The fuss about parenthood.
by Jill LeporeJUNE 29, 2009
Middle-class parents are an insecure, easily gulled consumer group.
Am a Failure as a Mother,” a talk given on NBC radio in 1932 by Clara Savage Littledale, mother of two, has a lot to answer for, including a couple of new memoirs by grownups determined to profess their parental ineptitude: “Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood” (Norton; $23.95), by Michael Lewis, father of three; and “Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace” (Doubleday; $24.95), by Ayelet Waldman, mother of four. Littledale was the founding editor of Parents’ Magazine; in the nineteen-thirties, her radio program—a column broadcast over the wireless—filled Emily Post’s noontime slot on Wednesdays, Miss Manners’s day off. Lewis and Waldman are columnists, too. “Home Game” started as a series on Slate, episodes in which Lewis, tenderhearted and befuddled, tries to figure out the unwritten rules of the “new fatherhood”; “Bad Mother” revisits essays first written for Salon, in which Waldman uses stories about her family to argue that there’s no such thing as a good mother. If you’ve ever read a parenting blog, and I don’t say you ought to, you have a good idea what lies at the heart of these books: ersatz confession. Lewis finds newborns hard to love; Waldman hires a maid to clean up after her maid. Lewis tells all—all!—about his vasectomy; Waldman provides her sexual history. Waldman insists that how any woman rears her kids is nobody’s never-you-mind. “Let’s all commit ourselves to the basic civility of minding our own business,” she writes. This puts a reader in a tight spot: can I or can I not skip the chapter in “Bad Mother” wherein our author confides her regret over her breasts’ lost buoyancy?
Lots of people find this kind of thing winsome, I guess, and I did like it when Lewis admitted to sneaking out during his wife’s ten-hour labor to score Ring Dings from a hospital vending machine. But as long as we’re trafficking in unsought revelation, reading these books made me think of nothing so much as traipsing to the playground with a twelve-month-old who merrily toddles off to the sandbox while I, despite hiding behind a newspaper and attempting to appear exactly as approachable as Napoleon Bonaparte, find myself cornered by a stranger: “You have a baby? I have a baby! Doesn’t parenthood beat all?” I’ve been that stranger, too (I confess! I confess!), which must be why I’m such an easy mark; the sandbox, my Waterloo. I used to like that conversation. Lately, though, it’s been getting old: all the mothers want forgiveness; all the fathers want applause. A few years back, in “Confessions of a Slacker Mom,” Muffy Mead-Ferro admitted that during her pregnancy she did not actually buy a gizmo that was supposed to pipe Mozart into her belly; in “Dinner with Dad,” Cameron Stracher offered an account of his valiant year of getting home in time for supper. Frankly, I’d just as soon stipulate that most baby gear is worthless, stupid junk and that eating dinner with your kids is really important. Then I’d like to get back to reading the paper. But, hey, sure, amnesty, ovation, whatever gets you through the long, sleepless night.
I blame, as I say, Clara Savage Littledale, whose job it was to help invent American parenthood. Stages of life are artifacts. Adolescence is a useful contrivance, midlife is a moving target, senior citizens are an interest group, and tweenhood is just plain made up. Parenthood seems, at first, different. There have always been parents, and parents have always been besotted with their children, awestruck by their impossible beauty, dopey high jinks, and strange little minds. But “parenthood,” the word, dates only to the middle of the nineteenth century, and the notion that parenthood is a distinct stage of life, shared by men and women, is historically in its infancy. An ordinary life used to look something like this: born into a growing family, you help rear your siblings, have the first of your own half-dozen or even dozen children soon after you’re grown, and die before your youngest has left home. In the early eighteen-hundreds, the fertility rate among American women was between seven and eight children; adults couldn’t expect to live past sixty. To be an adult was to be a parent—nearly everyone lived in households with children—except that people didn’t usually think of themselves as “parents”; they were mothers or fathers, and everyone knew that there was a world of difference between the two.
