The Atlantic magazine online in a section called The Sexes, recently ran an article titled, “How Parenting Became a DIY Project.” The author, Emily Matchar, asks the question, “How, when and why did parenting become the ultimate DIY project for progressive, educated Americans?”
In trying to answer that question, Matchar brings together a number of cultural trends in a somewhat confusing way. She refers to historical trends and says that parenting philosophies have been moving away from the rigid “scientific” advice of the last century. She refers to women “rebelling against the childcare experts and the paternalistic medical establishment,” and their empowerment in the 1970’s by the women’s health movement.
Matchar also throws into the mix parents’ increasing concern about the importance of their decisions to their children’s success, fears of food contamination, concern for the environment, and the rise of home schooling. All influenced by the “DIY ethos: if you don’t trust institutions, you do things yourself.”
In addition, Matchar refers to the “current cultural climate of extreme individualism”, and writes that “parents often value individuality – both their own and their children’s – above other concerns.” She sees the factors she has identified as having led to “the myth of parental omnipotence”, a concept attributed to historian Stephanie Coontz and defined as the “idea that parents can and should personally ensure their children’s success through their own hard work and hyper-attentiveness.”
Although this article identifies some interesting byways in the evolution of American parenting, having worked with parents and been involved in parent education for forty or so years, my own understanding of its history, evolution and current state is somewhat different. To begin with, while it is true that we have moved away from the rigidity of earlier “scientific advice”, we have hardly moved away from a different kind of rigidity in the influence of science on both the philosophy and practices of parenting. Both the use and misuse of research findings, especially as given currency through the media, can be found in current ideas about what is good or bad for children.
While it is true that there is greater questioning today of the medical establishment, this is not reflected in a questioning of expertise generally. The authority figure model has given way to multiple authorities in the form of the web, magazine articles, television gurus and books on parenting. The combination of constant new “scientific” findings and wide dissemination of these ideas, leads to new concerns about various parenting methods. Parents are caught between too many would-be authorities and no clear, authentic authority, which leads to considerable anxiety about doing the “right” thing.
The reference in the article to the “current cultural climate of extreme individualism” is well taken. Individualism is a hallmark of American culture, and in the past there has always been a conflict between the needs of the individual and those of the larger society. This conflict is intense at the present time after a period of extreme individualism, which has even been labeled narcissism by some.
The impact of this conflict, especially as it relates to education, is of great concern to parents and plays a large role in their wish to promote the interests of their own children individually. The dearth of good schools has led to competition for much sought-after classes, and plays a large part in the attitude of parents that they will do anything to insure that their own children have every advantage.
Which brings us to the “myth of parental omnipotence”. With all due respect to Coontz and Machar, this is not a recent idea; nor should it be applied to parents if parents refers to both mothers and fathers. Sadly, the myth of omnipotence belongs in maternal territory, and is a kissing cousin of maternal guilt. One has only to go back to the cult of domesticity in the first part of the twentieth century and the birth of the child guidance movement to find the promotion of maternal omnipotence.
The Industrial Revolution sent fathers out to the factory and left mothers in charge of the children. The totality and importance of their role at home has been idealized ever since, in part to preserve the sexual division of labor upon which our economy is organized. The theories of child development and the necessary role of mothers that grew out of psychological and psychoanalytic research during the Second World War and its aftermath were an impetus in getting women who had worked in the war effort back into the home. The supposed power of mothers for good and for bad was reinforced.
The women’s movement played a major part in transforming the role of women, so that women today have grown up with a self-identity expanded beyond that of mother. But when they do become mothers, both old and new ideas come into play, and are often a source of conflict. My own view is that MAP (Mothers Are Professionals) is a better descriptive than DIY. Mothers are women, many of whom were raised with a new self-image. They have worked at jobs and learned many skills before having children. As we know, a great many are still working outside the home.
Mothers are professionals. They have learned while doing other things that there is a right way, or better way to do things. They are trying to apply this professionalism to the way they raise their children. This, at times, leads to trying out whatever is the new “scientific” idea of the moment. It also may lead to a search for the “right way”.
The myth of maternal omnipotence will probably always be with us, for we love our children and feel responsible for how they will turn out. Fortunately, our children are resilient. We are not that powerful, never as good as we hope to be – nor as bad as we are afraid we are.