The explosive coverage of mothering by The New York Times with “Motherhood vs. Feminism” and TIME with “Are You Mom Enough?” seemed to hit a nerve of cynicism faster than any other ‘mother wars’ media event I have witnessed. Finally, almost everyone got it. Yes, there was a morsel of interesting discussion here but generally, this was a beat-up, this was click-bait, this was damaging. The only people missing from all the weary exasperation being expressed about the exploitation of yet more faux female competition were certain feminists. More on that in a moment.
Here’s the best of what was written in reply by feminist mothers in big media -
To be fair, there were occasional flashes of common sense to be found. Author Erica Jong said, “Let’s first agree that there is no such thing as perfection in motherhood — or in any human activity.” And Maria Blois, author of “Babywearing: The Benefits and Beauty of This Ancient Tradition,” sensibly pooh-poohed the whole question, saying, “Attachment parenting does not do anything to us, it does not ‘destroy feminism,’ it is not ‘bad for working moms.’ It is simply an ideology we can use within the context of our own life and priorities.” And blogger Annie Urban wisely declared that “To achieve meaningful equality, we need to push for a society that values fathers” as well. It’s unfortunate their insights are mired in such a steaming pile of editorial tosh, and the flimsiest of pretexts. Most of us do the best we can with what we’ve got. And in 2012, there shouldn’t be any room for debate that being a mother and being a feminist are very much in harmony.
Missing from Badinter’s philosophical schema is any sort of intellectual middle path that, instead of pitting mothers against children, might lead to solutions that could benefit both. The importance of finding that middle path has been suggested for decades by social scientists whose research has consistently shown that when mothers are able to carry on satisfying lives, their children tend to do better as well. The evolutionary anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, for one, has argued strongly, in her important book “Mother Nature” (the chief argument of which is badly misrepresented in “The Conflict”), that a life combining both nurturing and providing for family is not only the most satisfying, but also the most traditionally natural for mothers. Hrdy’s research teaches that the split, or conflict, between a woman’s nurturing maternal role and her out-in-the-world, family-provider role is a false one that flies in the face of the mothering practices of our primate ancestors, and that has been greatly aggravated by the work patterns of the modern industrialized world.
This sort of argument leads to the suggestion that it’s as much, if not more, the culture of work as the culture of motherhood that must change for the promise of the women’s movement to bear full fruit. This idea, unsexy though it is, provides the only realistic starting point from which to think our way toward greater progress in America, where meaningful work-family policies are all but nonexistent.
There are kernels of wisdom here.
Badinter, for example, wants all women (and particularly those who are French) to resist ideals of mothering that view women as the primary, more “natural” caregiver, which can make it all the more difficult to balance motherhood with work and a full, adult life.
We applaud the way she asks us to examine these intensive ideals of motherhood and their reach. No woman should feel shame because she fails to breastfeed or give birth without an epidural. More fundamentally, we agree that care-giving shouldn’t be the province of women alone.
We disagree with Badinter, however, that the obstacles are merely in our heads. We think they’re in political structures, too. Despite Badinter dismissing as irrelevant the French policies that make health care and day care accessible and affordable, here in the U.S., we lack such support for parents, mothers in particular, who work and do the second shift at home.
The battle for pumHping stations and flextime seems a worthier cause than the trumped-up war between those who breastfeed and those who don’t.
So, if Salon and CNN and The New York Times can do this then why not a big feminist site like Feministe? How did Feministe watch this debate being cooked up in mainstrea media and not get how anti-women it all was? Why doesn’t Amanda Marcotte want to question men’s roles or the incredible inflexibility of American workplace practices more? (I mean, you want to talk about privilege, how about how poor mothers are left behind on paid maternity leave?) Why does Hanna Roison deliberately bait mothers now, instead of just questioning one-size-fits-all parenting?
Because I’ve got a couple of frustrations here. If you see people criticising women’s lives and how women perform their work (and raising children is work); if you see people reducing women to stereotypes that women, themselves, are saying don’t fit them; if you see women being told that the problem is all about them and how much they need to hate another woman to fix the problem, then as a feminist, you’re supposed to be a little fucking suspicious.
I get that some of you find attachment parenting freaky. For the record, it is mostly because you don’t mix with a wide enough variety of parents, because seriously, attachment parenting approaches are done all over the world and have been forever and really aren’t that controversial and almost every parent is doing a bit of it. I get that some of you find mothers judgey. I’ve been to playgroup, I understand the judgementalism out there and that it hurts, but attachment parents don’t have any kind of monopoly on that. (And as feminists we can do better than to perpetuate it). I get that some attachment parents are incredibly privileged and unaware of it. Many of us aren’t, a lot of attachment parents are pretty bloody marginalised actually, like the Sudanese refugee mother in one of my playgroups or the single mother by choice who is also a little person that I shared the stage with at a panel event recently or the transman breastfeeding his son that I wrote about recently. I get that some attachment parenting types aren’t all that feminist. It’s a battle out there for feminist mothers everywhere, you know.
But here is what I don’t get. I don’t understand how you keep hearing from us and you still keep shutting us down and reducing us to stereotypes of stupidity and oppression. I don’t get how there’s this one little bit of women’s lives where you want a free pass to poke fun and tell off. Because, yes, I’m a vegetarian, Montessori-schooling, baby-wearing, no control crying, hen-keeping, co-sleeping, extended breastfeeding mother (my son is three years old and except that I’m not as cute as the mother on that TIME cover it could have been us); but, my blog is also named after the myth that breastfeeding women shouldn’t drink alcohol! I work outside the home, in corporate land; I ride a motorcycle; I swear; I drink; I buy my kids hot chips from McDonalds; I used disposable nappies; I chose an epidural for my second birth; I can’t sew; I’m good at maths, I fight with my male partner about inequality in our relationship; and I’m a feminist.
What I am not is your stereotype for ridicule and contempt and neither are any of the other parents, attachment-leaning or otherwise, that I know. This discussion should be moving on to a higher level. Mothers are ready for a more sophisticated, more useful, more political discussion of motherhood than what gets offered to them in ‘The Mother Wars’. They’re ready to be asked questions about what they see as the problems with the institution. They should be finding that discussion on feminist websites.
(For a complete list of posts I have written on this topic before, see the list at the bottom of this post).