Books May 2003

The Baby Experts

The high anxiety of child-rearing

On my battered Ikea night table stands a wobbly tower of self-help books. They say everything there is to know about me, an anxious fortysomething new mother. From the top they are What to Expect the First Year, The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, The Baby Book: Everything You Need to Know About Your Baby From Birth to Age Two, Becoming the Parent You Want to Be, The Girlfriends' Guide to Pregnancy, On Becoming Baby Wise, Surrendering to Motherhood, Your Second Child (a book that has literally never been opened), and, yes, sign of the times, Parenting for Dummies. In my defense, all these books were gifts. From other, childless Los Angeles women. Guests at my baby shower, which ... oh, I remember it well. It was a Sunday lunch, with flowers, cheese, white wine for them, sparkling water for me ... They stood together for the first and last time, all my girlfriends from my twenties and thirties, with streaked hair and strappy sandals, looking wonderful ... all except the only two mothers I know, who now can never make a Sunday anything. But here the rest of them stood: Maggie from college, Sue from grad school, Jen from my writers' group ... They clinked glasses, proffered raffia-twined treasures, said their fond good-byes.

Day Six of the Baby, bent double over the bed, I found myself frantically cracking back the spine of each new "what to expect" book, exposing its innards like two halves of some life-giving melon. Our newborn's mouth had been stretched in a screaming O for five hours, and having completed what I already suspected was a feeble space-shuttle checklist of baby-maintenance tasks, under the accusing glass eyes of bears, I had handed the screaming O to her father. Squatting on the bed, employing a four-part technique described somewhat differently in five books, I was trying to milk myself into a tiny, slightly rocking metal bowl with a gentle but firm, circular-sweeping, consistent-pressure, whoop, whoop, whoop motion—which, believe me, if you've never tried to do it, is a lot harder than it sounds. The dad's motifs were sweatpants, pacing, cordless phone. His darkening new world, as a twenty-first-century urban parent, is one in which our friends are never home. Our relatives are never home. Unbelievably, the OB-GYN who delivered the baby, who brought this thing into our life, who wrongly signed off on the papers ... was not home. The entire La Leche League, world's biggest fans of the whoop, whoop, whoop? Famously touchy-feely, totally not home. By now our baby was red with screaming and looked as if she were going to swallow her tongue. My flailing co-pilot suddenly got an idea. Although I, the biological mother, had described the baby as refusing to nurse and therefore not hungry, he, the biological father, had noticed—calmly, scientifically, sharing this information as a friendly co-partner, because it was so completely neutral—that the screaming O was gnawing everything else in sight. He whipped out evidence of a betraying trip to Wal-Mart ... what my admittedly subjective memory recalls as cheapo artificial-strawberry baby formula in a plutonium-purple bottle topped with a pop-eyed Goofy head. Goofy. A laugh—yes, I thought, that's what infants require to draw nourishment. That's the problem with the breast. Not enough humor. From behind my metal bowl I explained tersely that although his help was appreciated, we—the baby and I—happened to be setting a rhythm. Establishing milk production. Building crucial immunities. I gestured authoritatively at my collapsing tower of manuals as evidence. Unfortunately, stuck into one as a bookmark was a telltale sprig of raffia twine. In a moment of horror I realized that he, now working the phone again, thought the stack of books was the very problem—proof that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. What the raffia twine said was "a generation of women who cooked with the car keys." And now they were trying to nurse. "My mother just said something really interesting" was his only response. Having finally found someone who was home, he handed over the cordless. His mother? He must be kidding. Eighty-year-old Bernice lives in Sioux Falls, South Dakota ... farm country, corn country, a place we had visited over the past twelve years with the detached attitude of witty anthropologists. And now, in a blink, Sioux Falls was Command Central, and Bernice was the chief of staff. Who thought it could be gas, it could be colic. Or, frankly, she said, "sometimes hungry babies won't eat because they sense fear ... in ... the milk." In other words, "Don't panicyou could kill your baby!"

