The following is an excerpt from Impossible Parenting: Creating a New Culture of Mental Health for Parents by Olivia Scobie. Copyright © 2020 Olivia Scobie. Reprinted with the permission of Dundurn Press.
Parents are well aware of the problematic nature of today’s parenting culture, and they’re usually able to identify the overwhelming messages as contradictory and ridiculous. We poke fun at “good parenting” ideals and the judgment and competition that comes with them. The popularity of movies and shows such as Bad Moms, Workin’ Moms, or The Letdown, and websites like Scary Mommy, suggests that we understand that we’re overdoing it. We can laugh about our fixation with developmental milestones and our competitiveness around things like lunch-box art. Unfortunately, while mocking it might be easy, letting go of the internal expectations to be a perfect parent is a much greater challenge.
A 2014 study about the impact of intensive-mothering messages found that while parents can see the inherent problems of setting this gold standard of good parenting, we are actually working harder than ever before to try to achieve it. Parents I work with often express this contradictory feeling of “I know better but I can’t seem to do better or feel better.”
The rules of parenting are moving targets, and since I first became a mother fifteen years ago, I’ve watched intensive-mothering expectations morph and become even more impossible to achieve. While the goal of a “happy, healthy, and successful” outcome for children is not unique to our era, the number of resources required to achieve it is unprecedented and parents’ efforts toward it are more highly scrutinized than ever. Parents in the 1980s might have felt pressure to make sure their children were eating enough vegetables, but now we’re expected to give children a comprehensive diet of organic food that’s cooked at home, and ideally gluten- and sugar-free as well. We still look to parenting experts, but the amount of information available to us is contradictory and always changing, making it hard for us to know what to trust. And with the rise of the internet and social media, the intimate details of our lives are now witnessed publicly in a way they never were before.
Western parenting culture is now dominated by a parenting philosophy that I call impossible parenting. Impossible parenting is rooted in the core concepts of intensive mothering that demand child-centred families, research-based decisions, and continuous responsiveness. But now that is no longer enough, and parents are also expected to obsess over health and risk aversion, hyperfocus their attention on psychological outcomes, and ensure everyone experiences gratitude and joy along the way. And all of it must be demonstrated on social media, because in many ways parenting has become a lifestyle brand that aligns with whatever community subculture you want to belong to, such as attachment parents, free-range parents, tiger parents, or feminist parents. While each community interprets impossible-parenting standards slightly differently, there are six core values that underpin this new culture—and they’re making it impossible for parents today to succeed.
1. THE MORE YOU SACRIFICE, THE MORE YOU LOVE
Sacrifice has long been connected to the concept of parenting, and there is a certain amount of personal sacrifice involved. How we spend our time, energy, and financial resources changes dramatically when we have children, particularly in the early years. This is normal. But when groups of parents get together, a competitive edge sometimes creeps into the conversation about how much we have suffered. While I think this is because we want so badly to have our sacrifice acknowledged and validated, it can often show up as a race to the bottom: who’s the most tired, who had the worst recovery from birth, who had to soothe a screaming baby for the longest.
I experienced a stark example of this myself when I participated in an invasive medical study when my children were very young and I was very poor. I didn’t have enough money to buy them Christmas gifts, so I jumped at the opportunity to make $400 for having my blood drawn every thirty minutes while in a CT scanner. In the end, it triggered a claustrophobic response and I silently suffered through a two-hour-long panic attack. I was so traumatized that when it was all over I couldn’t regulate my heart rate. When I started to tell people what had happened in the days that followed, I wasn’t met with outrage, or support for how I’d felt the need to endure this traumatizing procedure. Instead I was met with praise — so much praise — about what a good mother I was to give my children the beautiful Christmas they deserved.
Unfortunately, we do receive subtle (and not-so-subtle) messages that reinforce the idea that the more we sacrifice, the more we demonstrate our love for our children. This is obviously a false connection, and it can lead us to put our physical and mental health in jeopardy. Telling people that they’re better parents if they suffer more can artificially boost their parenting confidence, creating a sick cycle of rewards for (often unnecessary) sacrifice. This sacrifice/love cycle emphasizes the message that good families are child-centred, as opposed to a family-centred philosophy where every family member’s needs matter equally.
