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Here is a very interesting critique of Elisabeth Badinter’s arguments on motherhood from Anne Manne in The Monthly. (I’m not sure for how long they provide free access to the article so read it sooner than later). I find some of the analysis a little muddled, but in essence I think Manne and I are in agreement, we both have concerns over the scapegoating of babies in the tensions women experience between motherhood and the patriarchy.

Whenever a cultural flashpoint occurs – and Badinter has clearly struck a chord – it is worth travelling upstream to find the head of the river. If the history of parenthood is a history of ambivalence, then where do we sit in the continuum? Ambivalence towards children is mounting. Last year Jennifer Senior caused a stir with a story in New York magazine, ‘All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting’. It backed surveys showing that parents were less happy than their childless counterparts, a contention that Badinter also brandishes. Parents, Senior argued, might love their kids but they hated their lives. Life shrank to the size of a teacup. Everything turned to shit. Senior herself arrived home only to be pelted in the head with wooden blocks. She based her article on a Texan study which showed working mothers were happier doing almost anything other than childcare, even housework.

Recently I was interviewed by a feminist writer about my thoughts on where the resurgence in attachment parenting fits with feminism. I raised a number of challenges but I also higlighted what I see as harmonies between feminism and this style of parenting. There are two significant areas of overlap in my opinion. The first is that attachment parenting, at least in theory, is a style of parenting allowing women to perform parenting within their everyday lives. When babies are breastfed, co-sleeping and carried they’re potentially very portable. You can be caring for your baby while also getting shit done. In practice this isn’t always the case. The workplace, and public space in general, can be pretty child unfriendly and not every mother decides this is how she wants to live her life. But in theory it should be possible – women should be able to be full participants in life without being marginalised by their gender. And that’s feminism.

Secondly, attachment parenting is also supposed to be about attending to, listening to, and encouraging reciprocal communication with a child. It is about respecting the full humanity of a person regardless of their abilities, age and status. And that’s feminism, too.

I think Manne believes the same to be true.

What is going on here? We all know of the women’s movement as one of the most important and compelling social movements of the 1960s. Less recognised is that another movement, one championing the humane treatment of children, was born in the ’60s. Like feminism, it has fearless and profound thinkers, passionate advocates as well as the usual crackpots. Unlike women, however, children cannot speak for themselves. As a consequence, the discourse bringing greater sensitivity and a new ethic of care towards children has emerged hesitantly, uncertainly, through the last century. It has run parallel to but is often overshadowed by the struggles over gender. Like feminism, it has at its core something deep and humane. It depends upon the same kind of ‘putting one’s self in the shoes of another’, of overcoming a sense of difference to extend our empathy, imagination and capacity for identification.

At its best, feminism is about justice. It calls us to a certain kind of attentiveness. So, too, is the movement for better treatment of children. Here lies ‘the conflict’. At the very same moment when we are offering women long-overdue opportunities, we also expect them to enact the new ethic of care, but with minimal help. One consequence of this conflict has been the revival of deeply flawed arguments about what is ‘natural’.

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We do these lists from time to time. See also, here. They might bore you silly, feel free to ignore them, they’re just a time capsule for us.

Mine.

