Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The End

In November we finally sold our house. It took 18 months on the market and a sale price that was one third less than what we paid for it four years earlier, but we finally had a buyer lift that massive financial burden from our shoulders. More importantly, we also rid ourselves of a gigantic anchor that kept dragging on our consciousness every time we tried to make plans for the future. We fought desperately against this drag, trying over and over to defy its pull and to pretend that we could just go on with our lives. To prove our defiance we even sought to buy another house - going so far as to actually sign a contract and put the mortgage process in motion before some structural problems with the house led us to back away.

So once the house was fully cleaned out, the paperwork settled, and the keys handed over to the new owners, the emotional relief was intense. We could breathe again. We could look at our bank statement without seeing the gut-wrenching erosion of our savings. We could make plans that did not include the caveat 'once the house sells.'

We could also start addressing some of the other long-running questions that had been pushed aside by the house. One of those questions for me has been what exactly am I going to do with myself once both kids are in school or, put another way, what comes next when fatherhood is no longer a full-time occupation? Pip starts kindergarten this fall. Polly is only two years away from joining him. My window for deliberation, once a half-decade wide, is closing shut at a tremendous speed.

Before we had to deal with selling the house, the question of my future employment was the unanswerable shadow haunting the ins and outs of my daily life. It would whisper in my ear as I did the dishes. It rocked with me as I sung the kids to sleep at night. It trotted along beside me when I went running. So, when we gained relief from the house, I was ready to keep the momentum going by taking care of this question as well.

After some consideration, I decided that the most logical route to gaining full employment within a two to three year span would be to go back to school and get an MBA. This was something I could get started on in January and with a bit of scheduling luck I could be almost ready for the job market when Polly entered kindergarten. Whether that was actually a realistic scenario or not didn't matter too much. What was important was that I had the answer to my question.

With that decision made, I began preparing for the coursework ahead by getting my math skills back up to snuff. Whatever free time I had - including the time I had used for writing - went towards working through practice problems in a college-level algebra textbook. At the same time, I figured out what prereqs I needed to complete and set about getting enrolled in a local university in order to knock them out. First up was Survey of Accounting. I acquired the book at Christmas and was heading into Chapter 3 by the time the first week of class rolled around.

And then it turned out I couldn't do it. There was not enough time to be a good full-time father and a good MBA student. Things would have to slide. Sacrifices would have to be made. Moments would come where I would have to choose between family and schoolwork. While this kind of negotiation is something people do every day, it is a miserable thing to live with after not having to do it for so long. And it only made everyone in our family edgy. So, I dropped the class. The MBA or whatever else is out there for me can wait. We will happily keep our domestic bubble intact for a while longer.

*****

I've had a similar realization with respect to this blog. Over the summer I attempted to balance the time I spent writing blog entries with other projects I wanted to work on. The results were not satisfactory. I felt constantly torn over how to allocate my attention and generally frustrated that I wasn't getting things done the way I wanted to. I broke away from all of it while managing our housing dramas and during my flirtations with the MBA idea. Once those ended I took some time to assess what I wanted to do next. My first decision was that I should only try to do one thing for a while. My second decision was that the blog would not be that one thing. I enjoyed my year of working on it, but I am ready to fiddle with something else for a bit.

And so, with this post I am bringing the blog to a close. Thank you to everyone who read, followed, and commented. I sincerely appreciate your coming along with me.

All the best,

Jeff

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Piss on the Door Knobs

Hello readers, Ava here. I have asked Jeff to use his blogspace to insert some reflections about parenting in the post-industrial era. While Jeff’s perspective is written from the local, household influence, I’d like to write about the political economy of parenting in these post-industrial times. What I have found is that what distinguishes us from our parent’s and grandparent’s generation are the constraints that act upon us for which we have no control.

We moved for employment a year ago. Our house didn’t sell the first week on the market, or the first month, or the first year. To sell it, we will pay an ungodly amount of money to bring our total losses to an even more ungodly amount of money. And it hurts. Polly was born there. Pip took his first steps there. There were birthdays and holidays and visits from friends. I remember the weekend that Polly learned to wave and we had pizza at the kitchen table for dinner.

We now rent a two bedroom apartment, as described in Jeff’s post, On Wildness and Sharing Our Space. And while the location is wonderful, we are tired of being exploited in the shameful renter/tenant environment that clouds most places in America. Our lease was inaccurate when signed, we are responsible for maintaining a property that the owner avoids responsibility at all costs, and we are at the mercy of someone else’s schedule.

