An Interview with Kim Brooks

Kim Brooks wrote a 2014 essay for Salon about leaving her then four-year-old son in a locked minivan while she went into a store for five minutes. Someone noticed her son and thought he was in danger. Instead of approaching Brooks, or waiting by the car until she returned, that person went to the authorities. Her shame, anger, and curiosity about what happened were visceral in that essay. In the years since, she’s spoken with other mothers who’ve been arrested for similar choices, and she’s researched the societal factors that make us see danger rather than independence for children left unattended, even for five or 10 minutes. She put what she’s learned into a new book, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear. We sat down to talk with Brooks about her book and community in Chicago under Rahm Emanuel.

Your book originated from an incident where you left your son in the car for five minutes while you ran into the store to buy a single item. You knew the lay-out of the store: it was a Target. And somebody videotaped your child. Can you tell us about that?

Someone called the police. I was originally charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, although my son was fine. There was no problem in terms of his safety. Over the course of two years while the legal repercussions were unfolding, I started questioning our culture of intensive, fearful hyperparenting. I questioned why things had changed so much in a generation or two in how safe we think it is for children to be unsupervised. That was the launching point, which I use to do reporting, research, and cultural criticism.

You found that parents who can are spending money to create a social life for their children, while at the same time we’re spending more time with our children.

Not long ago I read Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone. He argues that the most important factor in a child’s development and educational success is not income of parent or the educational level of parents. It’s not what I thought at all. It’s the amount of social capital in a child’s community, or their social connectedness. It’s the sense that there are other people besides their parents looking out for them, and it’s making connections across the community.

When I read that I was all the more disturbed in thinking about the ways community has changed over the last 30 years. When I was young or my parents were young, a lot of the things that children needed were socialized or came from community. Education—most children went to public schools. Also recreation—sports leagues and clubs were done through schools, public libraries, community organizations. Putnam writes about the deterioration of these social organizations that brought people together. As they’ve been attacked by hostile policies, parents have had to pick up the slack. If you want to provide children with a good education, friends, enrichment activities, you have to pay for it. So we see an exacerbation in inequalities, because if people can’t pay for it, their kids don’t get it and they fall further behind. The wealthy insure their children a place among the affluent. And the people in the middle scramble to create that social capital with their own private resources.  

We’re meeting at a time when women’s rage is palpable. Let’s talk about about harassment and mothers. You write that: “We hate poor, lazy mothers. We hate rich selfish mothers. We hate mothers who have no choice but to work, but also mothers who don’t need to work and want to do so. It isn’t hard to see the common denominator.” Then a friend steers you to a word other than hate.

Contempt. That was an interesting conversation. We were thinking about the difference between hatred and contempt, and we came up with the theory that contempt comes from someone getting out of the place they’ve been assigned. We’re contemptuous of people who try to be something different or more than we think they should be.

I think it’s accurate to say we have a lot of contempt for women in general, but especially mothers. There’s a deep ambivalence and at times even hostility toward women who are mothers and who also try to do or be anything else, to participate in public life or be full members of society. If you don’t believe this ambivalence exists, just look at our policies or lack of policies, and the institutions that support working mothers and families. We’re the only industrialized country in the world that has no support system in place to help women and parents work while also caring for children. We’ve completely privatized the cost of raising children. Women are the ones who have borne the brunt of that privatization. Rather than make the policy changes necessary to support women and allow them to take part in public life, we make it impossible for them. We say you can do everything you want; you can work; you can have children. But you’ve got to figure out how to make that work. And not just make it work in terms of loving and feeding and sheltering your children, but also in terms of meeting impossible standards of round-the-clock supervision. And if you fail to meet those, at best you’ll be shamed or stigmatized. At worst, you can even be arrested. So, I think it’s fair to say there’s a lot of contempt toward mothers.

You also say that this privatization has led to a fracturing of community, and that’s why the person who filmed your son in the car didn’t approach you.

