Human Interests

When I Became a Parent, I Finally Realized How Deluded Americans Are

Jan 15, 2024slate
F Milk

The comment was an unwitting arrow. A father was telling my partner and me about how quickly his baby was putting on weight. At 2 and a half months old, he was already outgrowing 6-to-9-month size clothes. He weighed almost as much as our 13-month-old.

“I tell my wife she has A-plus milk,” the father said with a chortle.

Jenni and I didn’t—couldn’t—laugh. Until several months earlier, the matter of our son’s nourishment had been a source of all-consuming stress and anxiety. Our son had GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). Prolific vomiting episodes that alarmed even veteran lactation consultants were a fixture of nearly every feeding and an ever-present threat in the time between them. He’d arch his back, wailing, his body going rigid with agony, and exorcize a quarter or more of a given meal. Every 90 to 120 minutes, we witnessed the most literal rejection of a mother’s milk. When we transitioned from breastfeeding to hypoallergenic formula (a decidedly modest improvement), I got to share equally in feeding duties, along with the profound sense of personal failure in this core parental competency. If the concept of “A-plus milk” implied the existence of “F milk,” this was what F milk felt like.

The comment was an unwitting arrow. A father was telling my partner and me about how quickly his baby was putting on weight. At 2 and a half months old, he was already outgrowing 6-to-9-month size clothes. He weighed almost as much as our 13-month-old.

“I tell my wife she has A-plus milk,” the father said with a chortle.

Jenni and I didn’t—couldn’t—laugh. Until several months earlier, the matter of our son’s nourishment had been a source of all-consuming stress and anxiety. Our son had GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). Prolific vomiting episodes that alarmed even veteran lactation consultants were a fixture of nearly every feeding and an ever-present threat in the time between them. He’d arch his back, wailing, his body going rigid with agony, and exorcize a quarter or more of a given meal. Every 90 to 120 minutes, we witnessed the most literal rejection of a mother’s milk. When we transitioned from breastfeeding to hypoallergenic formula (a decidedly modest improvement), I got to share equally in feeding duties, along with the profound sense of personal failure in this core parental competency. If the concept of “A-plus milk” implied the existence of “F milk,” this was what F milk felt like.

I recognized in the father’s remark some understandable jubilation in response to a positive outcome, as well as a worthy desire to acknowledge the energy and time-intensive labor of breastfeeding. But the concept of “A-plus milk” was both vexing and perplexing. It framed a baby’s burgeoning not as an instance of good fortune, but as a product of parental merit: something accomplished with talent and effort, something deserved. What did this imply for our family?

“A-plus milk” was merely the most colorful of numerous comments I encountered as a new father that collectively hinted at something important about American parenting. A couple of people joked, after conceiving quickly, about how fertile they and their partners must be. I witnessed gushing admiration of a new mother bringing a newborn to a large and unimportant gathering five days after the brutal act of birth (when many are still largely, or literally, bedridden), and social media posts celebrating pregnant women for undertaking adventurous feats like heli-skiing. A friend relayed the story of a couple whose final prenatal travel was to a remote Arctic island, where they were informed of the possibility of being attacked by polar bears.

“She’s hardcore,” my friend explained of the deeply pregnant Arctic explorer.

Hardcore seemed to mean, at least in part, “unencumbered by a litany of possible pregnancy complications.”

Some of these comments excessively attributed a positive outcome to personal influence and merit. Others obscured good fortune while elevating narratives of bold triumph over one’s circumstances (even though the former was a prerequisite for the latter). What they shared, though, was a focus on individual agency and control that seemed rather incongruous with the reality of becoming a parent.

For most people, becoming a parent (or merely trying to become one) represents a headlong leap into an existence of radically diminished control over high-stakes outcomes. To successfully welcome a child into a family, whether by adoption, surrogacy, IVF, or paleo-style conception, relies on the cooperation of many factors that lie beyond our control. Getting pregnant is not as easy as pulling an all-nighter to finish a presentation, carrying a healthy pregnancy to term is not like training for a half-marathon, and having a healthy newborn is not like acing an exam, although our expectations of agency may be anchored to such prior experiences with goal achievement.

What accounts, then, for these tendencies to assume personal agency and overlook external factors, especially in life chapters when so much is out of our hands? I nominate Western individualism, the myth of the American dream, the platitudes of self-help and positive thinking, and the justifications of meritocracy.

In his book The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?Michael Sandel reflects on the 2019 Varsity Blues college admissions cheating scandal (in which wealthy parents paid conspirator William “Rick” Singer exorbitant sums to bribe their children’s way into selective colleges). “Singer’s clients were … buying the borrowed luster of merit,” Sandel writes. “In an unequal society, those who land on top want to believe their success is morally justified. In a meritocratic society, this means the winners must believe they have earned their success through their talent and hard work.”

These and related ideas reinforce the perspective that we as individuals have the ability—and thus, the responsibility—to solve our problems, overcome our obstacles, and manifest our own success. This perspective shapes the stories we tell ourselves and each other about what happens in our lives—even those of us whose politics acknowledge its flaws. I know plenty of goal-oriented high achievers who desire systemic solutions to systemic social problems but who conduct their personal and professional lives in a way that preserves a large role for self-efficacy and personal responsibility—in part because life has confirmed the narrative that with talent, effort, willpower, and various advantages, they can achieve their goals. The logic of individualism and meritocracy is so ubiquitous that it has seeped into all of our mental groundwater.

