You Can't Be a Feminist and Have Kids (Or: Everything You Do Is Wrong)
This week, The New York Times is running a series on the benefits and pitfalls of attachment parenting in its Room for Debate section, inspired by Elisabeth Badinter's "The Conflict." For the most part, the essays are thoughtful and measured, and some of them (Erica Jong's and Annie Urban's in particular, I think) discuss important factors in child-rearing.
But the title of the series is "Motherhood vs. Feminism," with the subtitle, "Has women's obsession with being the perfect mother destroyed feminism?" And one of the essays argues seriously that feminism needs to go because women now feel pressure to work outside the home rather than putting our families first.
Every week, it seems, a book or article comes out telling mothers how we're doing it wrong. And because we do want to get it "right," since so much is at stake, many of us buy and read these critiques, which are often ill-thought-out and contradictory.
As a therapist, I have worked with numerous survivors of truly horrific parenting. I have listened to stories of burnings, beatings, starvation and mutilation, and I can bear witness that even many of these children grow up to be high functioning, deeply moral adults. So I know that crib vs cosleeping, bottle vs breast, cloth vs disposable are fairly trivial disputes in the scheme of things.
For that matter, having grown up with a mother who openly disliked me, who told me regularly that I was unattractive and boring, and who slapped me when she felt like it, I feel strongly that the children of parents who care enough to engage in these debates are already way ahead in the game.
Yet even knowing all this, I was addicted to parenting books and articles when Ben was small, and always afraid I was screwing up somehow. When I stayed home for his first few years, I felt guilty for wasting my education and not contributing financially when our budget was stretched to the limit. I did feel I was somehow letting down the cause of feminism. We practiced "attachment parenting" because that was what worked best for us, but I worried when a gymboree teacher told me that demand feeding and cosleeping were going to turn Ben into a neurotic wimp. Then, when I went back to work, I felt guilty for abandoning him.
He is now seventeen, and except for the socks-on-the-floor bit, I could not ask for a better kid. He is strong, independent, generous, and happy with his life.
Of the two mothers I am closest to, one—my college roommate—was the SAHM of four children whom she nursed and home schooled. The other is an executive at a nonprofit who bottle-fed her daughter and returned to work at the end of her three-month maternity leave. All five kids are smart, decent, interesting and generally lovely people. And so are most of the other children Ben grew up with.
The kids are fine. The moms, however, have paid a high price in self-doubt, anxiety, and general emotional wear and tear thanks in part to these communications that suggest that there is only one way to be a good mother, a good feminist or a good woman, and we are therefore inadequate. If the media would pay as much attention to the need for paid parental leave, affordable childcare and accessible health care and nutrition as it does to these pseudo "mommy wars," maybe we could actually realize change, instead of blame.
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