I first realized I might be in danger of screwing up my kid while we were finger-painting.
My 20-month-old son, Harper, and I were at the kitchen table. A blank piece of paper was in front of him, and he watched intently as I unwrapped a row of paints in bright colors. I opened the blue, scooped up a blob on my finger, and plopped it onto his paper. Harper stared at it for a moment, then massaged it, karate-chopped it, picked up the paper, and threw it.
"No, no, no," I told him. "Let's make something. Watch Mommy. I'm going to make a circle." Pause. "What is Harper going to make?"
He windshield-wipered his hands across the page. Then he slipped a paint-covered finger into his mouth and smiled. It was a sweet moment.
So why did I feel so frustrated?
I've always been an overachiever. I didn't go to Harvard, but I was obsessed with my career in my twenties. I chased accomplishments--journalism awards, bylines in prestigious magazines--and defined myself by my job as a writer, which made me feel interesting and smart.
Then I had Harper. Suddenly, it was hard to think about anything but the enormous responsibility of raising a child.
I did what American mothers do, especially in high-achieving cities like Washington--I ordered a stack of parenting books: The Happiest Baby on the Block, What to Expect the First Year, Dr. William and Martha Sears's The Baby Book, and a dozen others. I read them all. I wasn't just looking for advice on how to get my four-month-old to sleep or how to drop a night feeding. I was thinking long-term. I wanted to get this parenting thing right.
I had Harper on a three-nap schedule at three months old, and thanks to Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, he was sleeping through the night at four months.
I quit my job. I was too worried that Harper might not get the love and stimulation he needed during the eight hours I was gone every day, and we didn't need my salary.
I enrolled him in a "tummy time" class to help him develop the core muscles necessary for rolling, sitting, and standing. At six months he was shaking bells in a music class, and at nine months he was in a play group. As Harper morphed from cherub-cheeked baby into a svelte toddler, I began teaching him the alphabet, working to stretch his attention span, and planning enriching activities for the week. One of his first words was "go."
Mom friends and I compared notes like graduate students cramming for midterms: What were the best books for potty training? How did you get your kid to brush his teeth? Eat broccoli? Wear a helmet while riding his tricycle? Did anyone turn her child's car seat to face forward before he turned two?
We were all trying to do our best. Every generation wants its kids to be happy, and a certain amount of worry comes with the job. But I sensed more than anxiety. As a generation, we sounded like we were crafting a blueprint for raising a better kid. We lamented how little our parents had known about child-rearing--how much they got wrong about discipline (it's about educating, not yelling!) or safety (our parents let us sleep on our stomachs--the risks!). But mostly, we talked about our kids in terms of development--how we could nudge them ahead to the next set of milestones. ("Your child knows his colors--I heard about these flash cards that might help him learn that the sun is yellow and fire trucks are red.")
Which brings me back to the finger-painting. If I'm being honest about why that moment haunts me, it's because I heard an unrecognizable voice coming from within. I didn't want Harper just to smear the paint around the paper. I wanted to teach him how to draw, and by that I mean help guide his fingers in circles to make, say, wheels on a car.
That's when it dawned on me: I wasn't just bringing up baby--I was trying to raise a kid who could finger-paint by age two, learn his letters by three, and speak in complex sentences by four. Not to mention share his toys, eat his veggies, and say please and thank you.
I felt if I could do everything exactly right, Harper would turn out okay--even ahead of the curve.
Much has been written about "helicopter" parents. In a recent article in the Atlantic, "How to Land Your Kid in Therapy," writer Lori Gottlieb lays out the results of helicopter parenting on the generation of kids now in young adulthood. Time has published "The Backlash Against Overparenting," and New York magazine published a much-talked-about piece in 2010 about "why parents hate parenting."
Here's the thing: I don't see the parents in those stories at the playground anymore. The upper-middle-class moms at Washington parks today are cut from a slightly different cloth. They hover, but not too much. They've read all about the dangers of overparenting and know it's important to give kids some space. They're obsessed with their children's safety but don't want them to miss out on anything, so they buy things like the Learning Tower, a no-tip kitchen stool with safety walls so kids can help prepare dinner.
Which isn't to say they're less involved. Experts tell me that today's new parents are "enmeshed." While the helicopter parent is famous for hovering over a child, the enmeshed parent is blurring the line between parent and child altogether.
In certain circles, being a parent means constructing your identity almost entirely around your role as mom or dad. And it's not just those of us who have left the workforce. Working moms such as Christina Applegate's character on NBC's Up All Night also obsess over how much time they spend with their kids, whether their children are on track developmentally, what they are and aren't doing right as parents.
Many parents replace their Facebook photos with snapshots of their kids, and Applegate's character wears her daughter Amy's name on a nameplate around her neck. The message is clear: You are your child and your child is you, which is why parents tie themselves in knots thinking about their kids. Bad behaviors aren't a reflection of the kid; they're caused by poor parenting.
You can spot overachiever moms and dads in leafy neighborhoods all around Washington: They pull their kids in $400 Burley bike buggies or carry them in $135 Ergobaby carriers. They hand them $2 pouches of 100-percent-organic fruit-and-veggie purée and read local-mom blogs to find educational events around town: "Story time at Friendship Heights Library at 3 pm." They begin researching preschools before their child is out of the sleep sack.
These parents read a lot--maybe too much. Thanks to Google, they've become part child psychologist, part educator, part pediatrician. They treat the business of parenting so seriously that it can feel like one misstep will put their kid on the train to Loserville.
It starts before birth: "Begin your eating-well campaign even before you conceive and you'll be doing yourself (and your soon-to-be embryo) a favor," reads an article on the What to Expect When You're Expecting website. Later, parents hear they should give kids water (not juice!) in straw cups rather than sippy cups because sucking promotes muscle tone important for speech development. They'll hear that educational puzzles (by Melissa & Doug!) are better for kids than brain-dead light-up toys. And from hearing other moms talk, they'll quickly learn that good and bad days are defined by how many vegetables they got their kid to eat.
Research shows that parents today aren't as happy as those of previous generations. They're trying so hard to do everything right that they're losing some of the joy of parenting.
One area couple says that the biggest thing they fight about is their young son: She thinks her husband works too much; he's determined to land a promotion. What they do agree on: Their two-year-old is going to attend a half-day preschool class in Mandarin next year.
Peter Stearns, a historian at George Mason University and author of Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America, says that 50 years ago parents considered themselves responsible for their children's physical and emotional health, but parents today have added something else to the list: "They think it's their job to make sure that their kids feel stimulated and happy at all times."
But in the quest to build a better child, experts say, today's moms and dads are losing sight of the bigger picture and mucking up the one thing they're working so hard to get right: raising a good kid.