Why Can't We Let Parenting Be Easy?

Raise your hand if this starts to sound familiar.

Scene: A beautiful summer afternoon. Your sweet children are playing nicely in an enclosed splashpad. They are happy. They are safe. They are, through some miracle, not fighting with each other over a shovel. You have fed them a reasonably healthy snack (win), and they have shoes on (double-win) and the baby even has on a swim diaper (you are a goddess of parenting). But you look around at the other kids and realize that their parents have protected them with not only UPF blocking shirts, but also hats and sunglasses. You feel slightly guilty that you gave up after the epic thunder dome battle of trying to put a hat on your toddler before walking out the door. And sunglasses? Don’t you mean “things my kids throw from the stroller”? So you start to think, okay, maybe I’m not a parenting goddess, but I’m doing pretty good. I’ll just solve this problem by putting on some extra sunblock. You mentally pat yourself on the back for remembering to pack sunblock. Then you take it out, spray your kids and put it away. A few moments pass. The sound of a truck rumbles by off in the distance. A bird chirps.

THEN, another parent takes out Badger sunblock to lather up her kids, and you start to feel guilty that not only didn’t you insist on a hat for your kids, but you opted for spray sunblock, which you know isn’t “approved” by the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database. You start to long for the days before the Environmental Working Group Skin Deep Database was a thing that you were supposed to care about. Then you start thinking about articles you’ve read (somewhere?) about how spray sunscreens are unsafe and probably (definitely?) cause cancer. And THEN you start to wonder if they’re bad because you can inhale the spray, or because there’s bad stuff in it. Like, maybe it’s fine if you make sure your kids hold their breath while you spray it (unlikely). So THEN you look it up on your phone (huge mistake) and you learn about endocrine disputers (resist the urge- do not google it). So you start to wonder about how bad endocrine disrupters are to your kids. And you wonder about whether those were around when you were a kid, and whether they disrupted your endocrines. And whether you can genetically pass on endocrine disruption through birth and if you did that to your kids. And how much disruption is too much disruption for an endocrine anyway?

And while you know enough not to go on a Babycenter message board (aka, the 3rd circle of hell) you do wonder if you can trust the “holistic mamas” webpage (probably not) about what endocrines really are. So THEN you want to do some “responsible” research so you start to search for just .edu or .org websites, which is starting to take a while. But half of them are too complicated you can’t even understand what they’re talking about and the other half are about other terrifying things you should worry about. And THEN you realize you’ve been on your phone for 10 minutes and you start to feel guilty about too much screen time for yourself and not being a “present parent” because that’s also a thing we’re supposed to care about now too. By this point you just want to pull out your hair and scream “WHEN DOES THIS RABBIT HOLE END?!?!?!” but now your kids ARE hitting each other with shovels and the tiny one is screaming because the sunblock, the spray sunblock, the endocrine disrupting spray sunblock, got into his eyes.

Anyone else? No? Just me?

Hopefully your brain doesn’t quite ramp up to quite that level of neurosis, but I know that at least some of my fellow mom-friends worry about these things. So why? Why are we obsessively worried about these minute risks? These are things that weren’t even on our parents radars. Heck, I count myself lucky to have been covered in sunscreen at all since I know some of my friend’s parents covered them in baby oil (although, I bet baby oil didn’t have endocrine disrupters…) But now, there seems to be a million things we didn’t know about before that we’re supposed to worry about. Hidden things. Toxic things. And there’s also this added feeling of inadequacy that not only are you doing “the bad thing” but you didn’t even know about “the bad thing”. Thanks to the advent of social media, you’re a bad parent on two fronts.

This arms race of anxiety reminds me of what happened during the first half of the 19th century after electricity and appliances became ubiquitous. In 1924, a typical housewife spent about 52 hours a week in housework. Half a century later, after the advent of readily accessible electricity, running water, and “labor saving” appliances (like washing machines and dish washers…sidenote: could you imagine life without those?), the average full-time housewife devoted 55 hours to housework. The reason there wasn’t a decrease despite all these tools to help them? The standard of cleanliness and childcare changed. As put by a Ladies Home Journal writer in 1930:

“Because we housewives of today have the tools to reach it, we dig every day after the dust that grandmother left to spring cataclysm. If few of us have nine children for a weekly bath, we have two or three for a daily immersion. If our consciences don't prick us over vacant pie shelves or empty cookie jars, they do over meals in which a vitamin may be omitted or a calorie lacking.”

A few thoughts about this quote:

First: What is a pie shelf?

Second: Time has NOT seemed to mellow the “anxiety gene” in women.

Whether it’s worrying about proper vitamins in the 1930s or hidden toxins in 2017, the need to worry about our offspring is built into us. It’s inescapable. If you think about it, the most biologically “successful” parents (the ones that survived long enough to procreate and pass along their genes) are the ones who protected their offspring from any dangers. I’m no primate expert, but I think successful protection from lions, from famine, from sickness all were due to effective worrying. The genes that are still in our gene pool are the worriers.

But what happens when you remove the things to worry about? The standard of cleaning at the turn of the century I’m pretty sure meant actively keeping visible vermin out of your house. Then it escalated to keeping dust and dirt off surfaces. Once that got under control, advertisers made sure to point out germs (better buy Lysol!) and now clean from dust wasn’t enough. Now it was disinfecting. Today we literally have robots vacuuming our houses (we live in the Jetsons, for real you guys) and house cleaners are readily available in this gig economy. So vermin, dirt, dust, and germs are under control. You think that would stop us from worrying? Nope, try again. Toxins. Green advertisers have made sure to remind us that they’re everywhere: in flame retardant clothes, in BPA water bottles, in non-organic food. The toxins! Save yourselves from the toxins!

I hate to complain because let’s be real, I would rather live in this world where my worries are toxin-avoidance rather than the turn of the century where my problems would be whether I could properly kill and pluck a chicken for dinner. But it can get exhausting. And the worst part is, our genes simply won’t let us make things easy. This behavior is hardwired into us, and advertisers know it. So even if we get a handle on the toxin craze, I’m sure there would be something else to worry about (my money is on how overly anxious parents can ruin their children).

But maybe, just knowing about our tendencies will somehow help us short-circuit this behavior. And for once, I can just sit there and enjoy my kids playing in the park…spray sunblock and all.



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