April 23, 2003

Parenthood and the Confrontation with Mortality

How long can I be a wall around my green property?
How long can my hands
Be a bandage to his hurt, and my words
Bright birds in the sky, consoling, consoling?
It is a terrible thing
To be so open: it is as if my heart
Put on a face and walked into the world.

-- Sylvia Plath, "Three Women"

"She is very clever, and has learn'd all her letters. She dances very prettily to her own shadow."

-- Jane, Duchess of Atholl, describing her 3-year old daughter in a letter to her sister, the Honourable Mary Graham (c. 1770s)

When the Duchess of Atholl lost her young daughter (lost her to who knows which of the many illnesses we now immunize our children against), she comforted herself with the thought of Heaven. The heavenly Father, she believed, had reached down and taken the child to His home because she was too bright, too pure, and too innocent for this world. Her sister encouraged her in the thought, and pointed out that the child would now be spared "much suffering," the suffering that was our lot in this our earthly home.

It is easy enough to smile with indulgence, or less kindly to sneer with contempt, at the credulity of past believers. And I am grateful enough, I suppose, to have been rescued from the idiocy of rural life. But when belief in God was just the air that people breathed, so too was a rate of infant and child mortality that we would now find unbelievable and just shocking.

And what other comfort could the Duchess have found? She had a child who "danced very prettily to her own shadow." The child danced; and then she fell ill. The child died.

It's been quite a while now since I have even looked at any of the parenting books. They lie heaped in a stack, collecting dust on a shelf in the bedroom.

A few months ago, on a Friday night (late January? early February?), 4 teenage boys, aged 16 and 17, stole an 8-foot dinghy and tried to row out to an island in Long Island Sound. Something horrible happened. Maybe someone rocked the boat, maybe the boat had a hole in it. Toward the end, one of the boys made a frantic 911 call from his cell phone and said the boat was filling with water. "My God, we're all going to die" were his last recorded words.

I am haunted by the picture of one of the fathers, taken on the day of his son's funeral and published in the local papers. How sad and crumpled he looks, how truly stricken with grief. What happened? Where is his boy? How could this happen? He is dull-eyed with pain and loss and bewilderment. He has been stricken.

It's crazy, of course, it's just silly and stupid, but when I read about it in the papers, I wished I could turn back the clock and let those boys have another chance: Please (oh please) don't do that stupid thing; just talk about doing it, joke about how much fun it would be to row out to Hart Island on a Friday night at midnight; and then think better of the idea, and go home safe and sound to your parents. And when I thought of the parents, in addition to something we can call sympathy, I felt a prickle of fear (This could happen to anyone. Will this happens to us?) and even a momentary and very guilty sense of relief (It wasn't us that this happened to. Well, not this time. And please, oh please, not ever).

I sometimes wonder what the parenting books have to do with this mixture of sympathy and fear and guilty relief and hopelessly stupidly wishing that the clock could be turned back so that the catastrophe would not happen. And not just books. In addition to the books, there are websites and videos and products galore: an entire industry built around parental anxiety. The parenting industry trades on the notion of parenting as a massive and highly specialized project, a goal-oriented endeavour with inputs and outputs and an intricate and extensive set of rules and regulations that range from the banal to the bizarre. It is not enough, for example, to feed your infant, you must devote yourself to the rather daunting task of "building a brighter brain." Play itself is a serious business, apparently involving, at last count, "5 main developmental play stages" (can you name them? I confess I cannot, I would need a crib sheet: bad mummy me). Through threats and promises, flattery, cajolery and downright bullying, the industry experts encourage you to micromanage not just the basic care and feeding of your child, but the whole range of emotional and intellectual and psycho-sexual developmental issues for which, they exhort you, you are uniquely responsible.

As parents, we are to understand our task as a kind of quest for perfection. Perfect Parenting is the title of one manual (and no, this one is not collecting dust on my bookshelf: even before I had become intimately familiar with this genre, I knew enough to draw the line at anything that would dare to give itself such a title). We are to adopt and to internalize an unrealizable ideal of perfection. (I yelled at my kid this morning: will she end up in therapy?; I gave him a jar of Gerber's instead of homemade organic: is he destined for Type II diabetes?). Martyrdom is an an obvious subtext to this literature (so glaringly obvious that it is hardly subtextual, it is just barely hidden), and so too is a thinly veiled kind of narcisissm: the suggestion that we can redo and thus relive our own childhoods, make it all better this time, make it just perfect, make things turn out right.

Critics of the genre point out that this literature pretends to offer reassurance while serving up an unhealthy dose of anxiety. I can only agree. But I'm wondering whether this anxiety isn't actually the point? What if he dies? Well, of course he will die, we all die, that is our human condition. But what if he dies before me, dies before his time? Unthinkable. And yet it could happen. An illness, a car crash, a crazy teenage prank...The parenting books say, Do this, that and the other, and you are in control.