There’s not a sense of people looking out for children. We’ve shifted away from that. You look out for your own children and that’s it. You don’t bear any responsibility for other people’s kids or the kids in your community. It breeds this parenting as a competitive sport rather than a communal responsibility.

You describe how after your run-in with the law and child protective services, your reading around parenthood shifted from how-to books to books that were more about anthropology and sociology. And you cite a lot of research about economics, policy, and anthropology. Was there one book or scholar or theory that surprised you the most?

Probably the thing that made the greatest impression on me was this cognitive scientist named Barbara Sarnecka at UC Irvine, who did a study to see how the moral judgements we make impact risk assessment. She found that if we see a parent doing something with their child that we think is risky, we morally judge that parent. She also found the reverse can be true. When we judge a mother, whatever that mother is doing, we assess it as risky. This was important to me because I couldn’t figure out why people thought I had done something very wrong, or why people think women shouldn’t take their eyes off their children. That viewpoint seems sticky—it seems so immune to reason and statistics and logical arguments about child safety. It showed me that you’re not really dealing with rational analysis, you’re dealing with moral judgement of women and mothers. That kind of religious or moral thinking is much harder to sway.

Was it her study that showed the dad who left his kid in the car was seen as less guilty?

Not exactly. She manipulated the supposed reasons the parent leaves the child. She found that if a mother leaves her child because she’s struck by a car and knocked unconscious for a few minutes, we view that differently than if she runs to meet her lover. When the person was a father leaving the child because he had to run into work, it was viewed as something he couldn’t help. It was viewed the way it would be if he’d been struck by a car. When a mother leaves a child to run into work, it’s viewed the way it would be if she were running to get a manicure or meeting her lover. It gets back to the first point.

That there’s contempt?

Right. A mother who works is seen as doing something indulgent or disruptive to the social order, whereas a father who’s working and makes sacrifices with childcare because of work is seen as fulfilling his responsibility.

You also point out in the book that the anxiety surrounding parenting is very much a middle-class phenomenon, partly because we have so much choice in how to approach parenting or which school our kids should attend or which afterschool activities to pursue. But for families, or especially mothers, who don’t have the time or the financial resources to make choices, it’s very different. Can you talk about that?

It’s not that I don’t think working-class mothers don’t have anxiety. I think the anxieties are different. The anxiety there is trying to survive, trying to keep a roof over your head, keep your child fed, get your child to school safely. Because of growing class stratification and the pressures on middle-class families, there’s this sense of parenting as class insurance. People think, if I give my kid every opportunity and I do everything right, my kid won’t be a mere worker; my kid won’t fall into the working class. It’s hard to blame parents for this when you think about how we treat workers in this country.

There’s a great line in William Deresiewicz’s book Excellent Sheep, where he says in a winner-take-all society you’re going to want your children to be winners. It’s easy to vilify middle-class parents and their Chinese lessons and trying to get their kid into a good college. But I don’t think that’s entirely fair. Parents want their children to be okay, to have health care, to be able to afford a place to live, and to have a basic standard of living. Because fewer and fewer Americans can achieve that, it makes sense that middle-class parents would be extremely anxious.

When I saw you read at Women and Children First, you talked a little about how the proliferation of playgrounds has contributed to a deterioration in community. That came from Jane Jacobs?

Yes. I like her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities a lot. She has a chapter on children and city life that I found fascinating. A couple of generations ago in American cities, children were integrated into city life, so it wasn’t uncommon to see children on sidewalks, playing jump rope or tag or whatever they used to play. That was part of city life. If the parents weren’t watching their individual kids, there was a sense that someone was watching. The movement to get kids off of the sidewalks to make room for cars ended up hurting children and communal life. Now children are segregated. They’re in places where there aren’t adult eyes on them. It’s part of the deterioration of public spaces.

Something else you write in Small Animals is: “Every day there is less we can control about our kids’ future. The schools are failing, the middle class is vanishing … The political landscape is unstable. … Guns are everywhere.” This could be describing Chicago, couldn’t it?

