Why It’s Impossible To Parent Ironically
There’s been a fair bit of parenthood buzz around the League of late (Cf. Mike and Will and, in a different way, Burt). I’ve enjoyed all of it, and I want to add a few thoughts of my own. Forgive me if it seems abstracted from real life. I feel these things with all the proud gravitas of a father, but I find that the Internet can rarely be trusted with honest emotions about personal things. Indeed, that’s near the core of the problem I’m trying to tackle in what follows.
(For those short on time and attention: it gets a bit thorny below, so I’ll do you a favor and put my thesis up top. Parenthood is the most authentic experience afforded humans. It invites us to put away our self-involvement and obsession over how others see us.)
If this seems too obvious to be worth reading further, then hey, have a nice day. Thanks for stopping by.
And, to be fair, I won’t much blame you if you leave. I may be a progressive, but I’ll still admit that parenting’s falls into the “eternal questions” section of the conversational library. Few subjects have been so comprehensively theorized. Parenthood links to all the best stuff: sex, education, community, politics, ethics, religion, etc. Plato and Rousseau found it lurking behind every important theoretical corner. Freud simply codified a number of deep truths that Sophocles and Shakespeare had long since painted into the fabric of our common world. It’s very likely that there’s nothing truly new to say about how it feels to be a parent, let alone what it means. Leave if you must.
But even if the fundamentals of our view of parenting are strong, severely strong, there’s no doubt that the old answers sometimes fray about the edges. Subtle changes are still real changes. Along those lines, then, I want to suggest that parenthood happens to be especially helpful for disabusing us of a unique brand of modern self-involvement.
Start with what we’ve always known: the process of parenting changes a human irrevocably. That’s why so many new parents are speechless when asked to describe how it feels to join the club. It’s why so many old parents watch them with knowing chuckles. It’s why kind people hold doors and give up seats on the bus for harried folks with strollers. Etc.
Everything goes topsy-turvy, in the best and worst of ways. Hearts swell. Diapers smell. Sophisticated adults find themselves laughing at books about bus-coveting pigeons. They notice small animals in the park and the presence (or absence) of changing tables in restaurants. Many parents discover that they’re on the “dating” scene again (at least in a limited sense). More seriously, children draw spouses ever closer—only to spark new, heretofore unimaginable conflicts.
Here it’s probably best that I pause for a quick sidenote: It ought to go without saying that I’m using a specific definition of “parenthood.” It isn’t strictly a biological deal. Uninvolved sperm donors or surrogates or absentee parents aren’t parenting in the sense that I’m using the term. Please don’t misunderstand me, though. I’m not trying to say anything of substance about people living these situations. It’s not my intention to pass any sweeping judgment, good or bad, since that would require an entirely different post by a different author with different predilections and credentials. Instead, I only want to note that the aforementioned alchemy that takes place as part of parenthood actually requires active engagement and acceptance of heavy responsibility.
Right. Back on track. There’s no need to catalogue all of the ways that parenthood changes the behavior of unsuspecting, previously childless humans. We’re searching for the reasons why seemingly sane and normal people start behaving this way. Why do they take on this nonsense in place of whatever modicum of stability they’ve developed before parenthood? From the outside, from beyond the euphoric bubble where stray bodily fluids can actually prompt good-natured laughter, parenthood looks like lunacy.
In case you’re wishing that you’d shipped back to Facebook after reading my preemptive thesis above, you’re in luck! See, all of this deranged parental behavior points to the very best thing that parenthood can do to humans. Put simply, children pull adults out of themselves and their petty concerns. They provide the most compelling reasons available to think beyond selfishness. And sure, some parents are horrible, and yes, they spend inordinate time and effort trying to mold their children to meet some narrowly personal objective. And meanwhile, yes, it’s also true that parenting is always in part selfish and controlling. It’s a damnedly difficult balance to strike—let alone to keep.
Fortunately, that’s exactly what I’m driving at. Truly parenting (et al) requires all sorts of reflective thinking about how to balance a child’s needs with adult life, material resources, short-and long-term goals, community expectations, and innumerable other things.