In Littledale’s day, all that had begun to change. People were living longer, having fewer children, and starting families later in life. Littledale, who was born in 1891, didn’t have a baby until she was thirty-one. By 1920, women bore, on average, just over three children. Child rearing no longer circumscribed every woman’s life; motherhood and fatherhood, though not the same, had more in common than they used to. The slice of the population that consisted of adults who did not have children at home—people who would never have children, hadn’t had them yet, or had already had them and now had an empty nest—was sizable, and growing. In 1880, seventy per cent of American adults lived in households with children under the age of fifteen; by 1920, that number had fallen to fifty-five per cent. All these changes, aggregated, made parenthood into something different, something big, something planned.
By 1922, when Littledale became a mother, parenting had also begun to look especially mystifying to the increasing numbers of people, generally wealthier people, who had not grown up caring for their siblings, neighbors, cousins, and nieces and nephews, and who, it turned out, had no idea how to bathe or dress or soothe a baby. Looking after babies and little kids is skilled labor, but, as the number of children dwindled, so did the number of adults who had any real skill. The growing uprootedness of American life meant that many first-time parents couldn’t count on grandparents, or, really, on anyone. In stepped experts, who argued that taking care of children was not just a skill; it was a science. In the eighteen-nineties, the psychologist G. Stanley Hall established an American foothold for the academic discipline of child study (imported from Europe, along with kindergarten), just as pediatrics was becoming a specialty. The U.S. Children’s Bureau was established in 1912. As Littledale explained in 1930, the year the American Academy of Pediatrics was founded:
Once it was believed that the very physical fact of parenthood brought with it an instinctive wisdom that enabled one to rear children wisely and well. Parents knew best. Today fathers and mothers are unwilling to struggle under such a load of self-imposed omniscience. Even if they were, the facts would be against them. For in this country various studies made in the last ten years present incontrovertible data to prove that devoted but unenlightened parenthood is a dangerous factor in the lives of children.
This almost passes for a definition: parenthood is being so inept that you’re a danger to your own children. That, at least, was the premise of Littledale’s magazine, and its price.
Littledale was the editor, but Parents’ Magazine was the brainchild of a philanthropist and publisher named George Joseph Hecht. Hecht, who was born in New York in 1895, had served in the government’s office of public information during the First World War, where he helped found the Bureau of Cartoons. In 1919, he published an amazing collection, “The War in Cartoons”—a history of the war in a hundred cartoons—and, the following year, began publishing Better Times, “the Smallest Newspaper in the World.” (It measured less than four by five inches.) For a while, Hecht wrote the entire paper, which was a weekly, and pretty good. Hecht liked to tell this story: In the early nineteen-twenties, while sailing back from a trip to Europe, he met a well-heeled woman who confided to him, “I have failed where every woman wants to succeed—as a mother.” Moved, and curious, Hecht began reading child-rearing manuals. “They were all great big thick books,” he noticed. He liked little books; he liked pictures. He began raising money for a magazine that would teach a de-skilled middle class how to be parents. (Hecht did not, at this point, have children.) For the editor, he wanted a woman, and required “that she be a college graduate, that she should have had an editorial position preferably with a woman’s magazine, that she should be able to write if dire necessity ever required it of her, that she be married and that she should be a mother.” In 1926, he hired Clara Savage Littledale.
Littledale, talented and driven, had written features for the New York Timeswhile still a student at Smith; after graduating, she became only the second woman reporter to be hired by the Evening Post. But at the Post, as elsewhere, women were almost never allowed into the newsroom; she was named editor of the paper’s woman’s page. (Joseph Pulitzer had started a woman’s page in 1886, in the New York World. Woman’s pages lasted for about a century. In 1969, the Washington Post renamed its “For and About Women” page the Style section; other newspapers followed suit. Parenting blogs like the Times’ Motherlode are basically a throwback.) In 1914, Savage left the Post to become press chairperson of the National American Woman Suffrage Association; and the next year she took a job as associate editor at Good Housekeeping, though she mainly reported on policy matters, from Washington. In 1918, she went to Europe, to cover the war. When peace came, Savage quit Good Housekeeping, stayed in Europe, and, in 1920, married a journalist named Harold Littledale; two years later, she gave birth to a daughter. In 1924, Littledale wrote a short, bitter piece for The New Republic about sharing a maternity room with a woman whose baby had been stillborn. We never learn the woman’s name; Littledale calls her 41A. Weirdly, the story, much of which is conversation overheard during a visit from 41A’s husband, has a lot in common with “Hills Like White Elephants,” which Hemingway published in 1927, in “Men Without Women.” The couple never mention the dead baby, but everything they say is about the dead baby:
“Is my aunt cookin’ your meals?” she asked.
