Friday, July 22, 2011

Summer in the Suburbs: A Reflection on Bad Parenting

Update (10/14/2011): A recent Sociological Images post discusses how American infrastructure is so car friendly and includes a number of telling photographs of the problems that pedestrians face.


Part I
As noted in my initial post, the origins of this blog are found in a summer spent nearly exclusively with my two children and the myriad difficulties embedded in such a summer. Throughout the summer, something has gnawed at me; I have repeatedly wrestled with the fact that I’m not enjoying much of this summer. Aren’t parents supposed to revel in time with their kids? Everyone is constantly telling me to “enjoy this time,” because it “goes by quickly.” Am I a bad parent because I’m not enjoying it? The answer may well be “yes” (while relevant to my situation, I won’t often discuss my personal psychology—I don’t have the training, and that’s embarrassing), but I’ve also come to the conclusion that parenting in the contemporary US occurs in a context that is unusual when compared with much of cross-cultural human experience, and that makes parenting hard*. Specifically, it’s hard for a single adult to successfully manage and meet the needs of more than one child. I am in awe of single parents.


My children’s daycare is tied to the school year at the college where I work. When summer rolls around, the daycare closes. My wife has a real job…40 hours a week, 7-4, two weeks of vacation a year. How convenient that there is now a parent (me) in our household who can stay at home and watch the kids? Since I’m only obligated by contract to teach in the fall and spring semesters, I can stay home over the summer. While many (my wife included) envy this situation, and it is great at some level, there are some definite challenges that it poses—childcare being a major one. This all boils down to the fact that I’m home alone with the kids for much of the summer.

I had originally thought that being an almost full time stay at home parent would limit my abilities to think about teaching, anthropology, or anything else academic. After a bit of reflection (and desperately searching for something remotely intellectually stimulating to do), however, I realized that my guilty feelings illustrated how anthropological/sociological forces created the context in which I act. Every human inherits a world not of his/her creation and must navigate through that world.

Also, anthropology often provides the opportunity to critique cultural/social phenomena, in this case of post-industrial, Western society/culture (cars, gender, consumption). In other words, I get to spout some personal gripes under the cloak of intellectual prose. The next few posts are going to let me spend some time examining what anthropology (and a bit of sociology) can illuminate about the personal experience of why my summer stinks (I must say I love my kids, but writing posts about how wonderful it is to play with children just doesn’t sound that interesting).

There’s a bit of “woe is me” (though see asterisked note below) in the following series of posts, but I get to vent a bit under the façade of anthropological analysis.

My Own Private Gesellschaft
My major criticism of the context of parenting in contemporary society is how parents, children, individuals and nuclear families are severed from larger, intimate social networks, such as kin and community. This is nothing new...I’m basically echoing the consequences of Durkheim’s Organic Solidarity and Tönnies’ Gesellschaft. They were onto something. From much of the ethnographic literature of non-industrial societies, we’re all very aware of the degree to which children interact with a number of kin and community members throughout a given day. Children and parents benefit from the “tag-team” of extended family assisting with care, play and just basic being. A single person is not relied upon nor relies on a single other person for managing needs, wants and moods. It’s very rare for a single adult to be in charge of multiple children for a majority of the waking hours in a day, yet in our society (and in my case) it’s often necessary…other family members live far away and/or have to make their own living.

It’s cliché, but I do believe it does, or should, take a village to raise children (notwithstanding Hillary Clinton’s old critics). I believe that, at a cross-cultural level, humans (and other social non-human primates for that matter) derive some of the most satisfying kinds of meaning through interactions with kin and other friends. Problematically, much of the contemporary economic system has resulted in the fragmentation of such basic human connections.


Cars and Suburbia, or How Lighting McQueen Severs Basic Human Connections
Generally, the structure of employment and transportation as shaped by Western cultural values has created a social context encouraging the fragmentation of many traditional, meaningful social networks. For one, the nature of our economy necessitates a neolocal residence pattern—you’ve got to move to where the job is and that job is often a good distance from kin. Laborers for wages must go where wages are being paid. In this sense, my wife and I are optimal foragers; our current residence is almost exactly equidistant between my wife’s job and my job.

Neolocal residence wouldn’t be so bad in and of itself. The real problem is found in the heavy investment the United States has made in automobile transportation (if Amtrak received half of what the Federal government has dedicated to automobile infrastructure, we’d have one kick-ass public rail system), which has fundamentally altered settlement patterns—the clearest result being the emergence of suburbia, idyllic residential worker reserves. In the second half of the 20th Century, the growing auto infrastructure made it much more feasible for folks (well, at least white folks who weren’t discriminated against when applying for mortgages) to live outside of urban centers and commute in to work—fulfilling an emerging cultural ideal of individual home ownership.