Indeed, anxious parents (most parents?) inevitably even reflect on whether or not to reflect. “Hey,” they’ll think, “This whole shebang is the product of many thousands of years of evolution. Humans are designed to make this insanity work. Relax. Let it be.” Like everything that comes with the package, this is also true as far as it goes. Sometimes children need thoughtful parental intervention. Sometimes they need parents to let them develop naturally, often by means of painful failures. Sometimes the adults need to have a plan, and other times they need to let things run their course. Both sides of the equation are right. The key: parents are forced to factor in tons of similarly insoluble concerns all day long. And yes, even less anxious parents are still choosing a side with their kids in mind. All of that factoring and balancing and rational reflection and emotion moderating forces parents to put their own individual concerns in a different (and less-important) category.
To some degree, we’re still tilling the fields of the obvious. Why do those two bleary-eyed adults across the coffeeshop work so hard to keep their toddler away from the barstools? “Um, because they don’t want him to get hurt, Sherlock.” Still, I want to argue that this is a rare, and especially valuable, adjustment for plenty of twenty-first century young adults to make. Parenthood is really healthy for my generation—perhaps even more so than for our parents.
Why? By investing themselves in the development of a temperamental, frustrating little being, adults cede much of their control over their lives. They especially surrender their ability to construct a tidy image for others. That’s why parenthood is the realest of the real. It’s one of the most unquestionably authentic things available to us. It cuts away much of the behavioral dross that we’d otherwise send forth to consciously project ourselves to others. In other words, parenthood makes it really hard to seem to be anything. Aside from the occasional sunbursts when a child’s great behavior lines up with favorable circumstances and prescient parental decisions, we parents almost never have enough control to affect how we’re perceived. It’s almost always a crapshoot.
Which, by the way, is brilliant news! Parenting strips away our snark and irony and leaves us (almost always figuratively) naked before everyone else. Parents can’t help but behave more genuinely because they’ve invested up so much of their image in their children. They can’t, in other words, help caring deeply about the task at hand. The enormous challenge involved in raising a healthy human requires parents to subject themselves to measures of shame, guilt, frustration, and anxiety that always threaten to temper the shining moments of success.
There’s nothing especially complicated going on here. These are simply the challenges that come with accepting responsibility for the health and happiness of a child who is at best only partially within our control. If you’ll indulge me in some German philosophical jargon, parents’ wills are “forced back on themselves” and “alienated” by the whole process, and this puts their self-esteem (or “sense of self,” etc) at risk. Parenthood isn’t the only means to do this, of course. Healthy, stable marriages already drive us from our self-involvment (For what it’s worth, teaching does something similar, though with somewhat lower stakes.).
Now we’re really getting somewhere, really rounding the bend. We’ve always known that serious parenting requires a sea change in priorities and commitments. We’ve always known that it converts normal, well-adjusted people into raving idiots. We’ve always known that this is because they can’t help but invest themselves in their children. Today’s youngish adults (at least in the United States, and perhaps in the West-at-large) can especially benefit from a dose of (becoming) parents.
And again: Why? Parenthood is especially helpful for my generation because it provides a check against our strange brand of self-centeredness. Let me explain what I mean. So many relatively young adults are completely obsessed with their image. Each of us builds an online monument to showcase our carefully-crafted self in just the right light and at just the right angle. We refine and recalibrate, we snip and prune and polish—lest we misstep and reveal some ugly truths about who we are, rather than who we appear to be. All of this reflects our hope that we can mask our actual fears and insecurities by hiding them behind a designed façade. We want to be watched and noticed as special—but that pursuit of validation implicitly reveals us to be seeking common ground as much as uniqueness. This strange and tortured path leads to hipsters (and our particular brand of what now passes for cool). More on them in a moment.
Of course, the problem isn’t specific to Facebook or Twitter or Weibo or Grindr or Christian Mingle or any particular social media du jour. At worst, these just exacerbate things. This self-absorbed anxiety over appearances has roots in any number of other things. Blame material prosperity. Blame the rise of television. Blame modernity. Blame secularism. Blame ad execs. Blame pluralism. Blame globalism. Blame “kids these days” or their baby boom parents. I don’t much care. For now I’m just talking about symptoms.
