We did some polling and crunched the numbers, and the results are indisputable: 100 percent of the millennials on our staff have developed a reflexive eye roll at the mere mention of that word. It’s not that we don’t feel a certain kinship with our generation—we tweet, we selfie, we type on iPhones while wearing Warby Parker glasses in the back of a Lyft—it’s just that these kinds of discussions too often devolve into an oversimplified stew of unfit stereotypes. So, when we looked at the data and realized that the first wave of millennials is chin-deep in parenthood, we wanted to hear from them, not about them. These stories reflect the distinct experiences of six millennials. They also reveal that generational divides aren’t always what they seem.
The teachers at my daughters’ daycare can tell when I’m flying solo.
Almost every morning, I wake up the girls, help them get dressed, and make sure they grab breakfast before I load them into the car. But they always want Mom to do their hair—especially Abi, who’s 5 and prefers her curly brown locks stretched back into a long, tight braid. Most days, my wife, who telecommutes from home, has time to oblige. Sometimes, though, it’s just me and the brush. Josie, 3, settles for my sloppy ponytail, but Abi, older and more aware of her father’s inability to distinguish a braid from a knot, flees like I’m packing Mace instead of detangling spray. When we show up at daycare, her coiffure is the same tumbleweed she woke up with. The teachers, mostly older women, chuckle and joke, “Guess Mom’s at work, huh?”
It’s a little embarrassing for both Abi and me. But the truth is, I get off easy. Like the sympathetic looks I get from older dads and grandfathers when I’m literally dragging two screaming girls through the aisles at the grocery store. Or the admiring grandmothers at the playground watching me juggle two swings while rummaging through the diaper bag for an extra juice box. Never mind that there’s a woman right next to me doing the same thing with four kids. The parenting bar is low for dads—unless you ask my wife, the only judge who counts.
When she and I first got married, I was the sole breadwinner, the one working a full-time job and two part-time gigs while the missus stayed at home. Within a couple years, she had landed a nice corporate job, giving me the more flexible schedule. When she got pregnant with Abi and then Josie, I was by her side for every OB-GYN appointment except for two—one excused absence for each child. I was there throughout both labors and was squeezing her hand through both C-sections. I was the first one to change both girls’ diapers while Mom recovered. I took two weeks of paternity leave for each and did everything short of breast-feed them. When it came time for the babies’ checkups, I was often lugging around the carrier by myself, soaking in the astonished reverence of doctors and nurses alike.
Of course, I don’t deserve the adulation. Just please remember to afford to the solo moms, like my wife, the same courtesy you would to me when they’re wrangling the calves. Although you probably won’t notice, because she usually has the situation under control.
All I can do is stifle my apprehension and work to uphold my end of the partnership. Soon that will include swimming lessons, weekend soccer games, and parent-teacher conferences. And in my spare hours, perhaps some YouTube tutorials on how to braid hair.
When I tell people I received my first commission from Saveur while in labor, reactions vary from being aghast that I was checking email to simply wondering what I did about it. To the former, I respond that I had contractions for 52 hours: I was bored, looking for something (anything!) to do. And to the latter, I say: Obviously, I wrote that piece. I wrote it at 3 a.m. while rocking a crying newborn. I wrote it sitting next to her as she was strapped to lights that treated her jaundice. I wrote it while my breasts leaked milk and my eyes leaked tears because my baby wouldn’t drink that milk.
The previous year, I had quit my job as a marketing manager to become a freelance writer, in part because of my plans to start a family. I knew neither my temperament nor my mortgage payments were cut out for me to be a stay-at-home-mom, so turning my side-gig into a full-time job seemed to be the answer. I figured it would be a perfect middle ground—plenty of time to see my child without giving up my career. But the freedom of working in the gig economy slices like a double-edged sword. Increased flexibility comes with less stability and no clear path to successfully managing schedules, workloads, or unpredictable income.
While my counterparts in the corporate world find tech companies like Microsoft, Google, and Amazon dangling increasingly progressive parental paid leave packages in front of them, no such thing exists for freelancers. I had planned to take six weeks off from work, but “time off” means something different in the gig economy. The baby slept in a Rock ’n Play next to me while I emailed editors. I wrote to the soundtrack of my mother reading Is Your Mama a Llama? to my daughter. “‘No, she is not,’ is how Rhonda responded,” floated through my head as I discussed the plight of tea pickers in Sri Lanka or how dive bars weather gentrification.
When I was growing up, both my parents labored long hours outside of home, and I have memories of lighting Hanukkah candles in the on-call room of the hospital where my dad worked. I know that my parents’ hard work paved the way for me to go to good schools and land great jobs, but that experience also left me with the nagging feeling that I wanted to spend more time with my kid. I had no idea that would mean transcribing interviews while cringing at the baby shrieking in the background of the recording, or attending a conference with her strapped to my back. That’s what parenting in the gig economy turns out to be: a strange, mysterious path.
