You’re Doomed To Be A Helicopter Parent — But It’s Not Your Fault

By Laura Norkin

I’m staring at my 2-year-old daughter through a night-vision monitor. I pan the camera side to side until the screen images her midsection, and zoom in to be sure I see it rise and fall beneath her tight-fit dinosaur pajamas. Sometimes, I still sneak into her room for an in-person check, too — there’s only one way to be sure my child is safe, my thinking goes, and it involves my own two eyes.

It makes sense that the technology I use for this is otherwise reserved for warfare. Parenting is like that sometimes. Dangers surround, some of which we can’t even see using $280 LED cameras — and that’s why we turn to a more metaphorical militaristic MO: helicoptering.

“Okay, Millennial Parents Need To Chill The Fuck Out,” blared a BuzzFeed headline back in May that has since racked up 4.8 million visits. It’s a listicle comparing millennial parenting (an Instagram of a Pinteresty bento-boxed lunch, e.g.) against what our parents would’ve done. (A foil-wrapped PB&J, probably, but no one wasted film documenting it.) Ha, ha, ha. Millennials. What an embarrassing bunch of tryhards.

In Time ‘s October 2015 cover story, “Help, My Parents Are Millennials,” Katy Steinmetz writes, “This generation has no Dr. Spock. They have a zillion competing Facebook friends and Internet ‘experts.’”

It says we’re self-centered “special snowflakes” who’ve now lasered in all of our considerable attention to our children. We’re so concerned with their fragile senses of self, we can’t direct them at all, and so we just hover, worrying over the photogeneity of our democratically run households and, most of all, uniqueness. It tries to make “drone parenting” happen.

Meanwhile, Time forgot what it’s really like for parents now. Facebook, where it would seem we begin and end, is full of people doomsaying and being, frankly, kind of offended if we aren’t equal-opportunity terrified by everything they share.

There’s the story about the mom whose infant tragically died on his first day of daycare, the twin who had to rescue the other twin from under a dresser, the woman who lost her child to strangulation by crib blanket, and the father whose daughter died in a freak accident involving a piece of building masonry, to name a few honest-to-god true examples.

Are you not afraid? You should be. The public service of these articles is frightening people into “better” parenting. And so we click, Like, and share them, performing parental concern, pushed by the pressure to be afraid of the same things as everyone else. But all news isn’t created equally (or, it bears repeating every day of 2017, factually). “I think it’s difficult for many parents to discriminate,” says Matt Lundquist, LCSW, a psychotherapist in Manhattan.

And so here we are: We are raising different kids in different times, and — yeah, I’ll say it — it’s harder, and scarier, and it’s making us all a little nuts. But the good news, or, the okay news is that it’s not our fault.

It’s survival of the fearfulest out here.

Many millennials will recognize the label “helicopter parenting” from our childhood. It was affixed to those achievement-obsessed upper-middle class parents who cared so much about their children’s comfortable excellence that they did everything they could to ensure it — like the kids’ homework, mainly.

“It used to mean the Volvo station wagon that you hope some day will pack up your kids’ things and take her to Yale, and the $300-an-hour SAT tutor,” says Lundquist. But things have changed. “In some ways it’s come to mean a nail-biting mother now.”

Okay, I’ll bite. Can you blame us? We have seen calamity in our lifetime marking several of our formative stages. Columbine brought tragedy to our classrooms at the hands of our very peers. When we were fledgling young adults, September 11 “was a shock in terms of taking in the reality of ways that we’re unsafe,” Lundquist says. And then the economy shattered before many in our generation could land their first real jobs. Once we got the rug back underneath ourselves, a deranged shooter stormed into an elementary school in Newtown.

We watched all of this unfold in real time, the first generation to experience 24/7 news coverage. Today, we’re seeing a resurgence of literal Nazism, the threat of nuclear war thanks to a president with a twitchy Twitter finger, apocalyptic weather stranding Americans without food and water, and still more guns. At once it feels ludicrously impossible and urgently important to keep our children safe. And so we hover.

Shelby Strickland, 33, who has a 2-year-old son and works as a genetics researcher in Raleigh, N.C. feels the nonstop news wearing on her confidence as a parent. “We get alerts on our phones to the dangers around us at all times, and there’s clickbait articles telling us the 10 biggest things we’re doing to screw up our kids,” she says. She remembers learning about stranger danger as a kid in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and generally understanding if you have good parents, everything turns out fine. But she saw the mother of one of the Columbine shooter give a TED talk in which she seems like a pretty good parent — and now she’s not so sure.

“A lot of blame is put on mothers,” she says. “So, now, society tells us to hover to keep from making our kids be bad people, or from being the victims of bad people — it’s lose-lose.” She says it’s scary to even talk about. Her son’s daycare has surveillance cameras with a feed parents can watch any time; she feels “almost inappropriate” logging on, and also like it finally gave her a sense of security.

The question of what we can and cannot control is central to parents’ mounting anxiety. Social media has become ubiquitous and unregulatable, at a global level, but also in the way it touches our families.

