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.

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