Parenting involves walking a tightrope of vigilance. If you veer to one end of the alertness continuum you risk being labeled a helicopter parent or tiger mom. Lurch in the opposite direction—your kids could be deemed free-range, feral and possibly in peril. When Kim Brooks dashed into a store, leaving her son in the car momentarily, she was judged criminal. In “Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear,” she examines her criminality and our anxious culture. Brooks discusses competitive parenting, lack of support and the forces that breed anxiety with us.
Your personal story is the stuff of nightmares. I found myself terrified on your behalf, in the moments when you had to deal with the police over your outstanding warrant and for you when people read your account. How do you feel about leaving your son in the car, running afoul of the law and judgement? Have your previously published essays prepared you?
I wrote “Small Animals” as a process of coming to terms with what happened, moving away from a place of blame or shame or confusion or defensiveness toward a more complex understanding of our culture’s obsession with child safety and mother-shaming. It was six years ago and I’m not losing sleep over it. If I was, it would be a sign that I hadn’t done the work I set out to do in the book. As for dealing with other people’s reactions to the material, I always tell my writing students that if they’re not ready and willing to make some people uncomfortable then they’re not ready and willing to write personal nonfiction. I try to remember this myself when I encounter criticism or judgement. There could be people who don’t like this process and respond with personal attacks—people who might call me a bad mother or a bad person. And that’s fine. I try not to take it personally. I believe that the role of the writer is to question, to disturb, to unravel and to challenge. I think a lot about Hannah Arendt’s assertion that “there are no dangerous thoughts; thinking is dangerous.” If some people feel threatened by the ideas in “Small Animals,” I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing.
You write that you are a person inclined to anxiety—are you torturing yourself by putting this out there? Why is it important?
Well, I enjoy worrying. It’s probably one of my favorite pastimes. I don’t view it as torturing myself. What I came to believe in writing “Small Animals” is that the way we parent in this country is unsustainable and insane. It’s unsustainable to withhold freedom and autonomy from children, to make parents responsible for every aspect of their children’s successes and failures, to demand that mothers sacrifice themselves on the altar of an idealized and completely unrealistic conception of motherhood. We live in a country in which the well-off pour massive amounts of financial and emotional resources into protecting their own children from every imagined or nearly possible threat. At the same time and in the same country, millions of other children live below the poverty line, drink lead-poisoned water and don’t have access to basic healthcare or education. When caring for children, it’s easy to hyper-focus on things that really don’t matter. I thought that the first step to change this deranged parenting culture would be putting this culture in a larger perspective. I hadn’t read many books that did that. I wanted to write one.
Where do our fears come from? How do we decide what to worry about? Is it the same across the board or different for different groups? What did you learn along the way about your assumptions on race and social class?
In my research for the book, I learned about something psychologists call the availability heuristic. It means that when judging how likely a bad event is, we rely on how easily we can recall an example of the event occurring. It works less well in the age of mass media when we’re bombarded by details of terrible tragedies, no matter how rare. The result of availability heuristic is that we’re often irrational in our fears. Car accidents, obesity and suicide pose the greatest threat to kids and teenagers, but we fixate on things like stranger-danger and sexual predators because it’s so easy to recall examples we’ve heard or read about. We also tend to fixate on the safety and security of the most privileged children in our society while we disavow or ignore the needs of the most vulnerable. One of the things I learned in my research is that parental fear is very much a form of privilege and can often mask class anxiety and racism.
The Age of Fear—bad stuff happens in every generation. Is the subtitle hyperbolic? Is it really so different now?
Bad stuff does happen in every generation, but what seems unique to me about this generation is the way in which fear, particularly parental fear, has been normalized, reinforced and transformed into a sort of moral virtue where fearful parenting becomes synonymous with good parenting.
What is the cost of fear? Is it distributed fairly?
Both parents and children pay a price for fear-based parenting. Katherine Reynolds Lewis and Julie Lythcott-Haims have both published books in recent years on soaring rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and suicide among adolescents, teenagers and young adults. While we don’t know for certain these changes are caused by fearful parenting, we do know that one of the factors that promotes happiness and well-being is having what psychologists call an internal locus of control—being able to decide for yourself how you spend your time, where you go each day and what you do, solving problems on your own, making choices for yourself. We don’t allow kids to do much of this anymore. In thinking about the cost for adults and particularly for mothers, I think it’s important to remember that parents today spend more hours with their children, driving them places, watching them in organized activities, than any previous generation. They’re also working longer hours. There are only twenty-four hours in a day, so this means parents are spending less time with friends, less time with extended family, less time with neighbors, less time participating in civic engagement, less time, in other words, being connected to and engaged with any larger community. I don’t think this is good for parents and I don’t think it’s good for society.
