If you aren't immersed in the momblog culture, you may have missed this article by Erica Jong, published -- uh, quite surprisngly, actually -- in the Wall Street Journal. It's called Mother Madness, and she basically rails against extremist attachment parenting and all that comes with it. She cites the push toward all things "natural" and how there is a powerful movement afoot where "good" mothering* means breastfeeding, co-sleeping, anti-sleep-training, cloth diapering, making one's own baby food, and -- of course -- staying at home.
*The article focuses on the role of woman/mother and the notion of feminism, so there isn't really discussion about a man's role. As far as I'm concerned, it seems to me that even if the dad stays home, the same pressures apply.
Here's an excerpt:
"As long as women remain the gender most responsible for children, we are the ones who have the most to lose by accepting the "noble savage" view of parenting, with its ideals of attachment and naturalness. We need to be released from guilt about our children, not further bound by it. We need someone to say: Do the best you can. There are no rules."Well.
As you can imagine, especially because she uses inflammatory language --
"Attachment parenting, especially when combined with environmental correctness, has encouraged female victimization. Women feel not only that they must be ever-present for their children but also that they must breast-feed, make their own baby food and eschew disposable diapers. It's a prison for mothers, and it represents as much of a backlash against women's freedom as the right-to-life movement. "and rejects the Sears' book/method entirely --
"Some of these stressed-out parents have come to loathe Dr. Sears and his wife and consider them condescending colonialists in love with noble savagery."-- there are a lot of really really pissed-off women out there in the bloggy world, firing back.
Which I get. But I agree with Ms. Jong, I hear her LOUD AND CLEAR, and I am grateful to have her words to cling to. I can't seem to find many others out there willing to say the same things.
Now, I don't think there's anything wrong with the ideas behind attachment parenting. I like most of them. Breastfeeding is cool. I make food for my kid because it's neat, and I like knowing what's in it. I slept with my infant next to my bed for the first few months, mostly so I could hear her breathe.
But that's not the issue. That's not Ms. Jong's issue, either. I see it like this:
FIRST of all, ALL of us -- all parents I know, all parents I read -- we just want to do the right thing. We want to be the best parents we can be. We are all terrified of baby-rearing, because it's big and important and scary and like nothing else we've ever experienced. And it's complex and challenging.
So...you have a HUGE industry of parenting experts who profit from telling you what to do. Lots of people make money from taking advantage of the fear and insecurities of new parents. And even if you go beyond those and into the territory of non-profit, friendly, trying-to-be-helpful websites and experts -- few of them exist to help you feel better. Most (at least most I've seen) exist to tell you how to do things the "right" way.
Except none of them -- not doctors, not experts, not cultures, not any of them -- agree.
There is absolutely no universal method for raising children. There is not one tiny thing about child-rearing that anyone, anywhere can agree on. THERE IS NO SINGLE RIGHT ANSWER.
And THAT, I believe, is the scariest, least intuitive, hardest thing in the world to embrace. We don't want to hear that, we don't want to believe that. We want the answers. We want someone, somewhere saying, "You do it like this. You are good at that. You are doing it right!"
Some of the smartest, most competent, most amazing women I know have fallen to pieces because they don't trust themselves to make the "right" parenting decisions on their own. They turn to every book, blog, expert they can get their hands on in desperate search for the right answer, and then crumble, exhausted, because the information is conflicting and nothing they do seems to "work" and they are left feeling like parenting failures.
Especially if the solution they do find, eventually, is not particularly favored right now, like, for example: formula-feeding, sleep-training, or giving an infant a pacifier.
Remember that time when Eve was just a few weeks old and she got an eyelash in her eye? And I had to call the doctor's office because I was too afraid to just stick my finger in there and get it out? Because I looked online and found about 97 hundred different articles saying you should never put anything in your child's eye ever, not even for a second, because germs! Oils! Bad things! You can make your child blind for life!
Then when I eventually got so freaked out that I DID call the doctor, they were basically like, "Seriously?"
I think about that a lot and I get mad. How did I lose so much trust in my own instincts as a parent and human being? Where did this gripping fear come from? Where did my common sense go?
