Feb 5Liked by Anne Helen Petersen

This is so rich! I offer my musings via a re-interpretation of a couple conclusions Helen made.

I disclose that I’m a nerd, a sociologist and while this (parents) is not my area, race and culture is. But more importantly I’ve been a Black single low then middle income mom amidst White affluent parents my whole life, many of which are dear friends. Lots of traveled terrain there.

Helen said: “The reality is far more complex and contradictory. The American style of parenting is characterized by anxiety, but the source of that anxiety differs significantly according to societal privilege: there are parents terrified their children will drop down in class level, where they will then experience significant hardship, violence, danger, and ongoing difficulties, and then there are parents who are terrified because their children are already experiencing or in proximity to all of those things… For these parents, going “backwards” feels not just unconscionable, but terrifying. Which, again, makes sense: as a recent Brookings report made clear, as the income gap continues to expand, the ramifications of falling out of the upper middle class have become more severe… As a result, bourgeois parents’ focus shifts to the reproduction of the status quo — of their family’s privilege — even if that reproduction makes parents and kids miserable, even if that ends up eclipsing the more meaningful and joyful aspects of parenting, even if that means enduring unequal labor distribution within the relationship, even if that requires transforming parenting into a performative competition.”

I would say something different:

I do not think the two experiences—between White parents and Black parents and between White affluent parents and low income parents—are that kind of two sides of a similar coin; two relatively different positions vis a vis a similar anxiety. I don’t think one group fears the worsening and the others are “already experiencing” it.

I think it’s more than one group belongs inside the monster that is White supremacy and the rest are its prey. Radically different positions. My White upper middle class friend who is parenting to make sure her boy has it as good if not better than she and her husband had it, is not afraid her boy won’t make it. She’s afraid he won’t be at the top. I am afraid the monster will eat my boy. She is never afraid of that. Even if I parent my boy to make it, relatively, most paths upward into the monster will put my boy in danger. He’ll have to bargain with Whiteness, be immersed in it to access “the best” (schools, courses, colleges, jobs), etc. Our relationship with that monster is always antagonist so of course dealing with that monster does not consume my parenting nor define it. My parenting may be more enjoyable because the monster has nothing to do with how I think of my parenting. The monster is something I try and slay so that I may parent at all. If that makes sense? Whereas my White affluent mom friend can and does harmonize with that monster as parenting success (sure it’s sisyphean but that’s not the same as what I deal with).

So, I would say that not being atop the social hierarchy—not fear falling backwards—is what is untenable for my White mom friend. And I would say that is always the motivation, the core function of being White, not an adaptive response to anxiety. This distinction is important because we are not seeing these patterns bc White parents are witnessing “falling backwards” as a real possibility (Lareau’s study is old and there are probably older data than that). The stats about White life expectancy decline are way more recent than these patterns. Sitting atop a racial capitalist hierarchy and collecting “the psychological wages of Whiteness (the psycho-social-cultural kudos of Not Being The Black or Brown People)” was the very engine of creating a White middle class. Always. White people were and are given a shot at economic status that’s always tangled up with racial and cultural privilege over others. Understanding that helps understand the resistance to change. When you’re asking parents to stop white knuckling that privilege, you’re asking them to stop working on being top of the food chain thus, and in some fundamental way, you’re asking to stop being “White” bc in our system to be White means to be on top of the food chain (hence for example the need to “cheat” that some White people feel say by rigging voting or more recently, banning books!). And we’d need to have a conversation about that before any “bourgeois parent” avoids a majority Black and Brown and middle income school or neighborhood like the plague, right? This is harder to hear than “you should give up some extra curricular activities” and that is because ultimately it is a harder ask and harder task.

Anyway I love this group is thinking about this.

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Great read, with research that helps contextualize this trend! I first became a parent in 2000 when the culture was shifting to a more anxious style of parenting, at least for some. Clearly, this growing group of “security moms” was found more in two parent families with six-figure incomes times two. At 25, as a college educated married mom, I fell into that group but had no frame reference in my own family. My own mom never went to college, had her first at 19 and later divorced.

I’ve given a lot of thought to what parenting was like in the aughts, and have recently written about it. Looking back, I can laugh at a lot of things. But not everything. So much anxiety was needless. And my oldest Gen Z kid tells me, it wasn't so great for them either.

In my experience, a lot had to do with having a new generation of highly educated moms that professionalized motherhood. And then the internet took this to a whole new level. Every decision could be researched and quantified and compared.

But eventually I’ve learned that so many of the complicated parts of being a parent have nothing to do with the kids. Our parenting style is more about our own personality, privilege and need to feel validated. Over the years, I’ve gotten better at recognizing and owning my deeper motives as a parent. And as I do, being a parent feels a lot less complicated.

