You might think it’s a good thing when a teen mom and her baby daddy decide to get married—especially if the decision comes after a prolonged period of introspection by both parties. But Sarah Palin did not exactly break out the champagne last week when her daughter Bristol announced exclusively to Us Weekly that she and Levi Johnston, 20, were engaged. Indeed, Bristol, 19, told the magazine that “it is intimidating and scary just to think about” her mother’s reaction to the news that the young couple had been moving toward this reconciliation for several months before Levi proposed.
Bristol’s anxiety turned out to be well founded since Levi’s future in-laws were somewhat less than exuberant in their press release: “Bristol believes in redemption and forgiveness to a degree most of us struggle to put in practice in our daily lives.” In other words, Levi probably shouldn’t expect a friendly invite to Sunday dinner in Wasilla just yet.
It’s easy to poke fun at the Palin family drama—especially since so much of it seems to have played out in public. Remember Levi’s Playgirl spread and his claims that the Palin marriage was less than blissful? The former Alaska governor shot back by dismissing him as someone who would sell his body for money. Ouch. And there may be more to come as well; the latest rumor is that the reunited lovers will star in a reality show.
We wish them the best as they embark on their joint adventure in parenting, but judging by some recent magazine stories and books, it seems like there has never been a more difficult time to raise a child in America—even without the cameras rolling. A July 12 cover story in New York magazine laid out the dilemma best. For most of human history, children were viewed as an economic asset to their parents, says author Jennifer Senior. “All of this dramatically changed with the moral and technological revolutions of modernity,” she writes. Children have now become “not only a great expense but subjects to be sculpted, stimulated, instructed, groomed. Kids, in short went from being our staffs to being our bosses.” Senior also cites an impressive list of serious research that documents the negative effects of child rearing on parents’ sense of well-being. And that’s all before you add in the extra burden of disapproving grandparents with Twitter accounts.
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Bristol and Levi now join a generation of young parents who struggle to meet what may be impossible expectations. An explosion of research on child development in the last couple of decades has given rise to the idea that there is a scientifically proven way to raise perfect children who will get stratospheric scores on their SATs, breeze through Harvard and go on to win a Nobel Prize (or, in the case of the Palin-Johnston offspring, at least a college degree, since neither Bristol nor Levi has one). Contrast that to the more lax parenting styles of earlier generations, who thought it was fine to tell their toddlers to watch TV while Mom and Dad enjoyed a few moments of peace and perhaps an evening martini.
Before we get to the ramifications of this generational divide for the Palins and the rest of us, let’s take a moment to reflect on the wisdom of Tolstoy. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” he wrote at the beginning of Anna Karenina. While it’s true that the reasons for the war between the Palins are unique to them, debates between new grandparents and new parents appear to be proliferating. The basic message from the grandparents: that’s not how we did it. And from the parents: but that’s how we do it.
In some families, that means a critique of an elaborate schedule of lessons and play groups for babies who are still learning to walk. That’s especially prevalent among college-educated, upper-middle-class parents. In a study released earlier this year, economists Garey and Valerie Ramey at the University of California, San Diego, called this “the rug rat race.” They found that since the mid-1990s, women significantly increased the time they spend getting their kids to organized activities by sacrificing nine hours of their own leisure time every week in order to someday get their kids accepted to a top university.
Grandparents watching this scramble are often bewildered and appalled. “I think they’re saying, ‘We know we told you to put your children first, but we think you’re overdoing it,’ ” says Stephanie Coontz, director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families. “ ‘We didn’t mean for you to go quite this far.’ ” Coontz just finished writing a book about the women of the 1950s, the majority of whom were full-time homemakers. “After a while, many of them developed a sense of emptiness with the business of life,” she says. “I have a feeling this is happening to women today—they feel an emptiness in the business of motherhood. Parents are supposed to be devoting all this time to their kids so they turn out well, but to do that they have to sacrifice time with their spouse.”
The struggle has inspired a new literary genre: guides to more mellow parenting. In The Idle Parent, British author Tom Hodgkinson urges parents to start nurturing the natural instincts toward creativity and independence that he says are found in every child rather than trying to follow a strict protocol for success. The title of Amy Wilson’s book pretty much says it all: When Did I Get Like This: The Screamer, the Worrier, the Dinosaur-Chicken-Nugget-Buyer & Other Mothers I Swore I’d Never Be. Too many modern mothers, says Wilson, are like her: “Whenever I manage not to be neurotic, I worry, in turn, that I am not being neurotic enough.”
But back to Bristol and Levi. As we said, we wish them well but we’re worried. Even if they can ignore the extra pressure to turn baby Tripp into a perfect child, their odds of success aren’t great. “Research indicates that it’s a high-risk situation for low marital quality when someone has a child out of wedlock and then later marries the father,” says Coontz. “If they were really solid, they would have gotten married when she found out she was pregnant.” In 2008, the eyes of the world were upon them. That’s extra stress no young couple needs. The best thing they could do now is keep out of the limelight and concentrate on each other and Tripp. As if.