It's a shame that many new parents may not have time to read Ann Hulbert's Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children, or Peter N. Stearns's shorter but no less interesting Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America. They might see themselves less as lonely buffoons in some ill-fated sociological experiment than as archetypes in an American drama that's been going on for a long time. Indeed, all the stock dramatic elements are here—the urban mother trying to milk herself according to a book, the urban father's nostalgia for the farms of his boyhood, and, of course, Grandma with her ghoulishly arcane-sounding phrases. ("Fear in the milk"? What's next? A sugar tit soaked in bourbon?) To hear Hulbert and Stearns tell it, such culture clashes are as old as if not the hills, then at least industrialization and the troubled move to our increasingly nervous cities. To be fair, a diverse set of measures suggests that American parents are exceptionally anxious today. There's the explosion of parenting books, five times as many of which were published in 1997 as in 1975. By the 1990s the United States was using 90 percent of the world's Ritalin. And Stearns notes that whereas in the late 1930s a poll by Lewis Terman revealed that marriages with and without children were equally happy, since the 1950s child-free unions have become markedly happier than those with children, by increasing margins. And—here's the real rub—even among parents, the highest level of satisfaction is reported not within intact marriages but by divorced dads! Consistently, the less time spent with one's children, the more positive one's parenting experience. The more active the parents, the more they report feelings of inadequacy, negativity, and ambivalence.

Is television something parents should worry about? In 1980 studies showed that by the age of eighteen the average American child had spent more time watching television than in school or with parents. But thereafter, Stearns points out, the trend actually reversed: from 1981 to 1997 television watching markedly decreased, and the time children spent with their parents, much of it in sports-related activities, increased by 25 percent. In 2000, when a device was developed to catch drivers who ran red lights, the biggest offenders were parents—particularly mothers—rushing to make the next lesson or soccer game. While feeling inadequate, negative, and ambivalent. Meanwhile, divorced dads, out golfing, were feeling very, very good about their parenting. Which is to say that quantifying anxiety is complicated.

Relative amounts of parental confusion per decade, too, are hard to gauge. Sure, Americans today buy a lot of parenting books, but they have looked to such guides for years; in the twentieth century American families bought one copy of the government-sponsored Infant Care per first child before the 1940s and one copy of Dr. Spock thereafter. As for child stimulation, in a wonderful chapter titled simply "I'm Bored," Stearns traces boredom as a concept that wasn't associated with childhood until after World War II. (Initially the predominant concern was with not boring others.) Of course, before the 1930s, polls that measured every jot and tittle of parental misery on ever-splitting pie charts didn't even exist. What did exist, as early as the dawning of what some dubbed "The Century of the Child," was a parade of pediatric advisers so motley that they merit treatment in an epic novel (T. C. Boyle, are you listening?). Whereas Anxious Parents is structured around such themes as schooling, discipline, work, and chores, Raising America is a generation-by-generation history of advice, and the joy of this book is in how successfully Hulbert—who has written a biography of Jean Stafford—renders the taste and smell of the circus. Here are the same kinds of runaway pediatric best sellers we have today; "The Century of the Child" itself was taken from the title of a popular 1909 book. Here are the same folksy Dr. Feelgoods: as early as the 1890s William James was complaining that the high-profile pediatrician G. Stanley Hall's chatty questionnaires for mothers "ranked among the common pests of life." Babies had entered the lab by 1920, thanks to the efforts of the behaviorist John Broadus Watson. Hulbert's description of Watson's attempt to test fear in an amazingly imperturbable baby named Albert by clanging steel bars around his ears and having him "touch a Santa Claus mask" is one of the more hilarious passages in the book. Earnest conferences on modern parenting began as early as 1897; the concern then was over children (and mothers) who were becoming excessively "worried and nervous," as Hall put it, owing to the sensory bombardment of "factory and locomotive whistles, trolley cars and automobiles, music boxes and the numberless mechanical toys in the nursery, door-bells and telephones in the house."

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