The Struggle To Reclaim Parenting

Is it too late to get back what we've lost?

In spring 2011, I was arrested for allowing my son, then 4, to wait in a car with the windows open for a few minutes. Since then, I've become unfortunately all too well-versed in the debates around the over-policing of parenting, so a few weeks ago, when I was asked to participate in a radio panel alongside Danielle Meitiv, the Maryland mother who was found guilty of unsubstantiated child neglect for allowing her children to play alone in a park, I readily agreed. The subject of the program was free-range parenting, a movement committed to the notion that children deserve a chance to grow up without constant adult supervision. I’ve never self-identified as a free-range parent, but Danielle and I had something in common other than our parenting philosophies: We’d both been through the surreal, frightening, and humiliating experience of having a stranger, fearful for our children’s well-being, report us to the police.

Then, two weeks ago, the Meitiv children were picked up and detained by police for the second time and held for hours without anyone notifying their parents. The event led me to reflect on a few seemingly simple but surprisingly slippery questions: What kind of parents are the Meitivs really? What kind of parent am I? What do I want out of parenthood and what does it want out of me? What does it mean to be a Free-Range Parent...or an Attachment Parent or a Helicopter Parent or any other kind of parent that can be compressed into a proper noun? Is it possible that with this packaging and name-branding and self-congratulatory exhibitionism that now seems as much a part of parenting as parenting itself, something vital is being lost? What might that something be...and how do we get it back?

When I first learned I was pregnant with my son, I had only two firm convictions about parenting: I knew it was important, and I knew that I wanted to get it right. I was 29 at the time. It seemed to me I’d done a lot since leaving my parents’ home a decade earlier, and yet somehow the accumulation of my experiences felt light and insubstantial. Only as the fetus inside me grew into a human did it seem that fate was taking corrective action. I’d never fought for my country or contributed to the life of a village. I’d never worked on a farm, taught for America, or joined the Peace Corps as I’d hoped I would at 18. Motherhood was the first instance in my life where I was asked to sacrifice anything for anyone. And like most people who find themselves experiencing this variety of late-onset maturation, I absolutely did not want to fuck it up.

I had my baby and proceeded with caution. The best way to ensure against failure, every parent, person, and cultural message told me, was to do my homework, to read up on everything babies and children needed from an emotional, social, physical, psychological, nutritional standpoint — then to simply choose a parenting philosophy that corresponded to my most deeply held beliefs.

At first it seemed daunting, like the process of choosing a college major but with actual human lives at stake. But there were approximately 7 million books to guide me in this journey. There were online communities, message boards, an army of (usually French) psychologists, and my mother. I read a lot of books that are no longer on my bookshelves. I inwardly smirked at friends or family members who were less well-informed. I developed opinions about breast-feeding, breast pumps, midwifery, baby-wearing, tummy time, screen time, infant massage, playgroups, hand sanitizer, private versus public school, self-weaning, sleep training, day care, toddler enrichment, and child safety. I began to write about my opinions. In my minimal spare time I was working on a novel about American Jews during World War II. This writing was hard and painful. But writing about parenting, my ideas about parenting, questions and concerns and rumination — that came easy. For the first time in my life, I felt like a natural at something. There were only two tiny problems chirping away beneath the noise.

The first problem was one of conviction. “All of your essays on parenting have a question for a title,” my husband observed one evening.

“Is that bad?” I asked.

“No. Just unusual, maybe.”

But I knew he was on to something, not a stylistic quirk but something deeper, a lurking skepticism beneath a veneer of confidence. And while skepticism wasn’t necessarily a problem for a writer, its cousin, ambivalence, could be. I knew that for me, writing was a vehicle for thought, and thought needed to contain clarity and conviction in addition to interrogation.

“Whatever,” I said to Pete, and tried to put it out of mind.

The second problem was trickier, harder to dismiss. The problem was this: I was a modern middle-class parent doing my best to protect and do right by my children in every regard, and this trying, this quest for parenting perfection, this earnestness and well-meaning, was making me profoundly depressed. It seemed like the more I learned about “parenting,” the less I understood about my children or myself. I assumed that the problem had to stem from me, from some unacknowledged deficit or flaw. Don’t quit your day job, I said to myself more than once when I felt both over- and underwhelmed by it all, confused by so much conflicting advice, self-conscious and uncertain about every decision. It had to be me, I thought, my problem. Then one day I got arrested for something that seemed so benign, so harmless. That was when I began to wonder if my problem wasn’t mine alone.

In the months of legal action that followed, I reached out to free-range parenting's most prominent spokesperson, Lenore Skenazy, for support, and was surprised to learn that what was happening to me was not a freak occurrence or punishment for a bad choice, but part of a national trend of parents being reported, arrested, and charged with crimes for making decisions that, only a generation ago, defined the norm. After my legal troubles resolved, I wrote about the particulars of the experience and, more broadly, about the atmosphere of fear and anxiety in which so many parents (including myself) now live. I wrote about what seems to be the almost universal desire parents experience to protect their children from all harm, the pain and helplessness we endure when we fail to do so, and, ultimately, the arrogance we display when we begin to see ourselves as our children see us — as omnipotent beings.

I love my children. But I don’t always love being a parent, I recently admitted to myself.

