Some time ago I made the mistake of picking up a parenting magazine. The lead article talked solemnly about the damage that safety-obsessed parents can wreak on children, yet, ironically enough, the remainder of the publication was filled with far-fetched cautionary tales about the hidden hazards that lurk within our world (your kids might be misdiagnosed if you take them to a walk-in clinic; they might stab themselves with the contents of your purse; they might be injured while peeing if you select a ceramic toilet lid and it falls down on them). Modern culture may claim that mothers ought not to overprotect their children, but it does not really mean that. Instead, as most parenting magazines convey, the job of a good mother is to be the patron goddess who guards her child’s fate to ensure that nothing bad will ever happen to him.
Critiques of helicopter parenting are frequent (and even the subject of a new television show), but laments alone won’t change the cultural values that drive moms to ban pointy scissors and that lead the police to arrest parents for allowing their children to appear unsupervised in public. If we are to dialogue about the need to give children opportunities for growth and adventure, we must first recognize the link between overprotection of children and the modern attempt to redefine motherhood as a choice-focused activity instead of a simple facet of daily life.
The truth is that being a mom makes it difficult to embrace aspects of modern morality. Motherhood, in all its brutal glory, leaves modern culture suffering from cognitive dissonance, so we have tried to reinvent it. That reinvention is at the heart of our current culture of fearful parenting.
Motherhood Demands Anachronistic Commitment
In past centuries, the freedom to pursue personal growth and happiness was limited by the pressure to fulfill personal duties. The most obvious example of this was cultural abhorrence of divorce, but there are others as well. Andrew Lang’s nineteenth-century retellings of traditional folktales involve many stories in which newly-successful adult children return for their aged father (who has neither supported them nor even treated them nicely) so they can whisk him off as a member of their happily-ever-after household. The need for the child to respect the parent was so culturally ingrained that this ending satisfied generations of storytellers.
Currently, of course, we value individual autonomy to the point of seeing each person as a self-contained unit who must be free to remain faithful to others only so long as he or she believes that doing so is compatible with personal happiness.
Yet in spite of our devotion to autonomy, mothers are not allowed to trade their children for others with whom they are more compatible. Women are not supposed to sit around at play dates and admit that they dislike their children. The fierce anger and condemnation raised against adoptive parents who give up troubled children demonstrates public shock at the idea of “divorcing” a child. Parenthood turns our societal love of individuality on its head and demands the kind of commitment that has been discarded in other facets of life.
Mothers Must Impose Their Beliefs on Others
To varying degrees, our ancestors tended to believe that correct beliefs and behavior should be enforced for the good of the group. Religious heresy should be curbed, political unrest removed, and destabilizing immorality punished. Nowadays, we value diversity and individual expression more than the strength and security of a monolithic culture. As long as no one is obviously hurting others with their beliefs, choices, or actions, we argue for live-and-let live morality in most spheres. It is not our job, we think, to judge the guy who dumped his wife, critique the “open marriage” of the couple down the street, or even to tell our transcendental brother-in-law that his potted plants don’t hear when he talks to them. We are not our brothers’ keepers.
However, as new parents quickly discover, children who do not experience parental judgment become intolerable, unhappy people. Mothers are forced to become authorities for the sake of their families. They must frequently overcome the will of a child (sometimes by force) and say things like, “No, you may not run into the street, no matter how devastatingly disappointing this is,” “No, you are not allowed to use the toothbrushes and toothpaste to create art on the walls,” “No, you may not attend that sleepover at your friend’s house while his parents are out-of-town.”
Mothers can no longer decide only their own course of action. They must make calls about how someone else is allowed to treat others, what sort of entertainment someone else may enjoy, and what activities are appropriate for someone else. This is deeply uncomfortable, because it involves the risk not just of being wrong, but of enforcing a wrong opinion upon others.
Motherhood Contradicts Our Definition of Freedom
In bygone eras, humans were typically defined by factors outside of their direct control. A boy who was born the son of a carpenter was obviously intended for a life of carpentry. A girl who was given in marriage was expected to live within the parameters of being that man’s wife. There was no question of the boy pursuing his dream to become king or the girl deciding that she was really a man. To a large extent, society told each individual who he was and how he ought to live. Nowadays, in a triumph of individualism, we see the ability to self-define as an essential mark of what it means to be free.
Motherhood pokes a hole in this dream. A woman who is sexually active may be redefined at any moment as the biological mother of new life (no contraceptive has a 100 percent success rate). It is true that she can avoid a lifetime of parenthood by having an abortion, but this choice is unpalatable to many women, and does not erase the fact that life has existed. In fact, despite widely available birth control, about half of all American births are unplanned. Furthermore, women who give birth are soon defined as the parent of whatever child they receive. One might become the mom of a daughter with a precocious talent for music, another the mother of a son with autism, and a third the advocate of a child with a shy and retreating personality. Mothers do not choose their children, yet their lives are forever shaped by them.
