Profiting off mother's guilt
My kids have watched so much TV over the holidays that yesterday they went on a desperate search for something new. They dug up a relic of my childhood; ‘The Brady Bunch’. My children didn’t see what I consider the best episodes (Greg moves into the den/Marcia meets Davy Jones) but they were entranced by the show. I watched with adult eyes; amazed at Mike and Carol’s ability to solve crisis after crisis. When Greg got clobbered in baseball, Jan got jealous of Marcia and Cindy got teased, the polyester-clad power parents simply gathered the children for a serious little talk, a hokey joke and a hug. Each problem was solved before the end song (the tune of which we have now all got stuck in our heads).
As I watched and remembered far too much of the dialogue, I wondered if Mike and Carol were the first ‘professional parents’ in mainstream media. They were always at home, always available, always appreciated. Perhaps this show of my childhood was the beginning of my generation’s journey into guilt, anxiety and the borderline neuroticism that is modern parenting.
A recent UK survey of 2000 mothers found more than 90% feel guilty at some point, 50% are wracked by guilt most or ‘all of the time’ and three quarters of women constantly worry whether they are a good mother. It found that women who work worry about not having enough time with their kids and women who don’t work worry about wanting to do so. Welcome to the post- Brady world where we have on average, one third of the family size and seem to have ten times the anxiety. (Yet, I’ll admit in my family, probably the same amount of screen time).
The ex-psychology student in me finds the survey rather dodgy. ‘NUK Babycare’ – a company that makes and sells bottles, breast pumps, nursing pads and other baby products, conducted the work. I’m not alleging NUK milked common concerns for all their worth, but it’s a common marketing strategy to do surveys and then give them to the media. They make great, cheap, easy copy. Yet, I wonder if they amplify an accepted wisdom that may not be true; in this case that old chestnut ‘Mother Guilt’.
Sometimes it feels there’s an entire industry devoted to making modern mothers feel guilty and worried. With an explosion in parenting methods, books, TV shows, websites, surveys and products, women are surrounded by an overload of information, ideas and options. From ‘celebrity baby bumps’ to the online Naplan school rankings, it seems we are almost fetishizing, or at least professionalising parenthood. TV is way beyond the Brady Bunch now, with shows about rescue nannies, teenage brat camps and baby development on constant replay. No wonder ‘Modern Family’ is popular – it laughs at the anxiety rather than adding to it.
We all know that guilt isn’t pretty. It leads to scrutiny and judgement of others. And this judgement and division is also attractive to the media. It seems women arguing over breastfeeding is almost as attractive to male media proprietors as jelly wrestling. Hence we get often artificial divisions between parents; attachment verses contented baby, breastfeeding discreetly or flashing it all. Of course we’ve all met insecure judgmental mothers who prickle but I find most women actually support each other’s decisions. The most common method of parenting in my neighbourhood is ‘do what you can to get through’.
So what’s feeding the fire here? While it’s fabulous to have information and forums to discuss the big and little quandaries in life with kids, I wonder if perhaps we now have too much. It seems those lucky enough to have choice in their parenting decisions suffer that all too common middle class affliction of ‘option overload’. I remember ruminating for weeks about whether I should send my child to a Montessori or Steiner childcare centre – spoilt for choice, the decision was almost paralysing. When I did make a decision I felt empowered, until I realised it could have been the wrong one. Of course it goes on – I still wonder if I should have sent my child to a school teaching foreign languages. We all have doubts, but they are blown out of proportion by all the alternatives. And by having made a choice we feel we can make more demands. Educators swear that parents didn’t used to be as pushy and demanding at schools and childcare but it wasn’t just a respect for authority that made previous parents more amenable. They had less choice. When I was growing up, most people implemented Dr Spock’s advice, sent their kids to the local school and let them watch hours of cartoons so Mum could don a Kaftan and make fondue (in my fantasy anyway). If no one is selling you alternatives, decisions are less onerous and less doubt inducing.
Yet, I don’t think my worries are entirely new. I know for a fact that my mother still feels guilty about decisions she made when we were young. She doesn’t pat herself on the back for the good decisions – like swimming squad and moving me to a different school in year 11. Rather she ruminates on not giving enough attention to her youngest, not telling off a teacher who tormented another. We’re all in our forties for God’s sake!
While it’s accepted wisdom that modern parents are more anxious about parenting – I would argue parents have always worried about whether they’ve done the right thing by their kids. It’s in the job description. One Brady episode involved Marcia and Greg babysitting for the first time. Mike and Carol were so worried about the kids they couldn’t even order dinner and decided to spy on them. They bumped into Alice in a bush doing the same thing.
Hiding in the bushes aside, perhaps we act more on our anxiety now. We know too much. We judge too much. We are fed too many crises, concerns, reports and surveys. It’s almost funny that the latest crisis in parenting is about us over parenting. The dangers of helicopter parenting are rotating through the media and our minds. Parents are now being whipped into anxiety about being too anxious.
So, in an age of choice, I choose not believe the hype. To listen to the honest parents, to aim for perfectionism in fantasyland and ‘good enough’ at home. And, if you come across the ‘Brady Bunch’ reruns, keep all this in mind. The actor that played the perfect husband Mike was actually gay. Florence Henderson (Carol) actually dated her on-screen son Greg (Barry Williams). And, that same Barry actually slept with his on-screen sister - perfect, beautiful Marcia, Marcia, Marcia (Maureen McCormack). Poor Maureen was so traumatised by being in the perfect family she had problems with drug addiction and depression for many years.
If there’s a warning here, perhaps it’s the trying to be perfect that’s screwing us up. My favourite Brady was and still is the troubled, insecure, grumpy Jan. My daughter concurs.