The American Family Grows Up
The American family is under attack, but not for any reason you might think. Neal Pollack traces the arc of young parenthood, toeing the delicate line between fun and responsibility.
Exactly one year ago today as I'm writing this, I was sitting in my home office, in my underwear, when my wife Regina burst through the door. It was a different office, a different home, and a different city than we live in now, though it very well might have been the same pair of underwear. Regardless, her news punctured the false cocoon of peace and security I'd woven around myself.She was on her cell phone."Elijah put a rock up his nose at school!" she said. "They can't get it out!"I shot up and ran into the other room, because that's where my pants were."Call his doctor!" I said, forcefully.On the way to school, I talked to the physician's assistant at the pediatrician's office. She was very sympathetic. She made us an emergency appointment. We got to school, and there was Elijah, two and a half years old, looking totally fine, if sounding a bit nasal."I put a rock up my nose, Daddy.""That's what I heard.""We have to go to the doctor," Regina said."No! I don't want to go doctor with a rock up my nose! I want a popsicle!""Well, we have to."So we did that, but the rock was so far up Elijah's nose that the P.A. couldn't extract it; apparently, the only doctor who could was 10 miles north, in a dreadful suburb where we never dared to tread.Whereas Elijah's usual pediatrician's office had a decorating scheme revolving around Beanie Babies and Green Eggs and Ham posters, this specialist's office mostly had photos of punctured eardrums. Elijah's face took on a thin film of fear.The doctor came in. He was a tall, goofy guy who was wearing one of those metal headbands with the big circle on it. I couldn't tell if he was trying to be funny."Is this our Rocky?" he said.I concluded that he was probably trying to be funny. He asked me to sit in his examination chair and to put Elijah in my lap. My chair was for a kid and his chair wasn't, so when he leaned in, our thighs were touching. This was quite awkward for me, as I'm sure it was for him, but I tried to focus on keeping Elijah still.The doctor put drops up Elijah's nose. Elijah flinched, but he didn't lose his mind. This was reserved for when the doctor inserted an inch-thick suction tube up Elijah's left nostril. Elijah screamed like he was dying. The other sound in the room was that of my heart breaking. The rock popped out.The doctor showed it to me. It was no more than an inch in diameter, reddish brown with little white flecks, basically circular, with some irregularities. Upon a closer look, it resembled a tiny hamburger patty.After we were done, I gave Elijah a little talking-to.How did this happen? When I was a kid, my parents certainly had their financial problems. But there was never any doubt that they'd be able to afford to send me to the doctor."You're never going to put a rock up your nose again, are you?""No, Daddy.""Are you going to put anything up your nose again?""Hercules!"Hercules is our Boston terrier."OK. Besides Hercules.""Hercules sits on my butt!""Elijah, I'm serious¦""Let it go," Regina said. "I think he gets it."That ended up being an expensive little lesson. Our health insurance, which cost us a few hundred a month, had a "surgery deductible." If any of us required surgery, we had to pay the first $1,000-each. We knew about the deductible, which is pretty much standard in most of the crappy health plans Americans have these days. But we weren't aware that, according to Blue Cross, sticking a tube up a child's nose to extract a rock is "surgery." Elijah's little escapade cost us $600.Since I've become a family man, I've suspected that the family, such as it stands, is under attack. Many politicians claim this as well, though their claims are based mostly on scanty anecdotal evidence gleaned from watching bad TV, combined with a fear of poor people. Instead, I've had to learn through hard experience that middle-class American families are being forced to live, almost entirely, without a net.Let's go back to health insurance. We recently moved from Texas to California, for various reasons. Blue Cross denied us coverage because Regina had a little thyroid problem and because I was on antidepressants, both problems that had been treated in Texas, while we were under Blue Cross insurance. Somehow, we've managed to retain our prescriptions under the Texas coverage, but that's only because the bureaucracy hasn't caught up with us yet.Meanwhile, we bought Elijah a policy here, but we just got word that his premiums have gone up. Also, certain things that were previously covered aren't covered anymore, or are only covered partially. We haven't even used the coverage yet, and we're already being denied. The message here is that health care, for all but the richest families, is an unaffordable luxury.How did this happen? When I was a kid, my parents certainly had their financial problems. But there was never any doubt that they'd be able to afford to send me to the doctor. They also raised me in one of the nicest parts in the country, in a town that permitted no commercial real estate, in a dead-silent neighborhood where you could see the stars at night, in a house with a kidney-shaped swimming pool and copious fruit trees.I make as much money, even in relative terms, as my father did at my age. But until recently I'd never lived in a house that didn't have city buses rumbling down the street at all hours. We brought my son home from the hospital to a house down the street from the city's only day-labor center. I regularly chased prostitutes off my front lawn.In Los Angeles, our situation is somewhat better. The neighborhood is a little nicer than before. But we rent. Affording to buy an even remotely tolerable house is beyond our means. If we wanted a fixer-upper next to an auto-body shop-which we don't-we'd still have to find a way to finance $550,000. The beer trucks only drive down our street if there's construction on the main commercial road. Because of that, my son thinks this is a "quiet" neighborhood, and that breaks my heart.Education is another source of continual anxiety. My parents may have worried that I wasn't being stimulated quite enough in school, or that I had some lazy teachers, but they didn't have much doubt, overall, that I'd get a decent public education that would prepare me for college. They certainly