Navel-gazing their way through parenthood

Why do Gen X moms and dads have an insatiable appetite for reading and writing about the experience of raising kids?

Published October 21, 2003 5:13PM (EDT)

Back in 1994, before I actually got a chance to see the movie "Reality Bites," I read reviews proclaiming that the film managed to perfectly capture the essence of my generation -- Generation X -- on celluloid.

"Generation X" had been unintentionally christened a few years earlier by 20-ish writer Douglas Coupland, and the label was quickly adopted by cultural pundits and marketing trend spotters. Although there has been some debate since as to what age group actually makes up Gen X, most sociologists now agree that Americans born between 1961 and 1981 qualify, with extra bonus points going to anyone who remembers the names of the human characters on "Land of the Lost" (Sleestaks don't count) and who can rattle off all of Ted McGinley's sitcom credits.

Born in 1967, I definitely fall within X's generational sweet spot, and although I was skeptical (a classic Gen X trait, along with forced irony and overuse of parentheticals) of the hype around "Reality Bites," I was also curious. So by the time the film began its second pass through town at the cheap theater, I decided to check it out.

It was certainly no "Smoky and the Bandit," but I have to admit that I was pretty impressed by the way the filmmakers managed to stuff so many elements of my daily existence into their movie. From the 20-something characters' incessant and random pop culture references to their underemployment to their arch cynicism, I immediately recognized these people -- their jobs, clothes, music, living quarters, and even their made-up words like "clevercleverville."

In one fundamental way, however, I differed from Ethan, Winona and the rest of the "Reality Bites" gang: I was a mother. When I gave birth in 1991 at age 23 to my son Henry (a name we Gen Xers apparently give our male offspring with some regularity), and for a number of years thereafter, parenthood was something not only missing from all the Gen-X profiles, movies, TV shows and unofficial handbooks of the time, but was considered inherently antithetical to the iconic, slacker way of life.

Now, having children is de rigueur. Today most of my same-age friends are parents, and those who aren't are trying to become parents. As for me, I already have three children. And in case you were wondering, of the actors from "Reality Bites," Ethan Hawke is now a father of two, and Ben Stiller has a baby with -- how perfectly Gen X is this -- Christine Taylor, the actress who portrayed Marcia Brady in "The Brady Bunch Movie." (Amazingly, neither of these guys' children are named Henry, although they are named Roan, Maya and Ella. Same difference.)

Yes, Generation X -- a demographic whose cultural stereotype until now was marked by a perceived lack of gravitas and commitment -- has officially crossed the rubicon into adulthood by becoming parents. Not surprisingly, we are distinguishing ourselves from those who have parented before us in the same way we previously pioneered important cultural phenomena such as collecting Pez dispensers and playing "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon."

How are we Gen X parental units different? For starters, we have taken the art of parenting navel-gazing to a whole new level. As it turns out, Gen X mamas and papas really like to write, as well as read, about parenting. Of course, there have always been parenting books, but the great majority of them have been prescriptive in nature, à la Dr. Spock and T. Berry Brazelton.

We, on the other hand, are more interested in reading about the experience of parenthood. As a result, a whole new genre of nonfiction parenting literature -- sometimes called "momoirs" -- has erupted in the past seven or eight years, led by the confessional essays of Gen X writers like Spike Gillespie (whose son is named Henry) and Ariel Gore (whose daughter is named Maia). (Full disclosure: My agent is currently shopping my own momoir around to publishers. But mine is different from all the others, really.)

Although there have certainly been some terrific momoirs written in the recent past by non-Gen X writers -- most notably Mary Kay Blakely, Marion Winik, Anne Lamott, and my personal patron saint, Erma Bombeck -- it has been my generation that has taken this literary ball and run with it.

From gay sex columnist Dan Savage's surprisingly sweet adoption memoir to urban hipster Ayun Halliday's hilarious "The Big Rumpus: A Mother's Tales From the Trenches," the number of first-person parenting books from Gen X writers has exploded so rapidly in the past five years that I feel certain that the next time I walk into Borders, I'll find a new "mama-lit" display set up next to the glaring pink "chick-lit" table blocking the aisle.

While the how-to parenting books still lead the pack, it's clear from the runaway success of Vicki Iovine's first-person "Girlfriend's Guide" series, as well as Lamott's "Operating Instructions: A Diary of My Son's First Year," that the tastes of the average buyer of parenting books are evolving as Gen X hits its peak childbearing stride. A quick Amazon search for "parenting memoir" reveals more than 40 such books released in the past 36 months, and periodic perusal of Publisher's Weekly reveals dozens more in the works.

Additionally, two critically acclaimed small magazines (and their Web counterparts) -- Brain, Child,launched in 1999 by two Virginia mothers in their 30s, and Hip Mama, launched by Ariel Gore in 1993 -- are wildly popular with Gen X parents.

