My Post-Parenthood Media Wasteland
As Gen X settles into its Docker years, our intrepid new dad comes cleans about all the media he’s loved — and lost
When I became a father last November, I betrayed my family.
Not my actual family, mind you — they’re still treated to the same old mix of unhelpful helpfulness (e.g., I recently devoted a full evening to concocting a vinegar-based solution to detoxify the laundry I abandoned in the washing machine 96 hours earlier) and blithe inconsiderateness (“Honey, I know you just walked through the door following a 13-hour workday and haven’t eaten since breakfast and need to feed the kid, but I can’t find the remote control. I’m thinking I might’ve left it in or around the freezer. Can you fetch me a penlight and my mittens?”). No, I’m talking about my Modern Family, the one laser-beamed into my cable box every Wednesday night at 9 p.m.
Twenty or so post-October-2011 episodes reside there, lonely, static, hoping against hope that my wife and I will get our media-consumption act together and liberate them from their set-top tomb. Alas, that’s where they’ll probably meet their demise: We are moving soon and plan to start anew with a virgin dvr, one likely to house more family programming — Muppets, Dora, and the like — than the end-of-day reality dreck/brain carbs that had long occupied that particular lot of digital real estate.
We haven’t just withdrawn our support of ad-sponsored content. According to billing statements that we’ve probably ignored for eight months, the dwelling in which my wife and I reside ingested a steady diet of pay-per-view content between the months of June 2009 and November 2011, culminating with the purchase of Beginners (five-word review: “Far less twee than expected”) on November 5. The next registered purchase came on July 28, 2012 (The Descendants — “Besieged families = Oscar catnip”). Similarly, the book I was reading in November (when Junior decided to make his grand entrance) was Keith Richards’ Life, which I perused less for the tales of rock-and-roll bombast than for the parenting tips — most relevantly, how to introduce an eight-year-old to the delicate art of rousing a paranoid, drug-addled parent who sleeps with a loaded gun under his pillow. I finished it in early May.
So, yeah, whenever somebody asks how becoming a parent has affected my media-consumption diet, I try to change the subject before they start rhapsodizing about Homeland, Rob Delaney’s Twitter feed, and the rest of the great stuff that I missed while juggling Diaper Genie refills. I’m not complaining, given the staggering volume of joy and wonder and beauty the kid has brought into my life. But as a [sounds air horn]-year-old Generation-Xer, some small part of me wonders if I’m affected by the sudden media disconnect more profoundly than new parents of earlier and later generations are/were.
Each generation makes grand, sweeping generalizations about itself, I know. So with the caveat that I might be universalizing my own isolated experience — and the promise not to self-mythologize like a Baby Boomer who has just caught wind of a new Eisenhower biography — I’m beginning to wonder if the aforementioned disconnect has something to do with the way my peers and I have straddled media eras.
Unlike the Generation-Y kids who followed us, we remember the days of three over-the-air networks and starched newspapers blanketing the kitchen table. At the same time, we’ve also been engaged online for most of our adult lives. Perhaps, then, Gen-X newbie parents sucked into the swirling infant time vortex feel the pain of media deprivation because we’ve inhaled so much of it, in forms both (comparatively) primitive and newfangled. This is where one would ordinarily discuss the results of a study that confirms or shreds this half-assed theory, but no such research exists. Get on it, academia.
Looking back, my pre-child media regimen was impressive in both its expanse and its utter boneheadness. I used to wake up early (as opposed to my current sub-early) and absorb a few minutes of local-news banter while the ol’ brain rebooted. From there, I’d head online to check in on my left-leaning-Northeasterner sine qua nons (The New York Times, Doonesbury) and top-line sports/music/humor delights (Quickish, Backstreets, The Onion). Then I’d don my sarcasm goggles and shame shield before spending more time than I care to admit processing the e-detritus highlighted in my Facebook news feed.
After catching up on the night-shift dispatches from my Twitter ticker — and quick-scanning the content linked therein — I’d lower the computer screen to half-mast and plant the Bluetooth headphone dealie around my skull, for hands-free music and/or podcast consumption during a quick morning run. The mobile screen of my smartphone hub would remain in a state of low glow as I darted about town, annoying the crap out of pedestrians who ask only that their fellow travelers pay vague attention to their immediate surroundings.
After returning to the homestead and waking The Missus, I’d grudgingly participate in a rite of modern hygiene (read: shower) before engaging her against her will in pre-coffee conversation. From there, it was back to the screens — a laptop and a desktop monitor, aligned in a way that made me feel like a secret black-ops analyst in one of the Bourne flicks — and the business of words, words, everywhere words. After work, there’d be a pursuit involving tossed/hurled/shot/thwacked projectiles on the tube, feet stretched across the ottoman and a bowl of ice cream balanced precariously on my spherical gut. Life wasn’t half bad, man.
