Asking better questions about parenting and child leashes

There’s nothing like becoming a parent to turn someone into a militant, judgmental psychopath. A common complaint is that our culture has become increasingly polarized. I often wonder if this is true, or if this statement is a result of nostalgia. As parenting goes, the polarization is here now, and easy to spot, starting with natural birth versus hospital birth and breastmilk versus formula. Once toddlerhood comes about, there’s child leashes versus YOU MONSTER WHY WOULD YOU LEASH A CHILD LIKE SOME KIND OF ANIMAL?*

That’s where I am now.

I started researching this topic when my toddler was about a month into walking, and her running off into the road became a tangible possibility. Was a leash something we’d need or want, or was this now considered a barbaric practice better left in the 1980s?

What I found at the start of this research process didn’t help me at all. There haven’t been a lot of studies done on child leashes. In lieu of science, the internet served up a chunky stew of thinking errors, logical fallacies, and ad hominem attacks.

Child's backpack with rosy-cheeked smile.
Hi! I’m a leash backpack, and I’m here to teach your kids about free will.

In other words, the discussion of child leashes borders on useless. In a state of reactionary horror, the anti side won’t entertain practical considerations, instead screaming about ethical questions that they don’t bother to ask. The pro side has seemingly been more willing to look the pragmatic side, but the ethical questions are the elephant knocking politely at the front door, still having not made it into the room.

In the would-be Venn diagram of these two sides, both lack questions that should be asked, and the overlap between sides is crescent-moon thin.

That’s where I come in. I have either no sides, or many. I’m an amorphous cloud with no direction.

I’m pro rationality. I’m pro critical thinking. I’m pro questioning.

Forget sides. If you’re figuring things out, here are some useful questions to ask about child leashes and other parenting choices:

  • Is there any scientific research to support either position?
  • In terms of physical effects?
  • In terms of psychological effects?
  • How old is the research?
  • Who funded it?
  • Is it applicable to all types of leashes, or only a particular kind?

The answer to the big question, unfortunately, is “not very much.”

  • How does being leashed affect the child?
  • In the long term?
  • In the short term?
  • Physically?
  • Psychologically?
  • Does this encourage the traits I want to instill in my child?
  • Does leashing encourage or curtail a willingness to explore?
  • Does it encourage or curtail bodily autonomy?
  • And which of those things do you want?

The antis say no, duh, your kid is on a leash. The pros say yes, because you’re now enabled to take your kid into the environment and let them walk.

  • Is the leash a response to realistic dangers or imagined ones?
  • Is my view on leashes, as it is now, consistent with other views that I hold?
  • Would it make more sense to avoid the situation in question, at least until the child is older?
  • Are there some situations where leashing is more or less acceptable?
  • Are there some situations in which it’s worth trading off long-term effects for the sake or safety?

Long term psychological damage is meaningless if a child is truly harmed. But if you can avoid the situation altogether, wouldn’t that be preferable?

  • Is it the most pragmatic solution?
  • Do leashes even work?
  • If so, are they effective, particularly versus other options?
  • Have you fixated on the leash as a solution when there is a different root problem that needs to be fixed?

Some anti-leash folks say that kids need to be disciplined, not leashed. That statement itself is a huge can of worms, but does point to a potential root problem that might need to be addressed.

Also, I can say from experience that leashes don’t always work. I was leashed as a child, and I still remember squirming out of my harness at the fabric store and hiding in colorful bolts of patterned cotton.

No, I have no idea how it affected me psychologically. I did enjoy the fabric though.

In his latest season of Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell did a series on “thinking like a Jesuit” and using Jesuit reasoning to solve moral dilemmas by looking at the particulars of a situation. In this case, one might ask, “Is a child leash closer to a set of handcuffs, which might hold a prisoner, or a safety strap on a carseat?” One might also ask if it’s like having a dog on a leash, and if so, is having a dog on a leash positive or negative.

It’s a lot of thought-work for one seemingly minor decision. But habit shapes who we are, and if a leash is something that would potentially be used often, it’s worth considering possible outcomes. The gap between intention and actuality is where our personalities form.

When I first drafted this several months ago, I decided that I wasn’t going to conclude by choosing a side. I would leave it open, even if writing this and thinking through all my questions had swayed me to a particular side.

