Having a baby 15 years ago versus having a baby today: how much has changed? Ellen Painter Dollar describes her experience as a new mother at the turn of the millennium, when technology wasn’t so readily available. As a new mother in 2015, technology looms large for Jennifer Palmer, who feels she is constantly navigating the challenges of parenting in the digital world.
Having a Baby 15 Years Ago
By Ellen Painter Dollar
I welcomed the new millennium in stretch pants, my three-week-old firstborn guzzling at my breast. In the weeks leading up to January 1, 2000, I worried little about “Y2K”—the catastrophes predicted due to our computers’ inability to decipher a year abbreviated as “00.” I was too consumed by the impending and then actual arrival of my tiny girl, and too skeptical of doomsday thinking, to fear government dissolution or planes falling from the sky.
Twenty months later, on September 11, 2001, we would learn that planes falling from the sky was a legitimate thing to fear, though the planes would be brought down not by inept technology, but by old-fashioned human rage. We learned, in blood and fire, just how fraught with both promise and peril our increasingly global connections can be.
As evening approached on September 11, the day’s many charged legacies—for our nation, for parents and children—were yet unknown. All I knew was that I had a 20-month-old who was blessedly oblivious as I watched the towers collapse, my hand clamped over my mouth so I wouldn’t frighten her with horrified whimpering, and that we had plans the following day to go to the beach. I called my friend Cathy and asked, “Should we go? It seems wrong. But what else are we going to do?” What else indeed, especially with a child not yet two years old? So off to the beach we went—me and several other moms whose firstborn children were all around my daughter’s age, and who were the first real friends I made after becoming a mother.
Having moved back to my hometown 11 months before my daughter’s birth and begun telecommuting from home part-time, I often went days without seeing anyone other than my husband and the Kinko’s clerk, to whom I would deliver faxes and page proofs bound for my DC-based employer. While I took to motherhood easily, reveling in the tactile pleasures of caring for a newborn, I needed friends. Online community was a fledgling endeavor, friendship not yet something to be tallied in a sidebar. I met my friends the old-fashioned way—awkwardly and in person, after reluctantly signing up for a local new parents’ class. After our six-week class ended, we would spend the next half dozen years meeting weekly in our homes as our brood grew to 17 children, then graduate to book discussions, dinners out, and rare weekends away as our kids grew. These were the friends with whom I spent September 12, 2001, at the beach.
We, of course, had no cell phones on which to scroll through the latest news while keeping half an eye on our toddlers. But I won’t give into the temptation to look back with pure nostalgia at a time, only 14 years ago, when an hour’s drive to the beach could effectively shield us for one blessed day from the worst news many of us had known in our lifetimes.
To be sure, I am grateful for the brief respite we got that day from 9/11 and its frightening implications. I wonder uneasily what it means for our spirits and our families that such separation from the world’s terrors, such complete attention given to our beloved ones, can now be achieved only with a deliberate act of will, or a trip somewhere remote.
But social media and wi-fi allow me to nurture a writing career along with a home and a family, to comment knowledgeably on the day’s news from the window seat in my dining room, the dog underfoot and occasionally a sick kid in the next room. These virtual connections, too, are laden with promise and peril.
Parents must learn to bear the unsettling truth that our children belong to the world as much as to us. In a poem titled “To My Children, Fearing for Them,” Wendell Berry asks, “What have I done?” Yet even as he grieves his inability to save his children from witnessing and bearing suffering, he also cannot “wish your lives unmade, though the pain of them is on me.”
That Wednesday afternoon, as we dug in the sand and wiped sunscreen onto scowling faces, we must have thought of the pile of steel and debris and bodies smoldering just across the Long Island Sound from our sunny idyll. We—perhaps especially my friend Carol, heavily pregnant with her second child—must have wondered, “What have we done?”
But the image I most clearly recall from that day is of driving back into town, my daughter and my friend’s little boy asleep in their car seats, their deep, steady breath giving off the exhausted contentment of a day at the beach. No, I could not wish these lives unmade, though the pain of them, the agony of the fallen towers and whatever horrors these little ones would know in their lifetimes, was firmly on us.
Questions about how to ease our children into necessary but heavy knowledge have long been part of parenthood. In the past 15 years, such questions have become more immediate, more daily, as the world is never farther away than the smartphones in our back pockets. What has changed since I had my first baby is that the divide between public and private has become far murkier; we must choose more deliberately between engagement and solitude, attention directed outward and inward, and fight to give ourselves fully to each pursuit at the proper time.
