THR Web Features   /   November 6, 2013

A Preview of Parenthood

Brianne Alcala

Questions of parenting are compelling even before the child has arrived. (Credit: Karpati Gabor / Morgue File)

"It is not hard to imagine why parents have come to approach child rearing with so much trepidation and so little self-confidence.”

—   Wilfred McClay, “The Family That Shoulds Together”

“Expectations are set so high it is little wonder that parents are uneasy.”

— Carl Desportes Bowman, “Holding Them Closer”

As the new managing editor of The Hedgehog Review, I’ve had the pleasure of working with the essays that make up our fall issue. As a mother-to-be—with the due date of our first child falling bracingly near the due date of my first issue—the delight has been tempered by a certain admonitory note running through every piece of our Parenting in America  thematic cluster.

It’s one thing to read about cultural change from afar. Steven Philip Kramer's examination of the fate of Spain's Sephardim, expelled from their homes in 1492,  shows how Spain is struggling to come to terms with those injustices, and not just those visited upon the Jews. Questions of  historical restitution and national identity are vexed ones, of course, but they are fairly easy to ponder at a secure remove.

It’s quite another thing to read about the deeper currents of cultural change when they  affect life much closer to home, particularly with a newcomer on the verge of arriving there.  Judged by the multiple scholarly accounts in our fall issue, parenting in America today appears to be fraught with uncertainty, conflicting advice, isolation, and a considerable amount of suspicion about what parents are doing—much of the last coming from other, often highly competitive parents. I admit, as a childless reader, to having been largely oblivious to this somewhat fraught state of affairs, but I have now braced myself for the seemingly inevitable onslaught of self-doubt, pointed remarks,  and suggestions. Even assembling our baby toolkit—from stroller to car seat to bibs—involved an avalanche of choices, all attached, I came to see, to what seemed like weighty moral decisions.  Glass bottles or plastic? Organic cotton sheets or the more economical polyester? (And as Wilfred McClay points out in his essay: “Who knows, this week, whether women should or should not drink coffee during their pregnancies?”—Yes, quite, nods this caffeine-deprived editor!)

I’ve been helped along in my growing consciousness of  the coming challenges by the writers in our Parenting in America issue. UVA anthropologist Diane M. Hoffman, for example, examines the “awesome” child and how his or her success validates “awesome” parents, an uncomfortable possibility for a mother-to-be to consider. Carl Desportes Bowman, a colleague here at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, illuminates the often surprising "mindscape" of my future peers, drawing on research from  the Culture of American Families Survey. His piece, “Holding Them Closer,” reveals, among many other findings, that some 72 percent of parents of school-age children agree that they eventually want to be their children’s best friends.

Fall 2013 issue

I found this revelation shocking. Best friends? With my own son? It never occurred to me I might give birth to a new friend.  Am I out of the loop because I have not yet experienced the supposedly unique joy and accompanying parental absorption in my own baby? Or will I be one of the 17 percent simply to disagree?

Another sobering revelation gleaned from these essays is a collective acknowledgment of the isolation of parenting today. Once not all that long ago, children were raised, as Hillary would say, by a village. Grandparents, aunt, uncles, siblings were all involved in the everyday raising of a child, not to mention neighbors and community members. Today, it seems that network of support has weakened if not disappeared.  As Hoffman writes, "Norms of parenting in many communities in the United States have moved away from what were commonly accepted and valued practices of diffuse authority and communal discipline—the expectation that other mothers, for instance, would make sure everyone’s kids behaved well at the bus stop." Should we risk a gentle chiding of a child we do not know—or even, sometimes, a child we do—we also risk anger from the parent for meddling in what seems to have become a private realm.

Many of us in America also live far from our relatives, so differently than Americans did a century ago. Parenting appears to be a far lonelier job than it once was. This prospect saddens me. I, for one, wish my parents, siblings, in-laws, and other relatives were closer. Without an extended family nearby, we might all conceivably think twice about excluding our neighbors, church-goers, colleagues, and community members from the parenting mix. But it doesn't seem we do. I want to write confidently that I won't mind if a stranger corrects my child in his unruly moments—but will I? Do you?

I'm happy to report that not all the news is disconcerting. Other survey findings provide reassurance. Nearly all parents of school-age children surveyed (96 percent) say “I love spending time with my children.”  And as Bowman points out, “parents express greater happiness with their parenting than with the way life in general is going by a fairly high margin.”

Of course, we might rightly wonder whether this last finding is more reassuring about parenthood or more discouraging about life in general.  I take it as a little of each—and perhaps as an unintentional admonition that I shouldn't allow my absorption in the former to divert me from a broader concern with the latter. After all, I will raise my child, but so will our culture, whether we like it or not. And a collective inattention to that common culture may be one of the worst things we parents can do for our own children.