  1. That you make your own lunch for school every day and that sometimes you even make my lunch for work. (Montessori winning!).
  2. Lately you’ve been interested in disability. You like to feel what it might be like to be blind and you ask about the lives of people with various disabilities..  and for a while you gave your dolls physical disabilities and converted their strollers into wheel chairs. I loved how effortlessly you explored all that – I loved that it was matter of fact for you, that it wasn’t playing with pity, just difference and variation in the world.
  3. I love that you can sleep in your own bed the whole night.. quite a bit now. I love that this meant you had your first successful sleep-over on the Xmas holidays.
  4. You really rise to a challenge these days. If work is set for you then you pretty much give it your best shot even when it is really hard work, like once you mistook an entire term’s worth of homework for one week’s homework and you just methodically worked away at it, morning and evening, until finally at the end of the week you burst into tears while we were getting ready for work and confessed that you didn’t have it all finished and that’s when I realised what you’d been trying to do, you poor darling little thing.
  5. You brush your hair and wipe your face this year, after years of me complaining about it. I really appreciate the effort.
  6. I like your hair. A lot. I just think your ponytail is the bees knees. You’re beautiful, little one. Your face is changing and sometimes you remind me of my best friend in high school. You have her pointy chin and her eyebrows and her dimple and her sparkly eyes. You mostly look like your father, but maybe there is a bit of this friend of mine in you, too. I don’t know how that works.
  7. You’re very resilient, you’re very adaptable. I feel like we’re doing well with you right now, like we haven’t totally broken you through our incompetence.
  8. You’re incredibly responsible and compassionate about animals. You always remember to feed and water your guinea pigs, and you get quite hysterical if your father is being lazy about closing the front gate in case our hens get out or dogs get in.
  9. I’m having this lovely peaceful moment with you as a parent right now. A lot of parenting feels like you have some balls in the air but not all of them at the same time, but right now, you’ve got it all going on and I am just enjoying this feeling so much. You’re really well-rounded all of a sudden – really enjoying your academic work and taking the challenges of being accelerated a grade in your stride, you’re developing all these new physical skills from your circus class (and envy-inducing flexibility), and you’re reading novels by yourself now, and you’ve got this happy little circle of friends you hang out with… and then you come home and make beautiful art and craft things.
  10. You’ve got amazing comic timing and you’re very perceptive. Like the time we were both crying – you, because you were upset for me and me, because I was feeling hurt and stressed out by something (completely separate to our little family) – and then we were talking about stress and worry and you said “well, you would know” with just this deadpan, perfect timing of yours and we both just laughed and laughed.
  11. We’ve talked about sex and drugs and rock n roll, when you’ve asked or we’ve come across something you need to know about (like used syringes in the park ) – but you’re still the kind of kid who refuses to watch PG rated movies in case they upset/scare you. It is people feeling sad or lost that you’re scared of seeing and I like that about you. You have such a combination of social justice worldliness and sweet, little kid innocence. You point out sexism and racism to me all the time when you see it. But you wouldn’t want to see a cartoon fox get its tail shot off.

His.

  1. You are finally reading. And you prefer it to being read to.
  2. Seeing how much stronger and physically able you are becoming after starting circus class.
  3. It has taken nearly seven years but we finally have you a (nearly) regular bedtime.
  4. You sometimes now give us a little bit of credit, as your parents, for not being completely ignorant. There was a period there where you seemed to disbelieve anything we said.
  5. I love all the magical little craft things that you make and your ability to whip up these amazing gift cards overcomes my ability to remember to buy any.
  6. I love how witty you are and how we can make and share jokes together.
  7. I love how unaffected you still are by appearance and I am dreading that passing one day in you.
  8. I love that you are such a lovely big sister to your brother and that you are so patient with him.
  9. I am really enjoying how much you are my little mate while your little brother is still so close to your mother. I suspect I will lose this shortly when your brother grows out of his toddlerhood and your mother is more available to you.
  10. That you remind me to pay our two speeding fines and that even remember how much they are going to cost.

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There’s this thing we do, it is supposed to be four times a year but it generally isn’t, and it is really a little time capsule for the kids and us to read in years to come and it is likely horribly boring for everyone else… so, feel free to ignore these particular posts.

(See also, here for what we enjoyed most this time).

Mine.