It’s the first thing Tiffany Benson, 29, a stay-at-home mom in Modesto, CA, mentions when rattling off a considerable list of parental fears, and her daughter is only in third grade (she also has a son, who’s 4). The 9-year-old’s teacher just sent home a note asking that children keep their phones off in class. “That blows my mind,” Benson says. All she can do is not let them have phones, but still. “The thought that bullying can be taken so much further and be a 24-7 activity: I’m terrified for it to happen to my kids; I’m terrified for them to be the bully,” she says.

It doesn’t even matter that each devastating story also comes with a statistical improbability that it will happen to your child. On some level, we all believe we’re the exception to the rule. So amid the cacophony of tragedy there’s an equally noisy din of tiny decisions every day: Is this dangerous? Is this okay?

“More than anything, in the conversations I have with parents, I find myself telling them: You’re doing fine. Your kid is well. You’re making good choices. And when I say it, it feels as if I’m pushing back against the world a little bit, which is often sending messages that I think are unhelpful,” Lundquist says.

Trust no one, least of all yourself.

Critics may point to the people who start obsessing before a baby has even been conceived to show what a joke this new helicopter parenting is. Or remind us things are generally going well if we have the mental energy to fret about sunscreen ingredients (fair). And yes, there are extremes, but much of this anxiety-first style of parenting is forged in fact.

A 2013 New York Times report into the high cost of giving birth in the United States found that the financial incentives for doctors and hospitals to perform services means that now, “American women with normal pregnancies tend to get more of everything, necessary or not, from blood tests to ultrasound scans,” according to Katy Kozhimannil, a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.

I experienced this myself the following year. Each checkup brought a warning of the next possible bad outcome, casting a pall that would stick around through pregnancy and beyond.

When you have a baby, you’ll find poison-control warnings on the toothpaste that is literally meant to go in their mouth; “cooked in facilities that” warnings on every packaged food; “this is not a toy” on plastic bags. These disclaimers may be the result of decades of litigiousness, but they also send a very clear message: Should something terrible happen to your child, it is definitely, categorically — and provably in a court of law — your fault. And, that these things happen. While we can brush off these risks as silly individually, taken together they’re fuel for self-doubt.

“We have broken intuition,” says Jamie Glowacki, social worker, speaker, and author of the Oh Crap! potty training book that “everyone” will tell you to buy. After finding that millennial parents were getting so “twisted up” by online feedback, she reissued the guide with a new chapter specifically telling us to listen to our instincts, something she says parents used to just do.

Meanwhile, millennials are suffering an inflated sense of individual power, too. We’re told to brand ourselves, disrupt, create our own vision of success and happiness, then simply make it real. It’s no wonder we blame ourselves for our miscarriages and think our children’s ultimate and constant health and happiness are also within our control. A lot of times we are being told that it is.

“You’re so unsure those first two years, and parents come out of the freaking gate like they are experts. Then your resolve is shaken,” she says. And then what? We need a book to tell us how to take our kids’ diapers off and chase them around with paper towels for three days, I guess.

Because that’s what all of the pressure, judgment, and fear-mongering is good for: moving products. After all, sending money is not just the easiest way to absolve yourself of parenting fear, it’s the American way.

You can always trust retail.

“I had read so many stories of babies having seizures from high fevers, and anytime my daughter got even a slight fever I would think she was going to die,” says Tiffany Benson, the SAHM in Modesto now contending with classroom iPhones. “I bought a crazy expensive thermometer that you run across the head.” It cost more than $100. She also splurged on glass baby bottles (like this $40 set of three, “because BPA”) and a pricey car seat. (Perhaps a $350 Maxi-Cosi? Because, she says, “Who isn’t terrified by those dummy baby car accident videos?”)

Millennials represent $200 billion in buying power; and like generations before, the moms still do most of the family buying. That would explain ad campaigns like Proctor & Gamble’s “Thanks Mom,” from summer 2016, which showed Olympic athletes remembering times their mothers inspired them to excel (success in helicoptering!). Or why, in 2013, Fisher Price increased its digital ad buy by 50% specifically to target millennial moms. A marketing exec told AdAge these moms do “tons of research,” and the brand had to come up with strategies to combat their selective purchasing.

Based on the fact that every parent I know came to own a Rock ‘N Play Sleeper within days of getting a baby, the strategy must’ve worked.

“There’s so many more mechanisms of marketing by shame, marketing by fear,” Lundquist, the Manhattan therapist, says. “Go look at any campaign for disinfectant, for example — and listen, it’s very effective.” To wit: Parents lathered their kids with hand sanitizer until they had to be told to stop. Though Amazon Prime launched in 2005, it hit stratospheric earnings (to the tune of $70 billion) in 2014 — it’s been growing up, so to speak, as more and more millennials become parents and urgently need to buy swaddle blankets in the middle of the night.

Nothing springs loose a parent’s credit card quite like the fear that their child will inexplicably die in their sleep. “I think that there are many companies that prey on many parents’ worst fears,” says Alexandra David, 31, an attorney in Minneapolis who now stays home with her 2-month-old and 2-year-old. “While I was lucky enough to be able to borrow a bassinet from a friend, I know that even I would spend an unreasonable amount of money to make sure my daughter was sleeping safely.”

