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Sustainable Parenting
April 26, 2012 - 8:54pm

Have you heard? The Mommy Wars are back on. Apparently, modern women are enslaved now by parenting. Sigh. I’ve already dealt with my shortcoming both a progressive parent and a committed, professional feminist. But this round of the debate over what women choose to do as parents and professionals seems to ignore some important considerations. And, don’t worry, I’ll tie this back to higher education.

Class: OK, this is the one thing that the posts I have read allude to, obliquely, admitting that these debates concern a certain class of mothers: mothers who can afford to stay home, afford to go organic, afford to homeschool, etc. But one thing that isn’t talked about is how some of this “natural” parenting, toxin-free lifestyle represents a deep-seeded anxiety about class mobility, or even the ability for our kids to “compete” in the global economy and maintain a middle-class existence for their adult life. With new research coming out every day scaring mothers about the damage we may be doing to our children, thus stunting them emotionally, physically, and cognitively for life…We live in a knowledge economy, so we must ensure that our kids can compete.

On the flip side of this issue, it’s one thing for a French billionaire to call for returning to cabernet and cigarettes as soon as possible after giving birth (and sometimes even during pregnancy), but it’s another for the rest of us to risk our kids’ health (or do we need to go into the dangers of second-hand smoke, too) with those kinds of behaviors. Picture it if you will: the same scenario, but instead of the bourgeois vision of champagne and Galois, it’s a 40 and a Malboro. The kind of behavior she is encouraging women to embrace is the same kind of behavior that is also reviled about American culture by those in Europe (and within the United States, as well, to be fair).

There is some connection between her desire to send the kids off the boarding school and our current predilection of taking kids away from their unfit (lower-class) parents. But imagine if we out it in the language where sending the kids away was what we best for the parents instead of the children?

Work: Let’s talk about that idea of competition. George Carlin, I think, said it best, during his 1990 special, Doin’ It Again:

But what’s the alternative? What’s the alternative to pumping out a unit every nine months? Pointless careerism? Pointless careerism? Putting on a man-tailored suit with shoulder pads, imitating all the worst behavior of men? This is the best thing that women can do? To take a job at a criminal corporation that’s poisoning the environment and robbing customers out of their money? This is the worthiest thing they can think of?

How often are women opting out of the competitive rat race and choosing to show their kids to value something other than careerism – family, community, sustainability? Now I understand that much of the time, mothers end up competing against each other in their race to be the most sustainable mom, but I think that there is something, dare I say, noble and ultimately radically feminist about choosing a lifestyle that isn’t dictated by money, material wealth, and cut-throat competition.

(PS In case you’re interested, Elisabeth Baudinter, the author of the book that has set off the firestorm, has a huge financial stake in the success of the formula industry, so, competitive capitalism AND class issues, all rolled into one giant, unacknowledged hole in her argument that women are enslaved by children.)

Generation: This is where it gets personal for me. This isn’t scientific, but I know a lot of moms for whom the choice to stay home or practice a more involved relationship with their kids is a rejection of how they themselves were raised. How we were raised. Latchkey kids. Kids of divorce and remarriages. Kids of parents who invested a lot of time and/or money “finding themselves.”  Many of the mother’s who chose to go a more natural parenting route aren’t just rebelling against the current forces in society, but also the way we were raised ourselves. Is it any wonder that many of the kids of Baby Boomers would reject how their parents raised them?

Families today also have a great deal more elasticity because of non-traditional arrangements. I think that today’s parents who felt like they were sold a false bill of goods growing up (marriage is happily-ever-after and Mommy and Daddy will be together forever – until they aren’t) are more sensitive to these realities of family and marriage. The kind of parenting and feminism that Baudinter is advocating seems to sound a lot like the kind of parenting (without the upper-class affluence) many from my generation experienced. And because of the lack of wealth and affluence, this kind of attitude is doubly-disappointing – there was never enough material stuff or fulfilling work to go around, and the blame often got put on the children themselves.

I’m really scratching the surface of these issues, clearly, and they are intensely personal for me as a parent and as a teacher who works and has worked primarily with working and lower-class students. In a strange way, this debate dovetails in with the debate about stay-at-home mothers versus “welfare queens” – class makes all the difference. As an academic and a feminist, I wonder how much influence this kind of attitude has in shaping my workplace, both in terms of the people I work (or will work) with and the policies in place that allow for me to be a mother and a professor (ok, instructor).

And, finally, natural (or, more specifically, child-centered) parenting has been blamed (or at least partially blamed) for the rise of the entitlement generation, the precious little snowflakes that expect A’s for showing up and trying really hard. The, I pay your salary, now entertain me, generation of student. I’m pretty sure that’s not the case (although a trip through traditional European boarding school, if the stories are to be believed would probably curtail this particular trait in students); in a society that treats education as a commodity to be consumed rather than a good to be earned, it’s not surprising that our students expect more for less (isn’t that what efficiency is all about?). Parenting is just one element.

I don’t think that the way we compete as mothers (nor how we are treated in the workforce) is sustainable. Nor, however, do I think that neglecting our role and responsibility as mothers in the name of empowerment a particularly sustainable vision of women’s liberation.

I wish it were that easy.

 

 

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