While cultural forces may prime us to give ourselves too much credit for what happens in life, there is a psychological basis for this. Social psychologists have articulated attribution biases like the fundamental attribution error (overestimating the responsibility of an individual relative to environmental/situational factors), the just-world hypothesis (people deserve what happens to them; it’s not a far leap from this bias to meritocratic beliefs), and the illusion of control (people can be led to adopt a belief in their ability to influence outcomes in games of chance).

These attribution biases affirm our sense of self-efficacy, which many psychology researchers consider adaptive. In one study, subjects were exposed to loud, random buzzing noises while performing a task. One group had no perceived control over the noises. The other was instructed that they could press a button to indicate they wanted the noise to stop, although they were asked not to press it. The second group was less stressed and performed better on the task—even though no one actually pressed the button.

“Healthy individuals tend to overestimate their personal control and ability to achieve success in chance situations involving choice,” write the authors of a paper arguing that we have an innate (and possibly biological) desire for choice and control. “When attempts to control events are unsuccessful, healthy individuals tend to rationalize outcomes rather than admit any compromise of personal control.” They suggest this may insulate us from “maladaptive cognitive and affective responses,” like learned helplessness.

If a belief in self-efficacy, even to the point of excess, was generally a good thing, Jenni and I managed to find its dark side as we sought any lever we could pull to reduce our son’s suffering and help him retain as many calories as possible. With the input of various health care professionals, we were soon awash in such levers—at least on paper. We held him vertically for 20 or 30 minutes after every feeding to facilitate gravity-enhanced digestion. We tried a regimen of exercises to improve his oral motor skills. (The lactation consultants emphasized feeding mechanics: Weak oral motor skills, they said, begot swallowing excess air during feeding, which triggered reflux.) Hoping to continue breastfeeding, Jenni tried an elimination diet of common allergens (including wheat, dairy, soy, corn, and egg) to identify anything that might be exacerbating our son’s GERD. The diet succeeded only in making Jenni miserable and revealing the omnipresence of corn. We switched to hypoallergenic formula, one of the only interventions with a discernible impact. We tried different bottle shapes and sizes, and nipples with different flow rates. There were too many levers, too many variables that might make a difference. Our sense of responsibility far exceeded the demonstrable influence of our interventions. Illusion of control, indeed.

We frequently reflected on what might have contributed to a particularly bad reflux episode, and what we could do differently next time. Was it his feeding position? Did we let him eat too much? Too quickly? Maybe we should have paced his feeding more. Maybe we should have burped him sooner. Maybe we shouldn’t have stopped to burp him because it made him cry, and crying made him more likely to throw up. Maybe we should have held him vertically for 30 minutes after eating instead of 20, even though it was 3:30 a.m. When things went poorly, which they often did, that swollen responsibility curdled into failure and self-blame.

Later, after our son grew out of his GERD and I had the luxury of looking into research on self-efficacy, I was curious if there had been documentation of the psychological downsides of its misapplication. A series of unfruitful Google Scholar searches eventually surfaced work on self-blame that linked prolonged grief and depression symptoms with upward counterfactual thinking (e.g., “If only X were true, Y outcome would have turned out better”). While this work focused on people who’d suffered severe trauma and grief—far from my situation, to be clear—upward counterfactual thinking was plenty familiar. It was nice to have a name for the thing I’d done so often.

In a scene from the book First Stop in the New World, David Lida’s journalistic account of life in Mexico City, Lida gets kidnapped. He tries to plead and bargain with his captors. Why me? he asks. He’s not rich.

“Your number came up,” one kidnapper replies.

The kidnapping wasn’t his fault. It had nothing to do with him or his choices. Someone was going to be kidnapped that day, and Lida was selected, through the lottery of circumstance, for that particular misery. It was probably the most adaptive possible narrative for Lida to adopt, and a more sensible representation of how many misfortunes and blessings are doled out: indifferently, impersonally, and without regard to merit.

Given the priming of our past experiences, culture, and psychology, I find that perspective a helpful one for us to carry into the control-disintegrating journey of parenthood. And I do mean all of us. We’re social creatures. One person’s misplaced pride is not totally cordoned off from another’s misplaced self-blame: They result from the same logic applied to different circumstances. Crediting control, accomplishment, and merit in response to our own good luck can also reinforce the suffering of those struggling with feelings of failure in the face of fertility challenges, pregnancy complications, or newborn/postpartum health issues. It adds to the psychosocial chorus that tells them they deserve their difficulties.

One of the great puzzles of parenthood, and life in general, is learning to accurately draw the boundaries of our control and act accordingly. Within those boundaries, plenty of opportunity remains to exercise judicious self-efficacy and responsibility for our actions. But so many crucial outcomes rest at least partially on factors beyond our bubble of agency. And when their influence is in our favor, the soundest response is not meritorious pride but humble gratitude.

As the father’s “A-plus milk” comment resounded in my inner ears, I felt I had to acknowledge it. But how? I wanted neither to chastise, nor to completely validate. For a few beats, Jenni and I were silent.

“It means a lot of things are going well,” I said to the father.