“Yep, and, say, we had a pie.”
“What kind of a pie?” the girl demanded fiercely.
“Did she use up those apples I was savin’?” The face of 41A was white and set.
ith Littledale at the helm, the first issue of Children, The Magazine for Parents appeared in 1926 (a year after Harold Ross started The New Yorker). It was full of expert advice, offered by leading psychologists, doctors, educators, and scholars. There had been advice literature before, of course—not only great, thick books but also magazines, including Babyhood (1884-92) andAmerican Motherhood (1903-19)—but Hecht and Littledale came up with a formula for explaining the new science of parenting. “The staff sits up nights throwing scientific words out of the articles submitted by college professors,” Littledale wrote. She also domesticated her experts. If the magazine “publishes an article by a Ph.D.,” she wrote, “it hastens to explain that said Ph.D. has a baby or if the Ph.D. is a man that he is the uncle of a dear little tot.” More important, Littledale solicited contributions from people who had no academic expertise—“Mammas and papas are encouraged to contribute articles and they do”—chiefly to point out what rank amateurs they were. In 1927, the year Littledale worked through her second pregnancy, she ran articles like “Can a Tired Business Man Be a Good Father?,” an argument for what later came to be called “quality time” (“An hour can be made more significant than a day”) and “Confessions of an Amateur Mother,” the lament of a wealthy, well-educated woman who hasn’t the slightest idea how to care for her newborn: “Why is it that for the women of my type—professional women—motherhood, as a rule, comes so hard?” (She complains, too, that she isn’t eligible for social services; there are “motherhood clinics and baby stations aplenty in the districts of the ‘poor’ women: why not for me?”)
Within two years of Children’s first issue, Hecht and Littledale had changed the magazine’s name, a decision that made a lot of sense, since all this business about parenthood, then as now, has very little to do with kids. By 1931, Parents’Magazine boasted two hundred thousand subscribers. Middle-class mothers and fathers turned out to be a very well-defined consumer group, easily gulled into buying almost anything that might remedy their parental deficiencies. In 1938,Parents’ peddled a correspondence course: “Add Science to Love and Be a ‘Perfect Mother.’ ” The magazine’s success carried Littledale into broadcasting; she was heard on NBC radio beginning in 1932, where she administered advice by the anecdote. “A child needs two parents” was her answer to a letter from a listener who wished that he knew his children better. “I’m afraid I’m a failure as a mother,” a woman fretted, and Littledale wisely counselled her, “One way to be a failure as a mother is to overplay the role.” Littledale’s advice was usually perfectly sensible. She didn’t much like punishment; she thought kids needed to learn to do things for themselves. On more particular matters, such as how to handle a crying baby, Littledale’s advice, like her magazine, followed parenting fashion, which changes with the hemlines. Urgent social issues that affected the way many Americans reared their children—segregation and poverty, for instance—had no place on Littledale’s list of parenting problems. In 1946, the year Benjamin Spock published “Baby and Child Care,” Parents’ reached four hundred thousand subscribers; it came to be known as the Family Bible. Today, it claims fifteen million readers, nearly all of them women. The magazine lost its apostrophe somewhere along the way, as well as its purchase on American life, but confessions of amateur mothers—“Parents is for every woman who lives and parents in her own authentic way”—and a column called Fatherhood 101 can still be read at its Web site, parents.com, where you can also find out about a lot of worthless, stupid baby gear and learn that eating dinner with your kids is really important.
In the United States today, people raising children are, statistically, a minority. With the notable exception of the baby boom, the percentage of American adults living in households with children younger than fifteen has been falling for more than a century; by 1990, it was down to about a third. The fertility rate is now just slightly more than two. The average American can expect to live into his or her seventies; the population, as everyone knows, is aging, fast. Forty per cent of American babies born in 2006 were their mother’s first. We are more inexperienced and unskilled at caring for them than ever, something Anne Lamott wrote about in her wry and smart memoir, “Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year.” Small families make for few economies of scale; a father finally figures out how to swaddle his baby, and, damn it, the age of swaddling is over. A not uncommon experience is a mother who, upon first holding her newborn, realizes that it is the first baby she has ever held.
