In one of the responses to my last column, "The truth about staying home," a reader points out one of the reasons today's mothers have such a difficult time: lack of experience. Pregnant with her eighth child, this mom identified two major changes that have occurred in the last century that have made parenting more challenging: mandatory education laws and smaller family size.
Interestingly enough, my second book began as a project about the demise of large families in America but evolved into a larger study about how and why childrearing is more difficult for the modern generation – and how today's parents can navigate the muddy waters. There's no question smaller family size plays a role. After all, anything that's foreign to us takes some getting used to; and just when today's parents start to get the hang of it, they stop having children. Since 1977 just over half of Americans – between 50 percent and 56 percent – have said smaller families are "ideal." Indeed, large families are so rare today that Americans are mesmerized by this lifestyle, so much so we've given several large families their own television show! But lack of experience is only part of the equation; there are other factors that explain why parents face far greater challenges today.
To begin with, just getting pregnant can be a bear for many women. Sadly, women have been under the impression their bodies will cooperate with their career plans. Not so. There's a biological clock at play whether we like it or not – as so many who struggle to get pregnant are now realizing. I wish I could say women are heeding the warning, but so far there's no evidence of this. When you grow up with big plans for the future, as all good feminists have convinced young women to do, it's daunting to try and halt the trajectory.
Indeed, delayed gratification and overall sacrifice – two mainstays of motherhood – is a tall order for modern women. When you've grown up in a culture that eschews such things, what do you expect? The modern generation has grown up with every possible comfort. They have never faced war or a depression (the Iraq war and recent economic downturn do not count); they have never had to save their pennies and wait until Christmastime to get that one special thing they want; they have never been told they couldn't buy something because they didn't have the cash; they have never been told to walk or ride their bikes somewhere because there was no car available; they have never had to cook from scratch and make do with whatever was in the pantry; and they have never had to clip coupons. Today's generation has become so accustomed to an easy way of life they have no idea how to live any other way. Yet this kind of sacrifice – not having one's needs met or having to forgo simple pleasures – is precisely the kind of life motherhood demands.
Another change that's been deeply damaging to motherhood is our transient society. Gone are the days when most women marry after college graduation and move back home to live near their families. Instead, men and women go off to school only to end up in whatever city their first job happens to be. This decision inevitably leads to the creation of a life somewhere far from home; so when it comes time to have children, grandparents are nowhere to be found. Moreover, with so many children in day care our neighborhoods have become desolate. These two factors alone are enough to depress any new mother.
This new reality is only the beginning. Throughout the years parents will confront all sorts of pressures our parents did not, pressures that make parenting far more difficult. In addition to all the do's an don'ts of early child care – you must breastfeed; you must not let kids under 3 watch television (even Sesame Street!); you must put your child in school at the age of 2 ½ – the consumerism that plagues our society is horrible on mothers. Each time mothers take their children shopping they have to contend with candy that doesn't belong in a shoe store, or this character vs. that character – rather than just plain ole' Happy Birthday plates. Shopping that might otherwise be enjoyable becomes the trip from hell for Mom.
Second, there's the ever-present long list of technological devices with which our children are bombarded. Sure, you can say no to your kids – I do all the time – but it's the having to address it that matters. Third, as children get older parents have to confront the sexualization of our culture. I'm always surprised to find moms who I could swear think the same way I do about what's appropriate who are extremely permissive. No matter who my daughter chooses to befriend, my husband and I feel completely alone in our strict ways. Fortunately, we don't care much what other people think; but most parents do. Most parents cannot stand to do their own thing. Even in adulthood people want to be part of the "in crowd."
Which is why I strongly suggest that when it comes to parenting, people ignore the "experts" on our morning programs and instead turn to the real professionals: parents of large families. There is a distinct set of skills these parents have that the rest of America could stand to learn. You don't have to have a large family to be a traditional parent. My e-mailer may think it's experience that makes her unique, but I bet it's her parenting style – since most mothers of large families raise their children the old-fashioned way: with clear boundaries, less consumerism, a strong religious foundation and little to no technology. Are these families out of step with the rest of America? Perhaps.
But it works.
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