But one I walk with my daughter close at hand.
My 2-year-old daughter loves trains. One of her favorite books is about the transcontinental railroad, and she gleefully hollers choo-choo from the back seat when she glimpses an Amtrak train. What she doesn’t know yet is that her great-grandfather spent his life working on the railroad. In the 1930s, he left middle school and eventually became a pipe fitter for the Southern Pacific Railroad to support his mother and siblings. As a Mexican-American in Tucson, Arizona, the job was perhaps his best shot at lifting his family out of poverty.
Despite some of his supervisors vocally doubting his abilities, he persisted. When the work took him to outposts in Ogden, Utah, and Oakland, California—away from my grandmother—he regularly commuted to see his growing family.
As a child I couldn’t grasp the sacrifices they made to realize the American dream. Instead, I yearned to blend in with my classmates, whose grandparents didn’t watch telenovelas, speak another language, or expect them to go to Catholic Mass every Sunday.
This struggle is something my daughter won’t face. Her physical traits—blue eyes, blonde hair, pale complexion—don’t hint at her Mexican-American heritage. Her last name is Irish. She attends an immersion preschool, but we rarely speak Spanish at home. When she spends time with my father, they watch YouTube videos of farm animals instead of telenovelas. I haven’t taken her to a single Mass, much less baptized her.
I consider it my responsibility, however, to ensure she understands how her family fought to forge a better future on her behalf. She must know that even if her class and skin color afford countless privileges, her forebears were determined to win dignity and equality when few recognized their worth. This knowledge is her inheritance. I hope it will guide her in a world that offers too many opportunities to be cruel to those we don’t know or understand. I will one day show her the paintings her great-grandmother made in her 50s, after obtaining a GED and attending community college. I’ll describe how my father’s classmates and teachers bullied him for speaking Spanish, and how he went on to receive a master’s degree.
I’m not a devout Catholic like my father, but I will take her to church eventually because she deserves to witness faith firsthand. We don’t live close enough to relatives to have Sunday gatherings where she can play tag with a dozen cousins. I can guarantee, though, that she’ll appreciate the importance of family ties.
I won’t know for a long time if I’m doing this right, but if it sustains my daughter in some critical way, I will have succeeded.
On the first Friday night of every month, when Clevelanders are summoned to “Walk All Over Waterloo”—a stretch of locally owned bars, galleries, and restaurants—my 2-year-old son, Max, is way more into galloping than walking. One night in March, he joyfully sashayed past the R & D Sausage shop, past the Trinidadian Callaloo Cafe and Bar, past the art exhibit housed in a defunct phone booth, and down a flight of stairs to the basement of the Slovenian Workmen’s Home for the annual fish fry.
As polka blasted from the speakers, the waitress placed a bowl of sour cream on the table. Max shoveled it into his mouth like ice cream, proclaiming: “I like that, Mommy.” Later, he was less enthused to learn that the two fried slabs of meat on his plate were fish and not chicken, but he perked up when he spotted our neighbor, Scott. He hurled his 30-pound frame at Scott’s legs, laughing as Scott swung him around, copter-like. “More again,” Max cried. “More again.”
When friends and relatives ask what my husband, Geoff, and I were thinking when we uprooted our toddler from the suburbs and moved into the city, I cite scenes like this. My husband and I both grew up in the ’burbs (Cleveland’s for him, New York’s for me), where everyone shopped at the same supermarkets and bought the same type of tomatoes. We wanted a different sort of life for Max. We wanted him to live side by side with people of different races and income levels. We wanted him to walk outside and find a friend to throw a baseball with—without having to call their parents and schedule a date ahead of time. And selfishly, we wanted not to eat in chain restaurants all the time.
It felt very hip to us, this desire to raise our child in the city. But to my grandmother, who died a year and a half ago, well, it just felt like we were choosing something closer to her life. She grew up in a Jewish enclave on the east side of Pittsburgh. On Sunday nights, she and her family would join other cousins and siblings for dinners that featured rice-filled porcupine meatballs and Grandpa’s “special cookies” (day-old cookies, hard as a Frisbee). The local kosher butcher and bakery owner knew her by name. Weekdays were spent with her best friend, Thelma, dancing with veterans at the VA hospital or volunteering at the synagogue. When my grandfather died in 1986, leaving my grandmother a 63-year-old widow, my family assumed she’d move to New Jersey, where all three of her children were living at the time. She looked at them like they’d served her a rotten apple. Pittsburgh was her home.
That’s how we felt, too—or at least we did until our house alarm went off at 2 a.m. six months after moving to Cleveland. My husband crept downstairs with a knife while I huddled in Max’s room, second-guessing our decision.
