How Parenting Became a DIY Project

"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.

Presented by

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

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