So we have a culture of new parents who are -- for whatever cultural reasons (and I believe there are many, but that's a different discussion) -- scared to death of raising kids and have no faith in their own innate abilities to know what's best. Instead, we do what we always do: we turn to the infinite amount of data available to us online and in libraries, as well as to our friends and pop icons, we sift through the information, and we make decisions.
But, right. Trying to soothe a colicky baby is not the same as Googling how to sync your Blackberry with your work calendar. For all of the obvious reasons, but also because there's many, many methodologies out there AND tons of data -- whether scientific or anecdotal -- to support them.
Imagine if you DID try to look up syncing your Blackberry and the the first result was to ALWAYS do x and NEVER do y, and the next result said exactly the opposite. And then the next 569 results all quoted the exact same method, which cited neither x nor y but which quoted a very important study, z. So you clicked and clicked to find the original z study, and then finally found it and downloaded (because you are a data nerd) and in reading it you discovered that the results were totally misrepresented by the AP article about it, and EVERYONE is using quotes from the article anyway.
That is what looking up anything about how to raise a kid is like.
So after you've sifted through misrepresented data and yelly blog posts and every other expert trying to convince you to buy THEIR book and you're feeling more frustrated and more confused than ever, you can't help but feel lost. So you piece together what you can, and come away with a general sense of "I guess I should do what most people seem to be doing."
Because there is some consensus. There is a general attitude out there, buried in both good and bad** data, and it's that attitude that Ms. Jong is responding to.
Somehow, some way, for some possibly insidious anti-feminist reason but probably more because of a general cultural pendulum swing, there is a broad understanding that "natural" is right, and all things "modern" or "manufactured" are not as good.
Also, and very, very importantly: Parents -- especially moms -- who put their own needs and preferences before their kids' are selfish and not as GOOD at being parents (or people) as those who put their kids' needs first all the time.
And I reject those notions. Not wholly, but rationally, thoughtfully, carefully, and lovingly.
I breastfed until I didn't.
I started supplementing with formula after a few months because I wanted to. Not because I was in physical pain, not because my child was fussy and not gaining weight, just because I wanted some of my life back. I hated having drippy, goopy boobs all day, every day. And while I loved being able to provide something so pure and natural to my kid, I hated feeling like a human 7-11. I didn't like feeling physically tethered to my baby at all times, day and night.
I know that breastfeeding is a great thing. But I refuse to believe that bottle- and formula-feeding is inherently bad or evil.
We DEFINITELY have a long way to go in terms of embracing public breastfeeding, adding pumping stations to all workplaces, and accepting breastfeeding as a natural, normal, perfectly great thing to see a woman doing, wherever she feels like it, whenever she needs to. I will join in those battles and fight those fights.
Because you know? I will always fight the battles where women are being forced to make one choice over another. When there's only one "right" option, it's not actually a choice. When we stop letting women choose -- if they want to breast or bottle feed, if they want to work or stay at home, if, well, you see where I'm going with this.
Fighting for choice is why I can switch to formula-feeding while still fighting for the rights of nursing mothers.
It's also why I can say that a big part of my choice to switch was for my comfort, my sanity, my lifestyle preferences. My taking care of my needs doesn't mean I love my child any less, or that I'm less concerned with her needs. Baby got fed, baby was healthy, baby was taken care of, mom was happy.
Another choice some may frown upon? I'd love to make my own baby food 100% of the time, but ha! I'd love to make my own food 100% of the time, too.
The reality is that I cook dinner from scratch about twice a week. THIS IS VERY IMPRESSIVE when you consider that before I was married, my fridge contained nothing but a box of wine, butter, and goat cheese. (Here is a post with photos of my fridge having literally 3 items in it. Scroll down for the explanation. It's funny because it's true. Also a miracle I got married.)
Not surprisingly, I have not yet mastered the art of cooking dinner for my family every night.
Instead, do you know what I do do? Work. Write. Other stuff. Stuff that contributes to my family -- and my -- overall well-being and peace of mind.
I think people who DO cook every night are amazing. I think they are also doing stuff that contributes to the overall well-being of their families and their peace of mind. I think it's fantastic that people prioritize cooking higher than I do.