"As a generation, I think we want to hear that becoming a mother is not all soft-focus pink-and-blue scenes," explains Ingrid Emerick, a 33-year-old mother of two and associate publisher of Seattle's Seal Press, an imprint of Avalon Publishing Group known for its growing list of Gen X parenting memoirs. "Within the last four to five years we have seen the publication of a number of these momoirs, all looking in a fresh and honest way at the experience of motherhood. The standard belief in the publishing world is that how-to still dominates the market, but this new crop of books is finding its place and, I think, ultimately changing the tenor of the dialogue about motherhood. These real-life accounts reflect the fact that feelings about motherhood are complex and ambiguous and worthy of much discussion."

According to Andrea Buchanan, a 32-year-old mother of two from Philadelphia, editor of, and author of "Mother Shock: Loving Every (Other) Minute of It," these books are so popular with Gen X parents because -- unlike our own Baby Boomer mothers and fathers, and their parents -- our demographic simply doesn't have much interest in being instructed by experts in the "right" way to raise our children. Instead, notes Buchanan, we want to read about the myriad ways in which our peers are doing it and then choose from those approaches, buffet-style.

Bee Lavender, a 32-year-old mother of two from Portland, Ore., and co-editor with Ariel Gore of the 2001 Gen X literary anthology "Breeder: Stories From the New Generation of Mothers," agrees with Buchanan's assessment. She points out that Gen X parents' comfort with the "different strokes for different folks" approach to parenting reflected in these books stems from the fact that as a postfeminist, post-Roe vs. Wade, gay-and-single-parent-friendly group of grown-ups, we Gen X parents do not believe that "good" mothers and fathers must look, behave or configure their families in any particular way.

"These Gen-X writers were all raised after the second wave of feminism changed the basic dialogue of how to talk about families," notes Lavender. "We know that we have choices, and we are choosing to raise children. This is substantially different from what our own mothers faced, both in their daily lives and on a cultural level."

And while Lavender accurately observes that Gen X parenting has been influenced by our women's libber mothers' feminist critique of family life, it's only fitting that our infamous obsession with pop culture may have had equal, if not greater, impact. In fact it's likely that many Gen X parents' views on child rearing have been shaped by TV, movies and music. After all, the feminist consciousness-raising experience Gen Xers are most likely to remember from their own childhoods isn't their mothers' volunteer work on behalf of the ERA, but rather Marlo Thomas' "Free to Be You and Me" records and books.

As I watch my peers begin their parenting journeys, our pop culture touchpoints seem to have extended into our family lives. Is it possible that we Gen Xers owe our easier acceptance of all types of families -- at least in part -- to our generational worship at the altar of "The Brady Bunch"? Can we trace our more tolerant attitude toward divorce and single motherhood to television shows like "Alice" and "One Day at a Time"?

However our own views on family life evolved, some cultural pundits are observing that this Gen X tolerance for diversity in parenting styles is now being reflected back into current pop culture at large.

"Forty years ago, they couldn't show Lucille Ball in bed with her real-life husband. Ten years ago, Murphy Brown caught hell for depicting unwed motherhood in a positive light. Today, Rachel on 'Friends' has a baby and no husband and nobody bats an eye," notes Jennifer Weiner, a 33-year-old Philadelphia mother, author of the bestselling chick-lit novel "Good in Bed," and formerly the Gen X beat columnist for the Knight-Ridder news service. "I know Gen X women who have babies without husbands, or gay couples who have donor-sperm babies, and none of that seems very controversial anymore -- on television or in real life."

The statistics tell us that as a group, Gen Xers are waiting longer to become parents; according to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 22 percent of American women today give birth to their first child between the ages of 30 and 39, compared to only 9 percent in the early 1960s. However, it appears that once we do cross over to the baby side, we take our roles seriously. Turned off by the alienation that many of us experienced as latchkey kids, it appears that my generation is choosing to raise our children differently by more often putting home life first.

"I think that a lot of Gen Xers are trying to create for their children the childhoods that we feel we didn't get," explains Joey Cody of Knoxville, Tenn., a 31-year-old writer and current stay-at-home mother of a baby boy.

Recent census numbers reveal that fewer new mothers are going back to work immediately, with the percentage of mothers of infants in the workforce falling from 59 percent in 1998 to 55 percent in 2000, the first such notable decline in 25 years. In my own circle of peers, and certainly in my own life, I have noted a trend toward "sequencing" -- what author Arlene Rossen Cardozo defines as women focusing on one thing at a time, whether that's caring for kids or concentrating on a career. Gen X parents seem less willing to be labeled "working mothers" or "stay-at-home mothers." Instead, we are increasingly comfortable with the idea that we will play different roles at different points in our lives.