Now let’s talk about hipsters. I submit that they represent the full fruition of my generation’s highly refined efforts to self-project. That’s because this obsession with controlling our image doesn’t completely overwhelm our capacity for reflection. It doesn’t take a PhD to feel the tension between what we display in public and who we actually feel ourselves to be. I think—though again, I can’t conclusively prove it—that that implicit problem is what fuels my generation’s especially strange obsession with authenticity. Our highly self-conscious, self-aware lives are always in danger of exposure (to varying degrees), and we know it. Once we notice how constructed and display-case-ready our social interactions have become, we seek new behaviors to demonstrate that we really (no, REALLY!) are the way that we’d like others to believe that we are. We double down on authenticity.
Even if we can’t quite articulate what’s wrong, I think that it’s why twenty-first century coolness is so concerned with demonstrating authentic commitment to causes, interests, brands, etc. When everyone’s watching and everyone’s consciously displaying themselves in a particular way to elicit particular judgments from others, it’s not enough to enjoy a band’s music. You also need to like it for the right, genuine, stylish reasons. Unless, of course, you’re a hipster…
…because those folks take this tension to extremes, which makes them a useful example. They’re pulled in two irreconcilable directions. They want to live an authentic life full of genuine experiences, but only with an audience. For example, hipsters aren’t interested in canning and preserving local pawpaw because of anything intrinsic to the fruit or the process. They take it on because of what the endeavor reveals about them. Get that clear: hipsters are extraordinarily odd because they are so rigorous about treating every experience as an opportunity to self-disclose. That’s why their attempts to demonstrate the deep-seated authenticity of their choices are so annoyingly ironic. They live their lives as performance art pieces—all events as opportunities to self-display—while assuring themselves and others that they feel each of these demonstrative moments deeply and authentically. It’s nonsense, even if it’s a fairly benign strain (If you’re really interested, back in March I wrote one of my better posts on the problems with hipsterism.).
Every human struggles with this to some lesser degree (whether we’ll admit it or not), but hipsters elevate conscious self-disclosure to be the law of their lives. I only introduced these (assuredly organic) straw men and women as a way of illustrating how obsession with image control has an incoherent core. Even those of us who don’t (ironically) wear flannel hats to “work” are pretty likely to be hyper self-aware. This interplay between authenticity and irony is a constitutive part of being alive and relatively young in 2012.
Obviously I can’t prove any of this in a snappy, crisp, comprehensive way. That sort of fanciful windmill tilting is the province of dedicated Internet commenting kings (hereafter referred to as D.I.C.Ks). All I can offer—all that any honest cultural criticism can really offer—is a series of (hopefully) intuitive thoughts for making sense of our situation. If I can contrast my approach with the showy, caustic certainty that characterizes so many D.I.C.Ks, that’s an added bonus.
How to go about it? There are a lot of ways to talk about the strange, lonely, self-centered pursuit of validation that characterizes many relatively young could-be parents today (For relevant empirics, see Robert Putnam’s work. For a related argument, see this from Freddie de Boer.), but I think David Foster Wallace captures it best of all. Indeed, I’ve been leaning on some of his thoughts for much of this post. Wallace’s own worries about late twentieth-century hipness and image obsession was all the more credible because of his own bona fides. Wallace is one of the favored authors of the hip, ironic set. His Infinite Jest is hyper-sophisticated, but it’s also deeply earnest. Everything Wallace wrote gestured to the interaction between hip irony and his terror that good, decent things (and people) were threatened by that very skepticism. Here’s one useful example from an essay on television and American fiction:
I want to persuade you that irony, poker-faced silence, and fear of ridicule are distinctive of those features of contemporary U.S. culture (of which cutting-edge fiction is a part) that enjoy any significant relation to the television whose weird pretty hand has my generation by the throat. I’m going to argue that irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective, and at the same time they are agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture…
Because of the way human beings relate to narrative, we tend to identify with those characters we find appealing. We try to see ourselves in them. The same I.D.-relation, however, also means that we try to see them in ourselves. When everybody we seek to identify with for six hours a day is pretty, it naturally becomes more important to us to be pretty, to be viewed as pretty. Because prettiness becomes a priority for us, the pretty people on TV become all the more attractive, a cycle which is obviously great for TV. But it’s less great for us civilians, who tend to own mirrors, and who also tend not to be anywhere near as pretty as the TV-images we want to identify with. Not only does this cause some angst personally, but the angst increases because, nationally, everybody else is absorbing six-hour doses [of television] and identifying with pretty people and valuing prettiness more, too. This very personal anxiety about our prettiness has become a national phenomenon with national consequences. The whole U.S.A. gets different about things it values and fears. The boom in diet aids, health and fitness clubs, neighborhood tanning parlors, cosmetic surgery, anorexia, bulimia, steroid-use among boys, girls throwing acid at each other because one girl’s hair looks more like Farrah Fawcett’s than another…are these supposed to be unrelated to each other? To the apotheosis of prettiness in a televisual culture?
