Here we go again. That sound you hear is millions of Americans gasping and clutching their pearls over the new Time Magazine cover story on attachment parenting. The blogosphere is already atwitter with comments of disgust, outrage, and shock over the photo of an attractive mother nursing her 5 (ish) year-old-son. Let’s be honest here, however you might feel about older children breastfeeding, the picture is clearly meant to shock – it is intended to stir the pot. In fact the cover, incredibly enough, manages to alienate all mothers – either you are put on display as a freak that over-parents, or you are shamed for not parenting well enough. The headline says it all: “Are you Mom Enough?” It might as well say, “You Will Never be Good Enough – Regardless of your Parenting Choices – We Will Always Judge You. Happy Mother’s Day!” (OK, maybe that title is a bit too long.)
We here at Nursing Clio can tell you that the so-called “Mommy Wars” are nothing new. Historically, mothers have always been put under the social microscope, from the time of conception all the way to the empty-nest syndrome. Too distant and too cold of a mother? Well, you just gave your child autism! Too loving and smothering? Your son will grow up to be a homosexual. The debate over attachment parenting is no different. You failed to nurse your child until Kindergarten? Her immune system will be irrevocably damaged! You co-sleep with your child? He will most certainly grow up to have some sort of sexual dysfunction. The list goes on and on and mommy bashing always seems to be tied to the newest scientific fad of the moment.
The evolving world of scientific motherhood is indeed key here in this debate. I am reminded of a wonderful book, Stir it Up: Home Economics in American Culture, by Megan J. Elias, in which she traces the home economics movement from its academic roots of the Progressive Era, to its influence in broader national policies and infiltration into mainstream consumerism. She also delves into how some colleges with home economic programs provided “practice house infants” for their students. These programs used real-live babies that students could use to perfect the latest scientific principles on mothering. These college co-eds, however, were not learning these skills for there own children because, as Elias points out, large portions of home economics majors were childless. Instead, the women were learning these skills in order to go back and teach other women how to be good mothers – whether it was in urban classrooms or mobile vans that traveled to rural areas. Stir it Up shows us that America has a long history of trying to “perfect” motherhood and domestic work.
By the 1960s and 1970s, Elias argues, feminists began to reject the home economics movement as anti-feminist because it reinforced the connection between gender and domesticity. During the same time period, however, a new generation of home economists emerged – the “back-to-nature” moms who discovered the values of breastfeeding, homemade baby food, natural childbirth, baby slings, and co-sleeping – the roots of attachment parenting. So while some mothers in the 1970s experimented with how to balance work and family life, other women explored alternative ways to rear their children that sometimes required them to stay out of the workforce. Recognizing the benefits of both approaches, many women today try to integrate aspects of both worlds and end up feeling mom guilt, feminist guilt, or a combination of the two.
This is what irks me about the Time Magazine cover. Instead of having an in-depth, intellectual discussion about parenting choices in the twenty-first century, the editors chose to immediately situate the story with an adversarial headline – pitting mother against mother. Time is not merely pandering to the controversy created by the “Mommy Wars,” they are also exploiting our worst fears as women and as mothers. Are you Mom Enough? Are You Feminist Enough? Does attachment parenting interfere with women’s liberation? Can you be a feminist and a stay-at-home mom? Why do we find ourselves still fighting over these issues? Why do a photograph and a headline cause so much controversy? And what can our history tell us about this never-ending debate over motherhood?