For the past two months, we have pursued purchasing another home. After signing a contract and getting it inspected, we found that the risk of potential repairs was too great. And we’re sad, because we feel we have done “everything right” and we deserve the security and stability that marked previous generations.

And this is the chaos of post-industrial parenting: the notion of doing “everything right” as causally related to security and prosperity is a myth. I know it’s a myth, I teach hundreds of students a semester that it’s a myth, and yet I don’t want to believe it. I want to believe that I can work harder and harder and it will result in a better life for my family. I want to believe that there is a “right decision” and a “right way” and that we are, indeed, doing things right. And the frustrating thing for the post-industrial parents is that we ARE doing everything right. It just doesn’t mean what it used to.

In explaining our ups-and-downs in the post-industrial economy, a friend of ours said of our vacant house, “Piss on the door knobs. It will make you feel better.” Well, as a nation, we’d better get ready for a whole lotta piss on a whole lotta doorknobs. Because there are a whole lotta post-industrial parents doing “everything right.” And we’ve got nothing to show for it but vacant houses with pissy doorknobs and a crumbling economy.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

On Wildness and Sharing Our Space

In the midst of a busy and complicated part of the summer for our family I decided to take an impromptu break from my weekly blog writing. It started out as just another delayed posting, something that had become frequent over the summer. But after spending ten days in late July visiting with my parents and three of my closest friends and then taking another three days or so to recover from it all, a few items arose with the house we have been trying to sell. After more than a year, a potential buyer had finally emerged, and we made a push to make sure the house was in great shape for their decisive walk-through. In order to handle those details, I decided to let another week slide by without a blog entry. Since then we have undergone a multi-week frenzy of real estate selling and real estate shopping that continues to soak up more of my life than I wish. It has been difficult to think about anything else, including putting together a blog post.

During this frenzy, a touch of wildness has entered the play of Polly and Pip. While they have always enjoyed tracking back and forth along the straight-line that runs from their bedroom through the dining room and into the living room couch, now each run ends with an airborne child crashing face first into pillows and cushions. In addition, they have started adding odd sound effects to their lives: grunts, buzzes, and growls fill any quiet moment at the dinner table, in the bathroom, or outside playing. Stomping across the creaky hardwood floors of our apartment has also become a regular form of entertainment. One day last week they pulled out every doll and stuffed animal they possess, piled them on the floor in their bedroom, and proceeded to slide, crash, stomp, and jump on the pile.

In and of themselves these actions are not particularly new, but the energy with which Polly and Pip pursue them has intensified. The reasons for this intensification are multiple. For one thing, Polly is growing more physically adept every day. She can now jump down from 18-24 inches above the ground and land on her feet. She can slide headfirst off Pip’s bed without hurting herself. She can copy all the noises Pip makes. In all, she can do an increasing number of the things that Pip can do. This means they are playing together more and engaging in a type of mutually reinforcing play that takes Pip’s energetic ideas and ramps them up to levels I wasn’t prepared for. Ava and I have approached this development tentatively; we are thrilled that they are playing together and want to stay out of the way as much as possible but at the same time we’d like them to maintain some semblance of self-control. Figuring out when to stay aloof and when to step in has taken some time and experimentation.

Also, much of August was so hot that we were unable to get in our customary evening walks. For most of the summer, we took the kids out after dinner, put them in the double jogger and rolled them around the neighborhood for a half-hour or so. This gave us a regularly planned activity that headed off some of the end-of-the-day squirreliness that the kids get as they grow tired and gave Ava and me a few minutes to catch up with each other. Without these walks, we found ourselves at loose ends for the hour or so between the end of dinner and the start of the bedtime routine. This open, unstructured time works okay in the morning when the kids can direct themselves. But in the evening, it generally leads to craziness.

It hasn’t helped that our real estate frenzy has sucked away time that Ava and I normally spend with the kids. Over the last couple of weeks I have spent multiple hours talking on the telephone with Ava, my parents, and real estate agents while trying to cook lunch, to get Polly through the bathroom process, to take the kids to the park, and to do any number of other basic activities during which the kids usually have our undivided attention. At first they thought our distraction was fun. It was something new for them to figure out. But now that this curiosity has worn off, they quickly become unhappy and demanding whenever the phone rings. It has been a stressful experience for all of us as Ava and I know exactly what is happening but feel compelled to continue with our conversations anyway.