  1. I feel so terribly sad for you about your night terrors. They happen more nights than not. They often have you quite frightened and distraught. Apparently there is next to nothing we can do to stop them happening to you so they pretty much have me a little frightened and distraught at times, too.
  2. How messy you make your bedroom. The guinea pig cage is actually the cleanest thing in your room. I think I have another fifteen years or so where I will need to just grin and bear this before you likely grow out of this one.
  3. Two times in the last six months you have been in situations where I thought oh my god you could have died and that isn’t something one recovers from easily as a parent.
  4. You talk at volume as soon as you wake up in the morning, regardless of what time it is and regardless of who else is still asleep. You do this even on the nights when you sleep with Cormac and I and Bill escapes to the solitude of the spare queen bed.
  5. You still have the loudest cry of anybody I know and you’re not afraid to use it.
  6. We’re very disorganised about your homework because of the whole ‘working back late and not picking you and getting home until it is your bedtime’ problem. You’re quite conscientious about your homework, in bursts. This homework thing is a lot of pressure, that and getting to school late because the morning multiple drop-offs routine is so tight are where I most feel the work and family thing is in conflict for you.
  7. When you and your little brother are tired and cranky and you just fight continuously in the back of the car while I am trying to drive. And I am tired and cranky, too. It feels like I am about to be shattered.
  8. I wish we had more time together, just the two of us. I still miss our old closeness. You’re still a little introvert and while you’re getting better at talking about problems with me you still won’t share worries and concerns easily.
  9. You were spending very little time on the computer for a while there but now you’re absorbed in some new computer game again and we’re letting you spend too much time on the computer on the weekends and I hate it when we suck like that as parents.
  10. There is always a long list in my head of things I should be doing more of with you – one of them at the moment is designing and constructing things with you, which apparently you need to do more of for school – and I wish I felt like I was ticking off more of these things.
  11. Late last year I had this big worry about you and how maybe you weren’t doing enough to take care of your personal appearance and how I wondered about how this looked, like people would think I didn’t care about you as a mother if you got about in the stained, torn, too-small-for-you clothes while your brother and I looked more or less presentable. I also worried about whether you were going to start getting teased or left out by other little girls you play with who I can see are just starting to really embrace girly culture. Then I decided that your lack of self-awareness was really a blessing and that I should just relax. And about the same time you decided to start letting me brush your hair and you even wiped food off your face before you went out for the day and you would sometimes spoil me by asking if a certain outfit went together before wearing it. Anyway, I worried a lot more than I needed to about all that.

His.

  1. You still are capable of making an enormous mess. You leave everything out because all of it is special and unfinished and can’t be parted with. I think you are a bit like me in that respect.
  2. Your craft is so messy.
  3. You can be quite needy. I can be ironing clothes and making breakfast for you and your brother and trying to get to work on time and you want me to stop everything to come and see something in your room and you’re unwilling to believe it isn’t possible for me to do that.
  4. I wish you would unpack your school bag or at least not threaten to vomit when you have to unpack your own lunchbox.
  5. I wish you could talk more quietly.
  6. I wish you would stop using Windows on your computer, which you only do to annoy me and it causes lots of networking problems.
  7. You try and get me to play these ‘six year old girl’ hand slapping games with you and I do not like these games. Go find another 6 year old girl to play those with, please.
  8. You always pretend to be hungry when it’s bedtime, it is your delaying tactic and you really work hard to believe it yourself.
  9. Sometimes when you are sent to find something, like your school uniform, you put zero effort into it and instead you lie on your bed and cry about not finding it when it will be right there next to you on the bed. You have brought disgrace to the term “having a girl look”.
  10. I wish you would widen your food choices. I find it difficult coming up with recipes that don’t use any cheese or tomato ever.  We’re already vegetarians, we’ve ruled out meat, we can’t rule out much more.

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(Image: Good lord, am I really posting pictures of my breast on the Internet again? And oh how he has grown since this photo was taken, which by the way was me breastfeeding on the beach. How sandy. I first posted this piece almost two years ago but a lot of these same issues are still being thrashed out in the media today.)

In responding to French author, Elisabeth Badinter’s new book, which argues that believing women must breastfeed is reducing women to the status of an animal species, I was tempted to write nothing more than You know, we actually are animals, right? But then I thought, that would be typical of you blue milk, you lazy sloth-like animal.

(I find the insinuation (which is not altogether uncommon) that the act of lactation is somehow degrading a curious thought. You mothers, you lactating mammals, how humiliating for you. Why exactly?)

She talks of an “underground ideological war”, of the “strong resurgence of naturalism”, of “guilting mothers”.

