Less Is More

Ah, suburbia, that wonderful invention for the average American which has gone so terribly wrong and yet so many still embrace. At a time when we are worrying about the future generation’s digital overload, we’re making such little effort to move away from this living structure that only perpetuates our physical isolation. Urban planners and visionaries have created some incredible ideas for solutions, but none seem to stick. We need to find a way to break free from the false promises of a home and a yard of one's own.

The people who fall the hardest for the suburban dream are usually families, or couples planning to start a family. If you’re going for the trifecta - a baby, a dog, and a lawn - the suburban tract home is still your easiest route. As someone with two of the three, however, I can tell you that this checklist is misleading at best and outright counter-productive at worst.

What families really need to raise strong, resilient, and independent children is a neighborhood and a sense of community. It really does take a village, and not necessarily one with separate, isolated huts fenced off from each other. The modern village would be a place with open, natural space that’s accessible by foot without having to navigate the same streets as cars driving 40 MPH. It’s a place where parents can be at home with their windows open to hear if someone’s child needs help. It’s a place with common areas for dogs to run, for people to grow flowers and vegetables and fruits, and for people to gather socially.

This might seem like too much to ask, but this was the original intention and promise of creating a suburban landscape. Along the way, however, we traded prestige in the form of ever more magnificent homes for land and community. We traded open spaces for giant roads. Even in planned neighborhoods with amazing parks, most people have to get in a car and drive their children or dogs to reach them. It’s quintessentially American to think that Bigger is Better, but perhaps it’s time to redefine that aspect of the American dream before we’re lost in a nightmare.

The digital world, which is the latest scapegoat for What’s Wrong With Kids Today, may end up being our salvation. If the promise of virtual reality can be translated to the working world without the pitfalls of the uncanny valley, parents could work effectively from home. This would alleviate traffic and the need for ever larger roads and faster cars. We could turn that extra space into communal open spaces for play, exercise and gardening. Always-on communication can ease the modern fears of sending children out on their own. It isn’t the same level of risk/reward that kids used to have, but at least they could be free to play without the immediacy of adult eyes.

We are in the middle of a great social experiment, and the coming decades will show us the consequences of virtual versus physical socialization. More than likely, the kids will be alright no matter what path we take, and humanity will survive because we are an inventive species with a great tenacity for life. That said, the increasing signal in the noise of the internet indicates a dissatisfaction with suburban family life in its current form. If change must come, let it be in a direction that brings us closer to each other even as we find it ever harder to tear our eyes away from a screen.

Everyone Wins

I’m aware that the purpose of many of The Atlantic’s opinion pieces are intended to provoke commentary and generate traffic. In and of itself, that’s not a bad thing. The world needs more analytical thinking, and if even a fraction of that traffic engages in some critical thought, society will benefit. I do wish, however, that they would steer the conversation in directions that are controversial in a more positive manner. This article is a case in point.

The article’s main thesis questions a basic assumption about paid leave for new Mothers versus Fathers and addresses the potential fallacy, especially in modern times, that one is more useful than the other. This seems sufficiently controversial and socially progressive by itself. Unfortunately, it stumbles by trying to make the benefits of paternity leave into a competition:

“While paid paternity leave may feel like an unexpected gift, the biggest beneficiaries aren’t men, or even babies. In the long run, the true beneficiaries of paternity leave are women, and the companies and nations that benefit when women advance.”

First of all, don’t “companies and nations” include men and children? Second, how exactly are they going to accurately measure a fuzzy word like “benefit” to the point that they can rank who receives the most? Instead of wasting time picking a fight about this, our focus should be on the fact that this policy should improve everyone’s lives in some way. Men will feel less pressure to return to the workplace, women will face less discrimination by being “baby tracked,” and even those without babies will reap the benefit of retaining a greater percentage of female talent. The policy would especially help the lower socioeconomic levels that are sometimes overlooked by feminist policy making. When both parents are working to make ends meet, giving paid paternity leave is a financial boon which defers day care costs without reducing the net household income.

The article then goes on to say this:

“paternity leave [...] is a brilliant and ambitious form of social engineering: a behavior-modification tool that has been shown to boost male participation in the household, enhance female participation in the labor force, and promote gender equity in both domains”

All of those results sound great, but quite a few men don’t need to be engineered or psyched into spending more time with their children. Many are already frustrated with their work-life balance, and their numbers are increasing. Was it really necessary to use words that, dare I say, patronises men and possibly alienates the women who are partnered with these men, never mind gay male parents who adopt. The rest of the article presents a sound, cogent, and sometimes impassioned argument in favor of paternity leave, but I nearly missed it all because I was so irritated by these two passages.

We cannot avoid biology (until someone invents a reliable artificial womb), and that means women are the baby makers and need time off work after giving birth. What we can change is the attitude that women are more naturally suited to the raising of children than men are. Women are socially conditioned to the role just as men are led away from it, but that needs to stop if we are to achieve gender equality in all spheres of life: home, career, and child care. Antagonising men by making social change into a competition isn’t going to help bring it about. Emphasizing the point that all of society, including the men, will benefit tremendously just might sway some opinions.


The Blueberry Milkshake Moment

This post is written in service of soon-to-be birth Mothers and their support crew that this moment may be in your futures as well.

Here's the back story. I am not normally a milkshake drinker (yes, I'm weird like that...and many other ways), but I am a sucker for chocolate. Toward the end of my pregnancy, my husband made a delicious shake that involved chocolate chips, blueberries, and vanilla ice cream. At the time, I enjoyed his concoction quite a bit so he stocked up on all three ingredients thinking that this was a quick, high calorie food that I could consume during the early newborn weeks.

Fast forward to one evening when our new baby's age was still measured in days, when my postpartum hormones were crashing, and when I was exhausted from a marathon two hour nursing session. I was hungry. Very hungry. I was also immobile due to the nursing infant on my lap. My wonderful, supportive husband offered to make me a milkshake, and I eagerly accepted. 

Upon his return, I snatched the full glass from his hand and gulped at the drink like a parched woman emerging from a desert, but my thirst quencher turned out to be a mirage. The drink had not nearly enough chocolate chips. The balance of flavors was all wrong - terribly, horribly wrong! I broke down weeping and handed back the vile thing, accusing him of being thoroughly inconsiderate to a half-starved new Mother. How could he be so careless? So unthinking! What sort of lousy husband would do that to his wife?

He watched, half offended, half alarmed, as I sobbed uncontrollably. I do not normally cry like this, not for sad movies, not even over great human tragedy, but this was far from a normal moment. No, this was a moment that many a woman who has recently given birth will recognize: when she loses all grip on sanity and self-control and realizes she is at the mercy of the biochemical stew encased in her bag of skin and bones. 

In our family, it's become known as The Blueberry Milkshake Moment.


Had one (or more) of your own? Ready to laugh about it? If so, please share!