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Opinion | Parenting in 2021? ‘Not Great, Bob!’

I wish I had some clear-cut advice here about #selfcare or some straightforward philosophy to impart that might make this period a little more bearable. But I don’t. What I can offer you is an idea that I have been thinking about since the first terrifying days of the pandemic that I believe even more strongly now.

A lot of modern parenting advice, aimed at mostly middle- and upper-middle-class mothers, is fashioned around the idea that you can control all outcomes for your children if you just try hard enough. If you just feed them all of the approved food, snowplow barriers out of their way and listen to the “right” experts, whoever they might be, your kids will be happy and successful.

This fantasy of control has always been that — a fantasy. It’s a comforting fantasy, because it’s painful and scary to have your heart walking around outside your body every day, as the cliché goes.

I’m not trying to say that parenting doesn’t matter, because I think it does, up to a point. But it’s more about imbuing your kids with the values that you care about rather than cosplaying someone else’s notion of ideal parenting or, for that matter, presenting a family image that looks good on a Christmas card or in an Instagram story.

The values I’m thinking about at the end of this (second consecutive) weird year are influenced by a book that I recommend, “Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working From Home,” by my friends Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen. While the book is about how we work now, it’s really about our identities and how we choose to structure our days and lives. There’s a passage that I keep going over in my head, a slightly tweaked version of which was excerpted in The Atlantic, that applies to parenting as well as work:

Think back on a time in your life before you regularly worked for pay. Recall, if you can, an expanse of unscheduled time that was, in whatever manner, yours. What did you actually like to do? Not what your parents said you should do, not what you felt as if you should do to fit in, not what you knew would look good on your application for college or a job.

When I first read this paragraph, I had trouble answering the question for myself. I am so wrapped up with feeling as if each day is maximally productive with writing and reading and keeping the pulse of what other parents are thinking and then also doing all the domestic tasks and finding moments for quality family time. If I’m watching my trash TV, it’s sometimes done while exercising or folding laundry, so that even my sloth is purposeful. About once a month, I even ponder taking up knitting so that no moment of leisure is completely without some kind of output.

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