I admit I don’t read a lot of parenting books. (Ironic for someone who is authoring a blog based on parenting experiences, I realize.) They often make me feel some combination of stressed/overwhelmed/bored/guilty. Maybe it stems back to my maternity leave with baby #1 where the stack of books on babies and parenthood remained largely untouched, gathering dust. All I could manage to consume in my lactating months were cooking shows, bad reality tv, or books written by bad reality tv personalities.
But there is a genre of parenting literature I find interesting and ultimately, more useful. And those books take more of a developmental approach, giving you an under-the-hood glimpse of what it’s like to be your baby/kid in that stage of life.
One of my favorites in this category is Alison Gopnik’s The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us about Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life. It’s a compelling read on the current cognitive science of babies’ brains and development.
As anyone who has cared for an infant full-time well knows, the dirty little secret is that it can be mind-numbingly boring at times. But reading Gopnik’s book while caring full-time for a baby helped remind me in my sleep-ridden state of the complex, vast amount of learning that a baby is experiencing every moment. She provides examples of how their brains are incredible learning machines. Adults often chide small kids for not paying attention. As Gopnik points out, what’s really happening is that their brains have a hard time focusing on a single thing since they’re paying attention to everything. Can you imagine? As she summarizes in her fascinating TED talk:
“What’s it like being a baby? It’s like being in love in Paris for the first time after you’ve had three double espressos.”
Along those lines, I recently read Jennifer Senior’s All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. Beyond the fact that the title alone is so dead on (I wasn’t sure if it made me laugh or cry), it offers a historical, cultural perspective on modern, middle/upper class parenthood in the U.S. It’s a kind of ethnography of current parenthood.* Senior makes the point that modern parents are suffering a bit of an identity crisis. The role of parents of previous generations was often more clear – to raise kids to help with the farm/family business/etc. And a lot of what parents used to do has now been farmed out – to teachers, pediatricians, the list goes on. Now what’s our role exactly? To raise happy, healthy, kind, effective, self-fulfilled, self-actualized human beings? Hmm…where’s the manual for that?
For me, Senior’s book explains why the majority of parents I know seem so exhausted, overwhelmed and worn out (a well publicized piece of data she includes: working moms spend more time with their kids than non-working moms did 30 years ago). Although All Joy and No Fun doesn’t necessarily alter the current condition of parenting, I think there’s great power in painting a picture of where we are, and in reminding us that we’re parents in a specific place and moment in time. And by extension, the role of parents isn’t stagnant – it changes, reflecting changes in the world.
So what would Alison Gopnik say being a parent is like? It’s like taking a Tylenol PM, while negotiating with terrorists, being repeatedly pelted by various human body fluids, while having your heart explode with love.
* – And not surprisingly, she was a fellow Anthro major. Word.