Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Feminism and Attachment Parenting: It Can Work

Twenty years ago, or maybe it's closer to fifteen, in any case, once upon what feels like a lifetime ago, an ex-boyfriend and I had an argument about whether a woman should stay home after having children. He argued that women should stay home, because it was better for the children; a mother could give children an emotional security that no one else could. I argued that it was sexist to say a woman “should” do anything, and that women should not be the ones to give up their career or work outside the home just because they happen to be the ones having children. A father or other trusted care giver could just as easily provide the love, care and emotional security children required.

In hindsight, the fight was stupid, simply because it was theoretical. We were still in college. We were too young to even be talking about the prospect of having children. Even when we were out of college, the topic of living together never came up. I never expected a proposal. Now I know enough to know it doesn't make sense to talk about scenarios that aren't real or on the soon-to-be-horizon. As they say, it's like worrying about problems that you don't even have yet.

But at the time, I was young and oversensitive, I took his views as a personal attack, as if he was saying, what I wanted for myself individually was less important than my potential child needs, as if he was suggesting that women (me) not just take off a few years or the first year of each child's life off from their careers, but give them up permanently, and to fail to do this, made them a bad mother. Whether he was actually saying this or not, I made the point that women who have something – like a career – that nurtures them, make better and far more nurturing mothers, in addition to demonstrating to their children of both genders that they can pursue and fulfill the careers of their dreams.

At the time, I thought anyone saying that women SHOULD stay home was sexist, and that anyone who suggested that a baby's needs were more important than a mother's was especially sexist, because such a view devalued women, their potential, their skills, and their lives. I thought for a mother to be a good respectable mother, she had to put herself first. That if she took care of herself, and enjoyed her life, it would only benefit her children, whereas an exhausted woman who gave everything, never got anything for herself, would only end up resenting her children and feeling like she was constantly being taken advantaged of. For the record, I do think some degree of this is true. And yes, I realize, in all fairness to my ex-boyfriend, he wasn't saying women are a dishrag who should be completely used up by their children.

At least I hope not. (Actually, what I hear from his mother, whom I am still friends with, is that he is a very loving, committed, hands on, and patient parent.)

I think I was all of nineteen when we had this fight. I don't know for sure, and I'm unwilling to go through old journals (because there are a lot – this ranting habit of mine is hardly new) to find the exact date. But it was the early 90s. I had read Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth and Carol Gilligan's Ina Different Voice. My copy of Susan Faludi's Backlash was dogeared, with a spine that was so cracked, I had to tape it back together. I subscribed to Ms. Magazine. Gloria Steinem and Hillary Rodham Clinton had told me I could have it all and that I was entitled to it. Poor ex-boyfriend, given all the reading I had been doing, it was just an argument waiting for an opportunity to assert itself.

When I became a mother a good decade and half later, I thought of this fight often. I found myself wondering what my 19 year old feminist self would say about my mothering self. When I was 19, I had wanted to teach college English. I wanted tenure. I wanted to write books that won the Pulitzer. By the time I got pregnant, I had taught college English, but I no longer wanted tenure. In fact, I walked off campus the last time before my husband's job took us to LA, and realized with a startlingly clarity that I never wanted to teach again. While I had written books, they hadn't won the Pulitzer because they hadn't been published (yet...). My husband and I moved to LA, and I sat my pregnant-bellied self in my new found spot at Ground Zero of My Life.

And when I gave birth to my son (Yes, naturally. My fear of needles is bigger than my fear of pain.) I, like many parents before me, melted. While I had some anxiety about mothering, simply because my own mother didn't seem to enjoy it much, it disappeared the second he was born. I was startled to discover a few weeks, and then a few months later, that I had never felt happier. Given that my son literally nursed every twenty minutes, it's entirely likely, I was just high on oxytocin, with fresh new hormones releasing every single time he latched. Nevertheless, he was an easy and happy baby, as long as he nursed. Which means, I was one of “those” women that Elisabeth Badinter writes about in The Conflict and that the latest issue of Time magazine points to, with its cover asking, "Are You Mom Enough?"

In my new motherhood, I was surprised how often I found myself questioning what my younger feminist self would say about my mothering self, and wondering if she felt like she had failed as a feminist, and if I could still even call myself one. I talked to myself a lot about this point. I even joked at mom's group and with other mothers that honestly, I have failed at everything and most of my ideal career choices in my life, breastfeeding is just the weird thing that came easily to me. It's just my bad luck that I can no longer make a living as a wet nurse. (And if I had known that this would be the one thing I was good at, maybe I should have pursued it earlier?). In the end though, I would end the conversation with myself by concluding that what I had been arguing for all along was that women have choices, and that those choices be equally valued and respected.

