San Francisco's Gen X parent boomers need to get a grip
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If you live in San Francisco and are in possession of a conventional vagina, you are most likely pregnant. And if you're not pregnant, you're either anxious to become so or have just pinched out a baby and are looking toward closing the deal on numbers two and three before you hit 40. If none of the above applies, I, a new mother myself, give you permission to ignore that self-righteous pregnant bitch eyeing your Muni seat and openly admit the following: SF was edgier when it was just a bunch of wayward freaks in crotchless ass pants.
Now, thanks to a surge in results-oriented fucking among the white, heterosexual ruling class, this city has become overrun with decaf-latte-sipping, thousand-dollar-stroller-pushing, CFONoe Valleyish, overly together supermoms who will tear you multiple assholes if you even think about stepping near their two-legged petri dish specimens. One might be tempted to label this phenomenon a baby boom. That assumption, however, is incorrect. What we are witnessing in San Francisco and everywhere else inhabited by Gen Xers with money is a parent boom.
In the past, parents were simply identified as people who raised children. That era, which lasted roughly 200,000 years, has ended. Parents now practice the rarified art of parenting. Parents who parent must adopt a specific parenting style one that's far more complex than a hairstyle and infinitely more expensive. Parenting requires ongoing investment in sleep and breast-feeding consultants, childproofing contractors, European-designed gear, six-week courses, endless manuals and magazines, and, depending on one's sacred style, couture bedding and nursery decor that can run well over five grand. This is quite a change of direction for Generation X, to which I belong, whose members were blacking out in Cow Hollow bars and smoking out of two-foot Mission District bongs throughout the '90s. But my generation's escapist persona equal parts political indifference, obsessive consumerism, hedonistic self-absorption, and Diff'rent Strokes references did not abate or even truly evolve when we threw the birth control in the trash. It only found new life, literally.
We, the latchkey slackers who postponed being parents until our ovaries wept, are acutely aware that whatever decisions we make regarding our children are direct reflections of ourselves. It is therefore imperative to properly accessorize one's child; only by doing so can one ensure the child is a better accessory. The right stroller, carrier, preschool waiting list, parenting philosophy, and even diaper all denote much more than any sensible person would care to know.
Oh, wait. I forgot to mention the babies: it appears there are many of them. Commercial sidewalks in Noe Valley, Cole Valley, Hayes Valley, and beyond buzz with kitten-eyed freshies sucking the rubberized life out of pacifiers, frazzled mommies in yoga pants and camel toes pushing behemoth, double-wide prams, nannies chatting on cell phones while small barbarians stick organic Cheerios up their noses. Top preschools are waitlisted for several years. Babysitters are harder to find than a pimple on a newborn's butt. Is it good for San Francisco's soul that kiddie boutiques outnumber bondage shops and Polk Street glory holes? It's an epidemic, cry my nonparent friends, some of whom have been accosted by pompous moms and dads for accidentally bumping into strollers or smoking on the street. Ever think of denying an All-Important Holy Mother with Child your seat on the 1 California? Want to be knifed by a stay-at-home mom from precious Laurel Heights?
Funny thing is, the evidence of a baby boom is largely anecdotal. Statistics paint a very different picture. A disturbing March 2006 report by Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth, "Families Struggle to Stay: Why Families Are Leaving San Francisco and What Can Be Done," reveals that we have the lowest child population of any American city. And of San Francisco's 100,000 children, most reside in the city's poorest districts including traditionally working-class neighborhoods that are becoming increasingly chic. Coleman Advocates also estimates that 39,000 families with children are in need of affordable housing.
"The issue is not if there is a baby boom trend in San Francisco," Coleman Advocates' Ingrid Gonzales e-mailed me. "The real issue is whether these [lower-income] families stay or are eventually pushed out of San Francisco because of a lack of affordable family housing or access to a quality public school education. Stats show that families leave when their children reach kindergarten age. Coleman Advocates and our families say that this is not OK families should have a right to stay in the city they call home."
Somehow I doubt the parents buying the $1,890 Cabine infant dresser at Giggle on Chestnut Street are too worried about making rent. In fact, a May article in the New York Times reports that San Francisco is second only to Manhattan in toddlers born to wealthy white families, defined as those that pull in an average of $150,763 per year. And consider this Coleman Advocates finding: there was a 45 percent drop in the number of black families with children in San Francisco from 1990 to 2000, while around the same time 90 percent of the people moving into the city did not have children and surprise, surprise were mostly rich and white. This development pretty much paralleled the period of the dot-com boom. At the risk of making light of an alarming situation, is it safe to posit that the dot-com bust inspired semiemployed white professionals to buy a lot of lube?