This hasn’t been an issue that I’ve spent endless months grappling with, or lost any sleep over. When I first drafted this, my toddler was still at the stage of strollers and wrap carriers. In the interim, as this sat on my hard drive and I posted other things, my child went from a hesitant walker to a kid who yells, “RUNNING RUNNING RUNNING” at the top of her lungs and climbs anything. We passed into the stage at which, if we were going to use leashes, we would be using them.

You know the saying that actions speak louder than words?

By my actions, I’m on the side of no leashes.

But my circumstances allow this. I live on a rural area; I don’t need to contend with busy city streets. I also have only one child.

I taught her not to run into the road. Considering that she just turned two, I’m happy with how well she does. However, I have no way of knowing if that’s down to successful parenting, or if it’s because she’s an easier kid than I was.

The research that hasn’t been done yet is what would’ve swayed me to one side or another. As it is, while my actions have put me on the no-leash side, philosophically and ethically, I’m still neutral.

Neutral, and excessively pro-questioning.

*People like to ignore that they too are animals. I’ve taught my two-year-old to answer the question “What type of animal are you?” The answer is “hooman.”

There are three universal plots of stories parents tell about small children:

  • Child said or did a thing that the parent was unaware they knew how to say or do
  • Child said or did a thing in an unexpected context
  • Child did something gross in a unique way and/or in an unexpected context

The Little Engine That Could is female! And so is the red engine who breaks down on her way to bring toys and food to children. I didn’t remember this book well, so I was surprised to find this out when I started reading it to my toddler.

Incidentally, all three engines who refuse to help are self-important dudes. Well, one of them is actually an old, tired dude. His depression-era exhaustion makes me sad.

It makes me wonder if there is an intentional message hidden in the Dude-Engines’ unwillingness to help with the female task of making sure children are taken care of.

“If I listen to a playlist of children’s new wave songs about trucks at work, will anybody notice?” That’s the question my partner and I have been wondering about (more me because of the nature of my job) now that our kid is obsessed with this song about a cement mixer. Like a disease, it has spread to everyone around her. We all have it stuck in our heads. It goes round and round and round and round…

If this had existed when I was in high school, it’s exactly the kind of thing I would’ve binged-watched just because it’s weird.

About 24 hours after I posted The Mom Box, someone asked me if I love being a mom. With all that stuff going through my head, about all the answer I could manage was “Uh, sure.” It’s not an all or nothing, love it or hate it gig.

But you know what’s fun? Having a friend over and making homemade play dough for my toddler.

My friend warned me that there is a point during the mixing process when it will seem like no good can come of this. That point looked like sausage gravy and smelled like a wet dog rolled in papier mache.

But it came together, and we spent over an hour talking and relaxing, everyone mesmerized by the repetitive actions of squishing and rolling.

The Mom Box

I spent thirty-two years as a person before adding diaper changes, wrap carriers, and checks to see if the baby is still breathing since five minutes ago to my life. In those thirty-two years, I accumulated a cluttered attic’s worth of the thoughts and idiosyncrasies that make up any life. Parenthood is a particularly intense addition to the list of things I am, which is a mom who is also an entire person. At least, that’s my view of it. Socially, I now exist in the narrow construct of The Mom Box, where my entire identity is filtered through a set of assumptions about mothers and motherhood.

It’s not a huge revelation that we have certain cultural ideas about what a mother is, or that those ideas aren’t awesomely inclusive. But encountering how those ideas manifest out in the wilds of social interaction has been a revelation for me. I encounter an unusual degree of surprise at things that I would think are fairly benign, such as having a job, writing, keeping my birth name, and enjoying hamburgers.

Yes, hamburgers.

Shadows of a parent and child on the grass
I meant to use a picture of a box so I could make a joke about “Shrodinger’s Mom Box,” but now I have to make a joke about being a shadow of my former self. Sigh.

“I understand now what you meant about starting to feel like a person again,” said my cousin’s partner at a cookout a few months ago. I had no memory of saying this when I brought my four-month-old daughter to their baby shower, but it sounds about right.

Most parents agree that the bootcamp stage wears off. Some told me it would be at one month—the time when my own breastfeeding difficulties peaked with stress-inducing feeding schedules meant to help an off-the-charts underweight baby. Some said it would wear off at three months or six.

