Parenting in the Age of Fear: An Interview with Kim Brooks




SEVEN YEARS AGO, Kim Brooks, the novelist and former personal essays editor at Salon, made the seemingly innocuous decision to leave her four-year-old son in the car on a cool Virginia day while she ran into Target. Errand accomplished, she got back into the vehicle where her son waited unscathed, headed to the airport, and flew home to Chicago, no damage done. Or so she thought.

When she and her children landed in their home city, Brooks’s husband informed her that the police back in Virginia were looking for her and sought to charge her with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, even though the person who turned her in had never spoken to her directly and even though her son was perfectly fine. The fallout of having to endure this harrowing legal ordeal in the wake of a decision made harmlessly by many a harried mom led Brooks on a journey to better understand the United States’s recent trend toward the policing of parents, particularly mothers, as well as the generational shift toward overanxious parenting.

In the resulting book, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear, she weaves her own story of being turned in by a so-called Good Samaritan seamlessly with testimony from fellow parents, historians, sociologists, and child-rearing experts. The result is a book that is part memoir, part history, part sociology, and part manifesto for abandoning the traps of parental competitiveness and judgmentality in favor of a more supportive and sympathetic network of cooperation and understanding.

Small Animals is more than just a text for parents about parenting at the current moment. It’s a funny, smart, and terrifying study of how irrational fear motivates so many cynical, small, and closed-minded actions in today’s America. But it’s also hopeful that, through reason and empathy, parents and non-parents alike can work to reduce this fearfulness and live in communities driven by compassion and a shared belief in the common good. Small Animals is not a self-help book, exactly, but it’s a book that can help nonetheless.

Shortly after the book was published in August, I spoke with Brooks by email not only about how women who make rational but unpopular parenting decisions are frequently harassed and arrested, but also about the availability heuristic, the Cinderella Paradox, and how — obvious as it might sound to say so — we often need to be reminded that kids are people.

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KATHLEEN ROONEY: Some readers familiar with your novel The Houseguest might be curious about why a fiction writer would choose now to write a fairly heavily researched book about parenting. Why did you decide to do so, and what would you say to people who wonder why they should listen to your ideas on the subject?

KIM BROOKS: This is a question I’m asked a lot, particularly by male literary fiction writers. It always puzzles me a bit that parenting as a subject, or mothering, to be more specific, is often quarantined in this way, as something essentially unliterary or unsuitable for treatment by a serious literary writer. I sometimes wonder if male writers who turn to specific themes or subjects such as war or baseball or outer space aren’t asked why they chose to write war books or baseball books or space books. For me, writing is about exploring or answering questions, and at this point in my life the questions that weighed on me the most were about the relationship between fear, parenthood, feminism, and the nuclear family, so that’s what I decided to write about, and I decided to do so in nonfiction. So if that makes it “just” a parenting book to some people, so be it.

For the record, I think it’s so much more complex than just that. And I wonder, why have our notions of what it means to be a good parent changed so radically? In what ways do these changes affect the lives of parents, children, and the structure of communities at large?

Many of our impulses around protecting children, particularly in public spaces, began with the moral panics surrounding children throughout the ’80s: kidnapping and abduction, sex abuse, satanic rituals, the McMartin Preschool witch hunt in which hundreds of daycare workers were imprisoned, then years later exonerated, for charges of abusing children. There were many highly publicized, televised cases involving children being hurt in grotesque and unthinkable ways. Of course, one of the reasons these cases received so much attention is because they were so unusual.

In my research, I learned about something psychologists call the availability heuristic, which explains how when human brains are trying to judge the likelihood of something happening, for example our child being kidnapped or our plane falling out of the sky. We don’t pull up the statistical likelihood of such an event occurring, but instead, we base our assessment on how easy it is to think of an example of the bad thing happening. If I just watched a three-hour movie about a child falling down a well, that’s going to feel, at least in the non-pre-frontal cortex part of my brain, like a much more serious threat than, say, my kid being injured or killed in a car accident (which happens on average 487 times every day). So parents have been expected to protect children not only from likely threats, but also from nearly every bad thing that’s ever happened to any child, no matter how statistically unlikely. That’s a tall order.

