The Baby Experts

The high anxiety of child-rearing

By Sandra Tsing Loh

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."

What further interests Hulbert is actual styles of advice, reflecting the ever shifting relationship between the pediatric guru of the moment and his audience, mostly female. (Almost all the gurus, Hulbert notes with a fair share of juicy analysis, were men.) Watson, for instance, had an often comedically abusive writing style that was directly influenced by his college classmate H. L. Mencken. Hulbert describes Watson as "a star act in what one critic at the time characterized as 'a strange orgy of flagellation' that seemed to have become a form of national entertainment during the 1920s ... Watson catered to an 'appetite of Americans for hearing themselves abused.'" For today's analogue there's the tall Texan Dr. Phil—although when it comes to abuse, no one bests the battered but definitely still kicking Dr. Laura (for Hulbert's biography of her we can only wait). Equally interesting, Hulbert argues that pediatric advice itself is a constant, in that at any one time there are two poles: rigid authoritarianism versus liberal permissiveness; discipline versus negotiation; raising children according to strict schedules versus letting them develop like flowers, trees, or other essentially benign natural beings. At the turn of the century the loquacious Hall squared off against the tersely medical L. Emmett Holt (whose complex recipes for formula would confuse lab workers even today). In the 1930s the nasty "misbehaviorist" Watson's opposite number was the gentle-bedside-mannered Arnold Gesell, whose babies, instead of being harried with clanging steel bars, were allowed to recline in softly lit observation domes. Gesell's writing, too, painted childhood's travails in romantic pastels. For instance, his poetic term for toddler frustration was "thrustration," suggesting that children's scream fests could be excitingly developmental.

Ironically, Hulbert points out, in practice it's the soft-liner's program, rather than the hard-liner's, that becomes impossibly demanding. By-the-clock authoritarians get short but predictable times off. Loving gardeners who spend twenty-four hours a day straining to pick up ineffable cues from their developmentally delicate hothouse flowers wind up exhausted and hysterical. One frazzled 1950s mother wrote to Benjamin Spock, the most famously "permissive" expert of all, "Don't you realize that when you always emphasize that a child basically wants to behave well, and will behave well if he is handled wisely, you make the parent feel responsible for everything that goes wrong?" This motherly angst was probably much to Spock's thrustration, because his intention all along had been to reassure parents. His central dictum, "Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do," was an effort to address what he saw by mid-century as the greatest problem of modern parenting: hesitancy owing to overdependence on ... ever growing choruses of pediatric advice.

From the archives:

"Children and Money" (April 1998)
Turning childish greed into grown-up capitalism. By David Owen

The implication in both Hulbert's and Stearns's books, then, is that parental anxiety, too, may be a constant. T. S. Eliot's term for postwar Americans was the "Worried Generation"—they were "anxious," Hulbert writes, "in an age of rising affluence and possible nuclear apocalypse." It's hard to see what has really changed in fifty years. A peculiarly American problem, chronic parental anxiety may just be the consequence of a meritocratic, class-free society. We demand the best for our children, whatever that is ... and therein lies the Zen koan. If we give them the Barbies/GameCubes/television/PlayStations they want and we can afford, will they become too slack, glazed, and lazy to get into Harvard? If we don't make our children work for their allowances, will they grow up lacking traction in the capitalist system, becoming as useful to society—and, perhaps more troubling, as relevant—as the Waldorf-Astoria-dwelling, Euro-disco-macarena-ing Hilton sisters? The idea that in America a child can grow up to be absolutely anything actually puts enormous pressure on parents—particularly parents well enough off to believe that they should be able to give their children every advantage. When you tour preschools catering to every developmental whim, it seems almost, well, Third World to let your three-year-old go play with the pockmarked Play-Doh in the nursery school at the corner church. Even today we are all some version of what Margaret Mead termed the "third-generation American ... always moving on, always, in his hopes, moving up, leaving behind him all that was his past." Instead of bequeathing to their children known status and place, parents confront, as Hulbert writes (quoting Mead), "an elusive quest to keep up with fellow Americans on 'an unknown chart called "happiness."'" This is why each generation turns to professional advice—because the advice must be ever new.

One thing, though, has definitely changed: the role of American grandmothers. They've had quite a ride. From Holt's turn-of-the-century warnings to mothers, in the interests of baby science, to turn a "deaf ear" to "the grandmother ... [whose] influence is particularly pernicious," to the current right-winger John Rosemond's exhortation to return to the "voice of grandma, of common sense," our grandmas went from being abused to being worshipped. Now they're almost entirely absent—liberated, one might say. The foreword to What to Expect the First Year (published in 1989 and still a best seller; my copy is from the fifty-seventh printing) reads, "With the old extended family virtually dismantled, grandmothers are jogging, sculpting, golfing, traveling, and starting new careers." You can almost see a stencil of pink daiquiris in the margin. It continues, quoting a conversation with a Chinese pediatrician, "Chinese parents don't need pediatricians for advice on feeding and toilet training. They've got live-in grandmothers." (Based on my personal observation, however, 90 percent of Chinese grandparents still living with their families would move out tomorrow if they could. So the togetherness is less inspiring than it may seem.)

Not that grandmas aren't helpful in a pinch. When I was able to get my jaw off the floor, I did attempt to make use of my mother-in-law's barnyard-sounding advice. I put babe to breast and, instead of looking down anxiously, straightened up, relaxed my shoulders, and lifted my neck, yoga-like, thinking, "I don't care if you nurse or not. Nor am I fearful!" And indeed, the baby began to nurse. Maybe it was better positioning. Or maybe the fear went out of the milk. As for the books on the night table, in the end we may use them just the way we use Grandma—less as a companion in need than as a companion in worry.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2003/05/the-baby-experts/302728/