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Playground Pioneers

Written by Jeremy Adam Smith   
Tuesday, 01 March 2011 00:00
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Kids will destroy your life, reports Jeremy Adam Smith. But don’t worry, parents: You’ll get a new one.

In the fall of 2005, I worked part-time and took care of my infant son for most of the day while my wife, Olli Doo, was at her job. We didn’t have any family in the San Francisco area, and we had lost most of our child-free friends, who wondered why we stopped coming to their fabulous parties. Communication between Olli and me was limited to reports on meals, naps and diaper changes before one of us headed out the door to work. For the first time in 14 years together, we experienced serious strain in our relationship. Our son, Liko, was our main company, a diaper-clad bridge between her workplace and mine.

On sunny playgrounds I taught Liko to walk, his little fists clenched around my aching forefingers. Pushing a swing, I’d eye the mothers and they eyed me, or so I imagined. I was typically the only father. The moms seldom spoke to me and I was frankly afraid of them. I feared—it sounds ridiculous to admit—that if I initiated a real conversation, they’d think I was hitting on them. Deep in my bones, I felt that I didn’t belong on weekday playgrounds. Not just because I was a dad; I didn’t even feel like a parent, not then. I felt like a spy, an interloper, an anthropologist studying a lost tribe of stroller-pushing urban nomads.

In addition to our drooly, poopy, giggling baby boy, the main thing my wife and I shared during this period was our isolation. Yet, in at least one respect, we had plenty of company: Research shows that most parents today face the same challenges we did. “Increasingly, new families are created far from grandparents, kin, and friends with babies the same age, leaving parents without the support of those who could share their experiences of the ups and downs of parenthood,” write University of California, Berkeley, psychologists Philip Cowan and Carolyn Pape Cowan in the 2003 anthology, All Our Families. “Most modern parents bring babies home to isolated dwellings where their neighbors are strangers.”

The Cowans studied 200 nuclear families over two decades and found that today’s parents face a range of challenges that earlier generations did not. In addition to the timeless problems of sleep deprivation, putting food on the table, and learning to take care of a baby—stressful all by themselves—the Cowans found that most husbands and wives with new babies come to feel isolated from each other—as well as their friends, families, and communities—and this isolation can harm their health, well-being and marriages.

What’s more, the Cowans found that “strained economic conditions and the shifting ideology about appropriate roles for mothers and fathers pose new challenges for these new pioneers, whose journey will lead them through unfamiliar terrain.” In other words, not only are we geographically isolated from family and friends, but we’re cut off from tradition as well: Modern conditions make it difficult—if not impossible—to emulate older family models, leaving us with few clear templates for what our families should look like.

According to the Cowans’ findings, when I see my family, I see every family I know. But I’ve discovered that the isolation and pressures the Cowans describe are only half the story: Though we might live in isolated times, we are not condemned to lives of lonely desperation. Eventually, Olli and I overcame our isolation, and so did many of the families around us, building new lives, identities and communities in the process. As Richard Ross, a 47-year-old dad, once told me, “Sure, kids’ll destroy your life. But don’t worry: You’ll get a new one.”


Against the Wall

“Through most of history,” writes family historian Stephanie Coontz in her essay “How to Stay Married,” “marriage was only one of many places where people cultivated long-term commitments. Neighbors, family, and friends have been equally important sources of emotional and practical support.”

She continues: “Today, we expect much more intimacy and support from our partners than in the past, but much less from everyone else. This puts a huge strain on the institution of marriage. When a couple’s relationship is strong, a marriage can be more fulfilling than ever. But we often overload marriage by asking our partner to satisfy more needs than any one individual can possibly meet, and if our marriage falters, we have few emotional support systems to fall back on.”

Viru Gupte, 40 years old, grew up in India, where most marriages are still arranged by parents and communal life remains very strong, even in the country’s dense urban areas. “In Indian cities, the people around you become your family,” says Viru, who was raised in Delhi. “The kids practically grow up in their neighbors’ apartments. You just walked in whenever you wanted, and they fed you. There’s a lot of intergenerational mix.”

After Viru came to the United States to attend college, he met Beth Saiki, who grew up in New Mexico. For nearly 15 years, they maintained a long-distance relationship (for three of those years, they lived in different countries while Beth served in the Peace Corps), and their plans and social lives were driven by their respective careers.

Then Anna Priya came along. “The hardest part of becoming a parent for me was figuring out what to drop at work so that I could be home,” says Viru, who is the self-employed co-founder of a small information technology firm. He was also shocked at how alone they became.

“You have to really ask for help here in the United States,” he says. “And I’m not talking about friends; I’m talking about family. If something goes wrong, you can’t just expect help.”

In the first trimester of Beth’s second pregnancy, something did go wrong. Beth grew very sick and could hardly leave the bedroom. In India, says Viru, his family members would have dropped everything to help, but in America—with both sets of relatives far away—Viru was forced by their isolation to assume a new caregiving role. He virtually quit working for three months while he took care of both his daughter and his wife.

Even without health complications, living so far from family and friends can exacerbate the typical strains of becoming a new parent. Jackie Adams, 42, grew up in a mountain town east of Lake Tahoe that always felt too small and conservative for her. She left a month after she turned 18 and ultimately settled in San Francisco. Ten years ago, she met 37-year-old Jessica Mass, and from the beginning the couple talked about having a child together.

After Ezra (“the only name we could agree on”) was born in 2005, Jackie says that “he felt like the missing piece of the puzzle.” But with no family in town to help, no friends with children, and her partner at work after just two weeks of parental leave, Jackie faced the transition to parenthood alone—an isolated condition which, note the Cowans, “poses a risk to [mothers] and their babies’ well-being.”

“I don’t think I slept for literally a month after Ezra was born,” recalls Jackie. “I remember being with him twenty-four seven, and I don’t remember sleeping. I remember actually hitting my head against the wall at one point, because I just couldn’t control it at all.”

But this was only one source of stress for Jackie and Jessica. While Jackie was learning how to take care of a baby at home alone, Jessica struggled to craft a new role as a breadwinning, non-biological mom—one for which she had few role models.

“I definitely didn’t feel like a father, because I’d grown up learning to be a mother,” says Jessica, whose extended family lives in New York. “Jackie was doing the mother’s role, but I wasn’t going to do the father’s role. To call myself the father felt like that was a further step away from being the parent.”

I know something of how Jessica feels, as unlikely as that might sound. Women cast into the traditional fathering roles—as she was—and men who embrace the mothering role—as I did—often find themselves struggling to match their newfound identities against models they see in society at large. As the Cowans point out, pioneers in new family forms, like pioneers throughout history, often find themselves alone in places for which there are no maps. When nontraditional parents—who today are the majority of parents—step onto the playground, they’re not sure where they stand in relation to other parents. Their fear of not belonging can keep them isolated from potential friends and role models.