Badinter is right about the tyranny of motherhood. Beware of any new parenting trend that relies heavily on an already-over-stretched you for its achievement and which imposes almost no additional burden on anyone else (including the other parent). And be especially cautious of it if it also comes with a side-helping of guilt. Here is how Badinter sees it:

What is a “good mother” today?
She’s one who goes back to the fundamentals. She breast-feeds for six months; she doesn’t put her baby in a day-care center because a baby needs to be with her mother and not in a nest of germs; she doesn’t trust anything artificial and worries about the environment. For her, jarred baby food is a sign of selfishness: we’re back to Mommy’s mashed purée. A good mother is always there to listen, must watch over the child’s physical and psychological well-being; it’s a full-time job. I forgot to add, since she breast-feeds on demand, she’s supposed to let the baby sleep in the conjugal bed, which quashes intimacy for the parents and freezes out the father.

But equally, beware of the expert who tries to have you imagine that your baby is a tyrant.

Small as they are, babies hold their mothers prisoners: a mother is at the beck and call of her child, she has to accommodate herself to the child’s schedule, who sometimes gets to be prince/ss in the conjugal bed.

This is not only unhelpful but frankly, while we’re talking as feminists, it’s patriarchy-enabling. Babies are helpless little beings designed to fall in love and elicit love and just to, generally, survive. Really, however infuriating it gets caring for them, that is all a baby is trying to do – survive and love. (Sometimes it helps to look them in the face and acknowledge that to yourself). Whenever the tussle for fairness, for support, for scarce resources, for needs being met is waged between a mother and a baby somebody is being let off the hook, and I would argue that it is a whole society of somebodies. Take or leave ‘attachment parenting’ as you wish but raising human infants is not supposed to be done in isolation by a single caregiver, and yet overwhelming levels of individualism combined with conservative gender roles have positioned us in exactly that place. In our suburbs there is no-one else in the room when a mother reaches the end of her tether – there is no-one left to negotiate with – it is just an adult and a baby, crying in each other’s faces, desperate. No good or equitable negotiation is going to come out of that situation. It is this dynamic that makes “equality between the sexes and freedom for women impossible”, not a tyrannical infant nor a doormat of a mother.

But then you can’t entirely blame feminists like Badinter for being nervous about any ambitions to elevate motherhood either. They haven’t seen much good come out of the institution of motherhood for women – servitude, guilt, martyrdom, rampant biological determinism and invisibility. Still, given that most women end up being mothers, and given that a good deal of us even strongly desire motherhood, there is no point throwing that particular baby out with the bath water. We won’t elevate women anytime soon by denigrating motherhood. And for feminism, we are still trying to resolve that split: whether the path to true liberation is via refusing ‘caring work’ and fully incorporating ourselves into the market economy by emulating ‘male labour’, or whether liberation will only come when we instead put our energies towards agitating for full recognition of traditional ‘female work’ (ie. domestic and caring work) in the economy.

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Conversation 1.

Bill: I was unpacking some boxes and I brought this old photo of me up because look. Look how relaxed and smiling I am in a photo?

Me: Yeah, that’s the smile of someone who just got laid. I remember that day at the beach.

Bill: What?

Me: I remember that day.

(Two year old Cormac pushing in between us, desperate to be included and/or copy us).

Bill: You want to see the photo, do you Cormac? Does that look like the face of someone who just got laid?

Cormac: ………………………………

Bill: He doesn’t think so. You wouldn’t know Cormac, you’ve interrupted so much of it you’ve never actually seen the face of someone who got laid.

 

Conversation 2.

Six year old kid visiting us for a play-date: I’ll come home but only if I first get to run up and down their drive-way.

Kid’s Dad coming to collect him: ……?

Kid: Can I? I have to run up and down their drive-way. Really fast.

Kid’s Dad: We’re kind of in a hurry. Got to pick your mother up and get dinner going. Ah… ok.

Kid’s Dad (to me): It’s the completely random and arbitrary demands that get me. I barely know how to respond to the regular demands, but these other ones.