Post-kid, this meticulously constructed routine took a hit. Long strands of messaging, instant or otherwise? Forget about it. Multiple YouTube forays to view footage of people falling down? No more. The 95 minutes per day I spent devising and deconstructing fantasy football trades? Gone like water down the drain. I still granted myself 30 or so minutes of exercise, which came to serve as a mental steam-release valve, and took pains to answer email in what the federal courts would term “a timely manner.” Beyond that, though, I might as well have been my dad, he of the aol account and blissful hashtag ignorance.
On my best day, I had only a hint of a wisp of an idea of what was going on around me. On my worst, I felt as if I were encased in a subterranean chamber a few interstellar hops north of Mars. This would have been less of a problem if my job didn’t require some small degree of cultural and topical awareness.
My Tumblr still existed, theoretically speaking, and I dutifully tweeted in the increasingly rare instances when something I wrote found its way onto the Internet. But even in a media-2.0 world, it was a stretch to qualify the daily poop-chronicling I did for the kid’s day-care provider as content creation.
And so, as semi-sentient beings tend to do, I adapted. Slowly but surely, I’ve started retailoring my media-consumption habits to work within the context of my current time and energy crunch. As with my increased happiness and stronger sense of perspective, I have the kid to thank for it.
More than eight months in, he is what infant apologists, like his mother, might call a “challenged sleeper” and what less sympathetic sorts, like me, might call “a taunting nocturnal sadist.” Whereas his classmates make it through the night without a peep — or so their obnoxious sleep-superior jerkhead parents claim — our little guy likes to maintain a steady dialogue between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., at which point he dozes off just in time to blow up our morning routine. This pattern has repeated itself for so long, it’s hard to imagine life any other way.
A month or two back, however, I discovered the magic and wonder that is a tablet (yes, you’re reading the super-informed media musings of a writer-type person who had the foresight to board the iPad bandwagon a mere 20 months after everyone else did). Most existing literature suggests that an infant can be cradled, comforted and even fed using a single limb — and wouldn’t you know it, a tablet only requires one lithe wrist to manipulate. Thus I’ve started to reconstruct my media-viewing habits one app dealie-thing at a time, with one hand on the kid and one on the pad, between the hours of 1 a.m. and 5 a.m.
This has allowed me to invite any number of publications back into my life, as well as reconnect with the lords of Twitter. I don’t watch as much television or engage in as much spirited instant-message debate about lofty topics (Tony Soprano, dead or alive? I say alive) as I once did, but that’s probably for the better. It’s a simplistic balm — buy tablet and magically reconnect — but it’s one that does the trick for me. At least until the sun comes up and The Missus reclaims it as her own, anyway. That’s how I explain away the prominent Glamour icon.
So here’s a call for anyone who wants to reach me and my purchase-minded new-parent Gen-X ilk — marketers, brand minions, sloganeers, candidates for political office, whoever — to streamline the dickens out of their media offerings. A simple rule: If it ain’t gonna play/function on a device I can operate with a single hand, while balancing a child or maneuvering a stroller with the other, it ain’t gonna happen.
Were I to attempt to predict the future, I’d speculate that our content preferences won’t evolve all that much. By their mid-30s, most people have more or less figured out what floats their intellectual and emotional boats, and have settled on a core of trusted friends/family members/media folk/Twitter messiahs for advice, guidance and recommendations. Me personally? Now that I’ve kid-adjusted my sensitivities, I’ll gasp at news reports of children in peril and fight back sobs whenever I see a car ad that depicts a warm father/son relationship; I’d sooner rub industrial-grade jalapeno peppers in my eyes than admit, via a stray teardrop, that a marketer has pushed precisely the right emotional button.
(Separately, that one Infiniti commercial, in which the car’s rear-warning-system prevents a distracted parent from steamrollering a happy, innocent child pedaling by on his bike? That kind of buy-this-or-beautiful-children-will-perish messaging is borderline cruel. Pre-kid, it wouldn’t have prompted much more than a derisive “like that could ever happen” snort. Post-kid, it’s all I can do not to jump off the couch and tackle the tv set out of the car’s path).
But for now, I’m just happy that I’m no longer so far outside the loop that I can’t even see the loop. I like being connected. I like being able to catch the pop-culture references dropped by SportsCenter anchor and would-be-playground-conversationalist alike. And I like that season three of Modern Family will stream on Netflix before too long. These are better days.