Babble's Katie Allison Granju on JonKatie Allison
Like pretty much anyone else with an opinion on the TLC show Jon & Kate, mine has been rather negative of late. I publicly declared my own, personal Jon & Kate blackout in in a recent blog post, writing of the episode three weeks ago, “This is disturbing, and I feel dirty having allowed myself to watch it. I won’t be watching again.
I totally meant this when I said it, and I didn’t tune in for the next J&K episode, the one where the Gosselins finally announced their intention to divorce. But I have to admit that I have cheated since drawing my J&K line in the sand; while I might not have actually watched the last episode, I’ve continued to follow the Gosselins fairly avidly via the media – both online and in line at the grocery store. Plus – true confession here – I sometimes even spend a few minutes perusing Gosselins Without Pity, the community for obsessive Jon and Kate haters. I don’t approve of the vitriol there, but that hasn’t kept me from taking a peek. If you add to this evidence the fact that even after I publicly swore off the Gosselins, I went on to blog about them yet again, one can only conclude that I’m actually a wee bit obsessed myself with the very thing I have more than once claimed to loathe.
I am not alone in my secret, shameful, and continuing consumption of Gosselin, Inc. Even as most of America claims to be appalled and bored by couple’s painfully raw on-air disintegration, we continue to watch and read. In fact, last week’s episode – featuring the couple’s much-hyped “big announcement” – drew more than ten million viewers (that’s a lot). This sustained level of extreme public interest is why the editors of US Magazine, who can lay claim to a pretty good understanding of the cultural appetites of the masses, chose to put J&K on their cover for a record-breaking seven times in a row over the last two months.
So what is it about these people that turned them into the first true superstars of the reality TV era?
Usually, when we speak of “reality TV” programs, we aren’t talking about reality at all; instead, we are talking about people, lifestyles, or dramatic conceits that are as far removed from the “reality” most of us will ever know as the worst episode ever of Fantasy Island ever was. We don’t drive big rigs over treacherous ice passages for a living, or party every night in The Hills. We don’t have parents who are little people, and Bruce Jenner isn’t our stepfather. We aren’t desperate D-list celebrities or former child stars with “issues.”
We are, like Jon and Kate Gosselin were for the first several seasons of the show, families who live in modest brick and vinyl homes in the suburbs. We bicker with our spouses when we are stressed, sometimes sounding pretty shrewish. We take our children on ever-so-thrilling excursions to places like Costco and the pediatrician, and we sometimes get to go out to a grown-ups-only dinner. We worry about money, and our children throw tantrums and make messes. And yes, once every few years, just like Kate Gosselin, we end up with our own regrettably awful “hair-don’t, which we only realize was that bad in hindsight.
Before the first episode of the TLC show aired, Jon and Kate were nobodies in the most honest, down-to-earth, American sense of the word. Even with eight small children, Jon and Kate Gosselin’s “reality” was closer to that of their viewers than any other reality show. They could be us, and we could be them. That’s what’s captured our attention in such a powerful way.
We watched these people, our cultural doppelgangers, for the same reason “mommyblogs” have exploded in popularity; both the TV show and the blogs offer us a reflection of ourselves via the prism of mundane details of Other People’s Lives. While there are certainly many parent-penned blogs featuring high drama and out-there storylines, these kinds of mommyblogs haven’t gained the mainstream popularity and supportive following of the “classic” momblogs, like Dooce, Finslippy and BusyMom. These bloggers may offer the occasional glimpse into their family’s tough times – miscarriage, depression or job loss – but these are dramatic elements we recognize from our own lives. And the momblogging superstars maintain a content balance tilted decidely toward the everyday – weaning, daycare, diapers and those hilariously competitive other moms at the playground. In other words, they, like Jon and Kate, have are a hit because there is something affirming and comforting in the realization that our lives are actually no more or less crazy or interesting than anybody else’s.