If anyone was trying to break in, the alarm must have scared them off. Still, after our security company told us that one-third of the time robbers return to the same house, and another neighbor reported that they’d had cash stolen by burglars disguised as cable repair guys, I began looking through listings in the suburbs.
But it is Max—and the network our family has begun to create—who keeps us put. Two doors down is a family with three kids, the youngest of whom is only three weeks older than Max. Many nights, they call out to each other from our backyard stoops, frustrated at the fence for keeping them apart. On other days, Max likes to skip down the road to our scientist friend’s house, whose backyard is a breeding ground for exotic plants. “What that is?” he asks, listening politely to long explanations about Asian lillies before moving on to the next flower—and same question.
Instead of moving, we’ve started researching dogs. Our neighbors are excited about the possible new addition but have warned us that the pet competition at next year’s 4th of July parade is shaping up to be quite fierce. We’ve assured them we’re up for the challenge.
My Facebook post about the birth of my daughter—written while still flush with adrenaline from 12 hours of natural labor, taking sips from a 36-ounce Buckeye Baby cup of ice water—was the most gushing, earnest thing I’ve ever shared on social media. It lacked any sheen of irony, any of the sly meta quality of millennial self-representation. I included seven photos, some featuring the baby still slick with gore. (Yes, I was that person.) Then I disappeared into a tiny wooden cabin in rural Ohio.
I’ve come of age as a writer at a time when it is no longer enough just to write: A writer must also promote her work and, in the process, promote herself as a person of interest. Social media is a skill set as necessary for my generation as typing was for my mother’s. I learned the snarky, casually intellectual voice of feminist and pop culture bloggers, the easy outrage, the clubby camaraderie. I learned to distill my agreement and disagreement into concise, digestible fragments.
Yet after my daughter was born, I found I could no longer engage with social media the same way. It began with the Facebook birth announcement and photos, which I uploaded out of both a sense of duty and an almost advocatory desire to celebrate the gritty rawness of birth. I became abruptly resistant to snark. Vacillating between the sleep-deprived poles of genuine awe and unspeakable terror, I found that I needed to believe in motherhood. I didn’t want it eroded by constant ironical observations, abraded by a posture of defiant unsentimentality. Before I had a child, I took it for granted that no intellectual writer-type could ever be taken seriously were she to cave to conventional sentiment. As a mother, I was swept away by these huge, ancient, universal emotions I’d previously dismissed as uncomplicated.
For a long, green summer in that Ohio cabin, I baked enchiladas. I read Buddhist theory. I nursed and nursed and drank water and nursed some more. I woke and slept in delusional fragments of time. I had spent my 20s working, traveling, and living on five continents, eating coconuts in the backs of trucks and summiting remote mountains; I had spent my early 30s in an MFA program, writing in a blur of coffee and ambition, sitting on the rooftops of run-down apartment buildings and dissecting New Yorker essays. Now I looked no further than this Midwestern front porch at dusk, rocking my warm, downy baby while red-winged blackbirds called from the pond. I did not see myself as a figure in a story. I lived without presenting my life to an audience. I no longer had the desire for small talk, the need or occasion to be a witty conversationalist. In those first months, I wanted only the bare elements of the quotidian—milk, sun, spaghetti—and the big, unabashed questions about the meaning of life. I could actually say things like “the meaning of life” without dissolving into cynical giggles. (I still can, though I cloak them in loftier language.)
The transition to parenthood tends to diminish self-involvement and self-fascination, and for me this was reflected on social media: My online persona seemed laughably flimsy compared to the overwhelming physical realness of my presence as a mother. The contours of my life melted into the baby’s breath, heartbeat, eyes; I had no interest in anything that felt fake or posed or detached. I didn’t have space or time. Even when small windows of time emerged, I did not want to use them for anything other than the most important work. I did not want to waste a second on anything that felt less than urgent.
Parenthood gifted me a clear vision of my own insignificance. I didn’t care so much about immediate success as measured in contacts and shares and influence as I did about whether I would ever create any work of substance. It began to seem shortsighted to engage in the struggle for recognition and accolades online, like ignoring a meteor shower to go put on some lipstick.
I didn’t disappear entirely. Gradually, the din of social media crept back around the fringes. I thought I had to get back in the game, so I began to tweet at 3 a.m. I posted Facebook photos of the baby with sunflowers and a hound dog. But my posts were both duller and more heartfelt. My Twitter became a way to recognize and support the work of fellow artists, a purely professional tool, not a presence I tried to cultivate. I allowed my voice to be the equivalent of a drab, low tan heel: practical, business-like, comfortable, requiring no strain or extra energy.
