Wednesday, April 18, 2012

My White Flag in the Mommy Wars

I've been reading some reviews of Elizabeth Badinter's "The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women" and at the same time feeling so much in agreement with many of her points, yet feeling that we would never be able to have coffee together. I would agree with her that women can have it all, but as someone I read years ago put it, "just not all at once".

Like this French philosopher and feminist, I am an educated woman and also a mother. I think mothers should be able to choose what kind of family life they want to have for themselves and their children. We are both alarmed by the burden of guilt that mothers are carrying today. However, our viewpoints diverge when it comes to parenting philosophy. She feels that the cause of feminist equality as a societial value is more important than the decisions of an individual mother, that when one mother makes the decision to stay home, she's making a choice that when combined with all the other mothers who make the same decision leads to an aggregate weakening of the strides made by previous generations of feminists. She believes that all women need to be in the work force. She sees natural labor, breastfeeding, cloth diapering, and making homemade baby food as forms of modern maternal slavery. Bottles, convenience products, vaccinations, and childcare are the means of feminist freedom in her mind, and many young women are abandoning them in favor of a cult of all things "natural".

What Badinter seems to not see is that fidelity to the cause of feminism also robs women of the right to parent the way that some of us wish to. I have been home full or part-time for the last 8 years. I like to work. I like the feeling of earning money and contributing to our family's financial health, but working isn't the only way to do that. With small children in my home and a husband in school, I felt that my efforts would be better spent in trying to make the most of my husband's stipend rather than getting a teaching job and watching my paycheck go to daycare expenses and feeling less control over the quality of our family life. Now that my husband has a job that allows me to stay home full time, I continue to manage our resources carefully so that I can stretch our budget to fit our growing family's needs. My plan is to finish up a master's degree by Spring 2014 and get back into teaching when my children are all in school in Fall 2016, and for now I am reasonably content to be at home. I don't always like my choice, but I ackowledge that it's mine and live with it.

The problem is that women are becoming so polarized on the issues of motherhood. Instead of providing support to all women to parent the way that works best for their families, many women are quick to engage in the "Mommy Wars", with women like Badinter on one end of the spectrum and the hippie Earth Mommas (for lack of a better term) at the other end. The moms in the middle of all this are left feeling guilt and pressure and alienation from all sides. I find myself there too!

Traditional feminism relies on a degree of "choice" that denies the nature of women and motherhood, I would argue. It requires that women be unencumbered by their families, and these requirements come from other women. It requires a control over one's personal life that just does not exist with small children, who are creators of chaos and do not operate on anyone's schedule but their own. Guilt among working moms is common, as is the pressure to get quality time with their children and to be successful in their careers.

On the other side of the Mommy Wars is this trend toward natural parenting. In its extremes, it reveres and glamorizes all that is natural (although let's face it, asbestos is natural) to such an extreme that either alienates mothers or draws them into its tractor beam of guilt. Pressure is common in this demographic as well, as is rampant fear. It reminds me of Charlie Brown's Christmas Special in which he is diagnosed by his friend Lucy with "panto-phobia, the fear of everything!". Women like me have enough free time to Google all kinds of scary things, and we either become paralyzed with alarm or become empowered to find solutions. I am careful to make sure that my interactions are about empowerment as mothers rather than a monolithic movement based on mutual guilting. I see some young moms determined to embrace all that is natural in order to follow this doctrine of Good Motherhood, and I want to say to them, "you're wearing yourself out for nothing! Enjoy your baby, and do the stuff that actually helps your family". Natural parenting at its best empowers parents to find non-corporate solutions to the common problems that young families face, and its environmental and social impact can be powerful when it is spread by positive example and not by pressure, guilt, and fear.

Feminism at its best empowers women to make the choices that work for themselves and their families as well. It involves women speaking out about their needs at work and making sure to support each other in getting those needs met.

I don't view my life as maternal slavery at all, even on the days when I've handled more poo than I'd care to elaborate on. It's my way of parenting with the least amount of guilt. I see my life as voluntary service of my family, training them to become independent and thoughtful people. And it will be voluntary service of my family that motivates me to go back to work some day. As I sit and breastfeed in my bathrobe while typing, I'm looking forward to it!

1 comment:

  1. Jamie, I just watched Iron Lady, about Margaret Thatcher, and it has me mulling so many of the same thoughts. Also, the reality that I walked out of full-time work as a young, 27 year old mother, and will, at the earliest, now walk back in at the age of 41, has me kind of pensive and reflective. Thanks for writing.