When my daughter Camille was born, I was surprised by the dignity in her eyes. I had imagined someone who couldn’t control her bodily functions would be matched with a similarly entry-level consciousness: one who wasn’t aware of the challenges she faced. Instead, she treated each diaper change like I dread a pap smear: O, the indignity!
As I watched her learn to crawl, I had the feeling that I was watching a stroke victim regaining her independence. There was awareness within, and frustration. I felt the gravity she faced just forcing a single toe to move, like Uma Thurman’s notorious scene in Kill Bill.
My children were unbearably fussy as babies, and quite suddenly became content little explorers – just as they gained the independence to do some things for themselves. As an observer, I wasn’t just proud of them. I felt like they had moved mountains.
And just as my first-born gained her independence, my mother watched her mother lose that spark of independence that made her care about the world around her.
Every human being needs meaning in their lives, and on a basic level, that means being useful. World renowned psychiatrist and creator of logotherapy, Viktor Frankl survived concentration camps during the Holocaust. According to Frankl, the secret to their survival was having meaning in their lives. A 2014 article in Business Insider quotes his best-seller from 1946, Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he discusses curing two suicidal men at a concentration camp:
“It was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them.”
While our society values happiness first and foremost, finding your raison d’etre, according to Frankl, is more important. Happiness is simply a basic formula of having one’s needs met with the least amount of adversity. It’s dependent on external factors you might not be able to control. But meaning is the fuel that our lives run on.
As someone who rolls deep with sippy cups from one library to the next, glassy eyed with two littles in tow, this article affected me like an oasis in the desert. I’m up to my ears in happiness, yet something is still missing. I had one question for Viktor Frankl, and society at large: his book is called Man’s Search for Meaning. What about women and children?
The primitive need to be useful doesn’t magically disappear because you’ve been up all night with an infant. It’s there as early as toddlerhood, and I would imagine it stays with us even when old age confines our bodies. Meaning is intricately linked to our involvement in the world.
Some people might say parents have the greatest access to meaning in their lives: the rewarding art of bringing up children. But a person’s calling in life is as personal as their fingerprint. Many folks are surprised to find that raising children is their calling in life. Many folks are surprised to find that it isn’t. All of us are going to be utterly devoted to our children.
So for as long as a person is a caretaker, they’re shut off from meaning. We segregate the very young, the very old, and their caretakers alike in purgatorial environments where meaning simply can’t be found. Playgrounds. Kid-centric restaurants with pizza and chicken fingers. Children in the early childhood phase, the developmental period most important in influencing what our future generations will look like, are filed into bland centers of safety because deep down, our country treats them as just a problem to be dealt with.
When things were going well for our country financially, we spread out into the nuclear family setup and got comfortable. No more living with our grandparents. No more staying home with our kids. Now we can’t afford this lifestyle, but it’s hard putting the toothpaste back into the tube.
We can’t afford to stay home with our children, but we can’t afford to put them in decent daycare, either. Mothers are shoved into full time jobs in order to afford child care, and all of us live separately in our sterile, age-appropriate environments. Coworkers will fawn over our cute baby pictures, but god forbid they call us after hours and hear those same cute babies yammering in the background.
We all remember being children and even accept that overall furthering of the human race. But when we’re out in the real world, we pretend that children don’t exist. This latest blog in On Being really captures it for me.
The way we treat our young families mirrors how we treat our elderly: we put them away in day cares and nursing homes. We care about these populations enough that we want them to be safe, but not enough to actually be around them. It’s age segregation for convenience sake, and we have no idea what we are losing out on.
By removing these vital members of our civilization from the everyday hustle of society, we’re telling them: you are useless.
Our village becomes less hectic, but we are missing out on a lot of profound moments.
When large portions of the population feel useless, they get depressed. When they get depressed, they visit the doctor and hospitals more often. We are all paying for it.
The CDC shows that one in nine mothers exhibit symptoms of postpartum depression. This figure doesn’t take into account the women who suffer PPD after experiencing miscarriage or stillbirth, and it doesn’t take into account cases that go unreported. So we can assume that it’s even more prevalent.
Mothers aren’t the only ones suffering. According to TIME, there’s a startling increase in major depression among teens (source). College depression is also a rising concern.
Many opinion essays, in the self-blame game, accuse helicopter parenting of spawning depressed young adults who don’t have the self esteem to live in the real world. I tend to agree that we should trust our children more.
But I think parents are only partially to blame, if at all. I think most parents trust their children. It’s our society that doesn’t.
Why is it that one of the happiest times in our lives is the most isolating?
Most of the everyday minutiae of new parenting isn’t tolerated in polite society. Nursing. Changing diapers. Napping. Impromptu dance parties. Throwing silly putty and yelling “I’M THE SILLY PUTTY MONSTER!”
Restaurants like Caruso’s in North Carolina can ban patrons under the age of five and, for the most part, be applauded for it. The strongest outcry? “GET A BABYSITTER!” Yet with daycare costs skyrocketing, many of us can’t even afford child care for when we work, let alone for leisure.
Another argument I always hear: there was this one family in this one restaurant who was totally obnoxious. To that, I say: I saw a drunk guy get kicked out of a restaurant once, but we’re not banning all men.
I remember discovering the rec center in our area had a free indoor play room for kids under four. I was so excited to check it out, but upon entering I was plunged into a living nightmare. Every single frazzled parent looked wildly around as their children bounced off the padded walls and threw tantrums. It was like there was a fire, and we decided to lock it inside instead of a small building instead of heading outside.
We’re not meant to live like this.