*****

With all of this swirling around us, I’ve come to appreciate the attraction of having a larger living space than the one we currently occupy. Our apartment consists of a living room, a dining room, a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom for Ava and me, and one for Pip and Polly. Within this configuration, there is really no place the kids can go play without having to constantly negotiate with their parents. Their bedroom presents some opportunity for separation, but between the two beds, a rocking chair, a set of shelves and a dresser, there is very little floor space available for energetic play or multi-day toy arrangements. This leaves the dining room and the living room for these kinds of things. However, those are spaces which we all share together, meaning the kids cannot have primacy in either for extended periods of time.

When I was younger, my sister and I were fortunate to have two such spaces. One room was a storage room running under the eaves of our house that my parents turned over to us for a play room. We had shelves, a record player, and a dresser to stuff with our things. Toys remained strewn across the floor for weeks at a time. We also had a full, finished basement that was lightly furnished. It was an excellent space to get away from our parents’ eyes and have a pillow fight or eat a bit too much candy. It also gave our parents a place to send us when we got too rowdy upstairs in the nicer rooms of our house.

And, in truth, I had a third space that fit this characterization: my own bedroom. In many respects I was not as free to do with this room as I was the playroom or the basement – it wasn’t the place for rough play and it had to be kept relatively neat and clean – but it was a place for me to retreat to, a room where I could close the door, where I could decide who would come in and who would stay out. It was a separate space of my own, one that facilitated my own individuation.

Pip and Polly do not have that kind of space (and, frankly, neither do Ava and I) in our current apartment. While I don’t think all of this shared space creates a necessarily better or worse experience than my own, living here certainly hasn’t been meaningless. Sharing this apartment for the last year has shaped the way we relate to one another. I think and talk more about ‘family’ as my primary social unit than I used to – there’s a lot more “our” and “we” in my speech than “I” now. I have also slowly peeled away the time I have designated for myself as the demands of keeping the kids and the house together have increased. Part of this is the reality of having young kids and performing my role as their primary caretaker. Part of it has to do with the shared nature of the apartment space. With an extra room or two we’d probably just designate an area for kid craziness and send Polly and Pip there when they want to bounce around. Instead, we have to constantly negotiate with one another, finding a way to accommodate our different needs for the space we have and our different ideas about what the space can and should be used for. It would seem like a recipe for frustration – and sometimes it is – but ultimately I think it has been good for us. When there is nowhere to run to and nowhere to hide, you have to talk with one another; at the very least you have to tell each other what you are up to or what you are planning to do. With all that talking we get to practice communicating with each other. We’ve had to figure out how to make requests and demands of one another in respectful and conscious ways. All that practice has been valuable when real problems have arisen.

*****

And yet, even as I write this, Pip has started carving out little bits of personal space around the apartment. Now whenever it is time to clean up and put things away, it is common for Pip to identify some creation or arrangement of things he would like for us to leave in place for the next day. Yesterday it was a fire truck by the bathroom door. Today it was a pile of LEGO pieces he had collected in a little cup and left by his seat at the dinner table. More often than not he never returns to these items. They get forgotten over the night and reintegrated into the play of the next morning. The regularity of this pattern makes me see these acts as a way of staking a more permanent claim to our shared spaces, as a way of exercising some control over them even when he is not present in them. It is his way of asserting his own individual place amidst the communal swirl of our family. I imagine there will be many more instances of this kind of activity headed our way in the future.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Sibling parents

In his four and a half years of life, Pip’s dominant examples of social interaction have come almost exclusively from Ava and me. While in some ways this relationship is to be expected of most children and their primary caregivers, Pip’s bubble has a few qualities that make it even more intense. For starters, since I am a full-time father, he has had very limited experience with non-familial caregivers like preschool teachers, day care providers, nannies, or even babysitters. Our home-centered childcare model also means that he does not currently have a classroom of peers that he interacts with on a regular basis. Instead, his contact with children his own age tends to be limited to whatever casual interactions happen on the playground. Lastly, as we don’t watch television with the kids, that avenue of social observation is also unavailable to him. For better or worse, when Pip wants a model for how to handle a situation, he is largely stuck with using what he has observed from us as his starting point.

One effect of this bubble is that frequently Pip’s mode of approach to Polly has been parental. At times this has taken on a classic, bossy older sibling form where he watches Polly closely and does his best to regulate her behavior according to the rules as he knows them. He keeps her from walking out into the street without a parent. He gently chastises her for throwing something inside the house. He asks her repeatedly not to splash water out of the bathtub. He does all these things because he has seen Ava and me do them.

