This morning, the debut of another of our new monthly columns, "Off the Shelf" by Elline Lipkin. Elline is a poet and nonfiction writer. Her first book, The Errant Thread, was chosen by Eavan Boland to receive the Kore Press First Book Award and was published in 2006. She's currently working on a book about girls for Seal Press and will be a Visiting Scholar with the Center for Research on Women at UCLA in the fall. She recently taught at UC Berkeley where she was a Postdoctoral Scholar with the Beatrice Bain Research Group. And here she is! - GWP
Parenting, Inc. by Pamela Paul
Just six months ago I felt bombarded by my bedside stack of wedding guides. Each, under the guise of "must have to be happy on your Big Day," proscribed things to wear, stuff to buy, favors to give, rituals to enact, details to watch, all apparently needed to fulfill the American wedding tradition. Without each one in place, they warned, The Wedding Dream just couldn't be. Happily, I tossed most aside in favor of indiebride status (shared with you Deb! Mazel tov!), but the relentlessness of "to-dos," all sheltered under the umbrella of "necessary for happiness," was enough to make me question my every choice.
Moving quickly on to the next stage of later-in-life union, I was glad for journalist Pamela Paul's preview warning about the lists of Stuff new parents are told they need -- so I can know what not to do, or at least, to try to resist. The "new parents checklist" Paul is given before the birth of her first child starts her off on a consumer journey that exacerbates every anxiety, worry, and concern stewing about her impending parenthood.
In her new book Parenting, Inc., Paul fires back – by examining the multiple industries that launch both an avalanche of products at new parents (only sometimes aimed at their babies) and the landslide of guilt, obligation, and often enough, misinformation that accompanies these products. Paul outlines how confused, overwhelmed, and/or desperate parents feel and then how susceptible they become to overpriced wares and unnecessary "edutainment" programs that they're told will give their babies a head start.
Paul's research is thorough as she exposes the selling points of everything from Baby Einstein (experts can't tell if a baby is really engaged or not and setting a tape on an endless loop often serves as a less guilt-inducing break for parents since their child is "learning") to teaching signing to babies (results dubious) to exclusive NYC clubs tailored to well-heeled babies, nannies, and parents (tapping into peer pressure and celebrity allure). She visits "enrichment classes" that range from Little Maestros to Gymboree. It doesn't take a critical eye to see most kids are actively disengaged and that often the only ones benefiting are the parents who are eager to be out of the house and connecting with each other.
Paul exposes the phalanx of consultants who stand at the ready to charge overstretched or just overly concerned parents, from sleep specialists to thumb-sucking experts to bike tutors to potty-training day programs. A through-line in the book is the loss of extended family for support and expertise and their replacement with a consumerist approach to parenting through a deluge of products each packaged with angst-inducing rhetoric: This will be the key to make your baby smarter, brighter, swifter in his or her head start to Harvard. Particularly revealing are Paul's interviews with many of the business-savvy entrepreneurs (including some "mompreneurs") who realized what a vulnerable and anxious customer the new parent can be and who are ready to market accordingly.
Paul's writing is engaging, particularly as she candidly reveals her own needs and frustrations as a parent and partly researches the book while into her pregnancy with her second child. She uses her own experience as a measuring stick to look critically at what she finds.
One critique of the book is, in some sense, also its strength -- its relentlessness. Paul reiterates the sheer velocity of products to buy, outsourced help to tap, and crushing sense of obligation that parents feel, but her point is made (and remade) as she debunks their necessity. There are "nameologists" who will provide naming packages, tot manner minders, expert baby-proofers; no corner of childhood is exempt from a product or expert to help a parent do it better. The sense of frenetic obligation is palpable.
After awhile, I would have found it more interesting to hear about alternatives – parents who resisted, consumer groups who called products out, DIY'ers who found a way around the monolith of consumer pressure. And while she makes it clear that the dilemma of too much stuff is a class-based issue, this seems a place to expand her argument. How many kids who had tutoring before age 2 really live up to the racing head start they were supposedly getting? How many geniuses came from humble beginnings where no educational accoutrements were available? And from what context do these parents feel "every opportunity" is truly necessary for a child?
The negative effects of "helicopter parents" are only touched on and I wondered from where and when did such class-based devotion to achievement spring? Towards the book's end the text turns more reflective as Paul asks a range of experts what it even means to parent, never mind parent "well" and it's a relief, finally, to tie together the economic and social forces that goad parents toward an ethos of inadequacy and a cycle of self-doubt that seem to make few happy, despite the consumerism that promises exactly that. A few startlingly refreshing voices practically sing through the madness, such as that of Elisa Sherona, a 63-year-old grandmother who raised five kids in the '60s and '70s and is unafraid to declare outright you just don't need any of this stuff and questions how raising kids like this will affect them as adults. While the latter remains to be seen, at the book's end Paul finally has determined that she doesn't need these products or programs for her kids and that that doesn't mean she's a bad parent. She lets out a sigh of relief that echoes Sherona's thoughts, and seems all the more relieved that she can finally release.