Consider products like the $1,200 SNOO bassinet developed by baby-sleep demigod Dr. Harvey Karp, or the Owlet baby monitor, a “smart sock” that tracks a sleeping infant’s pulse oximetry. These bear the implicit promise that it’s within your ability to guarantee safety to your child, while also saying you are right to worry about blood-oxygen levels all night long. And your worry can be eased with cash.

David also points to intense online chatter influencing how much she spent. “I notice that on social media, and especially within the mom groups on Facebook, there seems to be a slight obsession about car seat safety,” which she says made her feel pressured to over-spend. “I definitely shelled out extra cash to feel like I was keeping her safer in a more expensive car seat, when in reality all car seats are safe and pass the same standards.”

It can feel foolish to buy in, but who wants to be the parent who doesn’t?

“When other parents are worried about whether or not there’s bacteria in the sand at the playground, that can make you feel like a bad parent for the fact that you never even thought about there being bacteria in the sand at the playground,” Lundquist says. “It can make you feel like you’re being insufficiently vigilant.” Helicopter parenting now is about guaranteeing — and having the receipts to prove — that we are protecting our kids at all times from all things. It’s just survival.

Back off, if you dare.

The New York Times in July described a night when New York single mom Maisha Joefield put her daughter to bed, then put in headphones to relax in the bath. The 5-year-old got up, couldn’t find her mom — who couldn’t hear the girl calling — and left their home in search of her grandpa’s. Because of her misstep, Joefield ended up in jail, and her daughter in foster care.

Then there’s the Meitiv family in Maryland, all but urban lore at this point, who were investigated by CPS twice for letting their 10- and 6-year-old walk home from the playground alone.

“I’m willing to look like a slightly ‘neglectful’ mom to give my child that freedom, but I can see I’m being judged,” says Glowacki. “I’m being judged by all the moms who are overbearing and helicoptering. It’s such a tail-eating snake.”

Everyone is having a hard time drawing a line and just figuring out what’s reasonable versus what’s over-protective.

Gone are the days when kids could safely amble a neighborhood for the vague hours between the school and dinner bells — both because our neighborhoods can be less safe, and because as a society we’re not really leaving it up to parents to determine what “safe enough” means. Kicking the kids out to play till nighttime seems categorically insane, while filling up their after-school hours with extracurriculars is doing too much.

This is just more of the same for women, the expectation that we keep everything together, but never show the effort. (Be thin but don’t diet; date but don’t ask for a label; raise your kid with a healthy self-image and ensure their constant bodily safety but don’t work at that, or worry about it.)

Malaika Dower, 39, Oakland, CA-based mom, a friend of mine, and creator of the parenting podcast How To Get Away With Parenting, says her parenting ideal is “a little less helicoptery. But in order to do that I feel like I need a playbook, literally learning how not to be a helicopter parent but still be a very engaged and thoughtful parent.”

A reaction to being helicoptered herself, she says she and her husband started their laidback parenting journey with Baby Led Weaning, a feeding method that entails watching an infant gag and potentially choke on broccoli florets rather than spoon-feeding purees. “It’s less work, seemingly,” Dower says. “But it’s so much more work internally, because you’re like DYING.”

To step back in this way is so counterintuitive, she says, that she and her husband “basically had to become ‘practitioners’ of a thing to let our kid have what we hope is a normal childhood.” She researched, she obsessed, she launched a podcast and called in the experts, so she could become the most appropriately hands-off parent possible.

“Everyone is having a hard time drawing a line and just figuring out what’s reasonable versus what’s over-protective,” says Rachel Sussman, LCSW, a New York-based relationship therapist, who sees couples navigate disagreements about this very topic constantly.

I remember weeks after we’d each given birth to our babies, laying them together on a picnic blanket in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, and Dower said: “This can’t be right; who approved this?” As if we couldn’t possibly be allowed to just be in charge now.

Walking out of the hospital is hard. You have to say goodbye to the nurses who literally helped you pee just a day before. And if you live in New York and 17 other states, in lieu of any reasonable postnatal care, you were made to watch a dramatic shaken baby syndrome PSA before leaving. No matter that a main risk factor for that is an adult who has committed physical abuse in the past, and that it’s so uncommon, a person is more likely to suffer a fatal fall out of a tree.

This is the last word from the first place that recognizes us as parents: Your infant will probably cry like a maniac at some point, and we expect you to completely break, possibly killing them. Maybe hospitals could spend that time telling us about the life-giving powers of frozen, witch hazel-infused maxi pads, instead. That would help.

“I’m against the ‘back in the good old days’ narrative, too,” Glowacki of potty training fame says. “My mom was inside the house smoking — it wasn’t better, but it was different.” She does wonder, though, why babies were generally potty trained by age 2 one generation ago, and now she says the average is 3-and-a-half. “How, in one generation, have we shifted an entire cultural norm?” I’ll tell you how: Because it’s not just baby crap that’s changing.

Welcome to Mothership: Parenting stories you actually want to read, whether you’re thinking about kids right now or not, from egg-freezing to taking home baby and beyond. Because motherhood is a big if — not when — and it’s time we talked about it that way.

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