A few years ago I saw this interview with Julian Lennon, and it stuck with me. I have always been a fan of the Beatles and John Lennon in particular. This interview, however, presents the stark contrast between John Lennon’s success as a musician and his performance as a father to his first son.
A couple of days ago I proposed that there might be a place in the world for the dramatic parenting narrative, a story that finds drama and heroism in the sphere of raising children. Here is one of the challenges I see in making such stories a reality. In order to have real drama, the hero must be in jeopardy. There must be a chance that the hero will fail.
Accepting the notion that a parent might not do well, that a parent might be on the verge of completely making a wreck of things, while not losing an audience is hard. It is especially hard with a female protagonist. We are much more apt to forgive John Lennon for his shortcomings as a parent than we would be to forgive a woman who prioritized rock star success over her child’s emotional needs.
But whether the parent is a mother or father, the dramatic parenting narrative is a challenge. Here in the land of the free and home of the brave, we have a culture makes it seem downright immoral not to be on guard at every moment. Terrible dangers lurk around every corner and if you fail to prepare for them, well, that is your fault.
“There’s been this huge cultural shift,” Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids said. “We now live in a society where most people believe a child can not be out of your sight for one second, where people think children need constant, total adult supervision. This shift is not rooted in fact. It’s not rooted in any true change. It’s imaginary. It’s rooted in irrational fear.”
The quote is from an article that is arguably a rare example of the dramatic parenting narrative. It appeared in Salon today. The Day I Left My Son in the Car was written by Kim Brooks, whose split-second decision to run into the store would consume the next years of her life. A stranger, seeing that incidence of what she believed to be a child in jeopardy, videotaped the boy waiting in the car and– without confronting the mother– went to the police. Lapses in maternal judgment find little sympathy in a media environment which features constant reports of child predators, kidnappers and bad guys with guns.
Why are we so fearful? My best guess is that it is the flipside, once again, of our optimistic American belief in the power of the individual to control her circumstances. If you believe there is really no such thing as an accident or a crime, only poorly prepared people, you can maintain the idea that nothing bad will happen to you. (Also, you do not need to expend as much emotional energy on compassion for victims who obviously brought their misfortunes on themselves.)
With almost no permission to risk mistakes, the dramatic parenting narrative becomes rare, almost impossible.