A Cultural History of Modern Parenting

Andrew Bomback is a doctor, writer and father of three children. He is Associate Professor of Medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and his publications can be found in The Atlantic, Los Angeles Book Reviewand McSweeney’s.

Below, Andrew shares 5 key takeaways from his new book, Long Days, Short Years: A Cultural History of Modern Parenting. Listen to the audio version – read by Andrew himself – on the Next Big Idea app.

Long Days, Short Years: A Cultural History of Modern Parenting by Andrew Bomback

1. Parents are devoting more and more time and energy to their children.

“The days are long but the years are short” is often thrown at weary parents, in a sense trying to guilt them into cherishing the time they are having with their children, even when that time is incredibly painful, demoralizing and not-what-feels. you-register-for. This phrase specifically acknowledges the unique dissatisfaction felt by many parents today. At the same time, the expression has a push-pull – it may acknowledge this unhappiness, but not acknowledge it and, in a way, shame it. “The days are long but the years are short” sums up so much of the anxious energy surrounding parenting today.

Today, a mother who works outside the home spends essentially the same amount of time (and a lot more money) caring for her children as a housewife did in the 1970s. This normalization of parents dedicating themselves to their children 24 hours a day, seven days a week – at the expense of their own lives and, to some degree, their happiness – is unique in the last half century. Opposition to this trend in helicopter education, whether in the form of outdoor education or support for an RIE (Resources for Infant Educarers) approach, is still intentionally cultivated by parents, so it takes effort to make children more independent.

“The elusive, probably impossible, pursuit of mastery is the essential struggle of modern parenthood.”

Over a longer period of time, the work of parents has steadily increased over the past 100 years, excluding older generations (grandparents or great-grandparents) from raising children as it has become increasingly rare for multiple generations to live in the same house – or even the same one City. This has taken a toll on parents who have lost not only a source of collaborative work but also a reservoir of practical advice.

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2. We use parent as a verb rather than a noun.

The verb form of parent, and hence the concept of parenting, as something makerather than someone be, technically arose in the late 1950s. But use of the verb form exploded in the last three decades of the 20th century—at least in print. However, as a cultural touchpoint, the verb form of parent feels like a 21st century pronounced word.

Mothers and fathers in the 2000s and 2010s inherited the extensive parenting literature of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s that contained child-rearing regulations. The parent-as-verb ethos that is so prevalent today is basically a response to How are we supposed to deal with all these regulations? The verb form of “parent” suggests that parenting is a skill or science that can be learned, practiced, and mastered. The elusive, probably impossible, pursuit of mastery is the essential struggle of modern parenting.

3. The parenting advice industry hasn’t necessarily made parenting easier.

I’ve read parenting books, listened to parenting podcasts, scrolled through parenting blogs, and attended parenting seminars. I usually find these resources helpful, especially when I’m struggling with a specific issue for a specific child: Having parent resources geared towards that issue can feel like a life jacket. But I also find the enormous educational counseling industry problematic.

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First, the number of resources can be overwhelming and an added layer of stress for parents who don’t have the time to use every available resource. The pressure to find the “right” book, podcast, or coach is a modern problem.

“Parents may be more disappointed than encouraged because the scenarios presented seem so different – and simpler – than what is happening in their families.”

Second, the guides that are the lifeblood of parenting advice often feel like a set of instructions for an entirely different product than what most parents have at home. Parents may be more disappointed than encouraged because the scenarios presented seem so different – and simpler – than what is happening in their families.

Finally, the influx of outside gurus who are not traditional parenting experts, including biostatisticians, behavioral economists, and neurobiologists, into the parenting advisory room can devalue the work of parents. This new source of parenting advice suggests data and science, not natural instincts, should guide parenting.

4. There is an enormous discrepancy between the way parents are expected of mothers and fathers.

Having a child doesn’t usually uproot men the way women do. Today’s fathers invest far more time and energy in the child-rearing process than any previous generation of fathers, but so do today’s mothers, and men can continue to be their paternal selves in ways that women cannot.

This enduring gap between how parents consume mothers and fathers appears more frequently in popular culture media. There’s not much of a difference between the dads on sitcoms in the ’80s and the dads on today’s shows and movies — they almost all have nine-to-five jobs outside the home and shift much of the parenting responsibility to their harried partners . The big change is how mothers are portrayed in pop culture. There’s still some too good-to-be-true, how-does-she-do-moms, but parenting content aimed at an adult audience (assuming the content is created by women and driven by a desire for authenticity) focuses on exploring the mixed nature of motherhood. Recent examples are the best-selling novels The need, The house upstairs, night bitchand The school for good mothers.

“Parents who try in vain to be perfect for their children have consequences.”

I don’t think motherhood was easy 50 years ago and suddenly became difficult. Evolution is the honesty with which motherhood is now spoken of.

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5. The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us important parenting lessons.

The biggest lesson the pandemic has taught me about children is how resilient, adaptable and strong they are. They often coped better than adults with quarantines, masks, vaccines, social distancing, canceled events and last-minute changes. I think at some point parents will look back on this time and appreciate how well children have risen to the challenge and hopefully that will give us more confidence in their independence.

The pandemic also shed light on the importance of mental health for all family members. The fact that parents try in vain to be perfect for their children has consequences. Utilization of mental health resources skyrocketed during the pandemic, in part because virtual visits made it possible, but more so because the loneliness of the pandemic exposed anxiety and depression in both parents and children. This transparency about how we feel and how that affects the dynamic of a family can only help when raising children. I hope this trend continues.

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