walked in the door, and also to tell my friend Tracy all of it, to get her up to speed as well as every other pregnant woman I encountered. I ate it up – the competitiveness, the performance, the fear.
I wanted to be an amazing mother, amazing in her own right but, also, better than everybody else
As the prenatal nurse asked me, ‘What kind of pregnancy did I want to have?’ The best one possible. The one that would demonstrate to the world that I’d done the homework and applied myself, given the task at hand my full and undivided attention. And what kind of parent did I want to be when the pregnancy was over? Well, the kind that viewed parenthood not simply as an event in which I was just one of many participants but as a process I carefully orchestrated – the general commanding her troops, the scientist studying the data, the director with her eye pressed to the viewfinder. The kind for whom parenthood was not a state of being, but an extended and intensive exertion of mind, body, and soul. I wanted to be an amazing mother, amazing in her own right but, also, better than everybody else.
If someone had suggested to me at the time of my first pregnancy that there might be certain drawbacks to viewing motherhood in this way—as a contest, an Olympics of sorts, an arena to prove my goodness and my worth, that perhaps viewing the parent–child dynamic as an endeavour rather than simply as a relationship might not be a recipe for well-being or even baseline sanity – I would have surely dismissed that person out of hand. In truth, I’m not even sure I would have understood what that person was talking about – the implication that there might be any other way. Even before I became a parent, my notions of what it meant to be a parent, that this was a fundamentally anxious endeavour that required planning and control at every level, were so deeply ingrained, so omnipresent and unexamined in those around me, I couldn’t have begun to question the soundness of my own enthusiasm and competitiveness as I entered the fray. I wasn’t really aware of entering anything at all – but simply thought I was moving forward to a new stage of life I’d occupy in my own way and make my own.
For my first years as a parent, whether the issue was childbirth or childcare, parenting style or safety protocols, I remained fixated on making the right choice for my children. It was only much later that I began to see how profoundly the choosing itself – the false sense of control and entitlement that choosing entails – had affected my experience as a mother. It created an extra layer of anxiety to a parenting culture that even under the best of circumstances can erode a woman’s self- confidence, her very sense of self. Jennifer Senior describes the impact this parenting culture has on our sense of autonomy, our marriages, and our free time. Julie Lythcott-Haims describes the toll it takes on our children as they grow into young adults. And in Excellent Sheep, a powerful critique of elite institutions of higher education, the social critic William Deresiewicz describes the toll it takes on higher education itself, as students are increasingly unable to take risks and think independently. But far less attention, it seems to me, has been given to how these changes in parenting culture, the convergence of parenthood with a capitalist ethos, have produced a kind of conspicuous child- rearing – a style of child-rearing in which every parenting choice is not only a choice but a statement – and how that conspicuous child-rearing impacts adults’ relationships with one another.
This, it turns out, is the most important rule of parenting as a competitive sport: Nobody ever, no matter what, admits to competing. We smile and nod and hold our judgments until we get home from the restaurant. We say things like, “There’s no single right way.” We say these things as we sip our drinks, and only when we get home do we say to our partner or the nearest person who will listen, “What the hell are they doing with those kids?” Nothing is acknowledged. Nothing is discussed. And on and on the parenting game goes; it’s hard to win while pretending not to play.
This is an edited extract from Small Animals by Kim Brooks (Affirm Press, $19.99).