The recent article by Erica Jong in the Wall Street Journal titled Mother Madness has produced responses in every corner of the blogosphere. While I hesitate to add my own voice to the cacophony, I thought some of her assertions were worth commenting on. While Jong is clearly a talented writer, I question whether she really feels as strongly as her words claim. They make for a dramatic article but extreme opinions.
Whether you agree or disagree with women being primarily responsible for raising children, I think Jong has missed the real point. She claims that what she defines as the “noble savage” view of parenting punishes women, putting them in the prison of motherhood to satisfy some societal ideal of parenting. I’m not sure what she arguing for or against. When women do stay home they are in prison but it they are rich and have nannies to raise their kids instead they are selfish narcissists? Perhaps it isn’t having children that Jong has a problem with, just making it look easy. I guess I’ve never aspired to have the life of Madonna and Angelina Jolie. How they parent and whether it looks easy or requires vast quantities of money has never been my concern and never will be. But I can tell you that if you ever walk into my house unannounced, you will see the nitty gritty realities of parenting and not the airbrushed magazine version. Most people are intelligent enough to realize that real parenting is hard work, no matter what method you choose. When parents make their children just another status symbol or high priced accessory, it isn’t the women who lose, it is all of us. That doesn’t represent parenting.
Motherhood for those who chose it, is not a prison, it frees us to pursue the life of our choosing. No one has to have children. Some people decide they don’t want to. I’d sooner see people decide they don’t want to be parents then for children to be just another symbol of the ideal American lifestyle.
Jong presents attachment parenting as a luxury available only to the rich. While Jong grossly misrepresents attachment parenting, the other philosophies of breastfeeding and cloth diapering that she mentions are hardly specific to the rich. My husband and I make less than $40,000 a year. I hardly consider it poverty, but certainly not the kind of wealth Jong seems to think is necessary. We breastfeed and cloth diaper because we believe in the ideal but also because it is less expensive. Most of the natural parenting philosophies are less expensive so I don’t see the wealth Jong claims attachment parenting requires to be a prerequisite. I am a stay-at-home mother, but by choice, not because I am uneducated or inferior. It is cheaper for me to stay home than to keep working. But if I really didn’t want to be at home with my daughter, I wouldn’t be.
Not all of us are rich enough to have a nanny but we may still employ a village. My parents and sister live nearby. I don’t hire babysitters; my daughter always stays with family. This doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for us. I stay home with my daughter, because I want to, not because I must. I know other moms who chose to return to the workforce and put their children in daycare. That works for them, but not for me. Jong rants for two paragraphs about the necessity of raising a child as a member of a community but minimizes the role of mother and father. Mother and father will always be important to a child. Even if there is only one parent, children know their parents. When my daughter was a baby she was constantly being passed from relative to relative and I used to worry that she wouldn’t know who her parents were. But she always has. It probably helped that Mommy was the one with the milk, but even without that, children still know their parents.
Giving up your life for your child creates expectations that are likely to be thwarted as the child, inevitably, attempts to detach. Nor does such hyper-attentive parenting help children to become independent adults. Kids who never have to solve problems for themselves come to believe that they can’t solve problems themselves. Sometimes they fall apart in college.
I give up my life for my daughter now so that she will be able to be independent later. I don’t necessarily to subscribe to all of the tenants of attachment parenting, but I use those that do work for me. But I doubt that nurturing my newborn with lots of hugs and cuddles will teach her to a dependent adult. I would think that the reverse would be true and I’m sure if I searched hard enough I could find a study to support it. By making my child my priority while she is small, I’m teaching her that I’m here when she needs me. But I don’t need to stand over her. I may be home with her during the day but she still plays independently and she knows where help is when she needs it. John Rosemond once said “You should be the center of your child’s world, not the other way around.” I have other activities and interests besides my daughter, but my husband and I are the most important people in her life.
Indeed, although attachment parenting comes with an exquisite progressive pedigree, it is a perfect tool for the political right. It certainly serves to keep mothers and fathers out of the political process. If you are busy raising children without societal help and trying to earn a living during a recession, you don’t have much time to question and change the world that you and your children inhabit. What exhausted, overworked parent has time to protest under such conditions?
I can impact the world my daughter lives in and still be a good parent. Maybe I don’t have the time or the money to run for office or start a grassroots political movement, but I vote, I blog and I share important issues with the other mothers in my circle. I’m a member of a local MOPS group (Mothers of Preschoolers). Their slogan is Better Moms Make a Better World. I believe that by raising my daughter to be a responsible member of society and teaching her to contribute something to the world around her, I will make an impact on the world. This is true of all mothers regardless of whether they stay at home, work from home or work while their children are in day care. We all want to be the best parents we can be and raise our children to be the best they can be.
What is so troubling about these theories of parenting—both pre- and postnatal—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. We can’t do anything about loose nukes falling into the hands of terrorists, but we can make sure that our progeny’s every waking hour is tightly scheduled with edifying activities. 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. Aspiring to be perfect parents seems like a pathetic attempt to control what we can while ignoring problems that seem beyond our reach.
I think most parents want to be good parents and as with all things, we may aspire to a perfection that we will never attain. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying, as long as we can accept our limitations. Yet I don’t see how trying to raise my daughter with my chosen parenting methods and values equals ignoring the bigger issues of the world around me. As Jong pointed out, those issues are out of my control. I may vote in the presidential election, but I can’t control whether the president starts a nuclear war. I am aware of the fact that I have limited control in this area, but that doesn’t mean that I’m ignoring the big picture. Why obsess about things outside of my control in lieu of raising my child to the best of my ability? This is where my personal faith and values kick in. I have never believed that I am in control. I believe that ultimately God is in control. I take responsibility for the things that I have control of, but when I have done my best, I leave the rest in God’s hands.
When I share my own parenting choices, it has never been about producing guilt, but informing and educating. Women today have more options than ever. When a new mom tells me she wants to pursue a greener lifestyle or save money, I tell her about my cloth diaper experience, not to produce guilt, but to make her aware of options that will help promote her lifestyle of choice. When a mom who really wants to breastfeed is facing challenges I offer advice and assistance, not because I believe breastfeeding is the only way, but because I want to support her choice. The culture around us pulls us in all directions. Breast or Bottle, cloth diapers or disposables, home or day care, public, private or home school: the choices abound. Perhaps the only thing Jong said in her whole piece that I can agree with is that we are all indeed trying to do the best we can. There are no hard and fast rules, but to accept that we are responsible for another human life and put forth our best efforts accordingly. But unfortunately, Jong’s closing line is the antithesis of everything her article stands for. Yes, we should each be responsible to do our own research and make our own choices based on what is best for our own families, regardless of the newest trends or latest research. But I don’t consider 18 paragraphs attacking parenting practices to be a good example of this egalitarian parenting world she claims to aspire to.