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Notes on a nervous demographic

Books on anxiety are booming, according to a recent article in The Guardian. In ‘This worried world: why anxiety memoirs are filling our shelves’, Brigid Delaney compares today’s deluge of anxiety memoirs with anxiety to the heyday of travel memoirs in previous decades, when Eat, Pray, Love and A Year in Provence were bestsellers.

Not long after these books about individuals’ struggles with anxiety, including Book of Dirt and Happy Never After, have been published, educator and author John Marsden released his book about parenting, The Art of Growing Up, focusing on the anxiety displayed by today’s parents.

He wrote:

“It’s not that people are setting out to act destructively, but their common sense and instincts seem to have been overridden by other considerations. The emotional damage is coming from an anxiety which often approaches panic.”

While Marsden’s book has attracted some criticism for its response to bullying, as a parent of children and kinder aged children, it is hard not to agree with his assertion that the current generation of parents is particularly anxious in our approach to parenting.

Everywhere I look, I see mothers (and more rarely, fathers) who show a level of concern about their children that borders on panic. They’re anxious about their children’s education, diet, and safety; about everything from the real or imagined ‘stranger’ lurking in the playground or online to their children’s screen time. If hey weren’t so busy trying to find a way to re-enter the workforce while caring for their children to the high standards they would like, they would probably write their own books about the anxiety they face as parents.

And to be clear, these are not parents who are by any means hands off or neglectful; on the contrary, they are dedicated, caring and thoughtful parents who spend both quality and quantity time with their children.

We are a generation of parents who feed our babies pureed vegetables, introduced at exactly the right time to optimise nutrition and prevent allergies; later, the child might be lucky to snack on crackers, as long as they are made from quinoa or brown rice, and bread as long as it is wholegrain. We worry, after all, about sentencing them to an unhealthy life powered by refined sugar and know that we would never dare feed our children what our parents fed us. Even the containers in which the food was stored was BPA free, lead free and Phthalate free (and they know what all that means).

To optimise their physical and intellectual development, the children are religiously taken to story time at the local library, or an expensive baby gym. There were music classes, art classes and dance classes. Their toys were educational and their clothes made of organic cotton.

We obsess over their future mental health, trying to walk the fine line between praising our children and rewarding them for small successes and building their resilience in the fear that their future use of social media might batter their self confidence.

Yet, somehow, these parents who have offered their offspring so much of themselves are crippled with anxiety that they have not done enough. We worry that our children watch too much television, or eat too many cupcakes at a party on the weekend.

Paradoxically, the most anxious are the most seemingly secure, with comfortable houses, stable jobs and supportive partners.

So, I wonder, what are my friends and I so scared of? Is it the internet? Is it the stranger around the corner? Is it the climate, obesity, water safety, traffic, or that our children will fall behind all of the others in a global marketplace, unable to compete with those who have even more vigilant, determined and dedicated parents?

Or, are we just worried about being judged ‘bad mothers’, meeting standards set by no one but our own peers?

After the birth of my first child, I overwhelmingly felt that I had a responsibility to do everything ‘correctly’. There was no option of a dummy until my baby had well and truly established breastfeeding and later, packaged baby foods were forbidden. To help calm him I attempted baby massage while he squirmed under my hands, and I tried to pat him to sleep as I had seen on the video the maternal health nurse had given me while he watched on, bright eyed and bemused. I was exhausted and desperate, but refused to cut a single corner. I wanted, after all, to be a good mother. I can’t tell whether all of this was for my own sense of self, or for the benefit of my child.

In an opinion piece in the New York Times, ‘Motherhood in the Age of Fear, Kim Brooks put wrote of  her opinion that mothers are terrified of the judgement society casts on them – and they cast on themselves – if they are ever seen to be neglectful of their children in even the slightest way.

“We’re contemptuous of “lazy” poor mothers. We’re contemptuous of “distracted” working mothers. We’re contemptuous of “selfish” rich mothers. We’re contemptuous of mothers who have no choice but to work, but also of mothers who don’t need to work and still fail to fulfill an impossible ideal of selfless motherhood. You don’t have to look very hard to see the common denominator.”

Perhaps this is what anxious mothers know all-too well, and which creates such an atmosphere of tense dedication and anxiety. Few fathers carry the same burden. Instead, they laugh about feeding their kids breakfast cereal for dinner or forgetting to unload the washing machine. They get away with being the silly dad, the lazy dad or the distracted dad, in a way that they would never abide being considered silly, lazy or distracted in the workplace.

Of course, it is not just mothers who are anxious – today’s children, teens, and childless men and women are also part of an anxious generation. And in a lot of ways, this generation of mothers is luckier than any has ever been, with access to some level of childcare, the option of re-entering the workplace and if they are particularly fortunate, the resources to offer their children the opportunities that the previous generation might not have enjoyed. But these are so many mothers who I encounter who could so easily be happy but are instead crippled by their fears. Whether we’re afraid of failing our children, or being seen to fail them, I wonder how it has come to this, and what good it will do those in whose names we worry so much.

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