Part of the human condition is to believe in a more perfect place called the past. We are nostalgic creatures, convinced America was a safer place in the 1960s even though the statistics argue otherwise. We’re sure people were more civil, despite all the assassinations, riots and cities literally burning. And in this mythic past, parenting was much easier than it is today.
Not distracted by all their devices and social media feeds, parents in the past could focus on their children. In the analog land of yore, there were wholesome family dinners and game nights, fathers and mothers spending tons of quality time with their kids.
Today’s parents are a stressed bunch — not surprising since they’re part of the “Anxious Generation.” A recent American Psychological Association study found that millennials report more stress and anxiety than any other generation. If you’re already anxious, wait till you add the duties of caring for a completely helpless little human. New parents are either worried that they are over-documenting their kids’ lives or that they haven’t downloaded the Baby Tracker app yet and so don’t know how many ounces of formula their child consumed yesterday. They are pretty sure they’re not living in the moment, even as they capture thousands of Instagram-worthy moments.
Dear parents of young children, I offer you this: You are way better parents than those mythical past parents, even on your worst days. You spend more quality time with your children. You feed them much better food. (And you don’t blow cigarette smoke in their faces while they eat.) You keep them way safer. You read to them more. You stimulate their curiosity more. You rarely say, “Because I said so.” You spank them less. And you don’t wash their mouths out with actual bars of soap.
The reason you don’t realize how much better you are is that you live in an age where you can never be a good enough parent. You are the collateral damage of a parenting arms race.
We had Dr. Spock. You have everybody: an army of friends on social media offering advice, a thousand apps and bloggers and websites, all devoted to making you the perfect parent. In fact, 58 percent of millennial parents report being overwhelmed by all the parenting information out there, according to a Time magazine poll. The result: Every fear, no matter how tiny, gets amplified until it’s all you can hear. It’s so easy to be convinced that you’re a bad parent because you check your work email too much on your phone while you’re with your kids. And you’re pretty sure parents in the past didn’t have this problem because they didn’t have cellphones.
Well, my mother didn’t have one phone — she had seven, mounted to walls and sitting atop counters and desks and nightstands. I know one cellphone is a lot more powerful than seven rotary phones. Today’s phones can distract you from being present for your children at the park or playground. But at least you take your kids to the park. My mother didn’t take us. She stayed home, tethered to those phones. My mother was what Malcolm Gladwell calls a connector: president of a large, national Jewish women’s nonprofit called ORT, committee chair of you-name-it, thrower of dinner parties, organizer of surprise birthday celebrations and manager of a large advertising sales staff at a local paper.
She was simply always on the phone. When we needed something, my brother and I learned to pull the cord, yanking her back to the here and now.
My mother always lived in the moment, just not necessarily the same moment I was in. She had a life. Tons of friends. Endless distractions. And she never thought she wasn’t a great parent. And she was.
But not as good a parent as you are. So please, stop apologizing for living your lives. Almost half of you, according to a Pew Research Center report, believe that you’re not spending enough time with your school-age kids. Relax. Remember, your child needs you to be more than a parent. She needs to see you as a worker, a friend, a volunteer, a person with hobbies and interests. And to be all that, you’ll have to ignore her sometimes. You’ll have to send that text, check that email and post that post. While you’re doing that, your kid will just have to entertain herself for a while. And that may be the best thing you can teach her.