2. INVEST UP FRONT, BE REWARDED LATER
There’s an increasing amount of pressure for parents to “get it right” with children in the early years, with vague hints that there could be devastating consequences if you don’t follow the rules of parenting experts. Or not-so-vague hints, as in Bowlby’s threats of possible adult delinquency or psychopathy for children who don’t manage to secure attachment before age five. During my first year of parenting, the Ontario government rolled out a campaign that used the slogan “The Years Before Five Last the Rest of Their Lives,” which advocated for attachment parenting practices and early learning strategies as the best way to set your children up for social and academic success later in life. It was probably the most terrifying message that I, a poor, depressed mother with a high-needs baby, could have received. I attended some of the free classes offered, which left me anxiously flip-flopping between trying to get my baby to watch Baby Einstein videos or stare into my eyes while I fed him, and feeling like there was no point because I had surely already messed him up.
Parents start investing in their children’s future during pregnancy (diet and lifestyle changes) and it continues with birth (stressing the benefits of the vaginal microbiome and immediate skin-to-skin). Anxiety continues to grow as new parents try to figure out what to do with their babies’ sleeping/eating/activities/socializing to ensure they are smart/confident/social/healthy.
One of the biggest challenges is that you are expected to parent in multiple timelines. You have to parent the child you have in front of you, with all the day-to-day problem solving that requires your immediate attention (e.g., feed them when they’re hungry); you’re expected to parent for the child you want (e.g., set boundaries and manage tantrums); and you’re also somehow required to parent a child that will turn into an awesome adult (e.g., teach them sound morals). It is really tricky and complex! Not to mention that doing so contradicts the parenting advice about just “being present” or “being in the moment” with our children. You need to leave the park in the next ten minutes so you can make it home in time to give the baby lunch, otherwise they won’t go down for their nap on time, which means they won’t sleep well at night, which means they will be cranky tomorrow. So much of parenting involves preventive planning, making it difficult, if not impossible, to live in the moment all the time.
There has also been an intense boom of classes for babies in recent years, including music classes, movement classes, yoga classes, and communication classes such as baby sign language courses for children that don’t have hearing or oral communication impairments. One of the goals of baby sign language seems to be to help parents meet their babies’ needs even more efficiently, as we have very little tolerance for dissatisfied babies. The notion that children need extra classes to develop the skills they need for life continues to grow in popularity. Parenting researcher Linda Rose Ennis argues that it’s really a way for working parents to alleviate their guilt by giving them a way to support and entertain their children without being present. Of course, not all parents have access to the same amount of time or financial resources to invest in their children, which can have a negative impact on their parenting identity.
3. DANGER IS ALL AROUND US—STAY VIGILANT
Parenting itself is scary and filled with unknowns, but impossible-parenting culture is laden with fears. Parents are bombarded with messages about all the ways their children might be in physical or emotional danger, and much like the invest up front messages, this begins with the fertility process. Every client I’ve had in their thirties has shared fears about trying to conceive after age thirty-five. During pregnancy, we are given a long list of dos (eat organic, watch your calorie intake, and move your body) and don’ts (consume sushi, unpasteurized diary, sugar, processed meats, coffee, or alcohol) to prevent you from harming your fetus. These fears can become all-consuming for people with a history of loss.
These fears intensify once we meet our children. Concerns about sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) are what I hear about the most from anxious parents. I’ve also met parents desperately afraid of poor attachment, baby carriers, infant flat head, allergies, car seats — there seems to be no end to what might threaten a tiny infant. Researcher Solveig Brown’s study of maternal fear found that mothers are also very afraid of the impact the outside world will have on their children, citing rising fears about screens and social media, good relationships with peers, fitting in at school, abduction, molestation, illness, safety, body image, and healthy habits, along with fears about drinking, sex, and drugs. That’s a heavy emotional load for parents to carry! Then you add to that the ever-growing need to process anxiety related to apocalyptic fears, such as climate change, food and economic security, war, terrorism, police brutality, and oppressive government policies — particularly for racialized, marginalized, and newcomer families. I’ve found that these fears are directly correlated to postpartum anxiety. This has certainly been true for fears related to the most recent pandemic.
While these fears are valid, it’s also true that marketers leverage parenting fears to sell products by reinforcing messages that children are innocent, priceless, helpless, and constantly in danger. With the rise of parenting experts and research-based parenting, and more access to trauma stories than ever before, vigilant monitoring of children has dramatically increased, resulting in a significant lack of confidence for many parents who are terrified they won’t be able to keep their kids safe.
It’s an incredible burden for parents to realize that physical and emotional suffering is not just a theoretical part of the human experience but will be a part of their personal experience and their children’s experience. And in a culture that is very uncomfortable with acknowledging death and loss, many of us understandably don’t cope well with the unavoidable fact that we, and everyone we know, will someday die. While I have a lot of compassion for the depth of anguish a person can experience, it’s problematic that impossible-parenting culture has tried to convince parents that suffering can be prevented with enough worry, planning, and safety products, because when the unthinkable does happen, we think it’s our fault.