During my three-month parental leave, baby demands took up entire mornings and pushed my morning coffee to one in the afternoon. I’d be lucky if I got a ten-minute break. And no, I don’t consider watching Doctor Who during an hour-and-a-half breastfeeding session to be a break: my muscles hated it.

My toddler, fresh out of babyhood, still needs a lot of love, care, and smartphone pictures of owls. Toddlerhood has proven to also be an intensive time. Already, I know it ends too. But I now have more breathing room than the ten-minute coffee breaks of my maternity leave. That’s obvious from the fact that I’m writing this currently-2,000-word blog post.

As the months passed, I found the other pieces of my personhood again. I’ve had this blog for five years—you can click through and see my identity as a person independent from my role as someone’s mother. I am well past the stage when entire days and all my thoughts are subsumed by childcare duties. Unless you ask anyone else.

Then the entire rest of my existence is negated.

Don’t have complaints. Don’t have opinions. Don’t have emotions.

“Here is a thing I’m bitter about,” I might tell you.

“But at least you have a kid,” you say.

Yes, that is nice. We have fun, the kid and I. But that doesn’t make me not bitter about The Thing, or invalidate any unhappiness. A toddler isn’t a panacea for everything else wrong in someone’s life. Bitter regrets and mental illnesses don’t pop like soap bubbles touched by tiny, chubby fingers.

“You cut your hair! That haircut must be a lot easier with a toddler,” you say.

No, it really isn’t.

A pixie cut demands more maintenance, whether that comes in the form of at-home haircuts (my choice) or extra trips to a professional. Motherhood is also not why I have this haircut; I’ve had a pixie for the better part of the last nine years because I like it. I like how it’s short and spiky. I like how it compels people to compliment my cheekbones, a part of my skeleton that I can honestly say I’d never thought about once, until I went short.

I gave my toddler the same haircut. Is that because she’s a mom?

No, it is not.

I’m calling it The Mom Box because it’s a sequel to The Female Box. I’m somewhat socially obtuse, and so it took me until my mid-twenties to even begin to understand the extent to which others define me by my femaleness, and filter all other aspects of my personality through this. I started calling it “The Female Box,” in my head, and I’ve noticed others have used this term as well. The fact that so many of us thought of it independently speaks volumes about the experience.

Here are some features of The Female Box:

  • Doubt that I can lift fifty pounds.
  • Suggestions that I might as well have a man lift something for me rather than bother doing it myself.
  • Suggestions that a man, who like me, is not a mechanic, will be able to repair my car when I can’t.
  • Questions about whether I plugged in the electronic device I’m having a problem with
  • Assertions that I do certain things because “girls always do this,” even when the thing in question isn’t something I do.
  • Being referred to as a “girl” past the age of thirty.
  • Surprise that I know how hand sanitizer works.
  • Questions about whether the typically-male job I am performing is actually my job, including when I was a security guard and wore a uniform.

The amount of gendered baggage that goes with motherhood was a huge deterrent to me becoming a mother, and one of the biggest reasons that having a child was such a difficult decision for me. How could it not be, when I had spent so long rebelling against every gender expectation I could? I told a friend of mine that I had to rebel against my own rebellion in order to figure out what I, myself, wanted for my own reasons.

Even knowing I would have to face The Mom Box, and even knowing what The Female Box felt like, I wasn’t prepared for quite how confining a space it is. When I talk about The Mom Box, think about The Female Box, and add an advertising line to it:

All that, and more!

Here’s my definition: The Mom Box is a social construct in which motives, choices, actions, opinions, lack of opinions, personality, emotions, identity, and gender identity are assumed to derive from motherhood alone rather than other aspects of personhood, and are also externally circumscribed by one’s role as a mother, or perception of one’s role as mother.

One day, some acquaintances–a young guy and an older one–were talking about fast food. “Are you a McDonalds or a Burger King or a Wendy’s person?” kind of thing. Five Guys came up. I mentioned that I like Five Guys because they make a lettuce wrap, and wheat spring-clamps my digestion.

Cue the older dude, with the absolute surprise of learning that someone has been making a time machine in their garage: “You like hamburgers?”

This isn’t someone who knew that I tend to be a healthy eater, and was a vegetarian over ten years ago. This is someone who didn’t know the first thing about me, including at that point, my name. Why would it be a huge surprise that I like one of the most popular foods in America?

