Neurotic Parenting in America

Books

By Dan Friedman

Published June 17, 2009, issue of June 26, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

American Parent: My Strange and Surprising Adventures in Modern Babyland
By Sam Apple
Ballantine Books, 320 pages, $25.00

Author-Son Bonding: Apple with his muse, Isaac.
MORGAN LEVY
Author-Son Bonding: Apple with his muse, Isaac.

The symptoms of new parenthood are almost indistinguishable from those of psychosis: insomnia, depression, paranoia, mood swings. For those of us lucky enough to still have jobs, working and parenting also means moving seamlessly to diapers from spreadsheets, to 5 “S’s” sleeping from Six Sigma strategy, and to “goo, goo, goo, from “go, go, go.” So how to reconcile that experience with the ecstasy of birth and the banal problems of facing up to the baby industrial complex? And how to do that in one book?

Sam Apple does it by writing two books at once. One is a sensible, nonspecialist’s review of the trends, products and theories shaping current American attitudes toward parenting. The other is a personal account of the author as a neurotic hypochondriac adjusting to his role as father-to-be and then new father. Of course the two books overlap somewhat — as when Apple rubs “no tear” shampoo into his eyes, or when he asks his friend Zoe, a published food author, to taste-test formula and baby food — but essentially, the book is a twofer.

The personal book, like his previous book, “Schlepping Through the Alps: My Search for Austria’s Jewish Past With Its Last Wandering Shepherd” (Ballentine Books, 2005), this book is funny in a self-deprecatingly absurd way. Apple plans, for example, to carry around a picture of his thin calves so that he can worry about that physical defect, thus mitigating his other, possibly more serious hypochondriacal fears — for instance, of getting AIDS. It’s a slight, compelling and utterly accurate book, at least for the extremely narrow demographic we share. His assumption of the schlemiel persona allows him to reveal and investigate weaknesses, worries and wonders under the unthreatening cover of humor.

Apple’s flights of fancy have a comforting way of being confronted by the brutal physicality of the situation. A slight inflection from his wife, during labor, makes him think about how perhaps “the fact that nonblack women regularly adopt a distinctly black mannerism to convey their determination might also be seen as a wonderful triumph for black feminism.” He is already Walter Mitty-ing off to accept an award from the NAACP when his son, in the process of being born, grabs his and our attention.

The book about the psychology and consumer pressure of parenting is also engrossing, but is revealing rather than entertaining. Traditionally our ideas on parenting came from our parents but, in our atomized society, increasingly now from other parents and from the prevailing media “wisdom” that surrounds us. Apple explodes many of the scientific and historical myths that have led to the specific shape of contemporary consumer parenting. And his publicity materials are careful to remind us of the factual basis of the book.

Most of the supposed theoretical underpinnings of parenting practice provide only wobbly foundations for the structures built on them. In a surprise both to Apple and to readers, the research that has led to how we parent today comes, in many cases (including Lamaze techniques), from adaptations of the work of a little-known genius Russian neurologist named Vladimir Bekhterev.

Being a parent does make you wonder about crazily disjunctive parts of the world all at once, but there is a reason that genres retain their force. The unthreatening comic account fatally pulls the punches — if not the punch lines — of the serious side of the book. “American Parent” is, in the end, a lot of fun but not important. And if there’s a lesson to be learned from Apple’s neurotic adventures, it’s that parenting is a vitally important cultural and personal enterprise.

Dan Friedman can be contacted at dfriedman@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.