I was intrigued that risk assessment changes with our moral judgements. Can you explain how this works?
Barbara Sarnecka and a team of cognitive scientists at University of California, Irvine did a fascinating study on this topic. They wanted to measure the extent to which moral judgements impact our assessment of risk, so they presented participants with a scenario where a parent has left a child in a cool car in a safe parking garage for a few minutes. They ask people to assess the danger the child is in on a numeric scale. And separately, they ask them to rate the parent’s badness. In each scenario, they vary the reason the parent has left the child. In some instances it’s because the parent was hit by a car in the parking lot and knocked temporarily unconscious. In other examples it would be that the mother had to run into work to get something. In another, she’s visiting her lover. What they found was that the reason for the parental “lapse” not only affected their moral judgement of the parent, it also determined their assessment of the risk to the child. So the child of a mother going to visit a lover was seen as being in more danger than the child of a woman knocked unconscious. Logically, this makes no sense. Still, we do it all the time. Moral judgement comes first. Risk assessment follows.
One famous case spurring parental anxiety is that of Madeleine McCann who disappeared from a resort apartment in Portugal while her parents went out for tapas nearby. I remember thinking I would never do that, but really—the risk was tiny. Even so, the outcome was huge—isn’t that partly what we weigh up?
Yes, I think when we hear these horror stories, there’s a human need to feel safe, to feel that nothing like that is every going to happen to one’s own child. But the reality is that no one has complete control. You can do everything right as a parent and terrible things can still happen. It’s natural to want to protect your children and keep them safe, but I think when we allow our desire for safety and control to trump all of our other human needs, we’re in trouble.
Madeleine’s mother was vilified. You say, “Rather than questioning the system and the culture and the lack of support that makes it so hard for all of us, we turn against each other.” What better alternative do you suggest?
I suggest the alternative of helping each other, supporting each other, working together to find solutions to the problem of raising children in a country fundamentally unsupportive of the endeavor and operating under the assumption that most women are doing the best they can, doing more than their share of everything, juggling the needs of everyone in their life and want the best for their kids. I’d love to see more babysitting co-ops, more communal solutions, more support networks, less judgement and competition.
Why is parenting a competition?
Competition can be great for a momentary self-esteem buzz. When you’re wracked with insecurity, it can offer a moment of relief to feel like at least you’re doing it better than someone else. The problem is that it’s a very short-term fix. If mothers stopped competing with each other and judging each other, I think we’d have more time to take over the world or at the very least to advocate for the kind of policies that would benefit all mothers—subsidized daycare, maternity and paternity leave, free, high-quality early childhood education.
Your list of what it takes to get small children out of the house is a wonderful piece of writing. How did you approach the book—stylistically and structurally?
My first book took me over five years to write and I labored over every sentence. It was a terrible five years. I wanted to write this book in exactly the opposite way. I didn’t begin with a clear vision of how I would structure it. I began with my own voice and with a desire to better understand this very strange parenting culture I’d found so impossible and I did everything at once—the research, the reporting, the writing. I wanted to live the book as much as write it.
How long did it take? Challenges and pleasures of it?
It took me about a year. One of the greatest pleasures was that it allowed me the chance to talk to so many smart, interesting people. I generally find the solitary aspect of the writing life challenging. I’m jealous of my friends who get to gossip around water coolers. This book offered me one giant water cooler of my own. I remember how I was printing out an early draft and making a copy at the UPS store. The woman making the copies asked if I’d written the book and what it was about. I told her in a sentence or two and before I knew it I was surrounded by five people, some parents, some not, discussing how and why our fears about childhood and safety have changed so much. That was pretty exciting. A favorite professor in graduate school once said something like, “It’s not that hard to write a book. It’s hard to write a book that people actually want to read.” That was the challenge I set for myself.
“Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear”
By Kim Brooks
Flatiron Books, 256 pages, $12.99
Kim Brooks is in conversation with Kathleen Rooney on August 21, 7pm at Women & Children First, 5233 North Clark, (773)769-9299. She appears on September 6, 7pm at Anderson’s Bookshop, 26 South La Grange Road, La Grange, (708)582-6353 and on September 18, 7pm at the Forest Park Public Library, 7555 Jackson Boulevard, Forest Park, (708)366-7171.
Toni Nealie is the Literary Editor of Newcity and the author of the essay collection “The Miles Between Me.” A Pushcart Prize nominee, her essays have appeared in Guernica Magazine, Rust Belt: Chicago, The Rumpus, The Offing, Essay Daily, Chicago Quarterly Review, Hobart, Entropy and elsewhere. She worked in magazine journalism, politics and PR in her native New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Singapore and now edits, writes and teaches in Chicago. Find her at toninealie.com and on Twitter @tnealie. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.