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Feb 5·edited Feb 5Liked by Anne Helen Petersen

As a white woman who has chosen not to have children, I’m seeing my decision somewhat differently now than simply not being wired to be a mom or too anxiety prone to adequately manage the stress and pressure of parenting, much less performative, intensive parenting.

For so many reasons, I would very likely not be able to reproduce the socioeconomic position and privilege that I grew up. And that as a white mom, I would be “expected” to provide. As the breadwinner in my relationship, that pressure on me would be even more amplified.

Maybe my decision to not have children is at least partly influenced by wanting to avoid the “ordeal” of “going backwards.”

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Insert emoji for loud applause.

I really appreciated the last line of this piece for its acknowledgement of the role of fear (deep fear) as the lifeline for a great deal of suffering in the present and for its perpetuation by validating oppressive systems, all for the "good" of "my" children, "my family." It is truly a myopic perspective that needs calling out. Everyone's children deserve better. (Even if we are not all parents, we have all been children.)

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Agree with many points you’re making here, and always a fan of Pew research for the reasons you outlined. But I do have a few points that I’d like to share based on my experience raising three boys.

First, the general argument about families wanting to preserve privilege for their kids? Still 90% socially acceptable, and largely understandable—but I don’t think I’d link so tightly to parents assuming that there’s a zero sum game afoot. In my experience there are sub-currents and a lot of regional variations that make this way less of a monolith. (I would love to see the data broken out by region and party affiliation as well.) I have so many friends who are excited for their kids to pursue jobs in the trades, including many who are doing so after completing college degrees. Similarly, the get-into-the-best-college game seems to be waning (thank all the deities for that one!) in part because of the very real challenges of student debt, and in part because I think there’s a growing understanding that pushing kids in a particular direction is generally a bad idea and leads to… depression and anxiety. The kids will get where they’re going to go on their own timelines. Sure, there are some kids who are driven by their own desires in that direction ON THE RIGHT TIMELINE to achieve that outcome. But there are also way more kids who aren’t, and that’s fine. I think the pandemic is also softening this particular pressure point: so many kids are dealing with aftershocks educationally, socially and emotionally—who would add pressure under those circumstances?? Finally, as a transplanted east coaster, the pressure here in the Pacific Northwest may be more than it was a generation ago, but it’s still pale in comparison to the east coast, where college-related status (for kids AND parents—ugh!) is generally a much more explicit deal.

My second point is about the gender breakdown. Our family is in the minority where I am the breadwinner (and have been since our second kid was born) and my husband is the primary at-home parent with a more flexible work schedule. I would have loved to see the data about mothers’ and fathers’ perceptions split by work status as well as kids’ age. I suspect that would be revealing (I haven’t dug to see if that is avail). I also think it’s worth noting that a lot of the pressure I experienced around parenting was feedback from other mothers, especially when the kids were little. Communities have parenting norms, and I didn’t fit within mine—and wowza did some other moms make some really memorably strong negative judgements about me as a mother (usually without having any context). I think there’s some really interesting work happening around the deconstruction of momfluencers, but gender in parenting generally is an under-explored area. Dads don’t seem to experience the cultural weight of other dads’ perceptions; moms definitely do. That’s worth discussion. I also can say from experience that as kids get older, the limitations of parenting to drive particular outcomes (part of what sucks about the little kids stage is an assumption that you CAN control outcomes!) become increasingly clear, and the peer pressure to be a certain way—or have your kids be a certain way—drops precipitously. Which, frankly, is a blessing.

The final point (if anyone is still reading! I know this is going on and on) I would like to make is that while the “all of the time” and “most of the time” had dramatic differences by race, there was surprising uniformity if you add the two top box scores together. I think that’s worth noting. I also wonder how the data changes if you sort by work status (full time vs part time vs other including stay at home) and age of kids. Little kids are darling! And also I can barely remember anything from that stage? And had anyone asked me these questions at that stage, I would likely have been in “most of the time” or worse, depending on the week.

All of this is hugely complicated, and the deeply established cultural patterns around parenting are confounding. In an era where the cultural power of evangelicalism and “traditional family values” are on the rise, I have a hard time seeing how we work for change outside of electing people who can see more paths (vote blue, friends). Or by being the contrarian family who sets things up in a different way. Finally, every kid is different—with often radically different needs and desires, so whatever theories you have as a parent are probably going to get jettisoned anyhow, especially when they don’t serve your particular kid. I guess my sense is that we all want the kids to be alright, and that can happen in an almost infinite number of ways.

