I loved being a mother. For me it was like my whole life up until the age of 32 was spinning the dials on a combination lock until it finally clicked into place. I realized for the first time what I thought my “purpose” on this earth was supposed to be. And no, I was never one of those people who believed everyone was here for a reason, or that human beings were particularly exceptional. It never made sense to me. After all, look at how long insects have lasted, billions of years. Humans? We’re a blip. We don’t even know what will happen to our species with enough nukes to kill every alive thing on this planet many times over.
Climate change is coming and it doesn’t even matter whether people believe humans are the cause or they believe it’s just the way of things. The end result is going to be a higher sea level rise, the killing off of the coral reefs, the death of many different species and who knows what else. Some believe we can stop it, but honestly? Most believe we can’t. Scientists don’t believe it. They think we can only survive it.
It’s kind of like Dr. Fauci’s tone at the the beginning of the pandemic. It always struck me as odd when he said “If we do everything right, only 300,000 will die.” I had no idea at that time there could possibly be that many. Surely we’d do everything we could to stop this. But we didn’t. We barely did anything. We turned it into a pointless partisan war that rages even today. China clearly had a better handle on reality as they were welding their citizens into their home. What worked? Total lockdown. We couldn’t lock down in America because for months during the summer there were protests in all 50 states. If we’d locked those down it would have been actual fascism. So it had to be about the masks. Democrats are still double masking and social distancing, even with the vaccine. Everyone else is trying to pretend like life can return to normal and the journalists in this country are either too dumb or too scared to get the story on what really happened in Wuhan.
So, no. I never have spent a day of my life thinking humans were particularly exceptional. I never understood what the point of my walking around this planet was - I could not make sense of it until I took a human evolution course, and that gave me a greater understanding of what I actually was — a really smart ape-like creature with language and an opposable thumb. But when I had my daughter? When I saw her little face for the first time and I recognized her as someone I already knew? When I put her to my chest and didn’t let her go for three weeks straight? That’s when I became a mom. Then I knew why I was here.
I was a child of the 1970s - the “me generation” of free love and exploration. Children were kind of drag, at least among the counter culture left. Over on the right they were preparing for Reagan’s reign over the country and they had no problem prioritizing their children over their own personal happiness. My mom was a hard-working single mom of four who really wasn’t much into the hippie dippie thing. She was trying to put food on the table and make something of her life. No parents back then thought about their kids’ happiness to the obsessive degree parents do now. I was in awe of my mom, though. She was so strong and so beautiful and wasn’t afraid of anything or anyone. Every day of my life that I wake up, drink a cup of coffee and get to work I think of my mom. She taught me that.
But my mom, and the mothers of her time, were trying to honor the legacy of “first wave” feminism. It wasn’t exactly cool to stay home with your kids. You had freedom, you had abortion, now go make something of yourself. We were children of feminism who were expected to be just as ambitious as our parents. But we were also left a little wanting. What we saw on TV with the Brady Bunch and the Waltons didn’t exactly match our home lives.
When we grew up, we first lived through the self help era of the late 80s and into the 90s. Every day at 3pm Oprah would bring up another topic of just how badly our parents had screwed us up. We all got into therapy and from then on it was all about our bad childhoods. Most of us vowed to give our kids the magical, perfect childhood most of us saw on TV but didn’t have.
I raised my daughter alongside mothers like you see on the HBO show Big Little Lies. We competed for who was the smarter, more beautiful, more talented super genius. No one could be offended ever. We were inclusive and progressive and “good” people. Cotton diapers, organic kale. We advocated for raw broccoli for our school kids, thinking that was ever going to end well. If I told you what me and a group of mothers did to my daughter’s fourth grade class when we realized they were all about to take a standardized test, not only would you not believe me but you might never want to talk to me again. It was complete insanity. Our perfect kids had to have the perfect teacher and the perfect class and the perfect test score and go to the most perfect college or a teacher was going to lose her job. We would raise the best generation this country had ever seen because now we could name the problem and we could eradicate it like cancer. Then our kids would be happy.
We’re called “helicopter parents” because we micromanaged every aspect of our children’s lives, building them up as geniuses, perfect children for a perfect utopia.