But it doesn't matter what they say. Sometimes it just does not matter. Things happen. It doesn't matter how good a parent you are, how conscientious, how loving, how much you care. Horrible things can and do happen, and to me or to you or to anyone. 16-year olds will sometimes do stupid things, and sometimes even fatally stupid things, despite the breastfeeding and the Montessori and the cultural enrichment. We are not in control. Look, you can be the best parent imaginable, but you are not in control. So maybe the point is to dwell obssessively on all manner of small detail in order to distract oneself from the thoughts that lurk, from the awful thoughts that lie hidden in the dark recesses of the brain? To think of the small stuff in the hope of fending off the big catastrophe? the thing that might happen, the thing that you hardly dare imagine might happen? If I worry about baby food, he won't get meningitis. If I focus on vocabuary acquistion, he won't be hit by a car.

I'm not the first person to note the basic religiosity of the parenting books, the way they seem meant to serve as manuals of devotion. The parenting guru as high priest of a new cult of child perfection, the parents as eager, desperately and confusedly eager, acolytes. But I wonder if it doesn't cut deeper than we care to realize? I wonder whether, for all their obssessive focus on the minutiae, these books have something to do with something much larger, the something awful and terrfiying that we do know but do not want to know? A way of coping, in other words, with parenthood as a confrontation with mortality -- and as strange a way, in its way, as the thought of a heavenly Father who would reach down and take a child to His home.

We who are middle-class westerners are so lucky! so much luckier than we often realize. We worry about play stages, vocabulary acquisition, psycho-sexual development. These worries are luxuries. These worries are the function of an unprecedented level of affluence that we can even afford to take for granted. And the odds are very much in our favour. If you bring a child into this our earthly home, the world of the middle-class westerner, the odds are very much in your favour that you will live to see that child grow to adulthood. We have immunizations, vitamin-D enriched milk, indoor plumbing, a surplus of food. We can worry about developmentally appropriate playthings because we don't (no, not once, not ever, if we are middle-class westerners) have to worry about food. We have modern medicine. (Yes, modern medicine: please spare me your critique, at least for the moment, I have read the critiques, and I will go halfway, but no more than halfway: my son had surgery at 6 months old for something potentially life-threatening, it might have taken the life of a child of the Duchess of Atholl, she might have been thinking of her child in heaven where I sit on the couch with my son reading Go Dog Go). We are so much better off than was the Duchess of Atholl: a nobody in the middle-class west of today is so much better off than was a duchess in the eighteenth century.

Unless the thing happens. Unless and until the awful, unthinkable catastrophe happens. In which case, I suspect (and I hope I never need to know, I hope this will always be nothing more -- please, oh please, may this never be anything more -- than a suspicion), we are not better but rather a good deal worse off than was the Duchess of Atholl. The Duchess could find comfort in the thought of heaven. But where would be comfort for the parents of those 4 boys?

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at April 23, 2003 08:25 PM

This is beautiful, terrifying and wonderful (like life, no?) -- thank you.

It reminds me that as I've been getting older (I'm 33, so not that old) I more and more find myself thinking of parents, family, boyfriend, et al. whenever I hear of some stranger's loss from accident or war or other random event and worrying, in a way I never did in my 20s, about what it would mean to lose them. When I was younger, those were things that always happened to other people; now they are things that could happen to me and mine, generating fears that I feel in my gut, not just my head.

I guess this is why I consider myself now a fatalist with limited free will; we cannot change the cards dealt us (to use a hoary old metaphor) but we can choose how to respond to the play. Fate might not be as personal as God (though I do believe in a non-interventionist God), but at least I can believe that events were out of my hands, and take some solace when things go wrong that it's _not_ my fault for having failed to "do the right thing." This would seem to be the problem of the parenting books; they offer rites and rituals as prevention, but little in the way of solace afterward, of ways to accept that life happens, right thing or no.

It is hard caring about fragile mortal creatures, isn't it?

Posted by: Rana at April 24, 2003 06:56 PM

Or a dolebludger, better off than a Holy Roman Emperor in the thirteenth, yet still we garner strife into our tragedy-lacking lives, filling it with far-away oppression and SUVs instead, realpolitik wars on dictators we helped create through realpolitik, and because we are bereft of pain so often, we cannot envisionage anything better, we enter the eternal recurrence of our internal infernal paternal maternal anxiety and fear of what might be instead of what may

Posted by: meika von samorzewski at April 25, 2003 09:35 PM


I find it odd that people think that just because a society may be afluent, that they are therefore "bereft of pain". I'm surprised this needs saying since it is so entirely cliche, but wealth does create happiness. Never before has society witnessed such a crisis of indentity as we are experiencing now. One can no longer merely subside...one must also be important, be outstanding to be of worth--even to be worthy of one's one life (as if it were a resource that you have given, and should make good use of because it could have been given to someone else). One is brought up to be antagonistic to oneself, to seek perfection (in all things, as well as parenting). Society has become increasingly depersonalized and we are constantly measured against objective standards of decency. It's a lonely, miserable existence.

All in the name of progress and production.

Forget the luxury of medical services or not worrying about "where's the food coming from." How about the luxury of being able to be content with oneself.

Some literature that has also observed this phenomenon: _Death of a Salesman_,_A Brave New World_, _American Psycho_, _Lord Jim_.

Posted by: michael at May 7, 2003 09:32 PM

Well said. We do the best we can. Everything else is gravy.

Posted by: beerzie boy at November 6, 2003 03:30 PM