Yes. I have two kids. They’re 11 and 8 now. It’s hard because I love Chicago. I love living in a city. I have no desire to live in the suburbs. And yet, like a lot of parents, I really struggle with the cost of having them in a good school, having recreation for them. It becomes hard to live in the city if you’re not a wealthy person. I know so many people who left the city for no other reason than that they couldn’t afford to live in a neighborhood where the schools will meet their needs.

I was just having coffee with a friend. She said she wanted so badly to send her kids to public school. She’s a big public-school proponent. She went to public school. Her husband went to public school. They sent their daughter to kindergarten, where there are 35 or 38 kids in the class. Five-year olds. Her daughter was wetting her pants at school because there was so much chaos and so many kids. She couldn’t get the teacher’s attention to go to the bathroom. If you have any choice, it’s hard to see your child suffer and not meet their full potential.

My kids have grown up in the public schools. Since Rahm came to town, I’ve seen every year the schools lose teachers, counselors, art, libraries, clean bathrooms. It’s been infuriating to live in the city under Rahm.

That’s interesting. You’ve seen it get worse?

Yes. My daughter needed some special-education services and I had to talk to lawyers. It took months and months of fighting.

I said this in the essay in the New York Times: We claim to want to protect children, but we live in a country that’s at war with children. I feel that more and more every day. Look at the mayor. When you take money from public schools, you’re stealing from children. We steal from the most vulnerable, powerless members of our society to help the strongest and wealthiest members get stronger and wealthier.

I think that’s even exacerbated here. The schools that are losing the most are the schools where parents don’t have the time or the resources to get in the mayor’s face.  

Exactly.

In August, after there was a weekend with a record-high number of shootings, he held a press conference where he said Chicago is facing a “shortage of values.” He asked Chicagoans to be good neighbors. Do you think Rahm’s been a good neighbor?

I think he should look at his own values. I will say, there’s an issue with our values as Chicagoans and Americans. But I don’t think I feel the way he does. We need to assess our values and say, do we want to live in a city in a country where every person is out for themselves and there’s no sense of communal responsibility? Or do we care about each other? Do we want to work together and support communities and neighbors and families? If those are our values then we need political changes to back up those values. It’s not just a matter of people should be nicer.

In America we love to focus on personal responsibility. We like to shame and blame individuals for problems. We don’t like to look at social, political, or economic structures. If we did look at those things, imagine what we would actually have to do. We would have to change a lot about our country. And that’s very threatening to the people who have the most power and the most money. Of course they’re going to change the conversation to make it about personal responsibility. That protects them.

You recently Tweeted a poster you saw on Navy Pier, which was a bizarre image and bizarre message: if teenagers are unaccompanied, Navy Pier will provide them with an adult escort. What were your first thoughts on seeing the poster?

It’s part of this contraction of public spaces where children or teenagers can exist. Everyone suffers—children and adults—when children are not given any freedom or independence. The problem is, it’s not enough for a parent to say you can go out. Kids need places to go. They need public spaces where they’re allowed to go. We’ve seen the eradication of those kinds of spaces over the last 20 or 30 years.

My kids experienced that growing up here. There isn’t a lot to do. They can roam around in stores or coffee shops, Millennium Park. Although I think it’s better here than it is for kids in the suburbs.

Right. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most of the incidents of police being called [on parents deemed negligent] take place in the suburbs. Because there are no public spaces. You don’t expect to see children.

If you could advise one of the many, many candidates running for mayor of Chicago, what would you say? Can you think of any policies you would advocate for?

I think the most important policies are the ones that support families and working mothers.

I’m a feminist and I think a lot about mandatory family leave, or universal preschool, or universal daycare. The fact is, if we had universal preschool or universal daycare, it would empower women across the entire spectrum: poor women, women of color, middle-class women. If all women who are mothers suddenly were able to participate in public life and weren’t bearing the entire burden of raising children, we’d see tremendous progress.