By: Felicity Landa
Kim Brooks’s book, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear, begins with a flurry of emotions that I suspect will be as familiar to other parents as it was to me. In a rush of stress and worry mixed with the impulse to placate her child in a tense situation, Brooks made a split-second decision to leave her four-year-old son in the car while she ran into the store. She was gone for five minutes. She could see the car from the front store windows. And while her son was perfectly fine when she returned, this seemingly trivial decision led to one of the most monumental consequences of Brooks’s parenting years. Someone had filmed her, and sent the video to the police.
Small Animals weaves between memoir and research, as Brooks uncovers the social construct that catalyzed those fateful five minutes and their consequences. Parenthood has been caged and put on display, forever under the scrutiny of spectators who are not involved. Her dissection presents us with a book that expertly defines the one emotion devouring twenty-first-century parenting: Fear. And a society that perpetuates this fear is captivated by violence and failure, prone to judgment, and acts under the guise of protecting the innocent small animals its culture creates.
Brooks attempts to unpack this social construct that is decades in the making. Through interviews with parents who have gone through similar and worse situations, conversations with experts, and shocking statistics dating further than the kidnapping panic of the 1980s, Brooks searches for answers. What is this culture of fear? Where did these inherent emotions come from that keep us constantly worrying about our children?
This quest leads Brooks into gender constructs, comparing the expectations for fathers versus mothers. She recognizes her privilege and explores the racial stigmas placed on parents of color. I appreciated this as a Hispanic woman who has been mistaken for the nanny to my white baby on multiple occasions. Brooks unpacks media influence, specifically how intense coverage of kidnappings and child fatality alters our ability to rationalize situations. She challenges society’s collective decision to weigh the benefits of a positive outcome to the cost of a negative one. No one questions a parent’s decision to put their child in a car seat and drive them somewhere, yet our children are a thousand times more likely to die in a moving vehicle than to be snatched while unattended for five minutes. But the decision that makes the evening news is the less likely scenario, the one weighted in fear of the unknown. Most importantly, Brooks points to how all these things directly affect the small, terrified human animals that this culture of fear has been built for. Our fear is all consuming, and our children absorb the impact.
Small Animals provides us an anatomy of the complex creature called parenting, and within its pages we find a refuge for our weary minds. There’s a reason, an explanation, an excuse for our failures. Brooks writes, “As Frank Furedi explains in his book Paranoid Parenting, in the modern American family, parents dissect almost every parenting act, even the most routine, analyzing it in minute detail, correlating it with a negative or positive outcome, and endowing it with far reaching implications for child development. ‘It is not surprising,’ he writes, ‘that parents who are told they possess this enormous power to do good and to do harm feel anxious and overwhelmed.’”
But Brooks’ message is twofold. Every nugget of truth she uncovers about society is a shocking revelation of our deepest selves. Our choices are prey to others’ judgment, but we turn around and judge them right back. The cycle is maintained by the very participants it influences. Brooks dissects our existence and exposes the animal of parenting for everything that it is. It’s what makes this book genius.
Our choices are on display, so we viciously defend them. No one admits they are trying to squash the constant anxiety about every single choice. We sit back and say, I will never be that kind of mother, that kind of father. We are injured creatures who lash out in defense of “the right way,” and in doing so we condemn those who do it differently. In our tendency to judge others, we are incapable of giving them the benefit of the doubt; we are incapable of supporting our fellow parents even though we wear a badge of understanding. We are left to survive alone.
“Nobody ever, no matter what, admits to competing. We smile and nod and hold our judgments… We say things like ‘there’s no single right way,’ and only when we get home do we say to our partner, ‘what the fuck are they doing with those kids?’ Nothing is acknowledged. Nothing is discussed. And on and on the parenting game goes, it’s hard to win while pretending not to play.”
The more you uncover about yourself and about twenty-first-century parenting, the more you will come to realize that twenty-first-century parenting is fear. It’s the buzz beneath our skin that propels us forward when we leave our child playing out of our sight for a moment. It’s the instinct to feed ourselves a hundred worst-case scenarios that are statistically impossible. It’s the scandalized looks when we’re in public that compel us to parent a little harsher for the benefit of bystanders. We are afraid of what others will think of us, we are afraid we’ve made the wrong choices, and we are afraid that we are not enough.
The irony of Brooks’ book is in its plethora of cyclical themes. We are judged and so we judge others, our fear compels us to helicopter parent and so we strip our children of the freedom they need to not be afraid. Brooks bares her soul and her shortcomings, and her readers scrutinize all of her choices, including the one to write about it. We are the product of a society that we seem to have no choice but to perpetuate.
And then Brooks does the unexpected—she gives us a pass. After everything she uncovers she reminds us of our similarities: “I was what I was, an anxious American mother… But maybe that was okay.” It’s a testament to the excellent book she has written that keeps her reader riding every emotion, and consuming every revelation. Brooks writes Small Animals for us, in the hopes that the parents she is able to reach will take a breath and remember that this job is hard. It’s okay to forgive ourselves, and each other.
Parents will most likely devour this book just as I did. Small Animals is a must-read for any parent searching for meaning in the insanity of their daily life. Regardless of the things we believe about Brooks’s choices and the choices of our fellow parents, I can guarantee that Small Animals will speak to you in some way.
Felicity Landa is an MFA candidate at UC Riverside Palm Desert, and Fiction Editor of the online literary magazine Literary Mama. She is a submission reader for nonfiction at The Coachella Review. She lives in Southern California as a stay-at-home mom to her toddler.