So what creates this illusion of a baby boom? Probably an uptick in showy, hyperactive parenting. Weekends at Children's Playground in Golden Gate Park provide insight into the phenomenon. There parents can be found earnestly one might even say aggressively parenting. They really put their all into it ("it" being what our parents haphazardly did with us) as they push their bewildered offspring in swings, making sure to "Wheee!" with more enthusiasm than a redneck at a NASCAR rally an apt metaphor, because this brand of parenting is a competitive sport. "How old is she? Is she standing on her own? Can she walk yet? Does she speak French, and can she crap in the can?" someone always wants to know, hungrily eyeing your baby as if she were a delicious wild Alaskan king salmon fillet.
But blessed be, developmental superiority is not the only way to make other parents feel like shit. Fleets of luxury Dutch strollers are parked around the playground's grassy knolls, each exceeding my share of rent by $300. I've seen nannies pull toys from Coach and Louis Vuitton diaper bags, kids scale the jungle gym dressed in Little Marc coats, white babies in $40 organic cotton T-shirts emblazoned with a grossly ironic image of a black woman's face.
This excess of money breeds paranoia. Even on the warmest days, Caitlin-Courtney-Penelope-Emily-Aurelia-Shiloh-Mackenzie can be observed crawling in the playground's cool sand, fully dressed in the very best of Zutano's and Petit Bateau's wide-brim hats, thick socks and booties, long-sleeve shirts, and pants in order to prevent the wretched elements, formerly known as blue sky and sunshine, from attacking the child's not-so-invisible bubble. And rest assured, many of the playground's nannies almost entirely middle-aged mothers and grandmothers of color have been fingerprinted and subjected to invasive criminal background checks. Long gone are the days when parents hired any ol' teenage stoner to watch their kids.
I feel embarrassed to be here, I often think. Because I know I'm part of the problem. I didn't come to San Francisco for the money I was born here and spent most of my childhood in that new epicenter of ultraparenting, Noe Valley and I don't have a nursery, a full-size kitchen, or even a hallway in my shared one-bedroom Sunset apartment. (This is not a "poor me" moment; my lifestyle is a choice.) But I did spend $300 on a labor and newborn preparation course, during which I suffered video after video of goopy babies cannonballing forth from untamed bush. I paid a woman $200 to teach me how to breast-feed and another $50 to join a local e-mail list through which upper-crust women seek help in finding dinner party entertainment for hire and live-in au pairs. I can cite Halle Berry's prenatal test results but no statistics from the war in Iraq. I have secretly chuckled at ugly babies. I have wanted to know if your baby can stand alone yet and why she's so much smaller than mine. I've purchased nearly 20 books on pregnancy, breast-feeding, natural birth, cosleeping, infant health, starting solids, potty training, how to stay hot, and how to fix my gut.
Pediatric records indicate I was not reared by wild dogs, yet I can't figure out how to assume the most primal of all roles motherhood without hitting the ATM.
In her 2007 manifesto against the $20 billion baby-to-toddler industry and the disastrous effects it has on our children, Buy, Buy Baby (Houghton Mifflin) author Susan Gregory Thomas credits Gen X's overspending and unhealthy micromanaging to the way in which we, the products of broken homes and TVs as babysitters, were raised: "The commercialization and neglect of young people results not only in fears of abandonment and bank-breaking shopping habits in adulthood to fill the void but also in a deep, neurotic sense of attachment to, and protection of, one's own children and home."
Gregory Thomas's assessment strikes me as painfully true and spurs the question: what kind of people will our babies become? Will they, as older children and adults, invariably expect and demand the best, no matter the appropriateness of the circumstance? Will they be terrified of public schools and public transportation and worse people with a different color skin? How will they ever travel abroad, and will they condescend to people who have less? Surely the parents who buy their baby the $1,700 Moderne crib intend only to give their child the finest they can offer. Every child is worthy of that grand intention. Yet, as my friend and mother-mentor Billee Sharp pointed out, the more extravagant the gifts, the harder the parents must work to provide them, resulting in less time spent with their kids. Lavishness, in this sense, becomes empty compensation for a shortage of available love.
