Every generation of parents develops the anxieties it deserves. In the 1930s, the Maltine beverage company ran an advertisement in Parents magazine that featured four uniformed police officers peering intently into a crib where an infant slept. “These four watchmen guard your child’s health day and night!” the ad declared, explaining that each officer represented one of the four important vitamins that fortified the cod liver oil-laced supplement. The uncertainty of life (at a time when infant mortality was high) was a pervasive theme in such ads, and mothers were exhorted to remain vigilant against that chronic enemy, disease.
Several decades later it was children’s mental health that appeared to be in jeopardy. In 1969, the psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden published The Psychology of Self-Esteem, which argued that the most important factor in a person’s future success was the development and maintenance of a healthy sense of self-worth. For decades afterward, children’s television shows reminded their young viewers that they were the most important people in the world. Teachers heaped praise upon even the most lackluster students, and little league coaches dispensed trophies to anyone who showed up to play. Criticism and competition became suspect—invasive weeds in the fragile garden of a child’s developing sense of self.
Today, the children raised on these accolades are having children of their own, and despite the fact that a quiet consensus has emerged among researchers that an excess of praise unattached to achievement undermines, rather than fortifies, self-esteem, the appetite for validation and approval among those raised in Nathaniel Branden’s shadow remains voracious. As a result, the taxonomy of upper-middle-class parenting has welcomed two new subspecies: helicopter parents and hipsters.
Much has been written about the hovering, smothering ways of the helicopter parent. These are the men and women (usually high achievers themselves) who are so intent on their children’s success that they overschedule and overanalyze every moment, completing homework and storming in to do battle with teachers over every A-minus. They are the powerful, micromanaging force behind schools’ draconian hand-sanitizer and no-peanut policies. As one private-school administrator in Washington, D.C. recently told me, “We don’t call them helicopter parents anymore. We call them Black Hawks,” as in the combat-ready helicopters used for military operations.
So-called hipster parents, by contrast, embrace a different philosophy. They believe becoming a parent should not require one to relinquish creative control over one’s life, move to the suburbs, and purchase a minivan. As Ariel Gore, the author of a book entitled The Hip Mama Survival Guide, told MSNBC: “If I’m a punk rocker or I’m really into Hungarian folk dancing . . . and that’s who I am, why should I have to leave that behind and raise my kid in some generic middle class American reality that doesn’t feel authentic to me?”
For those who fall into these archetypal categories, having children is no longer something people simply do. It is a conscious lifestyle choice, one among many ushered in by access to birth control, delayed marriage, and greater opportunities for women in the workplace. In this sense, the stakes are much higher. If parenthood is a choice, then people risk compromising their sense of identity as well as their much-cherished freedom by making it. And as economists who study choice theory have demonstrated, the more choices you have, the more likely you are to experience anxiety and remorse about the one you ultimately make, even if that choice results in the birth of a beloved child.
This new generation of parents, raised on constant reminders of their own individual uniqueness, refuses to see themselves as merely the latest in a long line of people who have reared children. Because they have so little perspective beyond their own limited experience, their search for authenticity and meaning quickly deteriorates into an orgy of exposure and self-regard. Children are relegated to the role of stagehands in their parents’ dramatic transformation from boy to man, girl to woman. The result, as a recent crop of parenting memoirs and magazines reveal, is a turn from stoicism to solipsism.
People have always tried to influence their children’s tastes. Some of us still bear psychic scars from the hours of Barry Manilow ballads we endured after our mothers got a car with an eight-track cassette player. Hipster parents might prefer The Clash to “Copacabana,” but their insistence on the superiority of their own taste is no less relentless. The highest praise a hipster can bestow on a child is that he or she is “punk rock” or “rock-n-roll.” And the greatest gift the child of hipsters can give to his parents is to affirm their musical tastes.
