The current imagination continues to run to control, toward new frontiers and horizons of it. A recent book generating interest in the US is called Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives. It takes up questions such as whether eating more fish will raise the intelligence of your child, or what exact level of stress is beneficial to the unborn child. (Too much stress is bad, but too little stress, it turns out, is not good either. One doctor reports that she has pregnant women with blissfully tranquil lives asking her what they can do to add a little healthy stress to the placid uterine environment.)
Then, just last month came the well-publicised British study that suggested that a little drinking during pregnancy is healthy, and that children whose parents drank a little bit were in fact, if anything, slightly more intelligent than children whose mothers refrained entirely. One might think this new evidence would challenge the absolutism of our attitudes about drinking and pregnancy, the near-religious zeal with which we approach the subject, but it’s equally possible that it won’t actually have much effect. Our righteousness and morally charged suspicion that drinking even the tiniest bit will harm an unborn child runs deeper than rational discussion or science; we are primed for guilt and sacrifice, for the obsessive monitoring of the environment, for rampant moralism and reproach, even before the baby is born.
Apparently, there is, from a sensible scientific point of view, such a thing as being too clean; children, it turns out, need to be exposed to a little dirt to develop immunities, and it seems that the smudged, filthy child happily chewing on a stick in the playground is healthier than his immaculate, prodigiously wiped-down counterpart. I like this story because there may be no better metaphor for the conundrum of over-protection, the protection that doesn’t protect.
One of the more troubling aspects of our new ethos of control is that it contains a vision of right-minded child rearing that is in its own enlightened way as exclusive and conformist as anything in the 1950s. Anyone who does not control their children’s environment according to current fashions and science, who, say, bribes their child with M&Ms or feeds their baby non-organic milk or has a party that lasts until 2 a.m., is behaving in a wild and reckless manner that somehow challenges the status quo. The less trivial problem is this: The rigorous ideal of the perfect environment doesn’t allow for true difference, for the child raised by a grandparent, or a single mother, or divorced parents; its vision is definitely of two parents taking turns carrying the designer baby sling. Mandatory 24-hour improvement and enrichment, have, in other words, their oppressive side.
I also can’t help but wonder if all of the effort poured into creating the perfect child, like the haute bourgeois attention to stylish food, is a way of deflecting and rechannelling adult disappointment. Are these parents, so virtuously exhausted, so child-drained at the end of one of these busy days, compensating for something they have given up? Something missing in their marriage? Some romantic disappointment? Some compromise of career or adventure? One can’t help but wonder, in other words, what Tolstoy or Flaubert would make of our current parenting style.