Thursday, March 31st, 2011
The Performance of Parenting or Why I Hate my Job
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Nannying can be terribly boring. This is because the infants I care for (most of whom are under a year old) are busy entertaining themselves. They are working on physics equations in their head (don’t believe me? Read The Scientist in the Crib) and testing objects’ densities with their mouths. Their laboratory is a mat on the floor of their homes in general. My Montessori training taught me that the best place for an infant to be is on the ground where they can move around freely and that as teachers our place is to observe, provide safe environments with which the baby can interact and respond to any expressed needs. This translates in real life to a lot of just sitting there. So a large part of the working day is spent covertly trying to entertain myself and stay out of the babies’ way while not alerting their parents to my lack of active baby pedagogy.
I’ve been working with infants for the past six years and lately have felt like perhaps it is time to move on. If it were just about me taking care of babies that would be no big deal. It is not that I don’t enjoy babies, to the contrary, I dream of providing emergency foster care to assure myself a constant supply. It is more that I have begun to be annoyed by first time parents. I feel like they hire me to be a better parent than they can manage to pull off.
Maybe there are different sets of expectations for different kinds of nannies. The families who hire non-native-English-speaking grandmother types may not feel entitled to de facto infant tutoring but the people who hire me do. I feel spied upon by the parents I work for. There’s an expectation that every moment be filled with activities that nurture precocious development. I am expected to always be in a good mood, never exasperated, tired or spaced out. Lord forbid, they see me reading a book while beside me the infant plays, with no additional interaction needed. Since they only pop their heads in occasionally, I am also being judged by a snapshot. Never mind that the child may squeal with delight when I enter the room, even one moment with a screaming child in hand can inspire doubt on a parent’s part.
I get the sense that I am to keep the baby always content, engaged and learning. Every minute of the day. That’s a lot of pressure and not really attached to development. The truth is babies are learning all the time assisted or not. They need time when we aren’t up in their faces to explore and process the world. They need a chance to get frustrated and persevere without their nanny scooping them up off the floor. I know this but I’m not sure my employers do. It’s an issue of trust perhaps and part and parcel to the pressure they put on themselves to be perfect.
Some of parenting is a performance put on for the benefit of other adults. This is the kind of parent we are when someone else is in earshot listening, when in the grocery store or other public locale. I happened upon an article entitled “Parents Who Hate Parenting.” Turns out the latest trend in parenting is admitting that it’s not very much fun. This strikes me as an inevitable backlash to the perfectionistic tendencies that have plagued parents nationwide. We have put so much pressure on parents to be superheroes. There is only so long one can try and be perfect before it loses its charm.
I have often described my approach to childcare as being “child-led” or “child-centered.” This refers to a sensitive approach that honors a child’s unique needs and preferences. It is anti-schedule, messy and inconvenient to adult life. It is starkly in opposition to the Victorian standard of parents knowing best. It is also in accordance with a societal shift.
It used to be children were peripheral “seen but not heard” and lived their lives according to their parent’s schedules and needs. People’s lives did not revolve around their children’s desires. As a society we have slowly moved in a direction that gives children more power and attention. I applaud and support that but I am also aware that this drive has led us to the issue at hand. Now that children are in charge, it’s not so much fun anymore.
“‘Kids, in short went from being our staffs to being our bosses.’ Annette Lareau, the sociologist who coined the term “concerted cultivation” to describe the aggressive nurturing of economically advantaged children, puts it this way: ‘Middle-class parents spend much more time talking to children, answering questions with questions, and treating each child’s thought as a special contribution. And this is very tiring work. Yet it’s work few parents feel that they can in good conscience neglect,’ says Lareau, ‘lest they put their children at risk by not giving them every advantage.'” (New York Magazine, “Why Parents Hate Parenting.” July 4, 2010)
Children are seen as a reflection of ourselves, and so we want them to be happy, well mannered and nicely appointed as opposed to stained and thrashing about on the floor.
We are also attempting this alchemy in isolation because we have lost trust in some of the cultural institutions that used to help us parent. We don’t trust the schools and therefore have to employ flashcards at home. Most of us don’t go to church and so are expected to instill morals alone. We are teachers, priests and counselors all rolled into one. The breakdown of community values leads to a million isolated mommies playing Sophocles. We are all trying to raise geniuses on our own.
The modern mommies’ perfectionism is what is ruining it for me, because they hold me to at least as high expectations to which they hold themselves. The same perfectionism that pressures parents into thinking they are inadequate leads to them breathing down my neck. I want to make a disclaimer that this is a feeling built up by myriad employers and not associated just with whom I’m currently employed by—and that who knows how much of this is my projecting onto hapless mothers my own internalized version of perfectionist parenting.
I watched that “Babies” movie and was most impressed by the Mongolians. Yes, I thought, look how the baby can be practically raised by livestock, watch as the chicken pecks peacefully around the swaddled baby’s head and a goat drinks the baby’s bathwater, no parent in sight. There was no perceivable need for the parents to shelter, entertain or coddle the child. The main parenting idiom seemed to be giving the baby space. I did not get the impression that Mongolian parents were stuck in the “parenting is ruining my life” boat.
I can see the parents’ perspective—how it might make sense to hire a professional to do a job you don’t feel adequately prepared for and how upon doing so, you might have unrealistic expectations about what they should accomplish. But now see it from mine. After a bunch of years with babies and some time spent traveling the world, I have a been-around-the-block sense that as long as the house isn’t on fire and the children are safe, everything is probably going to be okay. I wish I could bottle and sell that.
© 2011 – 2013, Kellen Kaiser. All rights reserved.
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