When my older sister was 17, she had a daughter. Her daughter—my niece—is now eight.
My parents have had a significant influence over my niece’s life, acting as both giving grandparents and benevolent guardians and navigating the boundaries between those roles as they go along.
I feel like I am reliving my childhood when I watch my parents discipline and nurture my nieces. Nothing’s changed at all: it’s strange to see the same fruitless battles over bedtime and taking baths that I had waged as a kid played back at me with the perspective that I have now (with therapy), watching the family cycle of hotheadedness replay its way into the next generation unfiltered.
Everyone says “I’ll be better to my kids!” when they’re sifting through their childhood traumas on a chaise lounge in the psychologist’s office. It’s expected for each successive generation to discover a new means of parenting; new restrictions, new encouragements, new punishment, new lessons. My parents tell me all the time how easy we have it, sharing stories of my grandfather beating my dad with a paddle or my grandmother breaking my mom’s finger, and how getting spanked or locked in our rooms was insignificant compared to their parents’ punishment. New generations of parents make new rules.
My sister’s dependance on my parents for childcare undermines her ability to make her own, new-generational rules in raising her children. There’s a long running fight between them that always ends in “You’re never going to see her again!” and always starts with “Can you watch my kid?” My sister argues that my mom oversteps her bounds with my niece by signing my niece up for sports, theater, and summer programs; or generally disrespecting my sister’s progeny governance. The catch is my sister isn’t the only one raising her kid, and the more she depends on my parents (or other caregivers) the less say she actually has in what’s happening. Because of this, the Boomer parenting model that my parents used for me and my sisters is being recycled for use on their post-Millennial grandkids, without allowing my sister (like other teen moms) to build a parenting model of her own.
Before I talk about my sister and my mom, though, I should talk about myself. I spent an aloof childhood either sitting in front of the TV or getting as far from my house as possible. I virtually dropped out of school in sixth grade when I realized that my teachers couldn’t tell me anything I hadn’t already heard on PBS. In middle school I spent all my time in a retro video games store where the owners became the brothers I never had, and taught me more about surviving family life than anyone at home could. In high school my best friend was alcohol and whoever had it. I went to an arts high school in junior year, but halfway through I attempted suicide and wound up in an alternative school that gave you credit just for showing up. I spent senior year attending classes at a community college, and have been attending class there part-time, out-of-pocket ever since.
As a teen I blamed my mess of a life on my mom and sister. Both live with Borderline Personality disorder, which is why I always viewed home more as a battlefield than a sanctuary. My sister and mother have this same pattern of interaction where they pick a time where you’re most engrossed in your own project and throw every negative thing they can at you to steal your attention. It’s a drive to receive validation through aggression, and it’s the reason all the cops in town know our address.
As an adult I can appreciate the lessons I learned from living with them. My family taught me the quintessential skill that an American can have: how to struggle for what you really want. It’s a lesson indicative of the Boomers and the 60s counter-culture my parents lived through (my dad again beat, this time by the cops in the ‘68 Chicago riots). I only worry that my niece is being left behind by learning to struggle against the wrong generation. The machine my sister and I rage against is a much different machine than my parents (who don’t own cell phones or use Facebook) did.
My sister founded a non-profit organization last year called Society’s New ‘Rents with another single mother friend of hers. The goal of the organization is to provide pregnant teens with testimonials and information about motherhood. Although it’s not in the mission statement, she’s told me on many occasions that her real goal is to reduce the stigma faced by teen moms today. But I have a problem with putting teen moms out of the reach of criticism: many teen moms (like my sister and the “stars” of the eponymous MTV show) are still in denial about how much help they really get.
The MTV Teen Mom brand of single parenting is all about ingratitude. It’s a sentiment that says “I had to give up my best years to raise a child all on my own, and I suffer for it everyday.” But this is inaccurate. My sister is still able to go to college, date, and enjoy leisure activities (things a pregnant and married teen in the 50s couldn’t), all because of the other people she depends on. Mothers like my sister can’t accept the Clinton-era “It’s takes a village” sentiment of shared communal responsibility and instead put the efforts of their family, friends, and neighbors in their blind spot. Instead, they jealously focus on the privileges of other young people who are off enjoying campus life and the bar scene.
It traces back to her own childhood struggle with my mom. If you’ve been programmed to see your parents as your opponents, how can you see their help as beneficial? My sister has the attitude that she’s doing my mom a favor by letting her watch her granddaughter and she evidences it by “punishing” my mom with the threat of withholding her. On the surface, raising her child is fully her responsibility that she’s forced to delegate to people she can’t fully trust (a sure source of stress). In reality it’s a shared responsibility among my entire family; none of us are cruel enough to actually expect her to do it alone.
Like most 25-year-olds, my sister has hardly settled down. Her baby daddy is in her daughter’s life, but he’s unemployable and provides for his daughter most significantly by having parents to do it for him.
My niece has already had a number of men in her life who’ve promised to “step up to the plate” and become her new daddy, only to burn out and leave. I can understand that the pressure to father a child that isn’t yours must be a strain on the relationship, but I guarantee it’s harder on my niece.
My girlfriend always says that my niece should have been put up for adoption. My girlfriend comes from what I’d call a “perfect family” of upper-middle class Catholics who all eat dinner together and love each other and can depend on each other for support. I couldn’t agree with her less about my niece. Everyone’s heard foster care horror stories, but even if the home she was placed in was good she’d be taking the spot of a child who didn’t have two sets of grandparents to look after them and would definitely need it more.
With kids like my niece, being parented by multiple generations simultaneously, the rules are constantly being tested. Each new caregiver comes with a separate set of rules—a set of rules that can be bent, broken, and overblown depending on how tired the sitter is.
When I sit down with that rambunctious eight-year-old bundle of energy I try to teach her the only important Gen Y advice I can offer: “Whatever it is that you do, I want you to know you’re doing it for yourself.” I emphasize that she’s not brushing her teeth to avoid pissing off my mom, she’s doing it because they’ll fall out otherwise. I emphasize that she’s not eating vegetables and drinking water because that’s what we want her to do, but because she’ll die sooner if she eats too much junk food. I tell her “Don’t worry about all this trouble at home, because as soon as you’re old enough to bike around by yourself you kind find a place where you truly belong.” Just like I did at the game store and later on at community college.
I have faith that my niece, and the whole post-Millennial generation, will be able to cope with the multi-generational struggle that precedes them. In order for them to do that, though, they’ll have to learn to fend for themselves as individuals. All that means is that the Boomer ideal of peace, harmony, and collectivism will have to be on hold until a post-post-Millennial generation.
– Beck Kilkenny