In the case of my family, we actively worked against suburbanization, but it got us in the end. After (sort of) graduate school, my wife and I moved to Washington Heights in upper Manhattan. We both loved the city and all of the energy and opportunities that it offered. One of the biggest draws to city living was that we enjoyed that you could live successfully while rarely getting into a car. But everything was ruined when we both got decent jobs (again, how unlucky can a guy be?) on the west side of the Hudson River, albeit in different directions. We began to commute from a city into the bowels of suburbia. In the end, this made very little fiscal sense (Manhattan street parking, tolls on the George Washington Bridge, and gas). Because of the infeasibility of public transportation to our respective, relatively out of the way workplaces, we both had to drive separately. Slowly but surely, the cost of commuting began dragging us down. Long story already too long, we moved to suburbia, not to fulfill one aspect of the American Dream and have a house, yard, and lawnmower, but instead to get closer to our jobs and reduce the distance and cost of our commutes (we’re optimal foragers remember).

Even with diminished commute times, we’ve still got them (45 minutes a piece) so time at our suburban home (during the non-summer) is limited. And what time we are at home is spent dealing with the various errands an American life entails (I know I’ll do a post about Costco sometime). Subsequently, we live in a community with few friends or family nearby. Like many suburban residents, we’re meaningfully tied to our work many miles away, but have limited social connections with the other folks living nearby.

(quick side note: We now both have our own individual cars, but neither of us see them as much more than necessary evils. Subsequently, our cars run, but tend towards entropy and filth on both the interior and exterior. This still causes me some unresolved childhood angst when my father visits. He always argued that I should “take pride” in my car and keep it clean, but as an adult, I have utterly failed to do so. Whenever I pick him up from the airport in a dented, hub-cab missing, Toyota with a backseat that looks like a midden at an archaeological site, I cringe inside.)

Cars and Cultural Context
Stating here that Americans love cars feels embarrassingly obvious. We all know how getting your driver’s license and first car (if you’re economically fortunate enough) mark critical rites of passage in our culture—you can now, as an individual, go where and when you want. I can still remember the excitement I felt at the prospect of driving while listening to the Ramones…something I never could have done with my parents in the car.

Our obsession with cars has also encouraged us to neglect more efficient forms of public transportation. Unless you’re in a major urban center (such as NYC, but not so much in the suburbs), public transportation is almost uniformly viewed inferior to auto travel. I’m not talking reasoned judgment, but that cultural gut feeling (how do you want to go on a first date, car or bus?). The collective and efficient moving of people via train and bus has been almost wholeheartedly eschewed in favor of the inefficient (yet profitable) movement of individuals in individual vehicles. Subsequently, in terms of both cultural value and practicality, public transportation can put someone at a significant disadvantage in our society (going on job interviews via bus is much harder than by your own car).

This American focus on cars nicely reflects and reproduces that great Western cultural value of individualism. As a culture, we like to do things by ourselves, for ourselves and get rewarded appropriately as ourselves—this value works well in our economy and society.

Even the history of automobile adoption is shaped by similar contours of individualism. One of the reasons the gasoline powered car won the market battle with electric in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the fact that gasoline cars were better for “touring” (Schiffer 1994)—long distance, non-essential travel that was primarily favored by men (we’ll focus on gender in the next post), while electric cars were much better suited to city driving. That’s right, touring was driving in the country without a real destination, just to go as dictated by individual whim. It wasn’t that gas autos were simply a superior technology, it was that they were better for doing certain activities that were culturally valued by a privileged segment of society.

Closing Thoughts…putting self-critical parenting in context
This all has been said before by smarter people than me. When my children are overwhelming me and I am feeling like a horrible parent who doesn’t cherish every minute with them, I have found it helpful to reflect on the cultural context in which I find myself. When I realize that the current world I have inherited is far from ideal for fully human social interaction and parenting (when I say “truly human,” I’m thinking Paleolithic-style human interaction. While it’s been awhile and life wasn’t uniformly utopian then, that is still temporally the most typical kind of human existence), I feel a bit better about myself. It’s not all my horrible parenting.


*I have to acknowledge the ridiculousness of saying that parenting is hard in the United States, especially as a parent in a two-parent household making a solid middle-class income. As of right now, I do not have to worry about my children eating, sleeping under a roof, dying from easily preventable diseases, getting a decent education, etc. Comparing my experience to most in the world (especially those in low-income nations and the poor in my own country), I do have it easy.


References Cited
Schiffer, Michael B.
1994 Taking Charge: the Electric Automobile in America. Smithsonian Institution Press.

1 comment:

  1. A small comment on transportation networks. All around New York State and many other states besides, you can find the remnants of a once-impressive rail and/or trolley networks that really did offer the promise of a car-free commuting lifestyle in the early 20th century. It is highly ironic that now many of these former train and trolley lines are being converted into bike paths, which I think is a mixed bag at best. Nice to have biking places, sure, but wouldn't it have been better to reconstruct the trains and trolleys? Isn't traffic on the highways getting worse and worse? As usual, we make poor choices and then think there are no alternatives.

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