The relentlessness of modern mothering reflects the differences between Myrna and Mira

Mother cooking in blender pure for baby

The piece in yesterday’s New York Times, The Relentlessness of Modern Parenting, has generated 1000 comments and counting.

Parenthood in the United States has become much more demanding than it used to be.

Over just a couple of generations, parents have greatly increased the amount of time, attention and money they put into raising children. Mothers who juggle jobs outside the home spend just as much time tending their children as stay-at-home mothers did in the 1970s.


Parent” as a verb gained widespread use in the 1970s, which is also when parenting books exploded. The 1980s brought helicopter parenting, a movement to keep children safe from physical harm, spurred by high-profile child assaults and abductions (despite the fact that they were, and are, exceedingly rare). Intensive parenting was first described in the 1990s and 2000s by social scientists including Sharon Hays and Annette Lareau. It grew from a major shift in how people saw children. They began to be considered vulnerable and moldable — shaped by their early childhood experiences — an idea bolstered by advances in child development research.

I would argue that our major shift in outlook was not in how we see children, but in how we see mothers. For most of human history we have viewed mothers as nurturers who raise children. Today we see mothers as risk managers who raise future competitors in the marketplace. It’s the difference between fictional grandmother Myrna and her fictional granddaughter Mira.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]We used to see mothers as nurturers; now we see them as risk managers.[/pullquote]

Myrna gave birth to her first child in the late 1950’s at the age of 22. Her granddaughter Mira gave birth to her first child in the late 2000’s at the age of 32.

Myrna had a baby because that is what one did within a year or so of marriage. She never thought to do otherwise and, in the absence of effective birth control, there wasn’t a great deal of choice about the matter. Mira worked hard at her career and delayed both marriage and childbearing to give priority to climbing the career ladder. Having used effective birth control for well over a decade, she deliberately chose to stop using it in order to conceive.

Myrna assumed that if she went to the doctor regularly throughout pregnancy and rigorously followed his advice, she could count on having a health baby. Her granddaughter Mira considers that attitude frighteningly blasé. Her grandmother had never worried about all the things that could go wrong and all the risks that must be managed. Mira controlled her food choices rigorously, avoided a myriad of foods that might harm her baby and possibly interfere with reaching his or her full intellectual potential. She had to be constantly on her guard.

When labor started, Myrna’s husband dropped her and her suitcase at the door of the maternity ward and reappeared after baby John had been born while Myrna was anesthetized and unaware of what was happening. Myrna may have worried about caring for a newborn, but she never worried for even a moment that her baby might not bond to her. Of course she was going to love her baby and her baby was going to love her.

Mira, in contrast, choreographed Jace’s birth with exquisite care with the help of her midwife and doula and then was devastated when it did not go according to plan. Had she harmed mother-child bonding by “giving in” to an epidural? Had she destroyed Jace’s microbiome by having a C-section thereby condemning him to be sickly? Only time would tell and Mira would have to be alert for the signs.

Myrna and baby John came home to a present from her in-laws: two weeks of a night nurse so she could rest and recover. She cracked open a can of formula powder, fed the baby as much as he wanted, and then put him to sleep in his crib. She didn’t do a single night feeding until the baby nurse left two weeks later by which point she was well on the road to recovering from the rigors of birth.

Mira, in contrast, could not sleep for more than 2 hours at a stretch until Jace was nearly 4 months old; even when she slept she didn’t sleep well since her baby was in her own bed beside her. At one point she was hallucinating from exhaustion, but what choice did she have? She had to breastfeed exclusively in order to protect Jace’s health and future intellectual potential. As a responsible mother she wasn’t going to let a drop of formula touch her infant’s lips.

Sadly she wasn’t producing enough milk to fully nourish her baby so she had to pump in between feedings to boost her supply. And because Jace remained hungry, he couldn’t settle and required hours of soothing each and every day.

Myrna never worried about any of that. Sure the relentless cycle of change diapers, feed, sleep was both boring and wearying, but she and her friends could commiserate. They were all doing exactly the same thing.

Every two months Myrna took her baby to the doctor so he could get his shots and his polio vaccine. She was so grateful to live in a time when infectious disease did not routinely kill babies. Mira, in contrast, spent countless hours researching vaccines by consulting with her mom friends on Facebook. There were so many decisions to be made about the choice and timing of vaccination. Obviously she wasn’t going to simply follow doctors’ recommendations. She presented her pediatrician with a modified vaccine schedule that the doctor was expected to follow.

Myrna’s doctor told her to start the baby on rice cereal at 4 months and that’s exactly what she did. Her son gradually progressed to eating little jars of Gerber puréed foods. Mira, in contrast, was determined to hold off on solid food until at least 6 months even though it became clear at 5 months that Jace was falling off his growth chart. When she did start him on solids she prepared everything herself from organic produce with no additives of any kind and served from bowls that were BPA free. There were so many toxins in the environment and she had to be on constant alert to protect her baby.

And so it went. John played outside in his backyard; Jace went to play groups. John watched television; Jace was only allowed screen time as a special treat. John had toy guns and cars; Jace started learning his alphabet and numbers at the age of 2.

John walked to and from elementary school and was allowed to play outside after school anywhere in the neighborhood; Jace’s mother drove him to school and then ferried him to various activities afterward. John built a model of the solar system by himself from styrofoam balls and coat hangers; Jace’s mom redid his first effort, deeming it unable to meet the high standards that might be required for future entry into a competitive private high school 5 years hence. John, Mira’s father, went to Harvard; it’s important to Mira that Jace go to Harvard, too and she will leave nothing to chance.

What’s the difference between Myrna and Mira?

Myrna assumed that her child would turn out fine without any special effort. Mira assumes her child will be a fat, unhappy, failure unless she interposes herself between him and the myriad risks she imagines he faces.

The ultimate irony is that while Mira imagines her grandmother as oblivious to high stakes of childrearing, Myrna managed to raise the happy successful adult that Mira dreams of creating with a massive amount of effort.

Children haven’t changed in the past 50 years, but mothers expectations of themselves have changed nearly beyond recognition.