FIRST THINGS FIRST: I do not care if Jamie Lynne Grumet, the California mom who appeared on the cover of Time magazine’s “Are You Mom Enough?” issue breast-feeding her 3-year-old, ends up nursing her son at the prom. That’s her choice. Time’s cover isn’t unnerving because of her beliefs. It’s unnerving because it ascribed a routine sentiment — wanting to do right by our children — to a particular parenting style, and so turned “mom” into a makeshift adjective broadly defined for the masses.
In response, I took to my Boston.com blog and wrote a list of motherhood wishes for my son, fundamentals that I hope transcend alarmist headlines. CliffsNotes version: With luck, he’ll be a good person even if I bought the wrong stroller. Of course, my maternal intent might be noble, but that doesn’t mean I’m not antsy occasionally. Aren’t we all?
We live in fraught times, in a world populated by needling hobgoblins like Helicopter Parents, Hockey Dads, and Tiger Moms. Meanwhile, this is also an era of exceptional uncertainty, economic and otherwise. Some old truisms, like working hard will beget a decent job, are no longer true. And in these extreme times, so-called extreme parenting offers a kind of comfort to adults, says Ed Tronick, who runs infant-parent mental health programs at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “Having ideas about [parenting] is a way of controlling your own anxiety,” he says. “Many of the things we do [as parents] are about controlling our own anxiety.”
Nancy Holtzman, vice president of clinical content and education at Isis parenting centers, agrees: “People really do feel passionate about choices that they’ve made, but a lot of it really comes from anxiety and defensiveness, because we can’t look ahead 20 years — critiquing someone else’s choice makes people feel more secure about their own.” And as long as this remains the case — which it will, unless Babies “R” Us launches a psychic hot line — we will grope for reassurance and sometimes ask ourselves the very same question that Time posed.
So why deny it? Competition is a real part of modern parenthood, and it can be useful. Everyone — athletes, actors, lawyers, teachers — yearns to be at least good “enough.” It keeps us going and sometimes makes us successful. Healthy striving shouldn’t be taboo, especially in this era of unprecedented options. If evaluating and reevaluating the choices we make for our children keep us focused on being devoted parents, fantastic. Even unhealthy striving is natural, and sometimes even funny. Surely I am not the only parent who has ended up at interpretative baby yoga because of peer pressure.
But the Time cover made it politically incorrect, embarrassing even, to acknowledge that the drive for excellence (and the struggle with its demon twin, insecurity) is legitimate. Lost in the debate is the fact that not all parents who want to do right by their children are smug braggarts. Most parents strive to be “enough” on a daily basis without imposing their definition of the word on everybody else. If anything, the drive to measure up should be a source of commiseration, not division, as inevitable as milk-stained sofas. Putting a polarizing face on a basic impulse creates enemies out of people who should be on the same team.
Let’s all be easier on ourselves. The compulsion to compare, to categorize, and to differentiate is our way of taking out an insurance policy on the future. We simply seek security through our choices, to be told that it will turn out OK because we did all we could. As parents, we regain our power when we realize that the opponent is actually uncertainty, not one another. The drive for “enough” isn’t anything to be ashamed of, so long as we define the word for ourselves.