And while this certainly might seem a bit afield, Wallace is pointing to the very thing I’ve been driving at. Television helps heighten our sensitivity to how we appear to others. Cosmetic and technological developments since 1993 (when the essay was published) have only sharpened our ability to control appearances. In other words—and this is really critical—we’re growing ever more obsessed with our selves as long-term display projects. We are all lonely narcissists now.
Or, in other words, we are all the truest heirs of the Bright Young Things. This isn’t necessarily a terrible thing. Heightened self-awareness is actually a pretty useful stepping stone on the path to empathy. Obsess long enough over how you appear to others and you may eventually realize that this anxiety belongs to everyone. From the ashes of your own public failures, you may come to recognize how important it is to forgive the errors of others. Please take this seriously, since I don’t want to be misunderstood as suggesting that non-parents are obviously self-absorbed, lonely, devastated by ironic contradictions, etc. There are other paths out of the twenty-first century’s authenticity thicket. I’m only pointing out that parenthood is an effective one. That doesn’t make it the right choice for everyone.
In case that sort of reflection doesn’t take on its own, however, becoming a parent can help kickstart the process. Why? As I noted above, parenting defies image control. It would be simple if you could choose between being a stylish parent and being a successful parent, but the requirements to succeed actually make conscious style impossible. Obviously! There’s another human being involved, and he or she also brings a will to the table. Kids demand to be recognized in all their fullness and agency—which puts a serious damper on any parental illusions of being in complete control.
And—fortunately—that loss of control opens up new paths for being non-hipster youngish adults. It’s impossible to parent ironically. Parenthood is intractably authentic, as most stylish folks learn after those first few sleepless nights home from the hospital.
Finally (and you thought this post couldn’t end), I submit that this is what’s going on behind the scenes for parents who find that the world is fuller and richer as a result of having children. Since their children preclude them from obsessing over every last detail of their plumage, they no longer have to compensate with ironically genuine behavior. They no longer have to go in search of authenticity, because it inevitably permeates everything that they already do.
Here’s a doubly ironic twist, though: the work that saves new parents from irony’s corrosiveness also puts them in a position to prepare their own children to live in a world that will try to drag these kids into the same cycle. Nothing could be worse than being saved by parenthood…only to turn your kid into a D.I.C.K (see above). The world doesn’t need more ironic souls tortured by self-doubt. It needs more confident, self-assured folks who find sham validation superfluous.
All of which is another way of saying that the early stages are really just a way of attuning thoughtful parents to the real task at hand—and it’s a doozy.
Idiomatic double entendre intentional. The argument’s finally moving along, AND parenting will make you craaaaaazy.
Yes, humans have always been obsessed with manipulating how they seem so that others will believe that they really are better than they truly are. Perfume, tailors, and rhetoric predate late-modern America. However, for a number of technological and cultural reasons, image control has become as refined as it is central to how we think of our selves (not a typo).
If you’re smugly congratulating yourself for your willful, special eccentricities right now, I’ll just ask you to consider whether or not those particular eccentricities are part of a conscious effort to show yourself to be someone who “doesn’t care what anyone else thinks.” I’m just parroting Wallace at this point, but it’s fairly obvious that individual rebellion is a type and a brand and a conscious choice that many people make as a way to fit in. Many of us survived high school by learning to think of ourselves as “alternative” to those “others” who were not us—but we almost always were able to do so by finding some other “alternatives” who shared our particular angst.
**Q: Hey! Where’s the comments section? A: It’s not here. Given recent trends in League commenting, I’m going to close down comments on my non-political stuff. Think of it as an honest application of the conclusions reached in the post.