I assume that in the Mom Box, the only foods I eat are sad little foil-covered cups of low-fat Yoplait yogurt and chicken breast with some kind of obligatory vegetable side dish, which I can tell you amazing trivia about, such as its Weight Watchers points value, and how it’s flavored with bottled salad dressing and celery salt, and how the vegetables are a pretty good price at Stop and Shop right now.

Further, I assume that the walks I’ve replaced my lunch breaks with at work are a dutiful substitution I have made because “they” told me to–not because walking fulfills about a dozen functions in my life.

In The Mom Box, I probably don’t talk about the recent workers’ strikes at Stop and Shop, and whether or not they were resolved. Or the creepy robot with the glowing eyes that patrols the aisles looking for spills of meatbag blood that it made itself milk to clean.

Obviously, that’s silly. Those robots don’t slice people open. They vaporize them with their glowing blue eyes! I saw it on the Today Show! Or whatever I’m supposed to be watching.

I didn’t think it was so surprising that I write–I’m a rather quiet person with a decent vocabulary and I’m told that I have competent, if occasionally awkward, communications skills marred by only a slight Massachusetts accent. But writing assumes expressing independent thought, putting something OUT into the world when I am only supposed to be taking in what others have told me.

And it goes on and on. I must be so busy! I mean, I don’t have as much alone time as I’d like, but I’m hardly swamped. I must have a part-time job because I have a child, not because I want to leave time for writing and freelancing. Sure, it could be both, but finding a part-time job I could pay my bills on and leaving that time for other pursuits was a plan that pre-dated the kid by three years.

As I’ve written this post, I kept asking myself, “Does this even matter if it amounts to a social annoyance? Or even social exhaustion?” In my life, this is my strongest experience with The Mom Box. I’m still in the early days, and have years ahead of me.

What opportunities aren’t mothers told about because of others’ assumptions? What conversations are we kept out of because we wouldn’t be interested? To take these questions slightly too far, what if moms are the people sitting in the cave in Plato’s Republic?

I can try to break the box; I can eat a hamburger and write and yell and punch through the cardboard. But I can’t control other people’s thoughts, or read them. Even though I should be able to do that. Fuck you, patriarchy!

People always ask, now that I have a child, could I ever imagine life without her?

Seeing as I had a life for thirty-two years before she came on the scene, yes, I can. Seeing as I have friends without children, yes, I can.

Seeing as I write fiction and therefore inhabit the lives of people who are not myself, yes, I can. That last one makes the implications of the question a tiny bit insulting. Or it would, if the question were literal.

But I’m not supposed to imagine a life without her—that’s the point. “Could you ever imagine a life without her?” isn’t a real question about my imaginative faculties; it’s a litmus test of how thoroughly I have left behind everything else that I was. Have I been properly dip-dyed in motherhood? Did I bleach out my residual personality first?

I’m not supposed to answer that I could imagine a life without her.

I’m not supposed to answer that sometimes I relate more to women who are childless by choice.

I’m not supposed to be writing this post.

Or, if I do write it, I’m supposed to add like three paragraphs of qualifiers in case you misinterpret and think I don’t really love my kid, when I already went a bridge too far by imagining a life without her. I’m going to note here that my toddler doesn’t Mom-Box me; she knows me by my words and actions, not by a set of stereotypes.

Back when I was in The Female Box, I thought I knew what The Mom Box was all about. But I’m still the same socially obtuse person who took all those years to recognize The Female Box. I needed almost a year to realize that people were acting weird because I had been put in The Mom Box. And I needed the entire thinking process of this post to realize I had the whole thing wrong. This one had a long thinking process, too. I wrote the first notes almost seven months ago.

My toddler loves a book called Not a Box. It’s about the imaginative possibilities of a plain cardboard box to be a robot suit, a pirate ship, or anything else. In the end, the rabbit-protagonist decides that it isn’t a box, but a Not-a-Box. It can be anything.

The Mom Box is also not-a-box, but in the opposite way.

A box is used to hold a three-dimensional item.

The Mom Box doesn’t permit three-dimensional items or people, which means it’s more of a folder. And you can only shove so many papers into a folder before the seams start fraying.