Millennials! Get Over Your Blankies and Stuffed Animals and Grow Up Already!
Just as I become a grandma, my kids’ generation is regressing into infancy. Can I borrow that pacifier, please?
I was leafing through my copy of Us Weekly the other day — hey, I’m trying to save a dying industry here — when I saw a short item about singer Selena Gomez. The item noted that Gomez, who is 26 years old and was until recently the most followed person on Instagram, has taken to drinking a mixture of milk and honey out of a baby bottle. This wasn’t Gomez’s own idea; she got it from someone named Lala Kent, who was seen last year on the reality TV show Vanderpump Rules similarly soothing herself with what she calls her “bubba” while curled up in bed.
I can be quick to jump on the foibles of the younger set, probably because they keep blaming boomers for Donald Trump. (Nobody I know can stand the guy.) But I’m not out to cause trouble, so I probably wouldn’t have said a word about this except that not long before, I’d read an article in New York magazine called “I’m Only Slightly Embarrassed That I Still Sleep With a Blankie.” In it, Sarah Nechamkin, who last year graduated from Tufts University, explained that she continues to console herself at night by clutching a scrap of worn white blanket she has had for longer than she can remember. Calling her blankie “a mark of pride,” she noted that Vivian C. Seltzer, a professor of psychology at Penn, says millennials are particularly prone to finding comfort in such “transitional objects.”
I suppose Seltzer is right, since the New York piece came hard on the heels of another, a week prior in the New York Times Magazine, in which Max Genecov, three-plus years out of Brown and studying for a PhD in astronomy and astrophysics at UC Berkeley, described the bliss he finds in playing with the stuffed animals he keeps throughout his home.
As my father used to say, chacun à son goût. I never utilized a blankie, but I did have a stuffed lion named Lippy that I was fond of half a century ago. In general, I’m all for anything that eases anxiety — Xanax, CBD, a glass or two of wine. I am a tad concerned, though, with what seems to be a generational reluctance to abandon childhood treasures. Perhaps that’s because I’m about to become a grandmother, at long last.
It isn’t just the blankies and stuffies and bubbas. I’ve also read recently about burgeoning sales of weighted blankets that emulate the sensation of swaddling for their (adult) users, and about the current fad for “infantilizing” hair accessories like bows and barrettes and headbands. (Picture Ariana Grande.) It’s certainly understandable that young people are increasingly relying on such crutches. Life today is oh so hectic, unlike, say, in the 1790s, when a tenth of Philadelphia’s population succumbed to ghastly yellow fever. (Sample symptoms: turning yellow and “retching up a blend of gastric contents and blood known as ‘coffee grounds.’”) Or in the Great Depression, when more than a quarter of the city’s workforce was unemployed and half of all commercial banks here failed, sending depositors’ life savings into the abyss. (More than 90,000 Philadelphians lost their homes between 1929 and 1933.) Or through those little skirmishes known as WWI and WWII, or even in my own youth, in the early 1960s, when we dutifully practiced cowering under our school desks for protection from nuclear holocaust. Nowadays, there’s — well, there’s deciding which delivery service should bring groceries right to your door, plus choosing the proper Instagram filter, along with the strain of what’s come to be called “adulting,” a.k.a. that thing where you manage to get through life. (There are classes you can take.)
Yet even with all this, what concerns me isn’t the helplessness my generation somehow managed to instill in our offspring. I’m consumed with worry over what will happen when procreation collides with the millennials’ impetus for self-gratification, if that’s the proper term to use for sleeping with a stuffed pet. Let me share a little story from my own early-parenting years. Back in the ’90s, my husband and I traveled to my dad’s house in Doylestown to attend my 20th high-school reunion. We had two toddlers then, both of whom were heavily reliant on pacifiers, and my dad had offered to babysit them for the night. Alas, shortly before we were due to leave for the local country club, Doug and I discovered we had misplaced our kids’ Nuks. The ensuing spat in which we blamed one another for this negligence was the most serious argument of our 36 years (so far) of married life.
So, now, imagine if, on that fateful night, instead of no Nuks, we’d found ourselves with three Nuks. One for each child, of course, but then — which of us should get the third? Should it be me, since I’d be reuniting with several hundred people who knew me long ago, when I was thinner and hotter? Or Doug, who hardly knew anyone there at all? In a world of anxiousness, how do you determine the hierarchy of angst? Whose free-floating consternation should take precedence? If you think this exercise is absurd, I encourage you to google “make child’s pacifier adult” to find step-by-step YouTube tutorials. Lots of them.
You’d think people of legal drinking age would be ashamed to write in major publications about their puerile habits. Alas, shame isn’t exactly a hallmark of younger generations today. Look at how relentlessly they proclaim the gospel of self-care. In the January/February issue of Martha Stewart Living (more homework than leisure reading, really), editor-in-chief Elizabeth Graves shared her resolution for the new year: “I’ll focus less on the things I think I should do and make more space for what I want to do.” Back in the day, we called that selfishness. It’s pretty much the motto of Trump’s substance-void, tweet-drunk, TV-watching presidency.
Parenthood is nothing but an endless exercise in self-negation. I can assure you, the grown-up hasn’t been born who wants to read Moo Baa La La La! as often as my kids wanted to hear it. Today, children’s bedtime stories have newfound competition from the likes of the Calm app (“soothing and sensory tales … to help insomniacs and stressed-out adults peacefully drift off,” according to one article). Will kids willingly forsake Beatrix Potter and Ezra Jack Keats to listen in while Mom nods off to Phoebe Smith’s 25-minute tour of the lavender fields of Provence? (They don’t call Smith “the J.K. Rowling of slow literature” for nothing.) If they won’t, who’ll win the ensuing literary wars?