And while the "slacker" employment stereotype of Gen Xers has been thoroughly debunked (after all, we gave the rest of you people the Internet boom of the late 1990s), anecdotal and emerging market research does support the assertion that many Gen X parents both expect and are managing to create for themselves flexible work-family arrangements that clearly place their roles as parents firmly in the center of their lives.

"Flexibility is the most important thing for employees today," noted Carol Evans, president of Working Mother Media in a May 2003 USA Today article titled "Generation X Moms Have It Their Way." "Generation X moms may want to work only one day a week, but they still think of themselves as career women. They do not think of such arrangements as 'a privilege.' They just expect it. And companies need to deal with that."

Maria Bailey, author of "Marketing to Moms: Getting Your Share of the Trillion Dollar Market" and CEO of BSM Media, a market research firm that helps companies such as Oracle, Microsoft and Office Depot target mother-consumers, says that this focus on work-life integration is one of the primary features that clearly differentiates Gen X parents from the mothers and fathers who preceded us.

"Because so many Gen X women are high earners, they tend to have discussions before marriage or early into the marriage about which spouse will allow their career to slow down to raise the child," explains Bailey. "This is very different from generations of couples that preceded them. There is also an openness and willingness among Gen X dads to be the stay-at-home parent ... and Gen Xers have the ability through technology to better fit work into their lives as parents."

Robert and Nicole Allison, both 32, are a married couple with two young children and a third on the way. Several years ago, they made the radical decision to leave their high-pressure, six-figure law-firm jobs in Chicago and search for a simpler life. After several twists and turns, the Allisons ultimately settled in a tiny rural village in middle Tennessee. Rather than commute into one of the nearby suburban office parks, each of them has managed to find a full-time telecommuting position as legal counsel to a different technology firm -- one in Chicago and one in San Francisco -- something that would not have been possible before the advent of the Internet.

"If we had stayed in Chicago," explains Robert, "we would be making much more money and attending fabulous parties, but we would be working 70 hours a week. We would basically never see our kids. We work very hard at what we do now, but we have achieved a balance that makes us better parents and better employees. I think that this balance is something that our grandparents' generation took for granted but was lost during our parents' generation. Now, our peers are reclaiming it."

"I was raised upper-middle-class by a dad who sold his soul to make a lot of money," says Dawn Friedman, a 32-year-old mother of one from Columbus, Ohio. "This is radically different from how [my husband] and I live. It drives my dad crazy that we're not more ambitious, but his parenting values are just vastly different than ours. My father still thinks it's all in the trappings. Me, I had the trappings and I know they don't mean a thing if you aren't taking care of the hearts and minds of the people that you love."

While we Gen X parents do bring certain strengths to our roles as parents -- such as our aforementioned comfort with diversity and willingness to be very hands-on in our child rearing -- we also face unique dilemmas.

One of these challenges will be in not letting the fact that we often share our kids' tastes in music, movies, TV and books turn us into pals rather than parents. When I was a kid in the '70s, there were the "cool parents" like my own who listened to the Stones, Joni Mitchell and Little Feat, and the "old parents" who came of age in the '50s rather than the '60s and favored Pat Boone and Lawrence Welk. Today, however, Gen X parents and their kids were both raised on the same rock 'n' roll, which has now been around long enough that icons like David Bowie and Steven Tyler have fans ranging in age from 10 to 55. As a result, Gen Xers and their kids are a lot less likely to argue over which radio station plays in the minivan. These parents and their kids both like Green Day, Good Charlotte and Eminem. In my own family, my 12-year-old son wears the same black Chuck Taylor Hi-Tops favored by his civil engineer father, and they both share a fondness for old-school hip-hop.

"My son Jones and I both love 'The Simpsons,' which I consider to be the classic Gen X crossover cartoon," says Robert Allison. "Jones 'gets it' on one level, while I get it on an entirely different level. To him it's like 'The Flintstones,' while to me it's like 'Seinfeld.' Yet we can both watch it and appreciate it at the same time. My dad and I couldn't watch anything together until I was 14 and I finally liked the news."

Marrit Ingman, a 31 year-old mother of one from Austin, TX says that she finds herself and her child referencing the same pop culture touchpoints, something that rarely happened with her own parents when she was a child.

"My son is 19 months old," explains Ingman. "At breakfast yesterday I told him my eyes were crusty from sleep. He said, "Hey, hey!" and gave me a cheese-eating grin and I realized he thought I was talking about Krusty the clown."

Despite our pop cultural literacy, in one way, we Gen X parents are exactly the same as those who have parented before us; no matter how much we talk, read, write, and think about our own parenting, we wont be able to get a clear picture of what we did right and where we went wrong until our own offspring are grown and can tell us  and their therapists.

By Katie Allison Granju

Katie Allison Granju lives in Tennessee with her three children and is the author of "Attachment Parenting." Her website is

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