Raising Baby Einstein

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Arthur on 1 December 2007

I thought parenthood would be an opportunity to unplug on a certain level. To disconnect from the consumerist pathology of the market and engage in the most intimate and natural process available to human beings. There’s something going on between father, mother, and baby that no expert, no marketer, and no website can touch. Isn’t there?

Perhaps. But—at least for me—to find it and hold onto it has meant going against what appears to be a full-frontal assault. While there have always been companies willing to make a buck off the guilt, fear, and ignorance of new parents, never before have they enjoyed a medium like the Internet, or a generation of parents who look to their media for the answers to all of life’s problems.

If we’re to believe the Web, this is the very best time ever to be a new parent. Ad-supported websites with fun names like “Babble” and “Urban Baby” cater to the educated (read: wealthy), cosmopolitan moms and dads by convincing them that the consumer skills they used so successfully as singles or hip couples can translate effortlessly to the raising of happy children. And that they can stay as groovy as they ever were, despite their new responsibilities. Websites for hopeful moms have banner ads for ovulation tests through which women can track their periods for optimum insemination opportunities. Just as there are now magazines for every possible parental permutation, from Gay Parenting Magazine to Plum (“the first-ever pregnancy magazine for women 35 years and older”), there are counselors, programs, and even pills for every possible parental challenge —all just a click away.

To be sure, the always-on Internet can be any parent’s best friend. According to one study, 86% of expectant parents turn to the Internet first—before friends or family—for advice on pregnancy and childrearing. And not only are we turning to the Internet for counsel, but for self-expression and solidarity. A simply Google search will reveal thousands of “baby blogs”—parents using the online diary format to reach out into the vastness of cyberspace for some affirmation that what they’re going through is okay, e.g. is it normal for baby to wriggle, crawl, or cry the way he does? And for every question posed there is not only a flame war of conflicting responses in the “comments” section—there is also an army of market researchers working to turn this uncertainty into a new profit stream.

For my wife and I, it began before we even got pregnant. As wannabe parents in our early forties, we believed the hype and headlines about fertility rates declining with age —based largely on studies conducted by a pharmaceutical industry whose profits depend on getting people like us to initiate expensive fertility regimes. As a result, men in white coats were delivering my seed to my wife. Of course, just a couple of months after we gave up on the best methodology that science and the market have to offer and accepted our infertility, we got pregnant the old-fashioned way. Just like grandma told us would happen.

That wasn’t enough to teach us our lesson. As if trained to look into a screen rather than other human beings for answers to life’s biggest questions, we continued to practice Net parenthood, which for some reason always led us to a professional or product for which we could pay. That’s the true brilliance of information overload: it turns every problem into a dilemma, with countless links, resources, and ultimately costly solutions.

Take the lost art of breastfeeding. No, it is not as simple as it looks in National Geographic. It is complex—or at least this is what the parenting websites would have us believe. There is “latch,” which refers to the way the infant’s lips wrap around the nipple of the breast. There is “draw,” which refers to the suction the infant is capable of generating given the tightness of his latch. The duration of an infant’s nursing is also important: a short session may yield only “front milk,” the less nutritious fluid stored in the front of the breast compared with “hind milk,” the real gold that only flows after a good fifteen minutes of consumption. How is a new mother supposed to learn all this? Her own mother will prove useless; she was persuaded by the baby formula marketers of the 1960s and ’70s that breast-feeding was a poor substitute for laboratory-crafted nutrition. So who comes to the rescue? The professional lactation consultant, with her charts, exercises, scales, nipple guards, electric pumps, sterilizing bags, and, of course, non-reimbursable fees.

Once lactation is working or over with, it’s on to the new experts for advice on sleeping, coddling and walking. Every week has a milestone, and every missed milestone has its own set of specialists, ready to intervene, interview and ultimately interfere with the process that used to be called growing up. Pediatrician-turned-authors with reassuring names like Dr. Sears, Dr. Ferber, and Dr. Karp have written competing books and websites telling parents everywhere to hold, not to hold, or to swing our babies, respectively (and contradictorily).

Other contraptions keep the baby on its side, and still others make sure he stays on his back. If a sleeping infant isn’t in imminent danger of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, then he’s in danger of having his sleep cycle disturbed by intrusive parents checking to make sure he’s still breathing. And, yes, there’s a book you can buy, site you can visit, or an expert you can hire to make sure you don’t fall into either trap.

If growing up takes a village, then the market-driven parent will have to contend with a small army of certified practitioners. That, or risk the even greater horror of a baby who can’t compete with his or her peers. But how to pick the right consultants, nurses, nannies, doulas, or physical therapists?
Luckily, for those overwhelmed by the intricacies of the consultancy scene, the market has risen yet again to promote our well-being and peace of mind. For every breed of consultant, there are meta-consultants: special consultants who can help us pick our nanny, night nurse, or doula (the new age version)—all for either a fee up front or a cut of the referred consultant’s charges. If the meta-consultant is too expensive, then we can just go back to the web and read the user reviews of everyone and everything out there. Our online peers will point us to the goods and services we need for our baby to measure up to today’s standards. So instead of sitting around and singing songs in each other’s homes, we go to storefront music education specialists such as “Music Together” or “Music for Aardvarks,” where we can pay to sit around in a circle and sing the same songs, only now we do it with the confidence that each melody and lyric has been evaluated for its impact on cognitive development.