I sent my daughter to an ultra progressive high school, the kind that was probably teaching Critical Race Theory around the same time critical theory was spreading throughout college campuses. I remember my daughter telling me that she felt guilty for being white, left out or marginalized by her classmates because she didn’t have anything wrong with her. So how could the perfect, genius, utopian generation be awash in emotional anxiety and suffering? What was happening?
Somehow, in our helicopter parenting we ended up raising a generation that valued victimhood over personal achievement. What mattered was overcoming obstacles and you were disregarded if you weren’t somehow part of a marginalized group. This definitely comes from a good place but is it too much of a good thing? How can people be high achievers at the same time as they’re valuing being victims?
What’s happening is that they have not been properly taught how to manage or prevent actual harm so they see harm everywhere. In words. In images. In music. In anything that isn’t tailored specifically to their generation’s preferences. They are doing the best they can do under the circumstances and ought to be applauded for that. It isn’t their fault. It’s our fault. I could not be more proud of my daughter now but I know I put a lot of pressure on her to not only be perfect but to never complain about her perfect mother and to never complain about her perfect life and to always be HAPPY.
We were smothering our kids but we were not teaching them how to survive this horrible, horrible - always going to be horrible - world. We were protecting them from every harm - child molesters, bullies, school shooters, pesticides, racists — but we weren’t telling them the one thing they needed to know to survive and that’s simply this: life is hard. It is hard whether you are a billionaire or someone living in poverty. You have to make choices every day - short term, long term and it’s okay if things don’t work out. It is better to make mistakes because you can’t get to any kind of achievement unless you’ve felt failure.
Perhaps they learned early that if there was something wrong with them the pressure was lifted from their parents and their suffocating expectations. Maybe they could be left alone if there was some sort of medical intervention needed. Was that the only way to get their parents off their backs?
The danger of positioning all children coming of age into this country right now is that there is a need to proclaim who they are and what they stand for early. What their gender is, what their sexual preference is, how they think about race and privilege. What defines consent. They have to be good soldiers and good puritans and never slip up not once or that’s it. They’re over. Forever.
They are taught not to watch movies and TV shows for entertainment but rather to police them for any offense. They’re routinely scouring our past, both culturally and politically, to find the “wrong” thing. That’s because we taught them they had to be perfect and the world they lived in also had to be perfect.
They need someone to stand up and put a stop to all of it - they need comedians with their balls sewn back on to make disruptive jokes. They need filmmakers and storytellers to be brave and mock their silly rules in movies. And yes, they need their political leaders to help them find perspective again instead of pandering for votes. They need a generation that pushes back against them so they can stop ripping up all of the flooring and burning down all of the walls. Hey, attack us instead - your perfect parents. Go ahead and have your rebellious teenage years. Laugh at us. Call us stupid. Slam the door when we lecture you. It’s okay. We can take it.
They need these things but they won’t get them because everywhere they look they see people who want their money, corporations who need their attention, celebrities who want them to consume whatever project they’re working on. And, frankly, older people who want to be cool and young like they are. While everything Gen Z has to offer is interesting and potentially exciting, the puritanical aspect is terrifying. The idea that they can’t express themselves without fear, that their thoughts and opinions and preferences are policed and on their permanent record for life? No, this cannot stand.
That’s one of the reasons I deliberately get in loud obnoxious fights on Twitter, to show my daughter in real time what my mom showed me: that I am not afraid of anything or anyone, especially not a mob on Twitter. Maybe that matters, maybe it doesn’t but at least I’ve planted the seed.
My daughter’s generation, Generation Z, needs a little from my generation, Generation X. We knew to question authority. We were celebrated for thinking for ourselves. We did not want to be conformists. We were resilient because we had to be. We weren’t the Greatest Generation, and we didn’t fight a war, and we raised our kids in a way that won’t protect them from unforeseen tragedy. But now that we’ve helped make this mess, maybe we can help clean it up. Maybe we can lend our wisdom now when they need our grumbly, disenchanted, jaded selves to put it all back into perspective.
If we don’t, who will?
Happy Mother’s Day, my friends. It’s the hardest but best job in the world.