But that's all it is. We have different priorities. Mine aren't in any way better, but they aren't in any way worse.
Other examples of ways in which I've failed the generally accepted "natural" movement and made less favorable choices:
We used and still use Pampers.
I buy plastic items for my child.
Eve uses a pacifier to fall asleep.
Eve sleeps in a crib in her own room, and has since she was five months old.
I swaddled. (I thought I was being all good and accepted-behavior-y about this, at least, but apparently there is a new swaddling backlash and it's now very controversial)(Try to keep up!)
Eve went from bottles to sippy cups.
We read books together all the time, but the TV is on for much of the day as well. She loves -- nay, WORSHIPS -- Yo Gabba Gabba.
I had the occasional glass of wine when I was pregnant, and when I was nursing.
Lastly, I am not a germaphobe. I obviously want my child to be clean and healthy, but I do not take pains to sanitize everything she might ever come in contact with, because I can't. I'll use wipes of all kinds to wipe down a grocery cart, only to have her grab something off the shelf and shove it in her mouth. When she was tiny and her pacifier would fall to the floor, I'd boil it in hot water for five minutes before returning it to her. Then I switched to just running it under hot water. Then just water. Then just wipes. Then just me, sucking off dirt and handing it back to her.
I can't control it. I can't control everything. And that is okay.
Another excerpt from the article:
"Aspiring to be perfect parents seems like a pathetic attempt to control what we can while ignoring problems that seem beyond our reach.
Said another way: You really, really, really cannot control all aspects of your child's life.
...What is so troubling about these theories of parenting...is that they seem like attempts to exert control in a world that is increasingly out of control. We can't get rid of the carcinogens in the environment, but we can make sure that our kids arrive at school each day with a reusable lunch bag full of produce from the farmers' market.
...Our obsession with parenting is an avoidance strategy. It allows us to substitute our own small world for the world as a whole. But the entire planet is a child's home, and other adults are also mothers and fathers. We cannot separate our children from the ills that affect everyone, however hard we try."
The more I realize and accept this, the happier I am.
In the end, the whole reason I wrote this post is to say that I don't understand and refuse to participate in the "how to be a perfect parent" game. I try not judge others' choices until or unless:
1. I see a hurt, miserable, neglected child (and please note: just because you spend all of your time/ energy/resources on your child doesn't guarantee that your child will be happy)
2. I am the victim of judgment myself; then I judge the judgers. Because why do you care how I choose to raise my child? Is it because you are so desperate for approval, so desperate to be right that you must dismiss all other approaches? If that's the case, um, how did THAT happen? Shouldn't THAT be the question we're examining?
Many of the folks who were angry with Ms. Jong's article said she's clearly just trying to defend herself because she feels guilty for how she raised her kid. I can't help but think, "Really, angry mob? You sure it's not the other way around?"
In any case, why would one woman's choices invalidate another's? That's the part I just don't get. Weren't we supposed to have come a long way from that?
[edited to add]
I think a large part of the reason I haven't posted much about my parenting trials and tribulations (such as they are) is because I feel like I'm so far outside the "norm" and have been SO AFRAID of being judged. But the more I thought about that in general -- and in particular, as it relates to this article -- the more I realized I have nothing to be ashamed of. My kid is great, and I think I'm doing a swell job as a mom. And if I have nothing to be ashamed about, then I have nothing to fear from writing about my experiences honestly.
**Example of "bad data": One of the "definitive" articles about the deleterious effects of alcohol while nursing is based on a study that was done in the 80s. It suggested that babies who were exposed to trace amounts of alcohol while being breastfed had poorer motor skill development than other kids by the time they were five years old. KellyMom cites this study, and therefore so do many, many, many blogs and other reputable websites.
However, if you actually read the report and its history -- which I did, because hi. wine. -- you find out that the results were not decidedly conclusive, especially since the subjects were all self-reporting. The original researches decided, therefore, to try to repeat the results TWICE and couldn't, either time. The researchers said their original study was invalid. But everyone cites the study anyway.
I am not arguing against breastfeeding, but I will state that MOST of the studies suggesting reasons why "breast is best" are at best correlative and at worst completely inconclusive.