But other times he mimics our caring acts, whether it’s helping Polly get something that is out of her reach or finding toys to entertain her while Ava and I are cleaning up the dishes. He is particularly quick to seek out ways to comfort her in times when he anticipates she’ll be upset.
He can be very creative in these endeavors. He’ll bring her little gifts from the toy shelf or he’ll make up silly rhymes to make her laugh.

One day this past week Polly woke up from her afternoon nap in a cranky mood. This sent Pip scurrying about in search of a way to help her through this. After about half-an-hour, as Polly’s mood started to brighten, I went into their room and found all their larger stuffed animals sitting on the floor. Tigger, Eyeore, Purple Duck, Blue the bear, Soft-soft Bunny, and Woolly Mammoth were arranged in a tight circle around George, a old teddy bear that is one of Polly’s favorites. When I asked Pip what was going on, he told me he had created a “family hug” for George in hopes that it would make Polly feel better. Whether this arrangement was meant to make her laugh or to give her a big hug using George as her proxy, I’m not sure. But either way it was a gesture that warmed all of our hearts.

*****

These parenting efforts by Pip leave me feeling somewhat ambivalent. While there is plenty of historical precedent for older siblings taking on a parental role with younger siblings - particularly in larger families where taking care of younger brothers and sisters was frequently part of an older child’s core responsibilities – I feel like contemporary social expectations tell me that Pip is doing too much. He is supposed to be an independent kid, living his own childhood free from the burden of feeling responsible for someone else. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly where this feeling is coming from, but I can see some manifestation of it in the narratives of sacrifice that people use when they talk about unconventional families where older siblings take on tasks usually handled by parents or adult caregivers. In these narratives, older siblings often get depicted as martyrs, giving up their childhood so that younger brothers or sisters can have one. Such an understanding depends on the idea that the older siblings had little responsibility for their younger siblings in the first place.

Perhaps this is how it should be. I don’t know. What I do know is that I can feel the influence of this idea on my interpretation of Pip’s relationship with Polly. Early on, Ava and I tried to reduce the amount of behavior regulation work he did, telling Pip that such things were our job and that his job was to play with Polly. This did not really have much effect on him. I imagine there are a couple of reasons for this. For one thing, the distinction we were trying to make was vague, randomly applied, and at times just confusing. It was unfair to expect a three or four-year-old to really make sense of it. For another, playing with Polly was something that Pip had to figure out and to do that he had to start somewhere. As his predominant examples for interacting with his sister were parental ones, it is not surprising that these approaches were the ones he tried first. On top of that, Pip’s social inclination is to observe and analyze the activities of other people. He is constantly interested in the actions of those around him, often to the point of distraction. With respect to Polly, this inclination led him easily into a mode of parental-style surveillance where he sees when she is doing something wrong and tries to help all of us by getting her to stop whatever it is.

More recently, we have backed off our attempts to actively shape the way Pip approaches his relationship with Polly. While we still step in when we sense Pip is getting overbearing, we have mostly allowed their interactions to develop as they will. Fortunately, this seems to be working as, on a daily basis, there is more play and less bossing than before. I think much of the reason for this is Polly’s own developmental growth and her quickly expanding physical and linguistic capacities. Her increasing ability to keep up with Pip makes the power dynamics in their play more balanced which in turn is enabling the emergence of the kind of relational structures that we were initially trying to force upon Pip.

*****

All the same the power of the bubble remains in effect as Polly has now taken to doing a bit of parenting of her own. The same day that Pip built the family hug around George, Polly began trying to help Pip with his bicycle. While out on a walk that afternoon, Pip got his training wheels stuck on an uneven spot in the sidewalk. Usually when this happens, I give him a little push to get him going again. This time, Polly wanted to be the one to give him the push. She rushed forward and strained hard against the bike seat to get him moving. When he finally did inch forward again, she looked back at me with a twinkle in her eyes. She had helped Pip, just as any good parent would do.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Fundamental Problems

How come so many children of well-off, attentive, and conscientious parents are growing up into emotionally fragile and narcissistic adults whose dominant feelings are ones of emptiness, confusion, and anxiety? This is the question at the center of the cover article for the Atlantic Monthly’s July/August “Ideas” issue. Entitled “How to Land Your Child in Therapy” and written by a psychologist and mother named Lori Gottlieb, the article argues that in their attempt to provide kids with a perfectly happy childhood, well-meaning parents are depriving their children of the kinds of failures and discomforts necessary for learning resilience, independence, and self-confidence. As happiness cannot be a constant state – it, like all other emotions, is only understood in comparison to all one’s other feelings – these parents, Gottlieb concludes, are preventing their children from acquiring qualities that are vitally important to living a functional and meaningful life.