Running alongside these changes is the fact that in the last decades of the 20th century there was a massive privatization of the process of raising children. As many Americans withdrew investments in social movements and broader ethical concerns, the cultivation of successful children became a central fixation for middle-class parents who now had to pay for and arrange many of the aspects of child-rearing that used to be provided by the government or larger communities: transportation, education, recreation. Public concern for children was replaced by private concern for one’s own children, and many parents began to feel that this private concern or hyper-vigilance was the only thing standing between their own children all the problems of downward social mobility.

Are the problems you describe universal throughout the United States, or do they localize more within particular demographics of class and race?

In terms of the general parental anxiety I write about, I do think the things we fear vary according to our own sense of security and power. In America, wealth and whiteness buy a great deal of safety, and so the most privileged Americans seem to project their parental anxiety onto increasingly obscure and absurd threats. In the book, I write about a company called Cognition Builders that, if you have a few hundred thousand dollars to spare, can set up webcams around your house and give you real-time parent coaching to help your kids excel in a variety of ways. I remember when I was interviewing one of the families, trying to focus on the oddness of the company itself, I couldn’t help but think about what could be accomplished for children more broadly with the amount of money and energy being funneled into this kind of highly individualized designer anxiety — how many schools, how many libraries, how many bike paths. What I noticed in my research, though, is that affluence and privilege don’t seem to reduce anxiety, but to displace it. Fear fills the space.

As for the criminalization of parenting — the arresting and harassing of mothers who make rational but not popular choices when it comes to their kids — this criminalization is happening across all demographics. However, because of the institutional racism of our criminal justice system, and because we’ve already criminalized poverty in so many ways, women of color and poor women often suffer more once a report is filed and the wheels start turning.

Lorrie Moore has likened the experience of being the parent of a small child to “a large nuclear bomb on the small village of my life.” Your book shows that if a person were not already a little bonkers when they had kids, then virtually every feature of the United States’s outrage-driven misogynistic culture and hyper-competitive dedication to capitalism are structured to drive a person to that point. You do an impressive job of showing that while parents of all genders suffer in this fear-based culture, the brunt of the struggle still tends to be borne by the mother. Why is that and what can we do about it?

Anyone who has ever been a mother (or a father) has experienced the double standards women face when it comes to raising children. In my estimation, our general cultural expectation is that regardless of whether or not she works outside the home, a mother will do the vast majority of the care, supervision, social planning, and emotional labor for her children. If she does less than the majority, no matter what other things she’s doing, she’s seen as abnegating her womanly duty.

To give an example of this, I was recently talking to a friend of mine who works as a judge in Texas. She’s frequently in court, and her husband works from home with flexible hours. Their daughter has a chronic health condition that requires her to be picked up from school from time to time. My friend put her husband as the first contact on her daughter’s phone tree form, but the school continued to call her first while she was behind the bench. She explained the situation to a school administrator in person, and still they continued to call her first. This continued for months, until her husband came to the school in person to implore them to contact him instead of his wife. My friend was aggravated by all this, but didn’t see it changing any time soon.

I think about her often when people ask me if women are held to a different standard of parenting. I also think about Danielle Meitiv, the Maryland mother who was charged with child endangerment for letting her kids walk to the park on their own, even though she was out of state at the time it happened, her husband at home “babysitting” the kids.

My private term (I made it up) for this state of things is the Cinderella Paradox: of course Cinderella can go to the ball, her stepsisters tell her, just as soon as she’s scrubbed the floors and washed the windows and cleaned out the chimney and a dozen other things. Of course women can work, our society tells us, of course we can be judges or hold elected offices, or be leaders in our community or become accomplished artists or take part in public life, just as soon as we’re done driving the kids to school and organizing their summer camp and making their Bento boxes and watching them every second because you never know what might happen. In this way, helicopter-parenting or paranoid parenting or whatever you want to call it is as much about women as it is about kids. We no longer limit women’s freedom in the name of their protection. We now limit their freedom by changing the standards for protecting kids.

To congratulate me on the publication of my book, a friend who is a historian sent me a fun fact from a 1995 United Nations survey that illuminates the scope of the problem. It found that women around the world do 11 trillion dollars’ worth of unpaid labor each year, almost a third of the world’s economy. I wish there were an easy fix to this, but the more I think and read about the idealization and demonization of mothers and the altar of domesticity before which so many of us bow, the more I begin to think that mother-shaming and double standards are integral to our entire economic system.

I admired how you wove in the perspectives of various experts, like Lenore Skenazy, of the Free Range Kids movement, dedicated to helping parents learn “How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry).” Can you talk a little bit about the research you looked at and the experts you spoke with as you worked on the book?

