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?
Yes Jacqueline I too engaged in eye rolling when I saw this cover and headline. It seems that every few years someone latches on–no pun intended–to the shocking news that there are mothers out there who nurse toddlers, don’t follow feeding schedules, sleep with their children, and wouldn’t go near a jar of factory made baby food. While I agree with you that every mother no matter what her style is an easy target for guilt and manipulation I definitely think the attachment moms get “special treatment.” They are portrayed as a little weird and extreme. They are also sexualized. Above all, they must be selfish, which is the cardinal sin of motherhood. I am not being original here, but as a culture, we seem to have difficulty with women who enjoy nursing, enjoy extensive holding, cuddling, and sleeping with their babies, and even “enjoy” childbirth–or at least the confidence and empowerment it gives them. I guess my default thought would be that some people seem to find such intense motherhood threatening, although I don’t know why. Attachment mothers are a minority after all.
This brings me around to your historical context, which I greatly appreciated! I think alot of people forget that a huge part of the women’s movement in the 60s and 70s was women taking control of their health, bodies, and families away from the clutches of materialism, corporate America, the medical establishment, and the legions of professionals and experts out there. This was especially true regarding childbirth and nursing. Women also questioned many other aspects of women’s healthcare, including hormonal treatments and high numbers of hysterectomies. I don’t know if you agree but I think that modern feminism either has forgotten or ignores this aspect of what I consider to be part of the feminist movement. What do you think?
Yes, Yvonne, I completely agree that people who choose attachment parenting get the “special treatment” from mainstream society (whatever that means) – although I, myself, have been on the other side of the spectrum – living in a very alternative community and not feeling, well, as “alternative” as I was supposed to be. That’s just it, though, we need to stop judging parenting styles and respect the choices we as parents make with our children. And your spot on in recognizing that second-wave feminism of the 1970s failed to recognize the contributions of women who were rejecting consumerism by looking at alternative ways to live their lives including parenting choices. The reverberation of this failure of inclusion is still with us today.
Wow, could they think of anything more combative for mother’s day! Thanks for your post and perspective!