Are parents afraid of society?

I can’t get angry about these women. I just need to remember that I am not close to being able to compete with them. The high performers in corporate life are so much more focused than everyone else in the workforce that it’s time we stopped selling a false bill of goods; almost no one can be so singularly focused to get to the top of anything. Including corporate America. Yet we keep talking to kids and each other like anyone can do it.

Most kids cannot have huge jobs. They will be the workplace equivalent of intramural basketball players. When they grow up, they will find work that is fine, just like it’s fine to play on a team with the kid across the hallway even though he misses too many lay-ups.

Sheryl Sandberg gives up her kids like movie stars give up food: she wants a great career more than anything else.

Penelope Trunk, always taking the daring, counterintuitive view, wrapped up in the silk scarf of career advice for Generation Y women. You must sacrifice your family to become a high performer in corporate America! You must sacrifice your hopes for becoming a high performer in order to have a family life as you envisioned it! But that’s OK, because women don’t really want to lead a corporate career that would take them away from their kids. But lots of women don’t want to spend time with their kids! Check your Myers-Briggs score (the last redoubt of the professional career coach) to find out which you are. Her posts smell like a mashup of ‘This one weird tip will reduce your belly fat’ and ‘How can I find meaning in my life and with my family?’

But she does have a good quote once in a while, one that provides its own illumination, like the one about Sandberg.

But extending the frame outwards, the question I ask is, ‘Who exactly is the “we” who is talking about reaching the top? If there’s one thing I’ve learned about American parents in the last two score years, it’s that parents are deathly afraid of contemporary society. We push the kids, but we fear to hold them accountable for their shortcomings, because we see society as a toxic soup, ready to dissolve our precious children into passive, venomous jellyfish. I don’t think we are telling our kids they can be at the top of everything. I think we are just barely holding out hope that our descendants will reach adulthood as minimally functional human beings. The challenges that contemporary society presents are so numerous that parents may choose to avoid them (the Penelope approach, a kind of judo where the inequities of the system are incarnated in its clumsy institutions, which can then be finessed or avoided altogether): Society will turn your kid into a worker drone? Escape! Stop wearing shoes and start fulfilling your kid’s unlimited potential! Or confront them (the Tiger Mom approach): School is insane? Become more insane! Beat them at their own game!

Penelope argues against the Tiger Mom approach by pointing out that the escalating cost of conforming insanity may no longer justify the rewards available within the conventional framework. If you send your kids to school you are setting them up for a lifetime as conformist drones. I think however that Penelope’s approach doesn’t take into account how society is more than just school. For more on this, see this post on “expectations of formal schooling.”

From Penelope Trunk’s blog post “I had to take a Xanax to read Time magazine this week.”

Leaning on, not leaning in

The goal for me is not to lean in or out, but to lean on. My marriage means nothing if I can’t lean on my wife and if she can’t lean on me. To do this best, we have to do what the military calls “cross-training,” where I figure out how to do what she does and she figures out how to do what I do, so if either one of us is not there the world will not stop.

After reading this Pacific Standard story, I perceive the crack in the bark of the writer’s tree so: by claiming her liberty to “lean out,” she keeps her spouse from exploring the same opportunities. One of our playground pals feeds her infant exclusively by breast, so her husband has no ability to wake in the night and feed the kid. Of course, it’s no problem for Mom, who asserts her ability (and readiness) to just roll over, let the kid latch on, and then return to sleep. This goes to my point of cross-training, that it’s our obligation as family members to be able to pitch in for each other. Limiting the feeding to one specific person rubs crosswise against that.

I have no idea whether this particular Dad would actually enjoy waking up at night to feed his daughter, but why should he have to give up that opportunity? Dad in this family is the breadwinner, and Mom stays home raising the kids. Specialization is for insects. I don’t say that everyone at any time has to be willing to step into another role, but in my own experience I have learned that different roles are fulfilling at different times in my life. I would hate to be stuck in one particular role.