But when Jon and Kate Gosselin, these aggressively average people, began to change so obviously and dramatically, and then started exposing their marital problems in the same declarative, exceptionally revealing way they had previously exposed their struggles with mundane things like toilet training and paying the electric bill, it was too late for us to turn away. We thought we knew these people, but suddenly, we didn’t. Jon and Kate’s wickedly rapid transformation from parents-like-us to coiffed, over-tanned, wealthy, cheating bar-hoppers was like one of those changed-in-an-instant stories you read in which the beloved family dog inexplicably snaps one day, killing a houseguest, or a single mom waiting tables receives an anonymous $100,000 tip. As Kate acquired a personal bodyguard and Jon began wearing Ed Hardy jeans and diamond studs in his ears, our affection might have turned to disdain, but our appetite for more details of this train wreck in the making only grew.
The unprecedented extent to which the Gosselins have exposed their young children’s lives constitutes a form of child abuse. But even with the newly acquired celebrity accoutrements, Jon and Kate’s narrative still resonates with us, because unlike paparazzi stories about Brad and Angelina’s latest walk down the red carpet in Cannes, we can still find connection to this previously quite bland couple: We have troubled marriages. We deal with infidelity. We get divorces and try to figure out custody arrangements. The “it could happen to me” factor means that, despite our protestations, we are now even more enthralled with the Gosselins’ ordinary lives writ large than we were back when all they had to entertain us was a demonstration of how they sorted their weekly recycling. And I suspect we would have the same perversely heightened fascination combined with public condemnation if the world’s most popular mommy blogger, Heather Armstrong of Dooce suddenly stopped blogging about Leta’s favorite breakfast cereal, and instead starting publishing pictures of herself sunbathing in a bikini in her front yard, or writing about how she and her husband had decided to take up swinging.
Of course, there is a very dark side to this circus. Those eight children are real, flesh-and-blood human beings, not actors, with feelings and rights of their own. Any sane parent must wonder what the long-term ramifications of all of this will be for the Gosselin children. It’s hard enough to live through your parents’ divorce the first time without one day being able to re-live every lurid detail through Hulu reruns, You Tube and Google. One can make a pretty strong case that the truly unprecedented extent to which the Gosselins have exposed every aspect of their young children’s lives to the public over the past several years constitutes a form of child abuse.
One can also argue that by continuing to watch, we are complicit in that abuse, no matter how much we try to obviate our involvement via loud proclamations of disapproval for the Gosselin parents’ choices. In this way, Jon & Kate differs significantly from the comparatively limited and narrow glimpse that even the boldest mommy bloggers offer into their children’s lives. Blogging about our families may be a form of public-facing, reality-based entertainment, but it’s one that generally seems to find a healthy balance between sweet, memoir-like sharing and inappropriate, capitalistic exploitation. Jon and Kate is the worst side of mommy blogging, taken to its furthest extreme.
Given the show’s increasingly depressing turn, how long will our collective fascination with Jon and Kate continue? I suspect that it will go on as long as they choose to keep living their lives for public consumption. We, “the public,” have become enmeshed in this couple’s reality. We’re all now as much a part of the Gosselin saga as Jon and Kate themselves. We are caught in a co-dependent relationship with these characters. If we can tear ourselves away, maybe they will eventually go back to being normal again, and then so can we.
This over-parenting has become an epidemic. Legions of well-intentioned mothers and fathers, urged on by popular media and the marketplace, are frantically striving to create an endlessly controlled, bubble-wrapped childrearing environment. From neuroses with regulating our babies’ sleep habits, to insistence on antimicrobial everything, to the attempt to continue “babyproofing” our homes until our babies are well into elementary school, our current parenting zeitgeist is competitive, market-driven . . . and exhausting.
But as hard as we are on ourselves, we are even harder on our parenting peers. In its study of parenting attitudes, Public Agenda found that six in ten of us rate other parents only “fair” or “poor” in raising their children. And these days, one big way we try to out-do these “fair” and “poor” parents is to buy better stuff. Our parental anxieties now include the belief that without the hippest, newest parenting swag, successful childrearing is no longer possible.