Gottlieb supports this conclusion by pointing out a range of ways that contemporary parents (of a particular class standing) are paying too much attention to smoothing the ripples in the daily lives of their children. This protective mode begins early with parents swooping in to help a fallen toddler before they even start to cry. It moves on to intervening in the negotiations of preschoolers to insure a parental interpretation of fairness even after the kids who were quarreling have worked things out to their own satisfaction. It spikes with the placing of kids in noncompetitive sports leagues where no one (officially) keeps score.

As these children age, their parents constantly tell them how special they are and rarely offer a meaningful evaluation of their own capacities. They become the center of all family activity with mom and dad shuttling them from place to place and running back home when they forget to turn off their laptop. The product of this kind of attention is a blissfully/ignorantly happy child who moves into adulthood with an overwhelming sense of entitlement and a critical lack of functional resiliency. This “overinvestment” of modern parents in their children, writes Gottlieb, is contributing to a “burgeoning generational narcissism that’s hurting our kids.”

*****

An obvious question that arises from this assessment is: why are we (and both Gottlieb and I consciously include ourselves in this group) parents going to such ends with our children? Gottlieb and all the experts she quotes believe that modern parents are, at one level or another, using their children to address their own emotional issues. Whether this is the absence of other meaningful relationships, a desire to find some avenue for outstanding achievement, or to overcorrect for what they see as their own deficiencies, modern parents are, Gottlieb argues, often crossing the line between “selflessness (making our kids happy) and selfishness (making ourselves happy).”

This line, of course, is a very difficult one to negotiate. Gottlieb herself notes with a touch of bewilderment how she and other experts find themselves experiencing the same inclinations with their own children that they criticize in others. As Dan Kindlon, a child psychologist at Harvard told her, “I’m about to become an empty-nester and sometimes I feel like I’d burn my kids’ college applications just to have somebody to hang around with.”

Ultimately, though, Gottlieb declares that there is a fundamental immaturity at work in their behavior that overinvested parents need to deal with. “Maybe,” she writes, “we parents are the ones who have some growing up to do.” “Our children,” says Wendy Mogul, another expert quoted in the article, “are not our masterpieces.”

*****

It seems to me that the diagnosis of parental immaturity and, more importantly, the idea that we parents need to grow up overlook an important quality embedded in the modern relationship between parent and child. In the agricultural era preceding and overlapping with the industrial revolution, procreation carried with it a certain economic logic. While each new child represented another mouth to feed, it also added another pair of hands to do chores, gather food, herd animals, etc. Given the prevalence of large families during this period, I feel it’s safe to assume that on balance the production of children added slightly more to the family economy than their consumption took away. I think it is also safe to assume that until the advent and widespread acceptance of child labor laws, this economic logic remained an important influence during the industrial era as well. Add into these calculations the need for continued familial care as parents aged, and the rationale for having children certainly extended beyond a mere biological impetus.

Those rationales no longer exist. Having a child in twenty-first century America is an act that places a significant drain on a couple’s resources. To start with, you’re looking at almost two decades of feeding, clothing, educating, entertaining, and insuring this child. Then, if you’re lucky, you get to pay for college. It all costs a lot of money. And with retirement funds, Social Security, Medicare, and the cultural push to maintain an independent household in one’s golden years, children no longer bear the type of caregiving responsibilities for their parents that they used to. It all means that, from a logical perspective, the costs of having a child in this day and age far outweigh the quantifiable benefits.

This reality means that for a great many people the choice to have a child emerges from a largely emotional motivation. In deciding to bear a child, these parents seek to obtain something meaningful and ineffable, an experience that makes the economic costs of the endeavor unimportant. Perhaps this makes parents ‘immature,’ but it fundamentally cannot be any other way. The emotional ‘overinvestment’ of parents is embedded in that relationship from the beginning. You can’t ‘grow-up’ and change it.

And the decision aspect of all of this should not be underestimated. With the development of a pill for birth control in 1960 and the subsequent proliferation and normalization of pharmaceutical contraception, any biological impetus that might be seen as driving procreation can be largely subverted. This disjuncture between sex and reproduction (at least in populations with access to decent health care) has made having a child that much more of a considered choice. In so many more cases now than in earlier eras, childbearing is a project that a couple decides to take on, not one that they happen to fall into.

*****

What I guess I am arguing here is that I find it unfair and unhelpful to condescendingly urge hyper-invested parents to “grow up” in their relationships with their children. In that framework, the only thing one can do that would pass for actual ‘maturity’ is to not have children at all. While this would certainly solve the problem of self-entitled teacups (if they really are that much of a problem), I don’t think that is the kind of change Gottlieb has in mind.

