By Sarah Wilson
Many seem to agree that mothers have their hands full today. Parenthood has always been a demanding job, but surveys of the public confirm that many people see raising kids as being tougher today that it was in the 1960s or 70s. In fact, roughly eight out of ten women agree that being a mother today is more difficult than it was twenty or thirty years ago. I have heard many mature folk comment that there are more pressures on families today, and on women in particular. I’m not wanting to romanticize the ‘good old days’, we all know that many aspects of living today may be easier, what with the convenience of mod cons. Possibly the main tasks of feeding, clothing and educating our children have never been easier. And with regard to physical safety, in many ways our children are safer today than they ever have been with the introduction of car seats, vaccinations, and medical and surgical advances. But consider that you almost need a degree in car seat wrangling to decipher some infant car seat configurations! And baby carriers too!
Is our generation the pressure cooker generation? Is there more stress today? Many people see the biggest challenge of raising kids today, to be the influences of society. Drugs, alcohol, peer pressure, the media. Changing views. Beyond societal influences, teaching morals and values, and maintaining discipline are significant concerns for many parents. But is 21st century life damaging our children? Well known British educationalist Sue Palmer thinks so. In her book Toxic Childhood she argues that the last couple of decades has seen huge changes in adult lifestyles, which have affected the way we look after children, both at home and in school. Toxic Childhood explains how a toxic mix of side-effects of cultural change may be affecting the development of a growing number of children. Toxic Childhood also explains how a few simple adjustments to life-style in areas such as diet, screen time and exposure to nature, can ‘detoxify’ children’s lives.
Much research has confirmed that being a parent today is very different than it was a generation or two ago, and that it may in fact be harder, as we are expected to do more with our children than parents in previous generations did. Granted, we may have smaller families than they had a hundred years ago, although is the birth rate may be slowly increasing. When I was growing up in the 80s, two children seemed to be the norm in middle class families, whereas today, three or four children is becoming more commonplace. On average, parents are older and more educated, and perhaps more materially well off. Furthermore, it has only been in recent decades that becoming a parent has become a choice. It used to be the norm. Now it is an option, although still a fairly universal experience.
Some research confirms that today’s parents are spending more time with their children. We are more involved in our children’s education. We read to our children more and help with homework. And perhaps we are more child centered? In generations gone by, children were sent outside to play and told to come back at dinner time. Or they fitted in around household chores. In talking with my grandmother, ‘children were seen and not heard’. In interviews with older folk for the book ‘Nostalgia’, author Janelle Wilson discovered sentiments such as ”I don’t envy people raising children today.’ and ‘It seems that people pay a lot of attention to their children today, or they keep them really busy with activities, or they raise themselves.’ ‘The expressions of kids are more violent, I wouldn’t want to be a parent of young children today.’ It seems that people used to be able to let their children roam the neighbourhood, walk to school, and climb trees. My grandmother often went to the beach at the age of five with just the supervision of her two older siblings (aged eight and ten), and with no adult in sight. While this was commonplace back then, it is something that would be unthinkable now. I let my son climb a tree outside our house and someone walking by questioned my decision! Have we become health and safety mad?. In this generation of helicopter parenting, it can be hard to get the balance right between being an involved parent but not a smothering one.
Family life may not have changed that dramatically in the last few generations. Rather, the bread and butter of family life may have remained the same in many ways, as the needs of babies and young children are the same—however outside the home the rapid rise of commercialism has meant that there has been an expansion of opportunities, choices which make child rearing possibly all the more challenging. We are the microwave generation, and children are more used to instant gratification. And perhaps there is less community today. This is a common sentiment. Many mothers carry a burden that would be better shared by wider family. It takes a village to raise a child, but where is the village? We have online communities, but many people today don’t know their neighbours.