didn't have to worry about financing my education before college.My wife and I, on the other hand, have had to make serious cutbacks in order to send our son to preschool. We rarely get babysitters, we don't go out to eat, and we don't buy new shoes. None of this is tragic, but let me emphasize this again: We're making sacrifices to send our son to preschool. When it comes to sending him to elementary school, we're faced with even more difficult choices. Our current neighborhood, which we don't like that much anyway, has one decent charter school and a bunch of unacceptable options. There are neighborhoods and suburbs nearby with better schools, but we can't afford to buy houses there. We don't even know if we can afford to rent in those neighborhoods.All of this adds up to an increasingly empty feeling that I'm not going to be able to provide for my kid like my parents did for me. The conclusion I've reached, one that I never even considered before I had a kid, is that society has failed the family. No structures exist to help us, and no, the marriage deduction doesn't count.The nuclear family, a mostly modern creation to begin with, seems like it's begun to fade into the realm of myth. Regina and I had Elijah in Austin, Texas, a perfectly fun, laid-back place to have a kid, but also 1,000 miles from any extended family. Any larger sense of community we felt was limited to an occasional babysitting swap night we did with another couple that we liked. This hardly formed the basis of a revolution.But we had no idea that we were living at the front of a wave. A quiet reinvention of the whole idea of the American family was underway. Out of our struggles, and those of thousands of families like us, Family 2.0 was being born.The current generation of parents is laid-back but not permissive, strict but not authoritarian, involved but not hyper-involved. We're reacting, in large part, to the dual excesses of the Baby Boomers. We have neither the means nor the desire to spoil our children, and we lack the energy to become full-on Soccer Moms and Dads. The parenting norms of the past don't seem to apply to our lives. Instead, we've begun to pull together a new parenting culture.As it does with almost everything else in the contemporary world, the internet is leading the way. When we had Elijah, the online parenting community had just begun to flower. Regina spent a lot of time on the urbanbaby.com message boards, seeking friends, tips, and support. But what she found, while occasionally helpful, was mostly anonymous complaining and backstabbing. There was something impersonal, and even a little sinister, about the whole thing.This manifested itself most fully when I published an article on Salon about how Elijah got expelled from his first preschool for biting. It was a nasty episode full of mistakes on our part, and on the school's. But it didn't warrant the explosion of vitriol against us. We were called "people who shouldn't have children," and Regina got an email that compared Elijah with a serial killer and threatened to call child welfare on us.But that was two years ago, a lifetime on the internet. Online parenting culture has evolved. "Mommyblogs," with their confessional style and easy access to family photos, put faces to the previously anonymous posters, and made nasty side commenting much more difficult, and much less likely. The "daddyblogs" appeared later, but they, too, presented a different side of fatherhood, self-effacing and cynical, but also nurturing. Suddenly, thousands of mothers were publicly relating their doubts, fears, and joys, and fathers were publicly trying to figure out their own changing roles in a world where family is constantly in flux.Blog coalitions evolved naturally. Mommyblogs evolved into group blogs, and then daddyblogs followed suit. Soon, families in Seattle and Boston, Utah and Los Angeles, and all points in between, were sharing experiences, stories, and resources. The culture continues to evolve. Websites openly calling themselves part of the "Family 2.0" movement have begun to spring up, online parenting communities that mimic MySpace in their intention, but are slowly starting to find their own way.In the physical world, the social life of families is slowly but inexorably changing as well. An organization called Baby Loves Disco, started by a Philadelphia record producer and stay-at-home dad, has been, for the last year, staging massive parties in a half-dozen cities. Hundreds of families from San Francisco to Boulder to Brooklyn gather in nightclubs. A DJ spins dance hits from the '70s and '80s. The parents drink at an open bar, while the kids eat healthy snacks and drink from juice boxes. There's a "chill-out room" full of books and puzzles, bubble machines, balloons, and lots of other surprises. It's a simple concept that's perfect for its time. Parents and kids are having fun together, and meeting other families, under the innocent guise of a party.At best, it's the basis for a new kind of community. At the very least, it's a hell of a lot better than having to watch your kid throw himself around a jumpy castle for an hour.I don't know where all this is leading. Will it just be easier for families to meet other families that are "like" them? Will babysitting co-ops and community gardens emerge? Will there be a family-oriented nightclub party circuit? Any number of directions is possible.An organization called Moms Rising presents one possibility. Through their website, momsrising.org, they're leading the political component of the Family 2.0 movement, campaigning for affordable health care and schooling, flex time and fair wages for work-at-home parents, and better after-school programs. Their comprehensive, thoughtful campaign was born out of the same sort of quiet desperation that my wife and I felt upon discovering that society would offer us no help in finding an affordable place to live, locating a school, or vacuuming stones out of our kid's nose.I imagine, or dream of, a society where my kid can live in a safe, comfortable neighborhood, be assured of decent, affordable health care, and attend a good public school. The institutions of our society may be moving against those desires, but the people aren't. We're very early in the process, but a generation is rallying itself, slowly but steadily.I'll be joining them as soon as I pay my $400 gasoline bill from last month. For that, I don't blame anyone but myself. It's my own damn fault for moving to L.A.