Consequently, what has come to be these ridiculous debates or battles or in more polite words, conversations, about Attachment Parenting and if it devalues women, has continued to hit nerve after nerve of mine. Badinter is hardly the first. Ayelet Waldmen makes a few jabs in Bad Mother. Judith Warner in Perfect Madness; Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety argues against the pressure to breastfeed for at least a year and the “boundary breakdown” of attachment parenting, and Lisa Bloom in Think takes a two paragraph time out from arguing against the dumbing down of American women to argue against co-sleeping, because she thinks sleeping next to one's child causes one to lose sleep.

No, actually. When you co-sleep, you roll over, nurse and go back to sleep (if you've woken up). When your baby is in a crib down the hall, you wake up, walk down the hall, sit in a rocking chair and nurse, then after your baby is back asleep, you walk back down the hall, go back to sleep, only to repeat the entire process two hours later. Because your sleep is so physically disrupted, you can't help but be exhausted.

See? Nerve. I try to rise above these weird assumptions about attachment parenting, and I keep taking the bait.

And all these books make valid points and are worth reading (while the Badinter reads quickly, you could probably still save the time and find a nice summary. It's not like it hasn't been written about ad nauseam.) Still, I can't help it. I want to shout at these women, “You know what devalues a woman and mother? FATIGUE!”

I understand - having thought similar thoughts as a 19 year old feminist – the concerns of these women and the people who feel compelled to turn attachment parenting into some weird thing it's not. It's easy to fear falling so head first into mothering that you risk losing yourself. It's happened to many an innocent woman before. 

But I have to question the women who continue to point to certain choices women are making as mothers and asserting that those choices are causing them to be devalued as individuals. I have to question the notion of not keeping our children at arm's length makes us less feminist or equal. Because I don't actually think the issue is attachment parenting or any other form of parenting. Most parents of my current parenting generation are fairly clear that like many parents before us, there will be things we do as parents that work, and that there are things we do that don't work as well. All of us are making the best choices we can with what we have, and the choices we're making line up with our values, who we know ourselves to be, and who we know our children to be. We're all interested in doing what works for us, our children and our nightly sleep. There are more parenting resources than ever before in history. It's not like we're not doing our homework.

Rather, I think the issue is that motherhood isn't valued the way we'd like to think it is. It's easy to resent anyone who recommends breastfeeding at least a year because employers aren't set up to support mothers who breastfeed a year with paid maternal leave. Of course working women who resort to bottles and formula feel pressured to breastfeed: their doctors are recommending they do something they can't easily do. With work days getting longer, not shorter, it isn't exactly fun to stick your breasts into a machine inspired by efficiently milking commercial dairy cows while you think of your baby that you haven't seen in 10 hours. And not that breastfeeding mothers are off the pressure hook either, with breastfeeding rates at 30% after three months and 13%, I can't say I agree with Badinter that the “Tyranny of Breastfeeding” has accomplished its goal. Rather, a woman breastfeeding her child the recommended length, more often than not, is asked when she'll quit, why she hasn't quit, isn't it weird, and if not, when will it be? The tyranny of breastfeeding has hardly normalized what pediatricians around the world recommend for all children.

I do appreciate the conversations women are starting, because it's clear dissatisfaction is afoot. But instead of taking our dissatisfaction out on each other and various parenting choices, which are nobody else's business anyway, why not instead work towards something that will make parenting better for everyone? Because let's be honest, the current work culture doesn't make it easy for parents of either gender to be good parents, whether it's an utter lack of paid sick days and family and medical leave or a work environment that demands employees work at least 12 hours at a time, and look down on them if they don't.

I am tired of women being women's harshest critics. It's hardly new. Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women was published in 1792. Her sharpest critics were women. The reasoning behind it is rather simple. As my midwife told me in my first pregnancy, I would never have to even utter a word about my parenting (or life) choices, because the sheer fact that I was doing it differently than someone else would have that someone else feel judged or threatened or like I thought they or their way wasn't good enough, when in reality, it has nothing to do with them at all. Surely, in addition to all the rights we've earned since 1792, we've also gained enough security in our selves and our choices that we can not take each other's approaches so personally?

Badinter and Time magazine seem to think not. I disagree. 


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