One of the stranger things about the success of a magazine whose premise was that parents are a danger to their own children is that, by the time Hecht began publishing Parents’, children were safer than ever. In 1850, more than one baby in every five died before its first year. By 1920, infant mortality in the United States had dropped to one in twenty. By the Second World War, accidents had replaced disease as the leading cause of childhood death. Today, infant mortality is at one in two hundred. Historians once assumed that when childhood mortality was high people must not have loved their children very much; it would have been too painful. Research has since proved that assumption wrong. Now that children are very likely to survive to adulthood, you might think parents wouldn’t worry so much. This is wrong, too. We love even when that spells grief, and we worry even when that means worrying about nothing. Or, at least, that’s the best explanation I’ve got for why I once bought one of those little mirrors you Velcro to the back seat of your car so that, when your baby has to ride facing backward, you can keep an eye on him. I could tell that story, I guess, but only two things about it are worth knowing: (1) those little mirrors, while in all other respects useless, make a pretty good ice-skating rink for Lego people and (2) it’s more important to mind the road.
Meanwhile, the changes of the past two centuries have created actual problems, structural problems that affect everyone, not just the demographic that reads Parents, problems that can be very hard to see when you’re driving while looking in a baby-view mirror. Most jobs are made for people who aren’t taking care of children. The sharper the division between parenthood and adulthood, the worse those jobs fit, and the less well people who aren’t rearing children understand the hardships of people who are. Employers are seldom asked to accommodate family life in any meaningful way; employees do all the accommodating, which mainly involves, especially for women, pretending that we don’t actually have families. Everyone has a story about how painful that is. It’s also crazy, and maddening, and unfair. We’ve all got stories to tell, but stories aren’t going to rewrite employment law.
Neither are cute books about parenthood as an exclusive club whose initiation rites include confessions of ineptitude, though it’s easy to see why people write them. The average age of a woman at the birth of her first child is now twenty-five, an all-time high, and the fastest-growing cohort of first-time mothers is women over thirty-five. Most Americans become parents only after having been fully grown for a goodish while, which means that we share an experience—a set piece in every parenting memoir—that can feel as if it binds us to one another and alienates us from everyone else, the experience of crossing a great divide between Life Before Children and Life, the Much Sloppier, Sweeter, and More Ridiculous 3-D Sequel. I love that sequel. I laugh! I cry! I also really like the part where I get to read the newspaper.
wasn’t prepared for how ill suited and poorly trained I was for the job of full-time mother,” Ayelet Waldman writes in “Bad Mother,” unintentionally echoing “Confessions of an Amateur Mother,” even though Waldman, a former public defender, is explicitly arguing against the idea that she, or any woman, needs Littledale-style parental education. As Waldman sees it, expert advice about how to be a “good mother” is the problem; a “bad mother” movement is her solution. (Hey, sure, absolution, three cheers, but I’m with Littledale here: don’t overplay the role.) If only more mothers were willing to be more honest about how far we fall short of an ill-conceived ideal—June Cleaver is Waldman’s straw woman—we’d all be better off. That’s why Waldman confesses, and confesses, and confesses: she’s taking a hit for the rest of us. Paid parental leave? Better day care? Nah. More memoir is what we need. Michael Lewis isn’t trying to start a movement; mostly, he’s trying to make fun of the new fatherhood. “This book is a snapshot of what I assume will one day be looked back upon as a kind of Dark Age of Fatherhood,” he writes, archly. “Obviously, we’re in the midst of some long unhappy transition between the model of fatherhood as practiced by my father and some ideal model, approved by all, to be practiced with ease by the perfect fathers of the future.”
The thing is, we are in the midst of a long transition. But it’s no happier for these books. You have a baby? I have a baby! Doesn’t parenthood beat all? Well, yes, it does. But I still miss adulthood. ♦