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Parenting guilt in the age of the nuclear family

When your baby’s screams wake you for the third time that night, does your exhaustion and rage make you feel more like an evil witch than a mother? Do you feel guilty when another rendition of Hungry Hungry Hippos doesn’t fill you with delight?

Parents in the 21st century are expected to be available 24/7 to cuddle, feed, play, mop, soothe, stimulate and referee. In the tight little hothouse of the nuclear family there’s often no one else. One or two parents are responsible for everything children receive. Parents either do it themselves or they organize it. Daycare, playdates, sports, classes – all must be arranged and scheduled.

And parents are overwhelmed. Couples snap at each other and grow apart, due to exhaustion and the conviction that if they are working so hard, their partner must be slacking. Parents feel guilty, because they should be enjoying parenting and often they don’t.

Nuclear families are supposed to be the ideal – your family’s own roof and your own privacy. But there’s something wrong with this picture.

We only started raising children in nuclear families in the last hundred years or so. For all of our species’ previous existence, we raised children in groups. We lived in tribes, villages, close neighbourhoods and extended families. Multiple people cared for babies. Other adults were available to take over if a mother needed to rest. Children had grandparents, aunties, cousins, neighbours to run to, to give them a drink, make them behave or wipe their tears.

Children played with other children in groups with a range of ages, which meant that older children looked out for younger ones. Kids played outside as a matter of course. They explored their environment, learned from older children, used their bodies, challenged themselves, took risks, absorbed social skills. Instead of depending on parents and perhaps one sibling, they had multiple people to spend their time with. None of this had to be scripted. It was just what children did.

And while children played with other children, adults could be adults. Have you been in such settings with your kids? Perhaps visits with extended family? The kids disappear with their cousins. You may see them occasionally, getting some juice from grandma or visiting your lap for a quick cuddle. Then they’re gone again. And you can be an adult with other adults. That’s what our child rearing used to be.

So if you aren’t enjoying being a parent as much as you expected, you’re not alone. And it’s not your fault. We were never meant to raise children in the kind of isolation that is the nuclear family. If you’re stressed and exhausted, it’s not you; it’s the strange culture we live in.

Daycare is good for children because it recreates some of the natural ways children function: a bunch of kids looked after by several adults in a stimulating environment. And the networks formed with other daycare parents can be a godsend. It doesn’t solve the problem of evenings and weekends, though.

The luckiest parents have supports around them – family next door, close neighbours with kids the same age as their own. People your kids can go to without having to be driven or held by the hand. The unluckiest parents have few supports – no family to depend on, no accessible shared space to meet other parents. People with yards can chat over fences, but apartment buildings can be particularly isolating.

The number one stress reducer for parents is a support network. If you don’t have one, try to create one as best you can. If your extended family is unavailable or unbearable, create friendships that can fill the gap. The extra effort will be worth it, both for yourself and your children. And remember, what you’re experiencing is a normal reaction to what is essentially an abnormal situation.

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