Originally Published: June 28, 2010 7:35 p.m.
Show me a contemporary mother and I will show you a nervous wreck. Whether they work or stay at home, have one kid or several, neurosis is an equal opportunity affliction. What is it about the age we live in that has made us so paranoid about the health and well-being of our kids?
Violent crime reached its peak nationally in 1993 and has been on the decline since. We have access to more lifesaving and life-extending medical technology than ever. And yet, we parents, as a species, are scared.
It's because we know too much. Like everyone, I blame the Internet and media. 20 years ago, if you missed the three-minute nightly news segment on the lead content of toys made in China, then you were none the wiser. Now some well-meaning sadist will forward that article to you, or share it with you on Facebook. How many television shows are dedicated to violent crime, murder, rape? It's no wonder people start to assume it will happen to them.
Here comes the "we walked five miles to school in the snow and liked it" part. I grew up in a large city. I walked, rode my bike, or took the city bus to school if I was lazy. We didn't have cell phones, so for the majority of my waking hours, my parents didn't know where I was. They had a general sense and I had general guidelines: be home in time for dinner. They didn't keep tabs on my every movement, and as long as I was out with the usual crew and home on time, I don't think they much worried. And frankly, nothing much happened that would have given them a reason to (in fairness, I'm not sure my brother could make the same claim). We were free to explore an urban wonderland (San Francisco), and it was a great time and place to be a kid.
Jonathan Winters climbed to the top of the mast of the clipper ship Balclutha. We went to free picnic concerts and listened to the "Carmina Burana" in Stern Grove. We ran into Robin Williams perusing used books on Haight Street. We dug for the remains of long dead railroad workers in Lincoln Park. We set up our boom box (kids ask your parents for a definition) in front of the bronze cast of The Thinker in front of the Legion of Honor and danced to Sting's "Roxanne." We scarfed salt water taffy at Ghiradelli Square and ruined our appetites. And our parents were none the wiser.
Today, I'm not sure I'd let my son have free run of Prescott, much less San Francisco. And if I had a daughter, fuggedaboutit (I know, double standard). And yet, are there any more weirdoes out there now, proportionately, than there were then? No.
More fraught areas: diet and hygiene. On both scores, I was, and can still be, totally disgusting. There is so much to know today about food -borne allergens, environmental toxins, chemicals and impurities. What is a natural-born PigPen to do?
I try to make sure my son eats from the perimeter of the supermarket. It's a good tip a dietician once gave me. Vegetables, dairy, meat, and not the processed boxes of imitation foodstuffs in between. I'm at about 70 percent with this. Lunches are not organic unless Oscar Mayer makes organic bologna, which I haven't seen here yet. Sometimes I cave to his insatiable, genetically encoded, advertising-influenced need for a Happy Meal.
Now that we're in the confessional: there are toxins in my home. It's an old home, and we clean it with bleach and ammonia. I spray flying bugs with the deadliest chemicals I can lay my hands on, which end up settling in a fine dust on the breakfast table. I don't keep up with the approved and non-approved cleaning products. Same thing with eating wild versus farm-raised fish, although this issue bothers me more for some reason, as my son's brain cells slowly choke to death from the toxic fumes. Poor lil fishes!
My son's grandparents live near Clement Street. For those of you familiar with San Francisco, this is a mecca for cheap, toxic plastic toys. And these are his favorite toys. Give him a hand-hewn, wooden toy from an extravagant outdoor Munich market; I get a polite eyebrow raise and thin-lipped smile. Grandmother "TT" shows up with a 99-cent plastic ninja with a samurai sword and he's in heaven for weeks, sleeping with it every night. My qualm here has more to do with supporting sweat shop economics than the toxins. I'd rather think toys come from ruddy cheeked, Hans Holbein ladies in aprons, not malnourished 13 year olds on thin straw mats.
Another in the litany of my sins: commercialism runs rampant in my home. I have friends who won't let their kids go to Disneyland because they don't want them to be exposed to all that brainwashing consumerism. Too late. My son is firmly in the grip of addiction, and his drug of choice goes by several names: Shrek, Iron Man, Spiderman, Spongebob or the intense but short-lived high that is Lightning McQueen. I won't take him to Disneyland because, well, I simply don't DO Disneyland. It is happy and serendipitous for me when a "legitimate" parenting choice masks my own selfishness (I know, some of your best memories are from taking your kids to Disneyland. Wanna take mine?).
I worry like everyone else, but I don't do much about it. That is the most crazy-making of behaviors.
I make a lot of questionable choices regarding the health and well-being of my son. I am surrounded by excellent parents in my peer group who are too polite to voice their horror directly. The bottom line is, I don't have time to sweat the small stuff, and the big stuff is inconceivable. Most of the time I don't feel like I have the time to make a reasoned, considered and well-researched choice at all. Each day that he gets his three squares, the dogs get a short walk and the husband and I keep our jobs is considered red letter in this house. Secondly, and now I'm being serious: he's my only child, my all. The cold terror of anything happening to him is such a vast, yawning horror that I am deeply, neurotically, irrationally unable to admit the possibility.
My husband/editor thinks this blog is confusing and that I vacillate between wanting a "free range" child who had the childhood I had, and wanting to protect him from everything scary. Sometimes I come across as a somewhat vigilant parent, more often a negligent one. To which I say, welcome to parenting in 2010. Prescott grandparents, write back. Are your kids, well, weird about parenting? More freaked out than you were? Do share.