How Parenting Became a DIY Project

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.

Presented by

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

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