And then there is the whole host of different parenting philosophies that one is bombarded with. This can cause confusion for many first time parents especially. In parenting it is about trusting one’s instincts, but for me, and I’m sure this is true for many parents, trusting one’s instincts and developing confidence took time. And having a baby is not just about raising a child to be a healthy, literate adult. From the moment you announce your joyful news, it often means navigating a minefield of contradictory advice on just about everything: what to eat and avoid during pregnancy, how to give birth, whether to have pain relief during childbirth, sleep training versus co-sleeping, disposables versus cloth nappies, how and when to potty-train one’s child, breast feeding versus bottle feeding, schedule versus attachment parenting, using a buggy versus baby wearing. I recall talking to my mother about how many new mothers benefit from the support of a lactation consultant. Her response was – goodness me, we didn’t have lactation consultants in my day! Then there are the options of staying home versus going back to work, how much time our kids should spend watching TV (if at all), exercising, reading, what they should wear. And the considerations of schooling – at what age should our kids enter kindergarten, if at all. And whereas most children used to go to the local school, we now have more choice, and the option of home schooling. And we can deliberate over what to feed our children, given that much of our food source has been defiled by chemicals today, and allergies and intolerances seem to be on the rise. Should we be sugar-free, gluten-free, wheat-free?
Credit: Henry Essenhigh Corke (1883-1919); Autochrome. Collection of National Media Museum
It is common for parents to feel overwhelmed, and is it any wonder? Is it also any wonder that we can become uncertain and defensive about our choices? There is a dizzying array of important considerations that are vying for our attention where raising our kids is concerned. Is too much knowledge a dangerous thing? Thanks to Google and the fact that many of today’s parents are educated up the eyeballs, we seem to question everything.
The blogger Jennifer Fulwiler summed up the feelings of many parents rather well in her blog Conversion Diary:
And I need — desperately, seriously, dying-man-in-the-desert-level need — one area of my life as a parent that I do not have to agonize about. As a modern mother, I am required to obsess over every. single. aspect. of my children’s lives. I have to make ALL THE CHOICES about ALL THE THINGS and I am EXHAUSTED.
Sorry for the caps lock, but seriously, people, I am supposed to be pouring all this energy into what food we eat and what types of shows they watch and what type of video games they play and how much time they spend doing those things and what sports they play and what sorts of clothes they wear and whether we should vaccinate and circumcise and pierce ears and…GAH! I can’t even send my kids to the school down the street without second-guessing it because now we have the options of homeschooling and charter schools.’ www.conversiondiary.com
There are many other factors that may make us sometimes feel like we are parenting in a pressure cooker rather than in a slow cooker. Since the 1980s it has been more difficult to live on one income, and many families require two incomes to meet a mortgage. The cost of living is rising. We also have much higher material expectations today, and we have so much stuff, that makes managing the mess of family life much more difficult. And thanks to the feminist revolution (from which many positive outcomes resulted) women are now expected to do it all, and the result is that many women are stressed and exhausted, and for some, their health may be compromised. There is also a lack of respect for homemaking as a viable vocation today and many have felt the need to reclaim homemaking as an important role.
We can also consider whether commercialism makes life busier, and parenting more challenging? Do the myriad of activities that kids are engaged in add stress to families? And do cash strapped educational and community groups have high expectations of parental involvement? There are many issues.
We are also the first generation of parents of IEverything. We live in a world of Ipads and Iphones. 24-7 screen availability and cyber footprints. ‘IEverything’ may just be one of the most pressing concerns in child development today. Sue Palmer seems to think so.
Perhaps there was a time when parents did what had been done for generations. And perhaps there are some disadvantages to living in a cultural environment where you don’t question things, and you do things the way things have been done for generations. But at least you wouldn’t have to exhaust yourself analyzing every single parenting decision that you make.
Certainly we ought to put some thought into how we feed, educate, and raise our children, even if today’s vast array of choices means those decisions are harder to make than they were for previous generations. Perhaps we need to get back to basics, to think about parenting in the slow cooker lane rather than in the pressure cooker lane. I’m learning to slow life right down (as much as we can) so that family life isn’t as hectic and frazzled. And maybe the best option is simply to realize that most parents really are trying to do what’s best for their kids, and to extend a little more grace to those parents who raise their kids differently to us. There is so much judgment placed on parents today, and mothers seem to be judged more harshly than fathers.
And while we think that raising kids is tougher today, perhaps our parents or grandparents would have said the same thing of their generation too. We also see the impact of the parenting role differently. We are perhaps more psychologically aware today. We know how important it is to say ‘I love you’ to our children, to demonstrate affection, and to allow our children to talk about their feelings. And perhaps raising kids is tougher today, but the fruits of our labour are worth it. It’s still the most rewarding, wonderful job.