In fact, we no longer choose a stroller, but a parenting identity. Are you a trendy BugabooAre we bungling the very thing we seek to perfect? Frog kind of mom or perhaps a Mclaren traditionalist? God forbid you show up at the playground with a straight-from-Baby-Superstore Graco. How tacky! One mother I spoke to for this article sheepishly confided to me that she had gotten a new credit card for the sole purpose of paying for her $1,000 Stokke Xplory stroller, saying it made her feel like there was at least one thing she was assured she would do “better than anyone else at playgroup” for her son.
Peggy O’Mara, publisher of Mothering magazine and a keen observer of American parents for the past two decades, says she believes the commercialization of parenting masks our insecurities.
“I think people think they need a lot of baby gear because so many people use their children as social collateral, and judge one another by what they have for them,” says O’Mara.
Don’t get me wrong. I know that active, involved parenting matters . . . a lot. For those of us who take it on, raising a kid is certainly among the most meaningful and important tasks we’ll ever do. In fact, I happen to agree with Jackie Kennedy, who famously said, “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do matters very much.” The question becomes, however, whether the hovering, obsessive, all-consuming parenting style that has become de rigeur is actually serving our children – or us – very well. In our hyperfocus on all things parenting, are we bungling the very thing we seek to perfect?
Nearly ten years ago, author Judith Rich Harris made the cover of Time magazine with her wildly popular book, The Nurture Assumption, in which she argued that parents should stop worrying so much. But Harris took her argument several leagues further with her assertion that the reason parents should stop worrying is that ultimately, what mothers and fathers do – or don’t do – has little impact on how children turn out.
But Harris was dead wrong. Parents have a huge impact on how their children turn out, and that’s precisely why we need to take a hard look at the obsessive, controlling, perfectionistic parenting culture we’re living in. In fact, facilitating children’s ability to function independently, to figure things out, and to grow into themselves without excessive interference is in itself an essential task of parenting.
Parents’ increasing obsession with creating a totally germ-free environment for children offers an instructive example of the way over-parenting is counterproductive. Fifteen years ago, when I brought my first baby home from the hospital, his father and I were instructed to keep him away from obviously sick people during the newborn period. After that, our pediatrician told us that exposure during infancy and childhood to household and environmental germs was part of building a healthy immune system.
Fast forward to 2007, as parents now attempt to create an artificially germ-free childhood. Not only do they avoid exposing their kids to sick people, they surround their children with antibacterial soaps and washes. They buy toys and baby gear coated in space-age, microbe-resistant surfaces, and trips to the grocery store require a specially made “shopping cart cover” meant to prevent little Liam or Ava from encountering anyone else’s bacteria.
But medical experts are pleading with parents to stop with the anti-germ hysteria because rather than preventing illness in children, it’s actually causing it, encouraging the growth of treatment-resistant strains of bacteria, and preventing kids’ exposure in the healthy doses required to grow a strong immune system.
Yep, that’s right, it turns out that regular, old, everyday germs are good for kids. So is regular,When parents micromanage children’s lives, everyone loses. old dirt, disappointment, boredom, frustration, conflict, and the occasional playground accident. All of these help children to develop their own coping skills, creative and spiritual core, and sense of self.
When parents micromanage children’s lives, overly investing themselves in their kids, everyone loses. Mothers and fathers lose themselves in their roles as parents, while kids never find themselves.
So here’s my unsolicited advice to parents: take a step back. Relax. Enjoy. Your baby will sleep without an expert consultant coming to your house. Your toddler will eventually leave diapers behind. I promise. The Graco stroller won’t mark your child – or you – as a loser.
Let your preschooler play in the dirt, and your kindergartener deal with the classmate who pinches her.
And for God’s sake, let the baby figure the spoon out for herself.