We shut the future of our country into safe rooms, never incorporating them into the real world with its real consequences, and then we wonder why they get depressed.
The isolation of being confined to “kid places” might sound trivial to some. But lest you think I’m being overly dramatic, consider for a moment how you personally would feel spending everyday in library storytime. My good friend Rose is famous for her decorum as well as suspending that decorum when you least expect it in order to drop some truth; one time she told me: “If I had to go to all of those baby music classes every day, I would suicide!”
All slightly too-colorful jokes aside, it really isn’t always easy to live a life of Frozen and chicken fingers all the time. And I’m not convinced it’s better for our children, either. Parents tell themselves that once they have kids, they will get into it. And when they don’t, they feel like bad parents.
Young motherhood is a vulnerable time, so ultimately when a mom isn’t fully satisfied with the experience, she tells herself it must be postpartum depression. She feels bad, like she doesn’t love her children enough. I chose to have children, yet when they were born, I didn’t magically start to like Sesame Street!
PPD is real, don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to discount the experiences millions of women have had. However, our country also uses postpartum depression as a form of victim blaming. If PPD is a problem that exists in the vacuum of a mother’s psyche, why are low-income women or women of color more likely to have PPD? Environmental factors – like lack of adequate child care, or having to work two jobs – are to blame.
Postpartum depression is a societal ill, yet more work is being done each year universally screening women and treating them with drugs.
We don’t need to be treating mothers; we need to be treating society. We’d rather throw a pill at the problem, because changing society is work.
It’s one of those answers that’s so simple, yet so hard: just include us.
End age segregation.
Baby Harry and I thrive when we’re exploring the city, hanging out in coffee shops. He doesn’t need furry animatronics; he gets a kick out of the birds outside of the window. My children even accompany me to political protests.
I’m tired of Chuck E. Cheese.
I’m tired of kids’ menus.
I wish I could turn to a mother at storytime and talk about the latest episode of Black Mirror.
I’m tired of going places where there are no real life consequences. My family is deprived of diversity. And to reiterate: I’m not depressed. I’m just human.
I propose a two-part plan.
The first step is a shift in attitudes. Let’s tolerate the hyperactive preschooler sitting next to us on the plane, and even interact with her in a way that helps her to learn something. Let’s create more spaces where all generations are welcome, and can bring something to the table. Let’s brainstorm ways children and their caretakers can pitch in appropriately. I’m not suggesting bringing your toddler to the singles bar or letting your children run free in corporate offices.
But maybe we can go so far as to put new mothers and their young children to good use during those vital early childhood days, which we know have an impact on their adulthood.
What I’m suggesting is a modern revamping of the age old paper route. Or an extension to Take Your Daughter to Work Day. There has got to be a way that a child and her mother are actually useful to our society.
An easy answer that comes to mind: bringing joy.
When I was young, my mother used to let me loose in a nursing home. I loved chatting up the residents, doling out hugs and making them laugh. By making them feel special, my self esteem soared.
Maybe my children and I can visit nursing homes or hospitals. Maybe we can be ambassadors of good will, welcoming refugee families into our country. Maybe we can be hired to visit the homes of other young families, to make sure they’re doing okay and see if they need anything. Maybe we can clean up a park together. We can plant community gardens. We can deliver groceries. We can run a shop together. All of these are activities would teach my child about society and make him feel like he’s contributing.
I could easily volunteer with my children and give them all of these experiences. But regular volunteering isn’t really an option for families who are struggling financially. It’s hard enough staying above water for any family.
We need an official program. We need to feel our worth.
Maybe this looks like companies, nonprofits or staffing agencies that are family friendly. People who won’t consider it unprofessional when I answer the phone with Toddler Harry in the background.
Maybe this is some new business model like Lyft or TaskRabbit: quick jobs that are doable with a kid in tow. I could totally go grocery shopping for someone else with my kids around. Or, is there anyone out there who needs help making messes?
Many of us desire paid maternity and paternity leave, but no one wants to pay for it. Maybe this is the government’s answer to paid maternity leave: an optional government stipend that is dependent on family community service. Trump and company should be supportive of family values and making ourselves useful, right? Right?
I realize that what I’m suggesting is not easy. I remember when baby Harry was so fussy all the time, I actually called the National Fussy Baby Hotline. The worst time for us was when I was cooking dinner: he would cling to my legs, screaming. No recipe was simple enough to complete with someone screaming at me, and no amount of reassurance (“I’m cooking this for YOU!”) calmed him down. My hotline advisor suggested involving him in the cooking process.
I had a talk with the whole family, and this changed the way we all interact with Harry. We brainstormed how we could let him be of use in our everyday activities. Maybe my daughter could involve him in her make-believe worlds. We could let him practice unlocking the front door when we get home, throw out his trash, bring his empty plate to the sink and fetch things for us.
Incorporating Hurricane Harry into my kitchen wasn’t easy. It involved a lot of baby-proofing, high stress around hot pots and a lot of spilled milk. But sure enough, the self esteem in Harrison was palpable. Finding his own meaning made him happier. And I considered it part of my duty to put up with the chaos.
One of the major arguments I understand the most is that some people have chosen not to have children, so they don’t want to deal with other peoples’ children. I respect that choice.
But we were all children at one point. Each of us owes our existence not just to our parents, but to the village that surrounded us, tolerated our hyperactive frolicking through a restaurant and helped to teach us manners.
Our society has segregated families in the name of money, safety and lack of headaches, and it’s allowed us to forget this important truth. We’ve lost our village, but the ability to bring it back is easily in reach – in our own attitudes.