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Feb 5Liked by Anne Helen Petersen

I know that Anne Helen knows this, but just to be clear: the reason that Pew doesn't show even more breakdowns by race and class is likely that their sample size wasn't large enough to estimate responses that precisely. The sample size required for small group estimation is very very large.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about the big anxieties (jobs, education) and how they show up in the little anxieties (signing up for stuff). A lot of this has shown up in the “first-come-first-serve” race for summer camp/swim lessons/afterschool care, where the demand and supply are just nowhere close to being in sync, and the loss of this one thing can spiral out into much bigger consequences (e.g. no afterschool or summer care requires some combination of more money or more time, neither of which anyone really has!) There’s also a weird “locked-in” effect, where if you get in in time a, you are able to hold on to that spot for as long as you want it but which also has the consequence of shutting people out who literally missed a memo, or just moved to town, or had something in the background change. I’ve been quietly advocating for more things to be lottery based, just to take away the need to be at a computer at x time on x day otherwise your entire summer or school year is borked. It would likely create other anxieties, but it feels like a way to just turn the volume down a little bit.

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I would love to see a question that asks, “What role does family play in your children’s upbringing?” In my cultural background, family played an enormous role, across multiple generations. It provided certainty and stability, two things that are so valuable in any household. My parents were not stressed out by having to pay for and manage child care, which is an enormous worry for so many people, especially single parents.

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I wonder what answers would have come up if they asked about financial stress related to parenting? like, I wonder if the reason lower income parents report more positive emotions about parenting is that they see the stress they're feeling about money as financial stress, not part of parenting their kid. even if they are worried about being able to provide for their kid, the phrasing of the questions may have made people not consider financial stress when answering some of them. ex: my mom experienced struggling to pay rent as a single parent and getting legal action for child support as issues with money and my dad, not issues with us, even though we were the main thing she was spending money on. I mean, it's pretty obvious that lower income people would be more worried about finances but I do think it's a missing piece here.

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Bookmarking this to revisit annually if I have kids. Also highly recommend Courtney Martin’s substack and book on this topic:


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I’m not a parent, but I’ve worked in elementary education for 18 years as a teacher and administrator. I’ve seen much of the anxious style of American parenting play out from varied vantage points. I’ve worked in urban, suburban, and rural schools in three different states. I’ve also served schools at a wide variety of socioeconomic levels.

I currently work as an elementary school assistant principal in a large urban school district. We were one of the few large urban districts in the country to offer in-person schooling to elementary students for the entire 2020-2021 school year. The reactions of families to this plan seems to mirror some of the insight in this survey.

During the 2020-2021 school year, elementary families in my district could elect to enroll in in-person or online classes provided through their neighborhood school. Despite the fact that many advocates of opening in-person school pushed a narrative that schools had to reopen to protect vulnerable students living in poverty.

When school opened, it actually turned out that schools in the more affluent neighborhoods saw a higher percentage of their students return to in-person learning. At my school, which primarily serves lower income families, more than 60% of students were enrolled in remote instruction. Families cited various reasons for these decisions, but an overwhelming theme is that many of these families experienced COVID personally due to employment outside the home in the early days of the pandemic. These experiences led to fear for the safety of their children.

Parents in the more affluent areas were more likely to be working remotely or in jobs where they saw less exposure to COVID and probably had fewer personal experiences with severe outcomes from the virus. I would also guess that some of the comments about trying to maintain positions of privilege also impacted the decisions of more affluent families to send their children to in-person school.

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The data on "the most important" vs "one of the most important" aspects of identity is really interesting. I feel like I know many white, wealthy moms who would say "the most important" as part of the performance/the gendered expectations around motherhood (note: I'm the mother of a toddler, so most moms I know are, too). I find myself often grappling with my own feelings - not wanting parenthood to be "the most important" part of me for fear of losing other aspects of myself (not just my ability to be human capital) and not wanting to subscribe to such performance/expectations, though also fearing discussing how important it is to me for being perceived/judged as "just a mom," which is its own performance and buying into sexist notions of motherhood being lesser than? It's a damned if you do, damned if you don't feeling (which also betrays my own socioeconomic status related anxieties!)

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What a great conversation, thank you so much for this! I'm so interested in the group dynamics that make any kind of opting-out feel so impossible for these white bourgeois families. I know a lot of it has to do with "I want to do what's best for my kid" but at this point, there is so much mounting evidence that stress and anxiety are major problems for these kids. So at what point are the returns sufficiently diminished where opting out feels like a smart choice? Rhetorical question obvi, but one that I hope we all learn more about.

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Have to admit that sociology-talk doesn’t come naturally to me but I have to say that much in this piece struck me as sound, which is to say I agreed with it!

We encountered this aspect of the beast in 2002 when our kids participated in the neighborhood swimming team. This was in the Palisades area of DC. To our utter amazement, it became apparent that the best swimmers swam year round. I’m still ambivalent about the decision my wife & I made to sign up for the school year leagues. It helped the kids become more disciplined and focused, two things reflected in other elements of their lives, but it also closed off pathways they might have enjoyed just as much.

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The "streaker" link did not appear in my email, so I'm appending it here:


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ugh typo *Anne Helen said (sorry!!!)

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