Even the stuff that was once bad for our kids is now good for them—as long as the seller can find a Ph.D to vouch for it. Viacom’s Noggin cable channel—baby sister of Nickelodeon, the baby sister of MTV—now precedes each of its shows for preschoolers with a list of educational attributes. Blues Clues “promotes meta-cognition.” Videos by a company called Baby Einstein—a sick oxymoron—are supposed to help develop an infant’s appreciation of color and harmony, while those from the speech pathologists at Bumble Bee draw words from the delayed toddler.

The sheer volume of books, videos, websites, albums, devices and services supposedly required to keep a baby delivering on his or her full potential is alarming enough to provoke anxiety in even the most self-assured parents. Indeed that’s what this information overload is supposed to do. It’s no wonder that so many educated parents feel alone and ill-equipped despite access to all this professional help.

Of course, one can forgo all this media, technology and scientifically justified professional help, but that means consciously ignoring the parenting industry’s mandates which now seem to trail us wherever we go online: “Sleeping through the night by nine months!” “Walking by 15 months!” “Twenty words by 18 months!” All these metrics are, in turn, just precursors to a child’s first real encounter with the market: the ever-tightening supply of places at exclusive pre-pre-nursery schools, through which tots can ensure their acceptance at the regular nursery schools and kindergartens into which they feed, and so on, until they reach the Ivy League, land power jobs and obsess over their careers long and hard enough to put them in the same, hapless consumer segment as their parents.

Indeed parenting is just one of many life stages withering under the weight of the market. Consumer anthropologists analyze the moments in our lives when we are most susceptible to their clients’ advances: the first day of college, the wedding day, the day you find out grandma has Alzheimer’s. Market anthropologists call them “life cycle events.” These are the moments when we are most likely to question our instincts, shun our family and friends, and accept the guidance of a paid professional. Once we start down that path, we are evermore alienated from the people and processes that should have supported us in the first place.

And the Internet—birthplace of today’s hyper-individuated consumer analysis, tracking and messaging —ensures marketers that they’ll have our eyeballs (and our wallets) at precisely the right moment. Want to see an anxiety-producing banner ad about any aspect of parenting? Find an article about that same subject, and then look to the right.

Living in 21st-century, interactive-media-empowered America, we should be used to the notion that every interaction is really a transaction, and that every transaction can also be intermediated by a professional. But it is disheartening and confusing that this phenomenon seems to have taken hold most intensely within the most intimate sphere of human existence, the bond between a parent and a child.

Perhaps this is because parenthood—particularly modern urban parenthood—has been systematically robbed of its naturally occurring support mechanisms. The social fabric of our cities has decayed over the past few decades, as parks and civic groups have given way to superstores and networking events. Cities used to have blocks in neighborhoods with old ladies and large families and neighbors who could watch the baby for an hour while you went out and got some groceries. Now, instead of repairing the neighborhood sidewalks, we purchase Bugaboos—the $800 stroller equivalent of an SUV, complete with shock absorbers, to traverse the potholes.

For every thread of the social fabric worn bare by the friction of modern urban alienation, the market has risen with a synthetic strand of its own. And nowhere has this become more apparent than in the realm of the new parent, who, faced with a host of trials for which none of his or her existing skills provide appropriate models, needs help from real people. And so off to the paid professional goes today’s parent, baby in one hand and checkbook in the other.

Well, the buck stopped there for us. We choose to rebel —not just against the marketplace, but against the intrinsically alienating effects of web parenthood. It’s not enough to get our answers from a screen, our affirmation from anonymous chatroom participants, or our sense of community from a Wiki to which we contributed a paragraph about the best jarred organic baby food. Such forums may give us a quick fix, but they also make us slaves to mass consensus and ready targets for the wisdom of the market. The medium itself is biased towards good retail, not good parenting.

Indeed, parenting may be the best argument yet for suspending one’s relationship to the “global village” in favor of the plain old village. That’s why I’ve signed off the websites. Instead of socializing with other upper-middle-class parents online, I socialize with their nannies at the park. In the process, I learn about child development from those with more real experience than most corporate-sponsored, lab-coated professionals.

Yes, there is a whole world of real parents and nannies willing to teach you if you talk to them, human being to human being. If enough of us do it, if enough of us get behind our kids for real, and start offering each other the help and guidance that the market wants to sell to us, we may end up with something entirely more valuable than a gold pass to an elite school: we’ll have one another, again.