I included the experts who best helped me understand the historical and political context of what had happened to me and the other women who’d been arrested or harassed. Lenore was the first person I spoke to who proposed in a very straightforward and nonchalant way something that I’ve now come to understand is quite radical: the idea that much of what we do in the name of protecting children has little to do with protection and everything to do with a culture of superstition, toxic sentimentality, and police-state paranoia. The other expert who made a profound impression on me was Barbara Sarnecka, the cognitive scientist at University of California, Irvine, who studied the connection between risk assessment and moral judgment. She offered the most wonderful analogy to illustrate the way we treat children now, describing a dystopian future where we keep children confined to wheelchairs and arrest parents who let children walk around because every year, a few children fall down and hurt themselves or die and better safe than sorry. I remember she told me, “We don’t do that experiment because we recognize that children need freedom of physical movement to develop healthily; but in a way, we’re doing the experiment to see what happens when we take away most of kids’ other freedoms. We’re doing the experiment on an entire generation.”

As for my own kids, I try to give them as much freedom as I can reasonably give them while managing the real and likely risks of being in the world. My 11-year-old son has a much better sense of direction than I do, so for him, this means going a lot of places on his own if he chooses. I follow free-range principles, though I don’t really like the term free-range, simply because of the dehumanizing connotation. Kids aren’t poultry. They’re not our possessions. They’re not rare, exotic flowers that need to be ever-so-gently watered and hot-housed to maturity. Kids are people. They’re members of our community who deserve to be treated with respect. They deserve both freedom and responsibility.

A lot of cults have the name “family” in them — the Manson family, being the most obvious. And a lot of conservative politicians harp on the frequently quite reactionary and hypocritical notion of “family values.” Why is the idea of family wielded like a weapon? Has it always been? What should our definition of family be?

The historian Stephanie Coontz suggests that our new fixation on the family and family values during the last 20 years is not at all an apolitical development, but rather is a result of the unfettered individualism of the second Gilded Age. The nuclear family has long offered us a release valve on the ruthless self-interest we’ve come to take for granted in the public sphere. She writes that in the years preceding both the last Gilded Age and this one, Americans embraced an intensified focus on family values and private relations. In The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, she writes that “private family relations became less a preparation ground or supporting structure for civic responsibility than a substitute for such responsibility […] [t]he private family, in this sense, was a halfway house on the road to modern me-first individualism.” According to Jennifer Senior in her book All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, parents today spend less time than any other generation on relationships with friends, neighbors, extended kin, or civic engagement, and more time than ever with their children. What’s worse is we assume this private focus demonstrates virtue. Whenever a politician or public figure is disgraced, his PR person will announce that he’s going to be spending some time with his family, as though time with family automatically replenishes moral credibility. I don’t get it.

Being a good parent shouldn’t make it harder to be a good friend or sister or neighbor or citizen. The fact that it does makes me think that bell hooks has broken the code in her recent book of essays, All About Love. She describes the institution of the nuclear family as having little to do with love and everything to do with isolation, atomization, and perpetuating a system that gives one man maximum power over one woman and one woman maximum power over one or two children.

I often think about how important fun is to enacting real change, and how if things are too weighty and anxious and serious, despair takes over rather than a will to move forward. Or, as that quote attributed to Emma Goldman puts it, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” How can we make the necessary changes you detail in Small Animals fun?

Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by all this. The problems and the fear seem so pervasive and complex. But the root cause of the problem is simple: so many parents feel alone, unsupported, uncertain, unsafe. We’re living as a nation of strangers, every parent for herself. Fear did this, but fear can be undone. One woman I met at a reading told me she’d decided she wasn’t driving her kid to school anymore but encouraging him to walk the mile or two with a friend. In the time she would save, she wanted to become more politically active and to reconnect with old friends. She was a little nervous about letting the kids walk, but she pushed through it. That kind of thing makes me hopeful — when I see people feeling fear but not succumbing to it. It inspires me. For years I was terrified of flying, but right now I’m writing this on a plane. I don’t have the time anymore to be afraid.

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A founding editor of Rose Metal Press and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, Kathleen Rooney is the author, most recently, of the novel Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (St Martin’s Press, 2017) and The Listening Room: A Novel of Georgette & Loulou Magritte (Spork Press, 2018).


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