This process of affirmation is a central theme in Neal Pollack’s 2007 book, Alternadad: The true story of one family’s struggle to raise a cool kid in America. Sitting next to his pregnant wife at a Beck concert in a suburban high school auditorium near Austin, Texas, Pollack has an epiphany: “My son would not have a generic American childhood. My kid was going to be cool.” Parents used to dream about their sons growing up to be doctors or astronauts. Pollack, a writer who briefly fronted his own punk band, would be impressed if his son became a member of an indie rock group like the Butthole Surfers.
Once his son is born, Pollack becomes an amusing guide through the trenches of modern hipster parenthood. He captures well the absurdities of the toddler gymnastics class and the perils of finding a decent preschool. He admits to a combined loathing and envy of the hyper-organized uber-mommies who spend their days dragging their children from kiddie yoga classes to Mandarin lessons, and he lives in fear of becoming the kind of father (and the kind of man) whose idea of a good time is a Saturday spent studying the organic greens at the farmers’ market and bonding with his son over soy chais at Starbucks.
The obligation to be cool—felt keenly by Pollack and imposed upon his son even prenatally—infects every decision he makes about parenthood, from force-feeding his son the music of the Ramones to dragging him to alternative music festivals to refusing to give up his own pleasure in frequently getting stoned. Spontaneity in a child is charming; spontaneity of this sort in the parent of a young child is a little disturbing. In the end, although no one would question his love for his son, one is left with the sense that Neal Pollack’s vision of 21st-century “cool” parenting is as stifling as the velvet suit, lace collar, and polished manners imposed on the 19th century’s Little Lord Fauntleroy. Both insist that children ape an adult sensibility that is unlikely to stand the test of time.
Unlike Alternadad, who hopes to make his son (and himself) cool, Heather B. Armstrong, a woman in her thirties who writes the popular confessional blog Dooce.com, is keen on complaining. In It Sucked and Then I Cried: How I Had a Baby, a Breakdown, and a Much Needed Margarita, Armstrong describes her pregnancy and first year of childrearing. As her subtitle suggests, she finds the experience challenging. “Being a mother was the hardest thing I had ever done,” she writes. “It was really, really hard.”
Armstrong’s descriptions of the normal physical side effects of pregnancy read like the detailed records of a tortured medical research subject: page after page of complaints about her morning sickness, frequent urination, aversion to smells, battle with constipation, and, I regret to report, an analysis of her hemorrhoids. All of this is rendered in prose so purple and so frequently dotted with ALL CAPS for emphasis that it is not an understatement to call her book a tribulation to read. By page 45, the reader is offered a literal act of navel-gazing as Armstrong describes the unique properties of her pregnant bellybutton.
After the birth of her daughter (and the lovingly rendered narrative moment: “HOLY S—T! IT WAS A BABY!”), Armstrong slowly sinks into a depression for which she is eventually hospitalized and from which she slowly recovers. This doesn’t prompt a great deal of soul-searching. Throughout the book, Armstrong publishes the “letters” she wrote to her daughter at different stages of her first year of development. The last letter, written when her daughter was nine months old, ends with an explication of what she loves so much about her: “I love that you hug me tightly. . . . I love it that you cry when I leave and then brighten up like a sun-flooded room when I come back.” Although she clearly loves her daughter, what Armstrong really loves is how her daughter makes her feel: wanted and adored.
The new parent-memoirists are by and large children of affluence who are living less well than their parents did. And yet, while they might experience lean times between freelance assignments (as Pollack describes), they still have a line item in the family budget for pot. Like many hipster parents, Pollack and Armstrong also demonstrate a deep and abiding class snobbery. When Armstrong’s husband suggests naming their child “Bo” or “Luke,” she retorts, “The act of calling our child one of those names would force him to lose four teeth.” In the world of hipster parents, every choice is a cultural signpost, deeply invested with meaning. Thus, scrapbooking your child’s first year is tacky, but blogging about it is fine. Exposing your kid to Barney the Purple Dinosaur is blasphemy, but introducing him to retro episodes of Sesame Street is adorable.
