Some readers may be aware that I write a blog called Philosophy for Parents. I find that my posts there have a recurring theme. It is that, for a variety of reasons, our society does not really value the activity of parenting. This is simply an observation from my own experience as a parent.
So it was with sadness mingled with amusement, but no real surprise, when I read Celia Walden’s piece in the Telegraph this week about ‘outsourced parenting’ among the wealthy and famous here in the States.
Walden reports from LA that there are ‘a growing number of parents in Los Angeles, New York and a handful in Britain’ who prefer to do their parenting ‘through a third party: an expert who has the time, experience and inclination to deal with the hard parts’, so the parents don’t have to.
Apparently the nanny is no longer sufficient; affluent parents now pay ‘experts’ to come in and deal with all the ‘unpleasantness’ of parenting. There are 24-hour baby nurses, thumb-sucking experts to break the habit, and ‘sleep trainers’, who have your child sleeping through the night within a week. Then there are the live-in-potty-training instructors, personal stylists, and ‘behavioural experts’, who apparently specialize in training children how to say ‘thank you’. You can also send your child to classes on how to be polite, shake hands, and talk on the phone.
Parenting agencies may defend outsourced parenting, by arguing that their clients ‘just don’t want to do it all themselves.’ But let’s be honest. Behind outsourced parenting is the idea that do-it-yourself parenting just isn’t worth the time, effort, and emotional investment that it requires. Being a parent is one thing, but actually engaging in the activity of parenting is ‘self-sacrifical drudgery for which you will never be thanked’. So why do it, when you can pay someone else to?
This idea that parenting is ‘self-sacrifical drudgery’ – and should be avoided if possible – is not confined the very elite. It underlies much of the rhetoric spouted by certain feminists regarding the automatic superiority of the woman who pursues career over family, and their baffled dismay at women who choose part-time work or stay-at-home parenthood in order to better care for their children. And it betrays some deeper misunderstandings: first, the notion that getting someone else to fulfill your parenting role has no negative effect on the parent/child relationship; and second, the notion that parenting only benefits the child.
There is such a thing called bonding between parent and child. It may seem mystical to those of a skeptical nature, but it is very real, and vital for the emotional well-being of the child. It is particularly important, I have found, during the troubled teenage years.
Although some people may not want to believe it, bonding happens when the parent spends time with the child. I’m no parenting expert, but I do have six children, and in my experience bonding actually happens more naturally and more effectively when that time spent together includes the more mundane, and even less pleasant, tasks of life. So midnight feedings, nappy changing, potty training and later, teaching how to mop the floor, helping with homework or bedside admonishments about regarding how to treat one’s sibilings, and so forth, may seem like thankless drudgery. Yet, there is a great work going on there. A closeness is being forged – even if the time spent together includes moments of frustration and annoyance – that could save you thousands later in therapist fees.
But, please note, the closeness is between the parent and the child. This means that maybe, just possibly, the parent benefits from bonding with the child as well as the other way round. We talk often about the needs of children, and assume that the needs of parents are quite separate – perhaps even antithetical – to those needs. But what if parents have some of their most important needs fulfilled through interacting with their children, even in the drudgery moments? Indeed, Walden informs us that there is ‘a lot of depression in these very wealthy families … these women can realize too late that having all the help that’s now available to them hasn’t made them happy.’
Of course, women who do their own parenting can get depressed. I can attest to that. And while the causes of depression are many and diverse (what was it Tolstoy said? Something about how ‘every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’), I found that the main cause of the depression that I suffered was believing the myth that parenting was ‘self-sacrificial drudgery’.
It was through joining a group called Mothers At Home Matter (MAHM; Full Time Mothers as it was then), founded – oddly enough – by one Kathy Gyngell, that I was able to forge a different mindset about parenting. MAHM was full of strong, countercultural women who knew that parenting was not drudgery, but rather full of purpose and meaning. And with that purpose and meaning, my needs as a mother were bound up with my child’s needs. I came to see that I had a deep need to parent my daughter, just as she had a need to be parented. When I understood that connection, I became much, much happier.
So maybe Betty Friedan was on the wrong track when she asked about motherhood, ‘Is this all?’ Taking care of our families may not be all there is, but at the end of the day, it’s the most important of what is. The drudgery and the joy go hand in hand; you cannot have one without the other. Outsource the drudgery, and you also outsource the joy. Thus, we should expect to see more depression, broken families and wayward children – from all walks of life – as our society continues comes up with a million different reasons as to why investing in parenting simply isn’t worth the effort.