Plus, it is not hard to find other factors that might explain, and provide avenues for influencing, the proliferation of “burgeoning” narcissists. For one thing, there is an awful lot of money to be made from perfection-seeking parents and fragile, self-centered children, particularly in an economy that is more and more oriented towards providing services of every stripe and color. And, aren’t the feelings of emptiness, confusion, and anxiety exactly what advertisers are trying to provoke? In a society where advertising saturates just about every possible experience, why would we expect people to be happy, confident, and fulfilled? I’m not sure it matters what kind of parents one has when the predominant themes of so many images we encounter on a daily basis are that we need something or that we are missing out on something. In light of this bombardment, it seems incredible to believe that people might think about themselves in any other way.

Perhaps a fuller recognition of the effects these forces are having on ourselves and our children would be a more effective start towards keeping all of us out of therapy.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Looking Back; Looking Ahead

One year ago this week, I published the first post for Post-Industrial Parenthood. In honor of this anniversary here are four discoveries I’ve made in the process of putting this thing together each week:

1. Blogging is good for my parenting.

Parenting is a very gradual process containing long, repetitive stretches of maintenance punctuated by unpredictable bursts of excitement. It is a largely uncertain and constantly incomplete form of work. In the face of this open-endedness, it is helpful to have a project that is capable of providing a sense of accomplishment within a relatively short and easily defined time-frame.

The weekly posts for Post-Industrial Parenthood have come to fit the bill. Each week when I get a post completed and published, I get a little jolt of excitement. The completion of a cycle of outlining, drafting, typing, and publishing makes me feel productive and successful. It also brings me to a moment that I especially enjoy: the one just after completion where I feel justified in not doing anything for a day or two.

In addition to a sense of accomplishment, this project has made the decision-making processes of my parenting easier. I tend to think about the world in a post-hoc manner, feeling my way along and then (over)analyzing later on why I like or dislike something. Writing about the factors involved in such things as our decision not to send Pip or Polly to preschool or my enthusiasm for the kids’ interest in LEGOs has brought to my attention the things I truly value as a parent and has reinforced my understanding of how to realize those values. This understanding has made me a more confident parent as I have a clearer sense of the basic principles I want to guide my decisions in various situations. This doesn’t mean I’ll always make the right choice, but at least I have a better chance of knowing what the right choice is.

And, I get to tell stories in the process. There are frequently events that occur or thoughts that come to mind that I want to share with people but that don’t fit into the flow of everyday conversation. When this happens, these stories and ideas become like a caged animal in my mind. They pace within my skull, circling round and round looking for some way out. At the rare times when a conversation will provide the opening to unleash one of these thoughts, the experience is a mildly ecstatic combination of excitement and relief that feels much like winning a good door-prize at the company Christmas party.

Post-Industrial Parenthood has allowed me to share many more of these thoughts than I would otherwise ever get the chance to. As a result I’ve had many more ecstatic moments and become a more patient and less distracted parent.


2. The audience influences the material.

When I first started writing posts for Post-Industrial Parenthood, I wanted to publish stories that would appeal to friends and family as well as a broader audience of readers who might be interested in some of the social and cultural aspects of parenting in this era. What I did not anticipate was the importance a third group of readers would have on the topics and stories I decided to take on.

About a month or so into writing, I came to realize that I was not just interested in speaking to those who would be reading from week to week but also to those who might read these entries twenty or thirty years from now. This group would obviously include adult versions of Polly and Pip as well as much older versions of myself and Ava. The emerging awareness that I was recording a sort of family history with Post-Industrial Parenthood led me to write about more individual moments and milestones than I had originally intended. On the whole, the blog has become more personal than I initially thought it would be.


3. Kid Moments are blogger candy.

Back in February, Ava and I finished watching the fourth season of the television show 30 Rock. Organized around the interactions between the head writer of a Saturday Night Live-type television show and her boss - a businessman who has almost reached the top of the corporate ladder - 30 Rock is funny because, in addition to presenting the craziness going on behind the scenes of the television show, it satirizes many of the structures, practices, and pressures that are commonplace in large American businesses. Much like with The Office, this satire gave 30 Rock an extra sharpness that made it more interesting than the average television show.

In the fourth season this satire mostly slipped away. It was replaced by a couple cycles of dating/romantic slapstick with the businessman character. While these cycles were still funny, it feels like the originality of the show evaporated. What remained was sitcom candy – a series of storylines that were amusing but largely empty of real substance. After watching a few episodes, these storylines lost their distinction and started to taste like every other half-decent romantic comedy ever made.

