By Karine Vann for Boston Compass (#131)
January 11, 2021
I don’t know about you, but I am ready to send off 2020 with a middle finger and drop kick to the face. What a garbage year.
A global pandemic has killed hundreds of thousands. Our thoughts are with those who have lost friends and family in this nightmare.
A reaction to that same pandemic has destroyed livelihoods and created an economic environment that has not only decimated small business (RIP to the more than 100,000 restaurants that have shut down since the start of the pandemic), but seems uniquely designed to the exclusive benefit of giant corporations. (My New Year’s resolution is to boycott Amazon—could yours be, too?)
A devastating war in my beloved homeland, Armenia, has killed thousands and seen much historic land lost to a people who have long sought our extermination.
And not least of all, a corporate news cycle that remains bent on convincing us all that there is no happiness left on planet Earth (which is why, I guess, all the billionaires want to go to Mars?).
But as we enter a new year, I urge you to pry yourself from your computer screens, walk outside, glance warily to your left and to your right, and breathe in some of that fresh, snowy New England air. It will help remind you there is always something to be joyful for, and whatever that is, I can guarantee it is not within reach of your devices.
For my husband and I, it’s the fact that we’re having a baby.
Hopefully by the time this issue reaches print, baby will have outgrown my sore and swollen womb and will have joined us out here, in this magnificent, complex world that we all inhabit and take hugely for granted. I’m excited and jealous that following his or her arrival, baby won’t care about or remember any of this. The masks, the social distancing, the never-ending sheltering in place, none of it. He or she will simply relish in all that is new. Which is everything. We could all stand to be a little more like babies.
But while having a baby is a miraculous process that blows my mind on a daily basis, it is not the idiotic, mass-produced inspirational quote in a fake wooden frame from TJ Maxx that corporations have conditioned us to believe it is.
Perhaps the most nefarious part of consumer culture is that anything good about being human necessarily becomes an opportunity for exploitation and manipulation. It’s almost like, the more amazing the experience, the more exploitable it becomes. So that puts having children at the very top of the list of awesome things that corporations can turn into a disgusting cornucopia of consumption and excess.
Worse than the debilitating nausea; than the painful sciatica; the constant itchy nose—a.k.a. Rhinitis, a very overlooked and annoying pregnancy symptom; the immobility; the insomnia and the general discomfort that has come with gaining half—yes that’s right, half—my body weight (only 8 pounds of which are actual baby), has been the process of trying to figure out what essentials I actually need when baby gets here.
Today’s babies are smothered, not with love, but with material and psychological excess, from the moment they exit the womb. I have found myself horrified by some of the toys I’ve been sent by relatives, which feel like they are designed to give children seizures, not improve the acuity of their senses and motor functions. The overstimulation is tragic. I personally know a 2 year old that has her own iPhone. It’s the direct result of an overactive free market that spends all its effort trying to solve human problems that don’t exist, meanwhile creating new ones—like an entire generation of children lacking an attention span, perhaps?—that it subsequently refuses to solve.
Just over a century ago—in the days before video-interface baby monitors that sync to your iPhone and upload your child’s every waking moment to the cloud (and which, if you don’t buy, your kid will surely die of neglect)—for most people, babies represented a pair of future working hands to a cash-strapped family with very few resources. The average baby needed the basics, but nothing extravagant, considering how frugally and resourcefully people have lived for most of human history.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful to be living in the world with modern medicine. And I recognize that things can go awry. I’m grateful to 20th and 21st century inventions which save lives, make life easier for parents, and generally speaking, put our minds at ease.
But, and forgive the pun here, did we have to throw the baby out with the bathwater? Can we not have modern safety and hygiene, as well as resourcefulness and simplicity? If we in fact are so much better off today than we’ve ever been, why do we seem committed to a societal narrative that presumes disaster, with the only solution being to buy more shit?
Americans’ feverish hysteria over children is yet another embarrassing symptom of our collective resignation to corporate propaganda. We are made to feel incompetent unless we buy this or that thing (which people somehow lived without for all of human history until now). We buy things we don’t need (predatory gadgets that overstimulate rather than educate), while foregoing the things we actually do (community, generational learning, toys and clothes made with care).
Believe it or not, Tolstoy, ever the finger-wagger, sensed this collective unraveling over a century ago, and referenced it in his short story, The Kreutzer Sonata, about a man on a train who complains to a stranger about the corrupting frivolities of modernity and the urban bourgeoisie. “She was always hearing and reading from all sides endless rules for the rearing and educating of children,” says the man condescendingly of his wife, “which were continually being superseded by others… we… heard new rules every week, just as if children had only begun to be born into the world yesterday.”
My baby will be born now. But to Tolstoy’s point, baby-rearing has a history as old as the rocks and the trees and the oceans. In short, we’ve been through worse, folks. And if that doesn’t provide some comfort in this time of imbalance, I don’t know what will.
Happy 2021—it will be, if you let it.