Choice. It is a loaded term. In our volatile political climate, it is even a buzzword, understood to refer to a particularly weighty decision concerning childbearing, and thus has become shorthand in the culture wars for a binary set of worldviews that are deeply at odds. (“Pro-choice.” “Anti-choice.”) But the idea of choice as an animating zeitgeist threads its way through the whole body of our culture, not just the arena of reproduction—that simply happens to be the location of one of its most visible arteries, throbbing just barely beneath and recently bursting again through the surface of social and political discourse. In contemporary North American life, we have, I am not the first to point out, become accustomed to availing ourselves of a wide variety of choices, whether in ordering a coffee or buying a house or finding a mate.
An entire literature weighs in on whether or not this is a good thing. See, for instance, Barry Schwartz’s well-known 2004 book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. Elsewhere Schwartz and others have referred to this phenomenon less benignly as the “tyranny of choice.” Since they have already done so, my purpose here is not to critique any particular set of choices, nor to opine whether the ubiquity of choice makes us more or less whole as a people, but merely to take note of the fact that Having Options has become a sacred entitlement in our late-capitalistic moment. As a burgeoning almost-mom, I am even more keenly interested in how this love of (addiction to?) choice intersects with and shapes contemporary American parenting trends.
I first started to take note of just how much choice parents are presented with and perhaps even feel entitled to on a daily—no, hourly—basis a few months ago, when we began to tell folks about our pregnancy. Suddenly we were on the receiving end of a barrage of questions that implied a range of options at every bend in the road. Some of them were consumer-oriented queries, dealing with the material detritus that makes up our daily existence. Are you using cloth or disposable diapers? Where are you registered?
Some of the questions were procedural. Are you breastfeeding or using formula? Are you getting the baby immunized? Are you co-sleeping? What kind of birth are you having? (This one took me aback the most. “The kind where the baby comes out,” was all I could think to say until, after multiple conversations, it dawned on me that this was a serious dialogue, that it would ensue many more times, and that I’d better not be snarky about it.) Some of them struck a middle ground between commodities and processes. Are you guys going to buy a bigger house? A bigger car? (No and no.) Some of them peered well into the blurry and distant future. Are you going to send it (well, her) to private or public school? (Our eyes cannot see that far.)
I began to mull over my reactions to this maternity game of twenty questions. These were well-meaning and in many cases quite reasonable inquiries posed by well-meaning and in many cases quite reasonable persons, so why in heaven’s name did I feel so defensive when confronted with what was usually just small talk? Was it because the interrogations served as a stark reminder that very soon we would be responsible for the shaping and molding of a tiny human life?
No, more than that was making me squirm. I realized that my latent defensiveness boiled over because I felt, incorrectly or not, that in aggregate these questions rested upon a hidden foundation of assumptions and presuppositions with which I was not entirely comfortable. What seemed to lie at the root of these questions was the belief, perhaps better called a hope, that by making a chain of the right decisions, one can guarantee one’s baby the best possible life with the least possible suffering. Deep love and complete terror and utter futility, in other words, seemed to be the triple pillars on which the queries were built.
Now in a limited sense these assumptions are of course quite true. I’m not sure how it all works out causally or existentially or theologically, but it would appear that humans do indeed make decisions every second of the day that materially affect others adversely or for the better, with more acute ramifications reverberating within the close circle of family. I must not feed my baby a diet of chocolate and expect her to remain cavity-free (full disclosure: I’m still not exactly sure when they grow teeth in the first place).
But there is another sense in which these suppositions are not true at all, as many grieved or simply frustrated parents can attest. A big part of life, and a large part of growing up, is realizing that you can do all the right things and still end up with rotten results. We all know deep down that many circumstances, including (alarmingly) those that touch our children, veer far outside of even the illusion of our control. What seems to be a prominent aim of contemporary American parenthood, though, is the attempt to try to shrink the number of circumstances that fit into the horrifying category of Uncontrollable.
Back to the questions. Without launching an extensive historicizing enterprise here, I’m pretty sure my grandmothers didn’t have access to most of the childrearing choices presented to me and my husband. Although the first disposable diaper was patented in 1948, it is unlikely that north Florida and small-town Arkansas drugstores rushed to stock them, at least probably not in time for my parents’ infant behinds to be swaddled in plastic in the early 1950s. I doubt my grandmothers devised elaborate “birth plans”; and the salaries of the schoolteachers, preachers, and cafeteria workers that kept their families fed and clothed would not have permitted consideration of private schools or larger houses. And adjusting for a bit of inevitable postlapsarian residue, my parents turned out magnificently considering the limited range of childraising options exercised upon them by their parents.
The stakes are too high and the data to overwhelming to successfully generalize in a simple fashion about why and how we have arrived at a point where middle class folks face a dismaying and perhaps unprecedented array of decisions related to bringing wee ones into the world. Is it a result of (arguably) increasing secularization in public and private spheres, whereas earlier generations of Westerners largely adhered, at least externally, to a belief in something like either divine providence or, at the very least, a form of religiously-inspired fatalism? My gut tells me this shift may play a role in the trend, although I am not at all convinced by the accuracy of the so-called secularization thesis in the first place.
Is it a result of living in an increasingly frightening world? Perhaps, but I am not sure that the world is really more frightening than it has ever been. I can name a thousand historical atrocities. Perhaps we just hear and see evidence of the terrors more often, tempting us to circle the wagons around our children via relentless and intentional decision-making. Two hundred years ago in this country, even one hundred years ago, many children didn’t even survive the birth process. With increased lifespans and decreased infant mortality, do parents dare to hope for more than earlier generations did, and try to actualize those dreams by laying an elaborate railroad track of carefully-scrutinized decisions for their progeny’s lives to run on?
Judging from the humming and ceaseless activity of mommy blogs and parenting magazines, committing oneself to certain interrelated sets of parenting choices, whatever they may be, seems at first glance to offer some respite from the uncertainties of life in a fallen world and the inscrutability of providence. The right program of eating, sleep-training, communication, and schooling holds out the promise of containing the uncontainable. These programs easily become dogma, morphing into religion, and isn’t the purpose of a religion to grant hope, to bring order to chaos, to save, to heal the gaping wounds we all know are there in a world that is never all it can be?
However, dig a little deeper and you’ll find that these same forums are often filled with teeth-gnashing, second-guessing angst over what is all too easily mocked by the non-parent. (Really? You think you screwed up your kid by feeding it a jar of non-organic baby food?) And so what begins with a good impulse, fueled by imperfect human love, becomes a fear-driven quest for the unattainable: protecting your child from the brokenness of the world, from having to live exiled from the garden, by dint of copiously correct choices meant to barricade the tiny infant from the fallout of the fall. As a religion, this is hollow and meager, and you will become sore from constantly propping yourself up if you try to rest your hope fully upon it.
As I lumbered up the aisle of our church last week, carrying my inside baby forward to receive communion, I thought of another mother, long ago and far away, whose efforts to shield her baby from the world’s broken promises also amounted to futility, for he came to enter into the fragmentation and chaos. I am humbled by watching others wrestle with the dilemma that I myself will begin to feel far more keenly in about fifteen weeks. There are no easy answers. Choices do matter, and thoughtful, intentional approaches to parenting must count somehow. But in the end they cannot be a worthy repository of faith. Particular sorts of diapers and foods and schools cannot undo our exile, but they can serve as small sacramental signs that imperfect mommies and daddies love their babies enough to keep wrestling with all the small choices at the same time that they also find rest in a far broader grace.