There was a time when I would have trusted adults to defer to their children on this sort of thing. After all, so much is beyond a small child’s control — where to live, what to eat, when to bathe, what to wear. It only seems fair to let them weigh in on minutiae like which book to read tonight. Now, though, it seems those of voting age and over feel as powerless as two-year-olds and are similarly determined to do what they want to. This cannot end well. The local news recently featured a … well, I suppose you’d call it an “attraction” in West Philly where grown-ass people go to hurl crockery and smash breakable items to smithereens. It’s called the Rage Release Room. Thirty-five dollars buys you a quarter-hour of full-on temper tantrum. It’s very popular, I’m told.
It makes sense that the Rage Room is in West Philly, where half a dozen colleges and universities converge. Academic life these days is apparently insanely stressful. A January Inquirer article chronicled the growing number of GenZ’ers who are bringing emotional support animals — cats, hamsters, dogs — along to college to help them cope. Mind you, these critters aren’t specially trained or qualified; the students simply can’t face the day without them. An entire industry has sprung up to “certify” such pets so colleges will allow them on campuses. A Temple sophomore talked about having her cat, Skittles, in her dorm room: “If I’m stressed about doing homework, or if I had a bad day and am crying on my bed, he will come up and lay [sic] on me and start purring.” Just like that, all’s right with the world! In the 2017-’18 school year, six Temple students sought accommodations for their emotional support animals. This past year, it was 20. All well and good, but what if Mom or Dad back home depends on that emotional support animal, too? Will families need to work out critter custody arrangements based on which generation’s mental well-being is more at stake?
The list of things for kids that have been co-opted by their elders is long and growing: cartoons, coloring books, dress-up (now known as cosplay), footed pajamas, superhero movies, sleepaway camp. … A few years back, an enterprising pair of women in Brooklyn started an “adult preschool” so people in their 20s and 30s could pay as much as $999 for five evenings of show-and-tell, crayons, Play-Doh, naps and circle time.
My young colleagues will no doubt accuse me of exaggerating their retrogression. Judging by my research, this would be impossible to do. A woman in Mercer County, New Jersey, recently found herself irritated by a man in a neighboring apartment who repeatedly played loud music late at night, when she was trying to sleep. Instead of pounding on his door and telling him to turn it the fuck down, Candice Marie Benbow baked him a cake and delivered it to him with one of the most astoundingly passive-aggressive letters I have ever seen, which she proudly photographed and posted on Twitter. When her tweeted letter (“I hope you will enjoy this pound cake. At 3:30 [a.m.] when I decided to bake it for you, I realized I was taking your feelings into much more consideration than you were taking mine.”) went viral, she was widely applauded for this “feel-good” story by Twitter users “who said they are inspired by her and that they learned a lot on how to deal with strangers through this situation,” according to a report on Patch. Well, sure, if you don’t need sleep.
Speaking of which, it’s amazing how many of the babyish practices being readapted by young people are related to shut-eye, which has evidently become their generation’s holy grail. I don’t want to throw a wet weighted blanket on their quest for zzz’s. I was as moved as anyone else by Anne Helen Petersen’s epic BuzzFeed News story on “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation,” in which she unpacked how such highly challenging tasks as mailing packages, vacuuming the car and scheduling doctors’ appointments have sapped the life force from people her age. Well, not so much the errands themselves, she allowed, as the need to accomplish them on top of earning a living and — all together now — that student-debt millstone. “We’re called whiny for talking frankly about just how much we do work, or how exhausted we are by it,” she lamented. “But because overworking for less money isn’t always visible — because job hunting now means trawling LinkedIn, because ‘overtime’ now means replying to emails in bed — the extent of our labor is often ignored or degraded.” Really, who could fail to sympathize? Perhaps my paternal grandfather, who lost his factory job in the midst of the aforementioned Great Depression yet somehow managed to scrape together food and shelter and clothes for his wife and seven kids by selling windows door-to-door. Did I mention that my walk to school was uphill both ways?
Yet this is the world my new granddaughter will be born into, any day now. I wish I could look forward to her birth with unfettered excitement, but my anticipation is blunted by the prospect of parent-child tussles over blankies and bubbas and stuffed toys. (I don’t think my daughter or her husband uses a pacifier now, but really, how much does any mother know?) They could turn to name tags, I suppose, to keep their belongings straight, like when Marcy went to Girl Scout camp. Only she’d have to take adulting classes to learn to sew them on.
Becoming a mom or dad demands a degree of self-sacrifice I’m simply not sure young folks have in them today. This is no fault of their own; Anne Helen Petersen is certain of that. The blame lies with social media, the capitalist system, misguided boomer parental practices — and did I mention student debt? The future offers no solace, only a world wiped void of life by my generation’s cavalier dismissal of climate change.
This would all be far more daunting if I didn’t know that by then, as Trump once said about the debt crisis, I won’t be here. Actually, judging by an article last December in the Atlantic, nobody else will, either. My poor granddaughter will be an outlier, forlornly roaming the empty playground at Three Bears Park. Since “Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex?” really is tl:dr, I’ll summarize for you: After all the bother my generation took to sexually liberate the world, the millennials have thrown this freedom over in favor of abstinence. The Atlantic piece details (OMG, the length!) five main reasons for this generational Sexit: masturbation; hookup culture and helicopter parents (ah, of course); Tinder; painfully bad sex; and bodily inhibitions. My, the world will be bleak without any babies. But at least they won’t have to fight Mummy and Daddy for the stuffed giraffe.
Published as “Childish Things” in the April 2019 issue of Philadelphia magazine.