The dominant characteristic of the hipster is a perpetual, ironic knowingness. But if there is one lesson parenthood teaches you, it is that there is little you can be knowing about; everything is new and your daily life now caters to the whims of tiny and fickle little creatures. The experience of parenthood strips you of pretensions (at the same time that it places you in the odd position of living and spouting clichés such as “they grow up so fast!”). But the uncertainty and insecurity that is a normal part of the experience of parenthood is anathema to people whose currency is being in the know. As a result, hipster parents like Pollack and Armstrong strenuously resist what parenthood actually demands: sacrifice, compromise, and, all too often in the early years, the necessity of maintaining a certain dignity. Instead, they dress their infants in Che Guevara onesies, pack them off to a bar to hear a new band, and declare themselves alt.
Despite their common affect of rebellious individuality, both Pollack and Armstrong are entirely in line with the philosophy of magazines such as Cookie, a monthly launched by Condé Nast in 2005. A typical feature story in the magazine begins, “When planning the birthday of their 3-year-old son, Jet, Fiona and Geoff Spear let him pick the theme.” Another article in the same issue profiles two journalists who used to cover war-torn regions of the globe but now reside in a sun-filled Paris apartment with their young son, who is pictured looking appropriately impish and wearing a perfectly weathered Jimi Hendrix T-shirt. In Cookie, ads for Fidelity Investments admonishing you to “start saving for college” compete with images of children’s clothing that cost more than most people make in a week. Here you will find the wee brand ambassador for Diesel for Kids jeans: a shirtless boy with blond spiky hair who stands, fists clenched, screaming at the camera, looking like a toddler Johnny Rotten.
The image of pregnancy peddled in magazines such as Cookie also encourages a contradictory message of procreation as both stylish opportunity and horrific physical ordeal. “From the unsightly acne to the heaving Victorian bosom, pregnancy’s assault on and endowment of your body is a perfect metaphor for motherhood itself,” write the editors in their annual pregnancy guide. They recommend countering this assault with a $435 “Bohemian Rhapsody” dress and a pair of Swarovski crystal-studded sandals that cost $1,195. You might also want to “make a photojournal of your changing body.” The “Pea in the Pod” maternity-wear advertisements that litter the magazine sell an equally incongruous message of liberation and gestation: one features a pregnant woman leaping into the air, wearing tattered jeans, a studded T-shirt stretched tight across her swollen belly, and heels that only a certain kind of professional woman would wear in public, and then only after dark.1
Babble.com, an online magazine founded by the editors of the pretentious erotic website Nerve.com, is the edgier cousin to Cookie. Although Babble occasionally features writers who take a gimlet-eyed view of overindulgent parenting, their credo focuses on cool. The editors contrast themselves with “traditionalists,” those misguided souls who think that “becoming a parent (especially a mother) means putting the kids’ needs before our own at any cost, and submitting to a life of self-sacrifice and media-sanctioned consumerism.”
One Babble blogger, incensed at some of the attacks on hipster parents, defended herself by arguing that theirs was the first generation willing to tackle topics that were previously taboo, such as “sex after babies, how hard marriage and parenting really are, how kids can wreak havoc on your life.” Theirs is, of course, not the first generation to discuss these questions (they ought to ask their grandmothers about that). They are just part of the first generation that feels compelled to discuss it publicly, incessantly, and in an unrelenting tone of complaint.
“Ambition can creep as well as soar,” Edmund Burke observed. For the contemporary parent-memoirist and ubiquitous mommy-blogger, ambition is vested in the thing that crawls. It is an odd cultural moment that takes extreme measures to protect the physical safety of children but is unconcerned about the fact that Mommy spends her mornings blogging about the unfortunate recurrence of Jasper’s bed-wetting habit. As one Babble blogger wrote, “Those of us who don’t conform to what previous generations deemed acceptable, normal and ‘right,’ are the ones paving the way for the next generation to be able to stand up and say ‘no—I’m going to walk my own path.’ That generation is our children—my children.” If those children happen to have parents who are eagerly exposing their every move to a global audience via the Internet, then the paths of the young might eventually lead straight into the therapist’s office.
