The Kiddy Pool: Institutionalized Parenting

Every week in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.

It may not be that parents feel omnipotent; it may be that too many feel isolated from the support of the institutions that were originally designed to help them.

It’s been two weeks since I read Emily Matchar’s “How Parenting Became a DIY Project” in The Atlantic, and the article still bothers me. Matchar discusses the recent pendulum swing in parenting toward anti-institutionalism (part of a larger cyclical phenomenon by which parenting philosophies, like everything else in popular culture, go through phases). In her first paragraph, she lumps together attachment parenting, anti-daycare, homebirth, and homeschooling movements; later, she adds in vaccines and baby food in what almost feels like an effort to hit every controversial search term related to parenting. Matchar summarizes the motivation behind all of these movements with the claim, “If you don’t trust institutions, you do things yourself.” She expands by citing “the myth of parental omnipotence,” by historian Stephanie Coontz, and describes that theory as “the idea that parents can and should personally ensure their children’s success through their own hard work and hyper-attentiveness.”

The argument of this piece frustrates me because it links movements together that are not necessarily related. She cites “nearly three quarters of Americans” are opposed to daycare, yet the source she references indicates that those feelings are largely related to parents wanting to spend more time with their children. It may not be the institution of daycare itself so much as the reality of balancing work and family that creates that “disapproval.” Matchar also does not consider the quality, availability, access, or flexibility of daycare—all factors that influence parental perceptions. I, for one, am a homeschooling, pro-vaccine, attachment parent who gave birth at a birthing center attached to a hospital. I am not a conspiracy theorist. I base my actions on my philosophies weighed against the choices available to me. It may not be that parents feel omnipotent; it may be that too many feel isolated from the support of the institutions that were originally designed to help them. Rather than assuming that parents attempt to do it all alone because of some narcissistic desire to express their personalities or be all things to their children, we should consider that many institutions have lost our business because they have lost our trust. For Matchar, there seems to be no larger consideration of the ways that institutions have, by and large, failed.

In his book Asylums, sociologist Erving Goffman writes “[t]he handling of many human needs by the bureaucratic organization of whole blocks of people—whether or not this is a necessary or effective means of social organization in the circumstances—is the key fact of total institutions” (6). Goffman sees the role of asylums in particular, and all social institutions more broadly, as managing large groups of people, not for the benefit of those humans but for the smooth administration of the system. Goffman further describes how “total institutions” determine their inmates’ personal appearance (20), restrict and dictate their bodily movements (22), conform (at least outwardly) to the values of the institution (23-4), and consider oneself as part of the group, not as an individual (14). Think of the ways that admission into a hospital adheres to these characteristics; often a pregnant woman is transferred to a wheelchair (whether she needs it or not), stripped of her clothes in exchange for an immodest robe, confined to a ward (and a room and a bed), served food when it is convenient (not when she is hungry) and in each encounter, she becomes less a person and more a patient.

Goffman’s depictions remind me powerfully of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, where he asks “Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” (228). Both Goffman and Foucault analyze the tendency to elevate the institution at the expense of the individual, to assume that the institution is right because it is normal, and to characterize those who refuse to conform as deviant. The institutions Goffman and Foucault illustrate are self-serving, with no regard to the individuals present within them—because all the human cogs are regarded as interchangeable, and ultimately, relevant only insofar as they perpetuate the institution itself.

I do not intend to stake a position here for absolute freedom (if such a thing exists here on earth) without regard to the needs, desires, values, or interests of others; I am not opposed to institutions simply because they are institutions. I simply believe that the institutions need to serve the individual, not the other way around, and that institutions ought to gain authority because they are good and just, not just because they are efficient. A hospital example alone illustrates how few people—the employees or the patients—are treated with individual consideration at the most basic levels of humanity within so many of our institutions. In thinking through this piece, my friend Joshua Bode pointed me to Mark 2:27 “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.” Isn’t the same true for our institutions?

About Erin Wyble Newcomb

Erin Wyble Newcomb earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction and Women's Studies from Penn State University. In addition to parenting her daughters, running marathons, and making things with glitter, she teaches in the English Department at SUNY New Paltz. Follow Erin on Twitter @ErinWyble or at http://phdmama.com/.

  • Steve S.

    I do think Matchar conflates a lot of different movements into one broad cultural thing, but that’s the nature of the kind of pop sociology we so often indulge. She does misunderstand the motives of some of the people she describes, especially those whose motives are largely religious (or at least connected to their religious beliefs and practices). These movements are more than just the hippie counter-culture gone mainstream, though that’s certainly a factor.


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