4. KEEP IT NATURAL
Related to both the invest up front belief and the danger is all around us warning, but deserving of a category of itself, is the parenting phenomenon of getting back-to-the-land and keeping everything as “natural” as possible. Many parents have concerns about things like toxins and chemicals, with varying degrees of understanding about what these buzzwords actually mean, plus the impact of plastics, off-gassing, pesticides, and fragrances. As a result, parents are opting more and more for products, particularly clothes, toys, and foods, that feel less processed or mass-produced. Marketers are slapping labels on products with words like all natural or organic, with pictures of farms and trees and animals to evoke a wholesome feeling of safety. This also inspires fears around the impact of particular foods, such as sugar, food dyes, and even infant formula, on babies and children.
How we define what it means to be healthy and what individual practices contribute to this goal are very personal, but the keep it natural messaging has two major impacts on parents. The first is how much time it takes to research, source, plan, and prepare health products and practices in a socio-economic system that values fast-paced, productive living. For example, making your own baby food and cleaning products requires an intense amount of work for a generation of parents that is exceptionally time-starved. There are even hypervigilant and labour-intensive practices such as going diaper-free, which essentially means starting toilet training right from birth, because it’s more “natural.”
The second impact is that “all natural” products, health providers, and organic foods are very expensive and not all parents are able to access them, making this impossible-parenting value very class-based. The equation of keep it natural = health = good parenting is deeply problematic, because it means wealthy parents get to feel like good, empowered parents, while low-income parents are left feeling guilty or inadequate. Class-based health inequities are exacerbated by inadequate access to resources such as medical care, therapies, medication, and stress-reducing activities.
5. PRESCRIBED SELF-CARE
This impossible-parenting value of prescribed self-care is so significant that I have an entire chapter dedicated to redefining our relationship to self-care. The self-care movement has taken hold in parenting communities, but not very successfully, because parents are burnt out and struggling with their mental health in significant numbers. I suspect that this is because the idea of self-care has become tied to a particular set of resource-heavy behaviours, such as spa visits, nights out, or fitness activities. Having self-care activities prescribed to parents by others completely misses the point: what’s required to tend to each person’s needs is personal and complicated and constantly changing. Yet impossible parenting uses self-care as a weapon against parents, leaving many of us blaming ourselves if we struggle with our mood, health, or energy and we haven’t been engaging in self-care in the ways we think we should.
Prescriptions for self-care often hyperfocus on the individual experience of wellness and overlook the importance of the community wellness experience in a way that sometimes feels like we need to compete or hoard “care” resources. Telling parents that the path to wellness is individual ignores the socio-economic and structural barriers that make it so incredibly difficult to balance the work of caring for yourself, your family, and your community. Yes, we need to find ways to take care of ourselves effectively, but we can’t focus so inwardly that we forget to look out for each other or to set expectations of how we want to be cared for. Self-care shouldn’t cause distress, be just another thing on your to-do list, or be an isolated experience. But, in many ways, that’s what it’s become.
6. MAKE EVERY MOMENT MAGICAL
Finally, impossible parenting demands that we make every moment magical. This includes documenting the growth and development of our children in carefully curated ways to preserve our memories. Parental performances such as “gender” reveal parties, professional birth photographers, and elaborate cake smashes at one-year-old birthday parties contribute to the idealized vision of parenthood, an aggression-free, attuned, blissful celebration of parent-child relationships. While there are many enjoyable aspects of parenting and celebrating is fun, the fact that we share so many of these happy performances does tend to encourage us to silence any negative feelings toward children or parenting. This, tragically, leaves many parents suppressing or pathologizing their negative thoughts toward their children, rather than interpreting them as a normal, or even necessary, part of parenthood.
Authors Susan J. Douglas and Meredith Michaels suggest that “motherhood has become a psychological police state.” When we break down impossible-parenting values one by one, it’s no wonder so many parents say that kids are “all joy and no fun,” as they bring us deep emotional connection while taking the adult fun out of our life, albeit temporarily. Not only do parents need to hit the behavioural and economic markers of “good parenting,” they also have to like it. The result is that parents are working harder than ever to figure out how to build a career and take care of themselves, their partners, and their community while always prioritizing their children’s needs. And it’s really hard — impossible, actually — to do all of these at the same time.
Olivia Scobie is a social work counsellor and educator who specializes in perinatal mood, birth trauma, and parental mental health. You can find her at oliviascobie.com, @livwithkids on Twitter and oliviascobie on Facebook.