 

 

Conversation 3.

Circus-obsessed Lauca, aged six years: How many tricks do you know?

Punk uncle: Oh, I know a few, not all of them fit for a circus.

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I’m really liking Tracy Moore’s parenting posts on Jezebel. (But good god, don’t expect any kind of enlightenment in the comment threads). She’s what I would describe as ‘an accidental attachment parent’, which is pretty much how I came to be attachment parenting, too. It just happened, it felt right to me, it seemed to kinda work, and it really suited my laziness.

Here are Tracey Moore’s parenting posts:

How I learned to stop worrying and love pooping during childbirth

Five: At least knowing this helps you figure out who you really want in the ol’ delivery room, eh? Let’s take that list, cut in half, and then burn whatever’s left. Hey – some people have honest-to-God orgasms when they give birth. Is that what you want your mother-in-law to see? I think you’re beginning to see that pooping is clearly the more family-friendly option here.

Isn’t a baby supposed to cramp your style?

Perhaps, at least initially, early parenthood should be a period of confinement, I wondered. A mental and physical test of one’s ability to focus, channel and redirect. A meditative retreat into a new self, a quieting down of all the usual clatter.

Sure, we went out into the world with our baby. But rather than try to force her into our existing excursions, we tried new ones that might force us to consider the city – and our lives – from a new angle. Rather than become frustrated at staying in evenings, we relished the ability to live a low-key existence and go to sleep early, which strengthened our relationship and made working the first year entirely possible in spite of lots of waking up in the middle of the night.

Where, exactly, is it ok to take your kid?

Here’s something you did one time that didn’t help. When you were driving to take your baby to a broken glass factory wine-tasting party, you didn’t immediately floor it when the light changed green while sitting in traffic because you were looking at your baby in the rear-view mirror instead. Um, the lady in the Jetta was trying to get to her friend’s yoga class that already started and she only has this one free pass for this one time?

Also did you know how slow you are? Everywhere you go? Can’t you go faster? Even a little? Do you ALWAYS have to strap the baby in the car seat? Some of us are trying to get to a movie?

Advice to would-be parents: learn how to make the elephant sound now, before it’s too late

The ability to lie completely still for three hours, transcending all your biological needs.
This one’s not about externalizing, but internalizing. It’s great for people who are already interested in meditation. Lying next to a baby who is just almost asleep for two hours while you desperately need to pee/eat/ scratch an itch/cough brings up strange, existential questions, like, Is it possible to reabsorb all this pee and somehow be “beyond peeing?” Can you cough into yourself? Inquiring minds.

Who needs the family bed when you have the family toilet?

Recently I was sitting on the toilet peeing while my nearly 2-year old daughter was sitting in my lap playing with her stuffed koala bear, and I thought to myself, how did we get here? It could be worse, I suppose — we could be doing this as a performance art piece at a pop-up gallery in downtown L.A.

I guess I forgot to wean my baby

Not like you didn’t already have enough weird, judgy parenting shit to deal with, but yay, now it’s not just whether you nurse and whether you like it but how long you do it for — and don’t forget to feel bad about where, you human gargoyle.

Even ol’ Prudie McJudgy over at Dear Prudence, who fancies herself the most reasonable and permissive person on the planet (about porn for men), joined in on the haranguing when she had about two hemorrhages in November answering a letter about a woman who nursed her 5-year-old in, gasp, plain view of other humans.

My worst parenting mistakes (so far)

We fought in front of the baby and didn’t always show her the makeup part.

Just ask any of my (theoretical) ex-boyfriends, I’m a BIG fan of talking about conflict right out in the open. I also think it’s OK to let kids see their parents argue, and what’s more important is showing them you can have a disagreement but that everything can be resolved. But like shaving your legs, this is still far easier said than done. Before you know it you find yourself stomping around hairy-legged one time too many over the same old row, till you notice you’ve raised your voice defending the second scratch you put on the side of the new car because there’s a weird pole next to your parking space and YES, you can try not to hit it 99% of the time but what about the 1% and what the crap can you really do if you’re in a hurry, and there is your sweet little baby hanging on your every utterance like she’s studying for the bar exam.
2012 is the year of only discussing what the baby can verbally help us resolve.