Meanwhile, I started an Instagram account. For years I resisted Instagram as the ultimate example of the soulless commodification of everyday life—can’t I just eat this burger without documenting it in the perfect filtered light?—but I found myself suddenly embracing it. There was my daughter holding a warty toad in the fall sunshine. Grimacing at sweet potatoes. In a fuzzy fox hat and bright red boots on the gravel drive. Clutching the mutt hound Little Dude. On her Pee Paw’s back in a forest of beeches. I kept my phone with me all the time; I wouldn’t let my husband put away the Play-Doh until I’d captured it at just the right angle.
So much of a parent’s work is minutiae, easily dismissed as thoughtless chores or ignored as boring, but framing it for social media, I realized, gave it power. It said: This life is worth admiring. This life is harder than anything I have ever done: harder than graduate school, than writing a book, than taking buses across South America. I had never anticipated this. Of course, I’d heard how difficult parenting can be, how tedious and frustrating, but I was surprised to discover how spiritual and rewarding this same tedium proved itself at times. This might be the greatest shock to millennial parents: Parenting sucks in all the ways we’ve been telling each other it sucks, but it is great in ways that we and those who came before us haven’t been able to adequately express. Millennial parents have excelled at tackling the saccharine and gendered myths of parenthood and unveiling its sometimes oppressive miseries, but we haven’t been nearly as accomplished at celebrating its transformations—perhaps because we’re so wary of falling into the traps of convention, sentimentality, and the status quo. Yet not exploring and embracing its quotidian power keeps it largely hidden, or debased as a subject not worthy of creative explanation.
My Instagram is in some ways a struggle to bring motherhood into the (filtered, very carefully curated) light, to acknowledge it as a subject worthy of attention. It is a way to say to the world I am a writer and I am also a mother and here is how I struggle and fuse the two in the everyday. These struggles have long been hidden or repressed; on Instagram, my mothering is front and center. It is not intended to glorify stay-at-home-motherhood or any other social category that exists largely to divide women, or to render motherhood idyllic or picturesque, but rather to take as a starting point my life as an artist, a considered and creative life, and then acknowledge that much of what this actually consists of is scattered Cheerios and bubbles on the patio. Social media’s most radical element might be transparency, and for mothers it allows us to be transparent about the everyday work of mothering, so long taken for granted, both profound and painfully dull, mundane and also the stuff of epic transformation.
Instead of constructing a persona, I construct memories. I sense in each square frame of the baby leaping from a log, peeking from behind a Lego creation, my life gone by. I use the little time I have apart from her to write into this knowledge, and the rest of the time I struggle to seize with the click of the camera: upload, brighten, fade, wait for the red hearts to bloom.
On cold days, my wife, Maren, and I sometimes dress our 21-month-old daughter, Maja, in a red hoodie with a little Mack truck patch sewn on the chest. It’s cozy and adorable and something of a family heirloom. There are photos of me wearing it when I was that age; I had the same thin blond hair and pudgy cheeks. She pulls off the look better than I ever did.
Becoming a parent inevitably sends you down the rabbit hole of your own childhood memories, mapping Way Back Then onto Right Here, Right Now. I take stock of the differences: I liked baseball and cake; Maja is trending toward climbing and blueberries. I grew up playing Frogger on a hulking IBM, and she, I am required to note, is a digital native.
More than anything, though, I’m struck by the generation-spanning similarities, the hand-me-downs that go far beyond that red sweater and the shelves of books by Sandra Boynton and Dr. Seuss. My second-grade teacher ranted about how much time kids spent watching “the idiot box,” and now we worry about Maja’s screen time, even as we occasionally let her play with our phones. Sometimes, we even pull them out on purpose when she gets a bit too wiggly at inopportune moments. We know she’ll be soothed by a bookmarked video of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood—itself a generational throwback, an animated descendent of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
The more things change … well, you don’t need Siri to finish that aphorism. My wife and I worry about the stability of the world, about how unrest and political schisms will affect the future. The headlines can be overwhelming. But so it was for my grandparents, bringing kids into the world at the close of the most horrific war the planet has ever seen. So it was for my parents, raising my sister and me in the lingering days of the Cold War, still reeling from the tumult of the 1960s.
Our stomachs tighten when we think about paying for college, for retirement, and even, on occasion, for our mortgage. Soon enough, we’ll worry about playground bullies and cyberbullies and Maja’s first unchaperoned concert, presumably by whatever band is annoying parents in the late 2020s.
All we can do is hold out tempered optimism that, like our parents and their parents, we’ll basically get things right, and so will our kids. We take joy in knowing that the best part of parenting is the timelessness of its core details. This morning, Maren’s parents called to say hi. We spoke on FaceTime as Maja paged through the 1967 picture book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? We have two copies, and I’m hoping one of them will live on for story time with our grandchildren.