When you’re a parent, you live and die by your daily routine. Everyday activities like preparing lunches, helping your kids get their shoes on, or buckling a baby into a car seat with one hand add up to a carefully orchestrated performance you repeat every 24 hours.
Because mundane tasks take more time and energy as a parent, it’s easy to become isolated in your family’s microcosm. Our schedules become the culture in which we live, and we have little mental currency to spend on thoughts outside of our family and our jobs.
But, in reality, we’re part of a larger culture of parenting and parenthood. The decisions we make—the caregivers we hire (or don’t), the meals we prepare for our infants, the way we discipline our teenagers—are all informed by cultural cues we’ve internalized since we were children ourselves. Although it may feel like you and your partner are flying by the seat of your pants, figuring out how to be parents on a minute-by-minute basis, your decisions are strongly affected by an ongoing social conversation about what makes a good father, a good mother, and a successfully “raised” child.
You may be thinking, “Who has to ruminate on this type of ethereal crap? I have a pediatrician’s appointment and a conference call and a Body Pump class—and that’s just before 10 AM.”
But I’ve found, since becoming a mother and especially since returning to work, that examining the culture in which I’m raising a child and thinking about how it affects my thought processes is incredibly helpful (and freeing). By forcing myself to think deeply about how outside forces shape my conception of motherhood, I ensure that I’m making my own choices, not just going through the motions based on what I’m “supposed” to do.
The good news is that there are plenty of brilliant, articulate parents out there who have made their cultural observations available to you with a couple of clicks. I’ve read an alarming number of books on the culture of parenthood and motherhood in the Western world, even before I was a mom, but the following works in particular have shaped my conception of motherhood and helped me be a better and more critical cultural observer (when it comes to parenthood, at least).
Liz O’Donnell takes a close look at how women are approaching new opportunities in the business world, antiquated cultural stereotypes at home, and an education system that still assumes one parent will be home by 3 PM. O’Donnell not only examines how the choices we’re making are affected by the male-dominated corporate culture, but also how our choices affect the businesses that employ us.
I recently wrote about this publication after attending an event publicizing it earlier this month. The Shriver Report profiles women living on the brink of poverty, who are often one small crisis—a parking ticket, a sick child, a broken down bus—away from losing their jobs and spinning deeper into financial insecurity. Featuring essays from politicians, pop-culture royalty like Beyonce and Lebron James, and women supporting families on minimum-wage jobs, The Shriver Report shows how our culture fails to properly value women and mothers at all points of the earning spectrum.
Penned by economist Bryan Caplan, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids offers an unusual and controversial perspective of parenting. Caplan shows that there’s overwhelming research that genetics shape our personalities more than our upbringing. That’s good news for parents stuck in today’s culture of hover-parenting, he says. Caplan argues that once you accept that exhausting parenting techniques—think intricate, handmade reward charts or 10-step sleep training strategies—don’t matter much in the long haul, parents can start focusing on building relationships with their children and enjoying their time together, instead of obsessing over molding them into perfect people. He backs his arguments up with fascinating data from twin studies and adoptions research.
Tina Fey’s hilarious collections of essays follows Fey from childhood through her years at my alma mater, the University of Virginia, into the public eye as Sarah Palin, then as a television powerhouse producer, writer, and star of 30 Rock, and, of course, a mom. She points out the ridiculousness behind the question “Is it hard for you, being the boss of all these people?” (Implying, because you’re, you know, a woman?) Her essays will make you realize that even women with plenty of money and resources struggle with the same issues—being taken seriously at work despite a track record that crushes expectations, surviving vacations with the in-laws, and feeling guilty about being bored when you listen to your children tell the same jokes over and over again.
5. Swagger: 10 Urgent Rules for Raising Boys in an Age of Failing Schools, Mass Joblessness, and Thug Culture
I was already a fan of Lisa Bloom after reading her book Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World, so as soon as I found out I was having a boy, I rushed to read Swagger. Bloom—a lawyer, feminist, and mother of one girl and one boy—explores the tendency of pop culture to equalize manhood and masculinity with an exaggerated machismo, a lack of emotion, and a general ignorance. The media outlets targeting young men, from video games to television to movies, glamorize violence, mock emotion and enthusiasm, and discourage intellectual curiosity (“Reading is for girls” is an alarming mantra Bloom heard repeated.) It can’t be a coincidence that this growing celebration of a backward-thinking machismo coexists with an increase of incarceration and high school dropout rates. Swagger is a must-read for parents raising children in our country.
After writing about girls and girl culture for 20 years, Peggy Orenstein became a mother to a girl herself, and writes about the challenges of being a feminist mother raising a daughter who’s completely enthralled (and entrapped) by “princess mania.” Orenstein writes about the downright icky sexualization of little girl culture—from “sassy” dolls to sexy Halloween costumes—as well as her internal battles: On one hand, she wants to let her daughter be happy, have fun, and fit in with her friends, while on the other hand she doesn’t want her to think that girls are supposed to wear pink, bathe in glitter, and obsess over boys. Whether you have girls or boys, you’ll definitely empathize with her frequent dilemma: avoid a meltdown in Target or let the kid have the stupid, sexist toy.
7. One Book You Think You’ll Disagree With
Reading authors with perspectives different from your own can be eye-opening and infuriating. But I think it’s important to force yourself to do this as a parent (and a critical thinker in general) because, though you may disagree with every word they write, you and your kids have to live and grow in a world with those people. And if you don’t listen to their arguments, you can’t respond to them.
For example, I read Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys, after I read Swagger, on a recommendation from a friend (who said some parts of the book made her uncomfortable). I wound up agreeing with my friend. The authors hold an underlying assumption that many mothers will inevitably have control issues with their sons because of their lack of trust of men’s “power and strength,” and often employed a condescending tone. (One chapter about letting your son be independent, for example, was entitled “Cutting the Apron Strings.” Seriously.) But I’m glad I read the book because it represents a cultural perspective that many of my colleagues, neighbors, and friends might subscribe to. It reaffirmed how I want to develop a relationship with my son and reminded me that I’m making good choices for my family.
8. One Book That Has Nothing to Do With Being a Parent. Or Working.
You are more than a working parent (remember?). You probably spent a couple of decades being a person who didn’t work (full-time) and didn’t have children. Remember to honor that person and his or her interests by reading something (or, ideally, lots of things) just for the fun of it. I love Goodreads for book recommendations in all genres.
This isn’t a comprehensive list, of course. We’re lucky that so many smart people are thinking and writing about the culture of parenthood right now. Which ones am I missing? What have you been reading? Share the wealth on Twitter so we can all become more informed parents and cultural observers.