For this generation of hip parents, children are no longer little people who are seen but not heard. They are celebrated but also resented, in print and online. They are offered up instrumentally as a way of making connections to readers, with only an occasional glimmer of self-awareness about the possible impact on the child (as Armstrong writes, “OH MY GOD what my kid is going to say about me on her website”). For a growing number of parents, the demands of parental expression trump the needs of children for privacy—a need that children themselves won’t understand or be able to articulate until they are much older.
It is possible to write about one’s children without violating their privacy. Writers such as Jean Kerr in the 1950s, whose best-selling essay collection of 1957, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, employed a mordant sense of humor to describe the everyday antics of her four sons (she later had two more children). Kerr was attuned to the perversities of life with small children, but she remained a grown-up: arch but never instrumental, using satire rather than self-pity to charm her readers. Women like Kerr and Shirley Jackson, whose books Life Among the Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1957)adopted a comparably light tone, wrote about their families in order to make broader observations about the culture and their place in it. Today’s parent-memoirists use their children as an excuse to talk about themselves. They reveal the intimate and gory details of their childrearing for the same reason politicians hug babies: they believe it humanizes them. But their work is less an exploration of human attachment than a literary version of Münchausen by Proxy syndrome.
Beneath the frantic social signaling of hipster parents lies their greatest fear: the possibility that they might be ordinary. One blogger at Babble described herself and her fellow generation of parents as the people who “refuse to succumb to a life that is thoughtless and thoroughly average.” They believe that altering one’s priorities or way of life for the sake of their children is selling out. And so they eagerly cling to the symbols of youth and counterculture. This sensibility was inadvertently captured in a photograph that ran recently in the New York Times: A man and a boy watch a Seattle Sounders soccer game. The boy, a toddler, wears a denim jacket and a team scarf, and stares calmly at the field. By contrast, the man holding him (presumably his father) sports a face painted lime green and blue, a stiffly spiked blue Mohawk, and a primal scream. “No wise man ever wished to be younger,” Jonathan Swift observed. But this is exactly what this new kind of parent seeks—a regular reminder of their relevance through a perpetual extension of youthful pleasures. Their posture of naiveté, at times presented with great charm, eventually becomes tedious, saturated as it is with vanity.
Just as the notion that you can manufacture self-esteem has proven false, so, too, has the manufacture of cool fallen short of hipster expectations. A few years ago, the group Public Agenda published a report, “A Lot Easier Said Than Done,” delineating the laments of a generation of parents. “Today’s parents voice a gnawing unease about society’s impact on their children,” it ominously began, and proceeded to paint a portrait of parenthood that sounded like Dante strolling through Candyland. There are “too many dangers, too many temptations and too many harmful influences for them to be able to relax,” parents confessed. Seventy-five percent of those surveyed said it was “a lot harder” to raise a child today than when they were growing up.
Perhaps the current economic crisis will prove to be a force strong enough to dislodge some of the more extreme fears and pretensions of this parenting class. The hip rebelliousness of this generation required a degree of solvency (and lines of credit) that no longer exists. Old-fashioned moderation and values such as thrift, reticence, and self-sacrifice might eventually reemerge. Parents might focus less on cultivating cool than on building character. Unless and until this generation of parents stops viewing its children as obstacles to personal fulfillment, these attempts to describe the experience of being mothers and fathers will remain mired in narcissism, little more than dreary catalogues of the everyday indignities of life with their children.
1And yet it is hard not to sympathize with the women who find these images of fashionable pregnancy appealing. When I was pregnant a few years ago, I was grateful for stores like Target, where I could buy inexpensive yet simple maternity clothes that featured neither large bows nor nauseating patterns whose hopeless conceit was to divert the public’s gaze from my considerable girth. If I felt like complaining about the lack of options for pregnant women, I had only to recall a picture of my mother, then heavily pregnant with my sister, taken in the 1970s. She was a nautical vision in white polyester, complete with sailor’s collar and buttons in the shape of anchors. Her strained smile attested to the effort it took for her to ignore her resemblance to an oversize extra in a regional theater production of South Pacific.