25 January, 2014

Is society really baby-obsessed?

Mel asked the question: Is society really babyobsessed?  Initially I was surprised she asked this. Of course it is!  But then I thought (as she did), perhaps it’s just my perception?  After all, perception is everything.  If you asked someone (in NZ) if there was more crime today than ten or twenty years ago, then they’d say yes.  The media is obsessed with reporting crime and bad news stories, there have been well-publicised efforts to educate children about keeping themselves safe, and politicians frequently like to claim they're "tough on crime" in a hunt for more votes.  So we all have this feeling that there are more dangers than there were in the past.  Yet crime statistics show that crime is going down.  This is not our perception.  So which is real?  Statistics damn statistics?  (They can say anything we - or politicians - want them to say.)  Or perception based on our own experiences? 

Mel also used the comparison of discussion in the media about weddings vs marriage.  I can see her point - there are more magazines, features, etc about weddings than marriage.  Weddings are big money.  But how often do we hear about brides who are obsessed with their weddings, thinking more about them than about the marriage?  How often do we see people marry in a big, fancy wedding that they spent a year planning, then a year or two or three later quietly dissolve the marriage?  The obsession is with the wedding.  How many people put the same effort into preparing for and planning their marriage, as they do the wedding. Rational people put their energies and desires into the marriage long term.  But we're not obsessed with the marriage.  It's an ongoing state (we hope) for starters.  But we are obsessed with the wedding.

So is society really obsessed with babies and pregnancy?  And how can I answer that without doing some empirical research? (Which, by the way, I have no intention of doing right now.)  I can't really.  I can only look at my experience, and my observations of society, and try to be objective.

And with that introduction, I will still say that I certainly believe society is more baby-obsessed now than in the past.  Even twenty or thirty years ago, children and babies weren’t the centre of attention or focus or obsession.  Babies were accepted for what they were.  Tiny, noisy, uncontrollable little things who would grow into fascinating children and adults.  But in the meantime, there was still a belief that children (and babies) had their place.  Their needs, or their parents’ desires, didn’t dominate.  Parents wouldn’t dream of taking their babies (and children of a certain age), to fine dining restaurants or often even cafes, and never movies.  Consideration for others – other diners, movie-goers, etc – was paramount.

Having babies was considered a normal, unspectacular part of life.  Babies were something good, something assumed and expected (sigh), but completely ordinary.  It was taken for granted. And so having babies was celebrated on an intimate, personal level as appropriate.  Parents did not trumpet their achievements in having children.  In New Zealand at least, it would have seemed arrogant and inappropriate to talk about your children, or yourself (ie I’m blessed), in that way.  “Who do you think you are?” would have been the response.  And in the 80s there was much more focus on seeing what women could achieve, not only as mothers, but also in career, business, creative, and sporting terms.* 

Now though, it certainly seems as if society is more obsessed, and much more vocal about it.  And that creates a perception, and perception is after all reality.  The media – which both reflects societal norms, and creates them – is relentless in its adulation of mothers and babies.  With changes in technology, mothers now have outlets to talk about their lives, their children, their pregnancies and their babies that they wouldn’t have had in the past.  Looking for validation and support, mom blogging and other support websites have boomed.  Celebrity pregnancies and babies (the best of two obsessions – a pregnant celebrity) are big news, more so than a new movie or album or book or award win or gold medal.  Advertisers follow in their wake, both tapping into existing demand (ie the market they can reach), but also in setting expectations (and hence creating demand) as any good marketers would.  And in doing so, they begin creating a demand.  In feeding the obsession, it becomes more and more prominent.  Peer pressure has always been a powerful force, and is important in selling products, services, magazines, movies, etc.  (The obsession with “pink” for little girls’ toys is an example.)  So the more stories there are about celebrity babies, the more people decide they want to know about celebrity babies.  Politicians – who are after all just marketers really –jump on the bandwagon too, and focus on family-friendly policies, and always, always talk about the future in terms of “the future of your children.”  So a politician who might have a broader view finds themselves talking about “your children and your grandchildren” to tap into that market, and soon enough voters are going to reject a candidate who doesn’t cover this.

I think the perception is there, and it reflects reality.  It hasn’t always been like this.  And it might change in the future.  But I certainly believe that society, these days, does find itself obsessed over babies, for whatever reasons.  (I haven’t got time/space to talk about it here.)

It concerns me, this obsession over babies and women having babies, though not as you might think, not only as a childless woman.  I may not appreciate the child-obsessed society I live in, but I can handle it.  What worries me more is the way this obsession continues to stereotype women into one particular role, limiting choice or the acceptance of different choices, and does it in a more insidious way than the blatant sexism of the past.  And the place of women in society is an issue that has been central to my sense of who I am since I was a child. 

I hate seeing the increased sexism that goes alongside this society-led baby obsession.  I hate seeing women being once again reduced to simply being a body, or worse a uterus, when my generation and especially the generations before me fought so hard for women to be seen as more than their body.  I believe that women have taken a step backwards in many ways in the last 10-15 years.  Or at least, we haven't taken the steps forward we would have expected and hoped for.  And many younger women, being raised in the age of unrelenting pink, and obsession with body shape and looks and overt sexuality, and celebrity babies, don't realise that they're being brainwashed into behaving in particular ways, that they're being stereotyped into certain roles, as much as my older sister and cousins were back in the 70s.  My 22-year-old niece – who would profess herself as a strong, independent young woman – appears to me to be more bound by societal attitudes – and far less aware of feminist issues and arguments - than I was at the same age.