Motherhood Contradicts Our Sense of Control Over the Physical World
In the old days, human life received its rhythm from the environment. The seasons and hours of sunlight ruled the course of daily life. When illness struck, the patient’s recovery often owed as much to non-human forces (whether defined as fate, nature, or the will of God) than any man-made medicine. Ministers and moral teachers spoke of the virtue of resignation in the face of death. Nowadays, however, technology and medical advances gives us hope that at last the mind will achieve complete reign over the material. Diseases will be cured and death delayed. In a new form of Gnosticism, radicals even argue that material realities like biological sex are meaningless and that only mental and emotional identity should define us.
Yet motherhood is inextricably tied to physical processes. Even adoptive parents are dependent on the physical body of another. Pregnancy is achieved only by the union of biological matter from a man and a woman. It occurs even when unwanted, yet may be denied to those who long for it. It must take place within a woman’s very body, forcing her to give up her pre-pregnancy waistbands, modify her activities, and endure lifelong alterations to her physique.
Pregnancy is a throwback to a time in which the interdependence of humanity, and the need to sacrifice for mutual survival, was starkly visible. Birth itself is primitive: the most sanitized hospital delivery is a mess of bodily fluids and ungraceful postures. Babies are a witness to the reality of the material. What mother, holding her newborn on her chest and kissing his soft cheeks, is able to doubt that his body is part of who he is?
Uncomfortable with Motherhood, We Seek to Redefine It
Every culture includes semi-contradictory beliefs. However, the gulf between reality-as-taught-by-motherhood and modernity’s hyper-individualism is wide, indeed. If moms think of their role as a simple, natural activity that reflects the true state of the world, they are in danger of questioning our media’s loudest values. They are likely to realize that perhaps the individual’s pursuit of happiness is not the highest good. They may even turn away from postmodern morality and look for answers elsewhere.
This, I think, is why we bury the dissonance beneath our efforts to think of being a mom as just one way among many to live as a woman. A mere “choice” is less authoritative than something that is an expression of humanity. Some voices in our culture take the tack of arguing that we should not expect women to want to be mothers at all, and should give up our antiquated belief that parenthood is fulfilling in any fundamental human way. One author even claims, “There’s really no evidence…that women have a biological urge to procreate.”
Others, especially those who are perhaps more mainstream, focus on the micro choices of motherhood as a way to define what it means to be a mom. In this camp, motherhood becomes a lifestyle—a lifestyle of agonizing over parenting methods, food selections, and safety. Motherhood is seen not as a natural result of adulthood and marriage, but as an aberration that must be micromanaged. From this attitude comes a tendency toward fear.
Judging by the articles that appear in my Facebook feed, many moms don’t see their parenting preferences (sleep-training versus co-sleeping, for instance) as something that is simply the best for their family, but as the only way to avoid harm to their children. The thing is, once being a good mom is about making the right choices, it is natural to feel that we will be failures if any of our choices are the wrong ones. Like goddesses, we must be as omniscient and powerful as possible.
Because none of us are prepared to carry the weight of a divine role, mothers naturally become insecure. The only way that we can know that our choices are correct is to reassure ourselves that the opposite decisions are blatantly, obviously, disgustingly wrong. As advice columnist Carolyn Hax wryly puts it, “It’s a fact of parenthood that the only time you’re SURE you have it figured out is when you’re opining about the way other people need to raise their kids.”
Mothers whose eyes are fixed among the trees of choice find it hard to lift their gaze to the forest of cultural assumptions. The easiest way to perpetuate that blindness and to teach that all of these choices are essential to our children’s well-being is to focus on safety. How can any woman take her decisions lightly when they are her children’s only bulwark against illness, predators, and falling ceramic toilet lids? Mothers who are consumed by safety have little brain power left with which to ponder the limits of individualism. An obsession with safety is both the logical fruit of our redefinition of motherhood and a way to reinforce that understanding. It is a cultural phenomenon that is highly useful to those who believe in the values that motherhood contradicts.
Yet the primitive reality of motherhood is powerful. It is too big to remain buried under a sea of choice-focused parenting books. Babies change people, and when women give up personal freedom for the sake of love, lose their sense of control over the physical world, and nurture their commitment to another human being (even when they do not feel like it), they are transformed into the kind of adult who can be a haven and an authority for children. They become wiser and better able to recognize cultural nonsense for what it is.
Perhaps this is why the current generation—now that many of us are rearing families—is increasingly inclined to question the merits of helicopter parenting (whether moms will also lead a rebellion against postmodern individualism is harder to say). It will not to be easy to liberate our children’s lives from the fears behind the bubble wrap of safety-obsession, but it is time to talk about doing so. Remembering that children are illusion-shattering gifts (and not a manifestation of our choices) will be essential to the process.
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