If this sounds awful — it is. It’s awful to love something so much and to find yourself allergic to many of its trappings, the culture and discourse of its practice. It’s a terrible bind, a bind I’ve encountered in enough realms of my life to begin to wonder if it says as much about me as the world I’m encountering. I love writing, for example, and I hate being a writer. I love food, but I can’t bear to read about it, to talk about it, to discuss the consequences and context of how we consume it. And this is more or less how I feel about raising children, too. Could there really be so much to say about a thing people have done since the beginning of people? Apparently.

Parenting consumes us, even when we’re not around our kids. It has become more political than politics, maybe because nothing could be more personal. Our feelings about how to best raise children is woven into the fiber of our deepest convictions. And this, I think, is what bothers me so much about being a parent — the certainty and smugness that surrounds it all, the lack of humility or skepticism, the lack of curiosity about how other people might do it, the lack of appreciation of what an incredible luxury it is to have any opinion at all about “parenting,” much less a unified parenting philosophy. Did my great-grandmother, as she sailed across the ocean with five small children, fleeing the poverty and violence of a Russian pogrom, have a parenting philosophy? Do the mothers in Angola who have a horrifically unfair chance of dying during or after childbirth have a birth plan? Do the Honduran or Guatemalan parents who send their small children alone across a brutal and dangerous desert to escape certain death by violence consider themselves free-rangers? Long before I had children of my own, a mentor told me that having children, no matter who you are or where you live, is love in the form of pure pain. Perhaps that’s the only generalizable statement I’ve heard spoken on the subject.

So while I support the people and the ideas behind free-range parenting, I do not love the term itself. In fact, it troubles me. At one level it troubles me the same way helicopter parenting troubles me, or attachment parenting, or authoritative parenting, or any other "style" of "parenting" that bears a name. It is fine to adhere to a philosophy that provides definition or parameters or focus for how you manage a process that is abject and unceasing chaos. We could all use a hand, in whatever form. By naming your particular philosophy, though, you only further turn your role as a parent into a mode of self-branding. It's a visible identifier; it's not all that different than wearing the jersey of your favorite sports team. I don't understand, and in fact resent, that kind of tribalism that can infect the communal experience of creating and nurturing a human being.

My other qualm is the association "free range" has with farming. It's a pretty simple analogy, and it makes sense. Let the kids roam. Don't keep them in pens. Sure, why not. But deliberately or no, the name commodifies our kids. Names are only useful when you're inventing something (as in a life, or a mass political movement) or trying to sell something (like a new dish soap, or a mass political movement). Raising kids is neither one of those.

The last time I visited New York, I met Lenore Skenazy for coffee. We met at what she calls her office, a midtown office building’s indoor atrium. As usual, I was late, which must have been annoying to her because she was on her way to sit with her teenage son while he had a wisdom tooth extracted.

Still, she held up a paper bag to me as I sat down across from her. “I bought you a bagel,” she said.

I wasn’t really hungry, but I ate it anyway, every last starchy bite, because being around Lenore, as much as I enjoy it, always brings to mind those horrible months in my life when I worried that my failure to define myself as a parent, to pick a philosophy and run with it, had made it possible for others to see and define me in such ungenerous terms.

The bagel was soothing and delicious, and as I ate, Lenore and I got to talking about what happened to me and the Meitivs and all the other similar cases unfolding across the country. And somewhere along the winding path of this conversation, Lenore and I began to wax nostalgic about how it had been when we were kids, sharing some of our fondest memories from childhood.

The funny thing is, I told her, my fondest memories don’t involve my parents doing anything at all, at least not anything that could be defined as a philosophy or parenting style. They’re just memories of being — long walks or bike rides with them down to the lake, family dinners together, and also the moments when they’d stop hassling me and give me space, let me do something new on my own, like the first time I got to go to the mall without an adult, or the first time I got to spend the night at a friend’s house, or, later, go with friends to a movie, or on a date. Later, there was the adventure of going off to college, of traveling abroad on my own for the first time — the thrill of that, of feeling autonomous and alive in the world. It was like hearing my own heart beat for the first time. Those are some of the happiest memories.

I know other people who felt the same.

My father remembers the pride he took in going to the market for my grandmother, walking the four blocks, counting out change, coming home with a bag of bread and milk and her mentholated Pall Malls.

A friend from Russia recalls camping trips where in the evenings the adults sat drinking vodka among the fireflies while the children were left to run through the woods well into the night.

Another friend who grew up on a farm in Northern California remembers carrying her sister with a freshly sprained ankle, piggyback, across what felt like acres of open land. “Where were our parents? What were they doing?” her sister asks in wonderment.

My husband, at 16, handed a drivers license and the keys to a Toyota, spent late nights driving along the open, gentle expanse of Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, alone but freed from the loneliness that can attack at that age.

Essentially, what I was telling her, what my friends and father and husband echoed, was that many of my most joyful memories involved these moments of sudden independence when the world opened up, when I felt myself alone and awake in it; I knew my parents’ love most acutely in these moments of expanding distance, of letting go.

Lenore nodded, spread a bit more jam onto her toast. “Of course you did,” she said. “Those moments are everyone’s happiest memories.” I thought we were finished and began to gather up my books, but she had one other thought, one other question. “What do you think it says about us that we want to give our kids everything except the thing we loved most?”

I told her I had no idea, but while I said that I was imagining my son alone for the first time in a foreign country, my daughter walking with no one but friends along Lake Michigan. It was an answer I found, and find, too somber to contemplate.

I thought about the Meitiv children, their joys consummated and thwarted, sought and not feared.

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