And so, at the same time that society is becoming more diversified, more open and accepting of varying lifestyles, the idea of choice (and the acceptance of different choices) for women seems to have suffered.  And that makes me sad.

Note:  You won’t believe how much I had to edit this.  So apologies if it sounds like a rant.


  1. Dear Mali,
    I love to start my weekend by reading one of your posts.

    Few days ago I went on evening walk with my DH and he said (when walking by the little church close to the fields): "I would love to know what are Mali & her husband doing in this moment. They could almost not be further away from as."

    Yes. You live almost on the opposite part of the Earth. But when reading your lines I just feel that they could be written by me.

    (btw: I loved the line: .... but I can handle it.... (great attitude!))

    Wishing you both a lovely weekend (we got the first snow yesterday and today it is sunny - just a perfect combination).

  2. I have, myself, been "baby obsessed" most of my life. From the time i was a small child i loved babies and wanted to be a mama.

    Living in So Cal, i do find that parents seem to really focus on huge - huge showers, huge 1 YO BD parties (obviously for the parents, a 1 YO has no clue), and large parties as the child gets older.

    I see this a massive problem if the parents do not actually "parent." My husband's nephew is going to be an enormous headache before long because his parents do not know how to set limits (and think so many behaviors are "cute;" - they may have been at age 2, they are not at nearly 7).

    But then, it is easy to stand back and see problems, much harder to fix them.

    1. I think individuals have always been "baby obsessed" in some way. I recall a friend telling me in our 20s that she was crying regularly because she had to wait a few years before they could financially have a baby. Yet at the time, I don't think society was "baby-obsessed" (certainly not in the way I observe now) even though my friend was.

  3. I've been looking for it, but can't find it through a search. A newspaper recently did a column where they went on and on about problems with parenting. Midway through the article, they paused to let the reader know that they were actually reading a column from over 100 years ago. In other words, all the complaints we have about kids and parents today existed back then. The specifics of those complaints may change over time, but over all, every generation believes that things have changed, and usually claim it's for the worst.

    I definitely was brought to fancy restaurants growing up, as were my friends. I was brought to the ballet starting around age 4. To movies. To musicals. I learned how to behave by being given opportunities to try out behaviour where it counted. In turn, since the twins have been little, we've brought them everywhere with us -- from restaurants to the White House. And they behave, though they are kids. So they behave like kids. And usually the people around us recognize that and roll with it, in the same way that we recognize the physical/emotional limitations of some adults and roll with that.

    So I don't really think our focus on kids has changed. Nor even parenting styles for the most part. I think every generation thinks they've come up with something unique until historians trot out examples from other eras and we see that usually it's more a case of everything old is new again.

    If I find that article, I'll send it to you. When I just mentioned it to Josh, he thought it may have come from the New Yorker.

    1. I've seen articles about the "younger generation" like the one you refer to before. I think you can go back to Ancient Greece to find writings about how standards are slipping in the younger generation!! That's not really my point. And I'm certainly not saying all the changes are for the worst. (I had a much longer discussion on this in an original draft, but deleted it).

      You and I are never going to agree on having adults-only places. I think we can accept that, and that we both have sore spots on this issue. So I don't want to get into this again. Maybe it's a New Zealand thing. I can still honestly say that I have never seen a baby in a fine dining restaurant (as per the article you linked to in your post) here. Is the difference in expectations? Cultural? Generational? Or simply my perception? As I said, I can only talk about what I observe, here and overseas.

      None of that was really my point. My point was twofold. Society as a whole (not individuals) does, to me at least (looking back on the last 30 years when procreating was a legitimate option for me), seem much more baby-obsessed than it did even a short 10-15 years ago. And the implications of that, for women as a whole, saddens me.

  4. I think our society is very baby-obsessed. I think the celebrity pregnancy/baby obsession is a huge part of that. You can't stand in line at the grocery store without being screamed at by all the magazines telling you who is pregnant or having a baby or losing the weight after the baby. That seems to be a relatively new phenomena and I think it's indicative of a more general obsession with pregnancy and babies.

    And I agree with you, it's really, really sad.

  5. Food for thought. THANKS for writing this, Mali. I came from an Asian culture that somebody referred to as the 50s in the UK. I think social media has certainly made babies and pregnancies or anything on earth even more "in your face" than ever before and trends spread more like a wildfire these days because of the relentless online connection.

    Case in point: when I was a child, we didn't celebrate Mother's Day or Father's Day. At the school where my brother's son goes to, last year they invited the mothers to come to school because they had this photo session with the mothers when the children gave a handicraft that they had made beforehand.

    You know what's sad? Some of the mothers couldn't come because of work, so the ones receiving the gifts were the nannies...my mom came in place of my SIL (SIL has a full-time job), so at least my nephew can give it to my mom (who is his main caretaker after all), but my heart broke for the ones whose mothers/grandmothers couldn't come. I never had this problem because at that time we didn't celebrate anything like this. I know that it is good to appreciate your own parents or caretaker, but it can backfire. If it had happened to me when I was young and my parents or grandparents couldn't come, it would have broken my heart.

    P.S. I was once helping out at a daycare here in Finland and I thought their system was better. They did make something for the mothers on Mother's Day, but each child brought it home to give to their own mothers in private (even though the children had to be reminded over and over again NOT to tell the parents what they were making so that it would be a surprise). No need for a photo session like the one organized by my nephew's school. Just my POV.

  6. I don't even think that this baby obsession is good for children themselves. They're treated as little emperors when they're small and cute, and they get away with bad behaviour as long as they remain small and cute. Having their every need attended to isn't conducive to a healthy attitude, nor is the "helicopter parent" phenomenon.