What hasn’t changed is our agonized awareness that, as Wendell Berry also wrote, “We who give life give pain.” Our children have always been subject to the promise and peril of human connection, heirs of legacies that stretch far beyond our own family trees.
Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer whose work explores the intersections of faith, parenthood, disability, and ethics. She is author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012), and blogs for the Patheos Progressive Christian Channel.
Having a Baby Today
By Jennifer Palmer
My daughter was born one fine spring morning in 2014. By that evening, several family members and friends had met her in real life. But many more had “met” her online. Cradling her to my chest with one hand, I used the other to update my Facebook status, announcing her arrival, and the response—dozens of comments and hundreds of likes from my small circle of social media contacts—came within moments. In the intervening year, I’ve added photos and videos of her every few months, and, while none have come close to matching that first post’s popularity, such updates garner far more interest than the other things on my wall.
My use of Facebook isn’t the only way that technology has affected my parenting. Constant communication and access to instant information are so ingrained in my way of life that I have a difficult time imagining what it would be like to have a baby without them.
Often, the consequences of having so much technology available are obvious: take my tendency to consult the Internet when I have a question. Prior to becoming a parent, I thought nothing of this habit. After all, as my husband often notes with a wry smile, “Google knows everything!” It was only natural, therefore, when my daughter seemed to lag far behind her peers in certain milestones, for me to type “infant developmental delays” into the search bar. Overwhelmed by the quantity of conflicting information available on the subject, I learned my lesson: today, when questions arise about my daughter’s health and development, I consult my mom, my husband, or my pediatrician, but rarely my search engine. I may know less—a crime in today’s information-saturated world—but I also worry less.
Other times, the effects are less clear. Like many Americans of my generation, my phone is nearly always within reach. It is more than just a phone, of course; it is my calendar and my camera and my shopping list. I use it to read and to shop and to write. I listen to audio books and music. I text daily photos of my girl to her grandparents and her dad. In recent months, I have become ever more aware of how much I look at my phone as my daughter has become more curious about her world. She sees me holding it, lunges for it, and I wonder what it teaches her to see her mother so enamored with this inanimate device. How will it affect her, in the years to come, to grow up surrounded by screens?
There’s this, too, as I think about parenting in today’s modern world: there you sit, reading my words, and somehow, I don’t feel quite so alone. I send my words out, talk about what it is to be at home with my baby and know that you read them, that you can relate. I read the words of others, too, blogs about parenting, about modern womanhood, about life, and feel as though these long days at home with an infant are not so lonely, as though somehow I have community and connection, virtual though IT may be. My introverted personality tends towards the ease of Internet relationships; with such an avenue open to me, I must force myself to cultivate meaningful connections in my hometown. While online friendships are valuable and words have power to heal, nothing compares to a physical hug, to a meal shared. With only so many hours in a day, determining the balance between the virtual world and the real one can be challenging, to say the least.
My challenge as a new mother in 2015 is to navigate the ever-changing digital world of social media and smartphones and 24-hour-news cycles, keeping the good and discarding the rest. It’s a task more difficult than it sounds, for I cannot always determine the ways in which the marvels of the modern world influence my thinking, my relationships, my life. I know, too, that the challenge which will only grow as my daughter does. Today, I need only govern myself, a skill I’ve yet to master; the time will come when I will need to guide her as she explores the World Wide Web, show her how to avoid becoming ensnared in its sticky strands.
Though I cannot always quantify the ways in which technology changes the way I parent, I know this: at its essence, mothering an infant, even in 21st century America, requires but a few things. Patience. Kindness. A willingness to shelter and care for and feed a small, helpless human being. Community. Love. Though the details may be different, though my day-to-day may bear little resemblance to that of those who have gone before me, I suspect those things have remained constant throughout the ages.
Jennifer Palmer worked as an electrical engineer until her daughter was born, but has always been a writer at heart. She now scribbles in her journal between diaper changes, composes prose in her head as she rocks a baby to sleep, and blogs about finding the beauty in everyday life at choosingthismoment.com. She lives with her husband and daughter in the forested foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in Northern California.
Freedom Tower photo by Scott Boruchov