Being a new parent is much harder than it seems. If we're overcompensating, it's largely because we don't know what else to do. If it takes a village to raise a child, what happens when all you have is DSL? During my pregnancy and the first three months of my daughter's life, my husband and I lived in relative isolation in Brooklyn, away from family and a network of close friends that could offer knowledge and day-to-day help. The books, the classes, and the breast-feeding consultant filled the gaps that real support would have provided. (I certainly had two boobs but no idea where to put them: In the baby's mouth? Are you serious?) In the absence of genuine community, we follow the only guidelines available to us and do the best we can manage. While nothing is less appealing to me than having to be someone's friend simply because we both piss our pants when we sneeze, artificially constructed social networks like mommy groups, daddy groups, play groups, and Yahoo e-mail groups fulfill a real need for disconnected urbanites whose families typically reside thousands of miles away.
Learning to be a parent without geographic and strong emotional links to our families, then, becomes a complicated process of untangling the skein of too much information. From the moment a woman discovers she is pregnant, she and her partner are encouraged to believe they are totally, utterly retarded when it comes to being parents. The reality-TV experts, the how-to books, the product-driven Web sites and magazines cater to a deep, unrelenting distrust of ourselves, and they have the tragic effect of obliterating whatever parenting intuition and knowledge that we, as living creatures, already have in our DNA.
My path to reclaiming motherhood began with an injured wrist. Everything I had read warned that I would roll over my child and kill her if we slept together in one bed. To prevent this tragedy, my husband and I bought a sleigh bed attachment for our bed that kept me at least a foot away from my child. Each night that I listened to her breathe without being able hold her brought an agony so intense that I became profoundly depressed. I was desperate to pull her close to my body, like every mammal mother does, like our ancestors did long before they stopped growing pubic hair on their backs. In my longing to be nearer to my child, I contorted my left wrist under my head as I slept, perhaps to stop my murderous hands from accidentally touching the person I love most. With my wrist in a splint and steroid shots in my hand, I sobbed to my mother over the phone, "I can sleep with my cats, but why not with my own child?"
The night I brought my daughter into bed marked the beginning of my departure from the fear-and-product-based mommy mainstream. Within weeks a friend turned me on to the instinctive-parenting ideas put forth in Jean Liedloff's The Continuum Concept (Addison Wesley, 1986), a fascinating book that details the author's travels to Venezuela, where she studied the parenting methods of the indigenous Yequana Indians, who, remarkably, have never considered shopping for child-rearing clues on Babycenter.com. Admittedly, my and my husband's current touchy-feely, indigenous-inspired style is a little fringe lunatic, and, as Gregory Thomas might suggest, it's probably no coincidence that we both come from broken homes. But life-changing insights that require no investment in stylish baby gear are available to us. We only have to be willing to look.
One of the most affecting messages I have received about the depth of real parental love came to me in the form of a damp newspaper abandoned on the subway in New York City. Elizabeth Fitzsimons's essay "My First Lesson in Motherhood," published in the New York Times Modern Love section this Mother's Day, chronicles the journalist's trip to China, where she and her husband picked up their adopted infant daughter, who, it turned out, had debilitating health defects. Fitzsimons was warned that her daughter might have Down's syndrome, might never walk, and will likely be tethered to a colostomy bag for the rest of her life. "I knew this was my test," Fitzsimons writes, "my life's worth distilled into a moment. I was shaking my head 'No' before [the doctors] finished explaining. We didn't want another baby, I told them. We wanted our baby, the one sleeping right over there. 'She's our daughter,' I said. 'We love her.' "
Fitzsimons's fierce, truly unconditional love for a child she did not create becomes even more striking when contextualized in these fertility and pregnancy-obsessed times. We all want our children to be healthy, to outlive us, to be content, and to exist in a safe, peaceful world. These desires are pretty basic. Clearly, though, there's a worrisome glitch in the parent boom trend: it has nothing to do with the well-being of children who are biologically not ours. This newfound love for babies is entirely insular, concerned only with one's genetic family, one's own perfect, beautiful, well-fed, well-dressed child. Look inside a pregnancy or parenting magazine and you will find that most lack any semblance of social perspective as they offer tired takes on recycled, useless information: "How to lose the baby weight in three days!" "Ten tips for getting back the magic in the bed!"
But the truth is that while middle-class women squabble about whether to breast-feed or bottle-feed, 39,000 families with children in this city are in dire need of affordable homes. For every day we bicker over stay-at-home moms versus mothers who work full-time, four children in this country will die from abuse or neglect, and eight more will be killed at the hand of someone operating a gun, according to Children's Defense Fund statistics.
The self-centeredness of Gen X parents manifests as blindness to these sad realities, and here I indict myself again. Why do I only act on behalf of my child when I have the means to do something that could help other, less fortunate children? Maybe the answer is too painful to consider. Maybe I'd rather shop for a new sling instead. *