In a parenting blog, Kid Moments – those stories where the kids do something that humorously reveals the parents’ ineptitude - present a similar danger. They are easy to write. The stories have a definite beginning, middle, and end. They are funny in a kind of inoffensive, banal way. And they happen just about every week. All together this makes it very tempting to write Kid Moments over and over again. But like candy and romantic slapstick, Kid Moments are largely repetitive and lacking in distinction. As an occasional break for both writer and reader, they are fun. As the main course, they quickly blend together in a mass that is basically dull and lifeless.


4. I’m beginning to figure out what it means to be a post-industrial parent.

When I started this blog last June, I chose the name Post-Industrial Parenthood because it conveyed a sense of the theoretical background upon which my writing would draw. The term ‘post-industrial’ was one I had encountered frequently in graduate school. It was used there mostly to point to a series of transitions taking place in advanced industrial economies like the United States whereby the driving force of economic growth was shifting from the manufacturing of goods to the provision of services. In such an environment jobs in government, research, education, health care, law, banking, and sales become more numerous than those in factories or manufacturing facilities. One result of this shift is the emergence of ‘knowledge’ as an important asset or measure of capacity for both individual workers and companies as a whole. Another is that the geographical location of these assets is becoming much less important than the network or web of (electronic) relations in which they operate. Ideas travel much easier than widgets.

As a parent, these developments exert pressure on me in at least one major way. When ‘knowledge’ and ‘networks’ are the most important assets my kids can obtain in their pursuit of a successful future, everything we do together takes on an extra bit of significance. Gaining ‘knowledge’ is an infinite business. Unlike developing a skill set where you learn a discrete series of operations and work to get better at them, building ‘knowledge’ is a process of constant education. It means gaining exposure to an unending array of ideas, concepts, narratives, facts, stories, and the like. And it starts from day 1. Acquiring ‘knowledge’ does not require the development of other capacities. It is something that is constantly in process. The same goes for building networks. There will always be more people to connect with and more links to be made.

The ‘responsible’ parent senses these facts and acts in accordance with their associated pressures. It’s one reason preschools sell themselves as places where children as young as two years old can gain socialization and prepare for kindergarten instead of as places to send the kids while mom or dad goes grocery shopping. Summer enrichment camps and toddler music groups both appeal in subtle ways to the same combination of ‘knowledge’ building and network development.

For me the central question of post-industrial parenthood is how much of this matters and what values we are enacting with the choices that we make. In a world where capital in the form of ‘knowledge’ and ‘networks’ is theoretically infinite, we’ll kill ourselves trying to acquire it all. The choices we make in the face of this reality and the underlying influences on how these choices appear to us will be a major theme in the year ahead.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Fire and Ice

Tracking the growth and development of children can be a tricky business. There are plenty of physical traits you can measure with rulers and scales – height, weight, the progressive increase in clothes and shoe sizes – but the intellectual, psychological, and emotional ones are much less accessible. Once you get past basic things like speaking and eating, tracking these traits requires a lot of extrapolation from ad hoc events. Every once in a while, however, you do get some definite indicators regarding the kind of growth that is taking place. Saturday morning brought me one of those moments.

*****

Pip fears thunderstorms. For reasons that he cannot articulate, thunder makes him exceedingly nervous. I think it has something to do with the deep and ominous intensity of the sound and the way it makes things vibrate as a clap rolls through the house. Whenever he hears this, Pip makes a beeline for Ava or me and will follow us around from room to room until he the storm has passed and he feels safe.

On Saturday morning, we had a line of thunderstorms blow across our region just after breakfast. They weren’t bad. There were no severe weather alerts or tornado warnings; just some rumbling and a bit of rain. Pip was handling it pretty well until we went back into the kids’ bedroom to make the beds and put on some daytime clothes. While Pip was pulling up his sheets and blanket, I opened the curtains in the room. He took a peek out the window and immediately collapsed on his pillow. When he looked up at me, his bottom lip was quivering and his eyes had the droopy, searching quality they take on whenever he is about to cry.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“The ice scraper,” he said.

I looked out the window and saw laying along the path that runs beside our garage and into the backyard the black bristles and foot-long yellow handle belonging to one of the snow and ice scrapers for our car. Its presence there on the path was something of a surprise, though not because of the obvious seasonal disjuncture (both Pip and Polly have found our pair of scrapers to be highly versatile and entertaining toys). Instead, it was unusual for us to leave something out like that. We are usually very good about cleaning up all the playthings before we go inside for the evening. This scraper, however, was tucked far enough back along the path to have escaped our notice the day before.

