How Parenting Became a DIY Project

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From home birth to homemade baby food to homeschooling, raising kids is a way for parents to express their individuality.

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A mother feeds her daughter homemade baby food in Santa Monica. (Nick Ut/AP Images)

We've heard all about attachment parenting—the baby slings, the anti-daycare attitudes, the preschooler breastfeeding on the cover of Time magazine. We've read about the rapidly expanding homebirth movement, with its midwives and doulas and inflatable birthing pools set up in Brooklyn living rooms. We know about the homeschoolers, the unschoolers, the children "learning by doing" while their moms bake homemade bread.

A lot has been written about whether or not these methods of parenting are good or bad, nurturing or smothering, sexist or empowering. But here's a different question: WHY is this happening? How, when and why did parenting become the ultimate DIY project for progressive, educated Americans?

The first part of the answer has to do with historical parenting trends. For the past hundred or so years, American parenting philosophies have been slowly swinging away from the rigid "scientific" advice of early-to-mid 20th century childrearing experts. In the 1920s, the psychologist John Watson suggested a hands-off routine that would certainly warrant a suspicion-of-neglect call to DSS today ("If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the morning.") Midcentury mothers were cautioned against being too overprotective and cuddly, lest they create "sissies." But by the postwar period, Dr. Spock was warming things up by telling women to "trust yourself. You know more than you think you do."

By the 1970s, women began rebelling against the childcare experts and the paternalistic medical establishment in general, which routinely dosed women with "twilight sleep" to forget childbirth, dismissed breastfeeding, and offered parents little say in their children's medical care. The so-called women's health movement (think Our Bodies, Ourselves) empowered women to make health and childrearing decisions for themselves and their families.

As we moved away from "doctor knows best" and "one-size-fits-all," there were more and more choices for parents to make. There was also a growing anxiety that giving your children the absolute best—whatever that was—was crucial for their success. As the economy of the late 20th century became more "winner take all," middle-class parents worried that any minor decision they made might be the make-or-break thing that got their child into A Good College fifteen years later. But what IF that jarred baby food has too many pesticides and knocks five points off little Emma's IQ and she winds studying communications at a party school? Maybe I ought to make the baby food myself?

These days, even the experts play down the value of expert advice ("'What I learned from attachment parenting is that there is no expert better than me for my baby,'" writes attachment parenting guru Dr. Sears, approvingly quoting one of his own followers). It is expected that parents will educate themselves about every aspect of child-rearing and decide what's right for their particular family. Today, many middle-class mothers-to-be come to the hospital clutching individualized birthing plans ("no Pitocin...perineal massage rather than episiotomy") that attest to the kind of medical knowledge once only held by OB-GYNs. Parents of young children are conversant in the ins and outs of Montessori versus Waldorf versus unschooling, in the differences between spoon-feeding and baby-led-weaning, in the vagaries of the CDC's suggested vaccine schedule (but does the DPT shot feel right for OUR child?).

This growing anxiety has dovetailed with another anxiety-based phenomenon: the DIY food and homemaking movement of the past decade or so. Amid fears of food contamination, concern for the environment, and general anti-corporate sentiment, progressive middle-class Americans had begun taking an earnest interest in where their food and consumer products came from. Shopping at the farmer's market and canning your own jam became marks of distinction among the educated and affluent, and making your own baby food or concocting "green" cleaning supplies out of white vinegar became commonplace among concerned moms and dads. The rise of things like home birth and homeschooling have certainly been influenced by this DIY ethos as well: If you don't trust institutions, you do things yourself.

"The only way to know what's in your food is to make it yourself," a 20-something mom recently told me.

Additionally, there's the current cultural climate of extreme individualism. Americans have long tended to value individuality, creativity, and independence over tradition and collective good, and this tendency has risen to ever-higher levels since the sexual revolution and other cultural upheavals of the 1960s and '70s. For a superficial example, look at weddings. Fifty years ago, a wedding was largely a matter of custom. A bride would choose her own dress and wedding colors and flowers, but the gist was the same from celebration to celebration. Today, weddings have become tributes to a couple's uniqueness, from self-written vows to "signature" cocktails invented just for the occasion. White wedding cake? Boring. How about volcano-shaped cookies to represent the couple's first meeting climbing the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro?

This focus on individualism and showcasing personal creativity makes weddings more fun. It also makes planning a wedding much more complicated and time-consuming, and harder to outsource to work to third parties—ie, wedding planners, mothers-in-law.

We see this same principle of individualism writ large when it comes to parenthood. Parents often value individuality—both their own and their children's—above other concerns. One mother told me that, when touring preschools for her daughter, she was "horrified" to see that all the fingerpaintings displayed on the wall looked the same. Were schools destroying children's creativity, she wondered? Ultimately she decided she could best honor her daughter's individuality by homeschooling.

These main factors have led to the growth of what historian Stephanie Coontz calls "the myth of parental omnipotence"—the idea that parents can and should personally ensure their children's success through their own hard work and hyper-attentiveness.

The myth of parental omnipotence certainly makes parenting more challenging and time-consuming. Since we believe that each child has incredibly unique needs, parents feel increasingly uncomfortable allowing other people to take care of their kids. Nearly three-quarters of Americans say they disapprove of daycare, a higher number than in the 1980s, the era of fake satanic sex-cult daycare panics. Parents are also more and more interested in homeschooling—numbers of homeschooled kids have exploded from 850,000 in 1999 to 1.5 million in 2007, and current numbers are projected to be even higher. Among certain well-heeled demographics, from-scratch domesticity rather than relying on the dreaded "convenience food" is a near-mandatory requirement for good motherhood—even ubermom/organic gardener Michelle Obama has been critiqued (by liberals, no less) for not spending enough time in the kitchen. No wonder 71 percent of Americans think motherhood is harder than it was 20 or 30 years ago.

I remember watching an early Mad Men episode with a friend, the mother of a young daughter. In the episode, Betty Draper wanders around the house smoking cigarettes while her kids play with a dry-cleaning bag in an empty bedroom.

"Betty Draper had it easy," my friend said, only half-joking.

"Really?" I said. I mean, depression, a cheating husband, no friends, no life purpose, awful kitchen wallpaper. Doesn't sound easy to me.

But, hey, at least nobody expected her to make the baby food by hand.

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Emily Matchar is the author of the forthcoming book Homeward Bound: The New Cult of Domesticity.

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