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I am putting the toddler back to sleep. Can you please come in and fill up my water bottle? I’m so thirsty. I might die. It’s nearly my birthday after all.

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From co-sleeping positions at How To Be A Dad:

Every parent knows this letter. Fears it! It’s the H. Some may say it stands for “horrible” but don’t listen to them, they’re just whitewashing it. It stands for Hell. And it’s the kind of night you’re both going to have.

This was one of the first “baby in bed” sleep positions we noted down before we even launched HowToBeADad.com. When we were initially spit-balling ideas back and forth for the series, all Charlie had to say was “the H” and I was immediately laughing humorlessly with bitter familiarity. No explanation necessary.

Every word they say about it is true and yet we still love our co-sleeping…  I can’t explain it either.

(Thanks to dogpossum for the link).

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I have been thinking a lot about these questions again and I’m also not getting a lot of time for blogging at the moment, so I’m re-posting this one. I hope that isn’t too boring of me.

Parenting books promising to save our sleep (and tame our toddlers) and the yummy mummy movement have something in common. Both contemporary trends capitalise on women’s fear of motherhood. Or that’s what I think, anyway. As a second-time parent there is something now peculiar to me about how frightened we all are of the transforming effect of motherhood. Why are we so afraid of losing control, of being softened, of giving in, of being affected, of changing?

And yet listening to first-time parents sometimes all you will hear is their burning determination to not be altered by motherhood; to make their babies fit into their lives (lest they be duped into doing it the other way around). This baby will sleep peacefully through dinner parties and know how to behave appropriately in restaurants. This baby will listen to our music, and in fact will prefer our music to nursery rhymes. This baby will not disrupt our lives. This baby will not control us. Another theme among first-time parents, and surely related to the first, is the disturbing unreasonableness of our babies. We are overcome by babies that feed for too long or too often; babies who sleep too little or too lightly; babies who want to be carried too much; babies who are too fussy; babies who cry too much; babies who don’t like car trips, strollers, automated swing seats; babies who won’t be left alone. Babies out of control. Babies who seem to be demanding that a stand be taken against their tyranny. These babies drive us mad. They drive us to responses and decisions we need to justify. It was us or them. Someone or something had to break.

And I am the first to admit that I said many of these same things; I obsessed over them in fact (and I have the blog to prove it). I truly despaired of my first baby such was her unreasonableness – this is not fair I cried (and it wasn’t). But I wonder now, why did I ever expect babies to be reasonable. What made me think a species of mammal born so highly dependent would be at all reasonable in its demands?

And when I railed against the unreasonableness what was I really trying to express? What are all those parents, like me, trying to say? What are the parenting books and the yummy mummy mythology tapping into? What will happen if we lose control? If we succumb to our lives as mothers? What will it say about us? Why do we not want to be changed by our babies? What are we frightened may happen to us? Who will we become? Where do we assume it will end?

 

 

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This week I flew out overnight to speak at a conference. I was invited to talk about work-life balance, but more as the writer of this blog than on the basis of my off-line work. It is the second time this year that I have had a conference spot from blogging. Felt good. (Flattering). Also felt a little uncertain. I was in unchartered waters. I have spoken at plenty of conferences before, I have even spoken about work-life balance at conferences before, and I have spoken as a feminist speaker before, too, but I haven’t done all three at once.

It went well though, and the audience was truly lovely. Apparently talking to people in person about feminist motherhood is as much fun as talking about it with them via the Internet.

Also, first night away from my youngest child (!), who still sleeps in bed with us. I was vaguely sad right up until the moment where I was actually in a hotel room alone and then I just felt thrilled. I spent a lot of the conference catching up with an old friend from university. We swotted together (‘last minute’ style) in the hour or so before our speaking engagements and then got drunk together that night. It was us turned back into our nineteen year old selves.

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