Thinking Pip was concerned about the scraper getting wet, I said to him,

“Don’t worry, a little rain is not going to hurt it.”

To which he replied, “Yes, but it’s going to get struck by lightening.” Then he resolutely jammed his face back into the pillow. It was one of those incongruous moments with kids that are at once painful and downright hilarious. Even as his anguish resonated in my heart, I had to take a second to avoid laughing out loud.

The thing is Pip has a very clear idea of what happens to something when it gets struck by lightening. This idea is linked to a very specific experience. In the spring of last year, we had a line of brutally severe thunderstorms go through our area just before midnight. These storms brought with them a number of tornados and copious amounts of lightening. The storms were strong enough that we spent a good hour or so huddled in the basement that night sitting on blankets and checking the weather radio periodically to see when the danger had finally passed. The next morning we learned that during the storm lightening had taken down a local landmark in spectacular fashion. Up the highway from us, one of the new mega-churches had, a couple of years back, erected a building-sized sculpture depicting the arms and head of Jesus rising out of a small lake that sits in front of the church. As the highest object present in the open field in which the church was built, the sculpture was probably a magnet for lightening. Surely, it had been hit before. But this time it was different. Whatever defenses were in place were not enough to dissipate the massive amount of electrical energy the sculpture had to absorb. And, as it turns out, the styrofoam substance from which it was made was highly flammable. As such, the whole thing caught on fire, and once the sculpture was ablaze there was little to do but take pictures of the black clouds of smoke billowing up into the sky.

Pip and I saw some of those pictures the following afternoon. While he did not appreciate the variety of darkly funny suggestions these images presented, he was fascinated by the fact that lightening could create such a scene. He asked me to tell him the story of what happened over and over again that week and for several months afterwards one of his favorite ways to liven up a boring hour was to ask me about the “statue that got struck by lightening.”

Now, in Pip’s mind, the storm this past Saturday morning presented a similar threat to the yellow ice scraper. Lightening could strike it at any time, and the resulting fire would burn until all that was left was some blackened shards of melted plastic. The thought of this was just too much for him. To help him gain some relief, I talked him through a list of things that were different between the sculpture and the ice scraper. There were the obvious differences in size, the fact that the sculpture had been in an open field while the scraper was tucked away between numerous taller objects, and that, while the sculpture had a steel frame, there was no conductive material of any kind in the ice scraper. By patiently going through this list a couple of times, I began to calm him a bit and to release some of the tension from the position of fetal curvature his body had assumed.

While all of this was going on, Polly had been running back and forth between the living room and the bedroom, playing with some finger puppets and a fire truck. She finally came over to us as I was running for the third or fourth time through the list of reasons the ice scraper was not going to be hit by lightening. Looking over at her I saw that her bottom lip was protruding significantly out and downward, and I was grabbed by the sudden fear that she would be following her brother’s lead into barely contained distress.

I hesitantly asked her the same question I asked of Pip.

“What’s wrong?”

She looked up at me very seriously and, while holding that bottom lip firmly in place, said,

“Polly want to be upset, too.”

I stared at her for a moment wondering if I had heard her correctly, wondering if I had not understood what she was trying to say. Then, from down in the pillow, I heard Pip start to laugh. The laughter seemed to push his face upward, and as he turned toward us his teary eyes sparkled with glee. Seeing Pip, Polly’s face also changed. The bottom lip slipped back into its normal place, and a small grin began to emerge in place of her frown.

With this transformation I finally realized what was going on as well. Polly was obviously not upset. She had not wanted to be left out of whatever Pip was into. So, she had decided to follow his lead. For his part, Pip had picked up on the absurdity of Polly “wanting” to be upset before I had, and found it to be extremely funny. He found it so funny in fact that the ice scraper melted from his memory. He didn’t mention it again until that night at bedtime when, looking out the window, he once again saw it laying on the path by the garage. This second sighting precipitated a flashback and another small breakdown that was finally brought to an end by Ava’s going out and putting the thing away.

*****

A month ago this whole scenario would not have been resolved in the way it was. Polly would have come in to the bedroom with her bottom lip stuck out and not been able to tell us exactly why she was doing it. Pip would not have understood the humor embedded in her act even if she had been able to tell us. That they both did what they did on Saturday morning is an indication of the kind of growth and development that is happening right now with them. It is amazing, hilarious, and unnerving all at the same time.