Internet Roundup: Motherhood Part 2

Just in time for Mother’s Day, and a day after my first motherhood link parade and my review of The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, Time magazine’s latest issue has a cover story on attachment parenting. I haven’t had a chance to read the actual article since it’s behind an online paywall and I don’t subscribe. I’ve seen these articles about the article, though, and wanted to link to them and comment.

Much of the controversy is about this cover image:

The picture is chosen to surprise readers and sell magazines, of course. The question is provocative, and instantly puts readers on the defensive. Together, they seem to imply that the lady on the cover, and others like her, believe that they are better parents than you because they breastfeed for a very long time. Indignant parents pick up the magazine hoping to find justification for their own decision not to breastfeed, or to stop far short of three or four years.

Indeed, Mary Elizabeth Williams’s response, Why Time‘s Cover Shocks, is more concerned about the picture than the article itself. She points out that the choice of an attractive woman as the featured mother, and the choice to put her in a tank top and tight pants, add unnecessary sexual titillation and even the incest taboo to the already provocative concept.

Why Is This Attractive Woman Breast-Feeding This Giant Child? Good question, Hanna. Hanna Rosin says here that the biggest problem with attachment parenting isn’t that it dictates certain practices to women, but that it tells them that they should feel a certain way about it. It is indeed far more tyrranical to command someone to feel a particular emotion than to perform a particular action. If a woman doesn’t love breastfeeding as much as the books tell her she should, it’s easy to see how this ideology could make her feel crappy, and even trigger post-partum depression.

Attachment Parenting: Freakish or Feminist? Tracie Morrissey writes up a summary of the Times article for Jezebel. She describes the pros and cons of attachment parenting. Pro: babies get cuddled, and they don’t have to “cry it out” when they want comfort. Con: it “can also lead to inferences of guilt and anxiety for moms who fear that spending any time away from their child could fuck him or her up for life. (Is this about making a baby feel secure or making a mother feel insecure?)”

Morrissey doesn’t really seem to answer her headline question, so I will. I say attachment parenting is not freakish because “freakish” is a very judgemental word, and I don’t like that. Time uses its cover photo to make you think it’s freakish in order to sell magazines. That seems exploitative and judgemental to me, so I don’t like that either. So, no, not freakish.

Does that make it feminist, then? Morrissey phrases her headline like an either/or. To my mind, attachment parenting is feminist in only one sense: some women are making informed choices to practice this parenting technique, and feminism is all about women having choices. If they honestly enjoy and feel fulfilled by these practices, then more power to them. The problem only comes when the attachment parenting advocates start saying that this is the most healthy way, or the best way to raise a child. That idea is anti-feminist because it undermines many womens’ choices and judges them negatively. It’s also easy to do a class critique on this parenting philosophy: only privileged families are able to follow it very closely, and mothers who aren’t lucky enough to be able to afford to stay at home get the guilt-inducing message that they’re damaging their children. Good feminism doesn’t discriminate by class, and great feminism lifts up poor, underprivileged women rather than piling blame and disapproval on them.

As a currently childless woman, I don’t have any real dog in this fight. But since I want children someday, I’m watching the fight anxiously and grimly assessing what I’m in for, imagining the choices I’ll make. For what it’s worth, I do plan to try to breastfeed my baby, when I have one someday. I hope it helps us bond, and I especially hope it helps me save money and lose weight. But if it doesn’t work out for us for whatever reason, I won’t murder myself with guilt over it. I’ll think instead about all the advantages of bottle feeding, especially the potential for others to help with feedings and create their own bonds with the infant. And I don’t think I can imagine breastfeeding for more than a year anyway, maybe 18 months tops if I really like it, WHO and AAP recommendations be damned.

We may do co-sleeping lite. I think we’ll keep a bassinet in our bedroom for ease of feeding, and also to free up the spare bedroom for my office space and overnight guests. This room will eventually belong to a child, but I’d like to put off that remodel as long as possible. If the baby ever sleeps in our bed, it will be on accident, or from exhaustion. I prefer to keep my marital bed reserved for marital things, thank you very much. I personally find baby-wearing tacky-looking and probably want to avoid doing it in public, but if my baby is fussy and clingy and I want to get things done, then I might buy a sling to free both hands. This is a personal taste issue, not a judgement. I haven’t decided anything about natural childbirth, and it will probably depend more on the circumstances of my pregnancy than any ideology.

Wouldn’t it be great if everyone felt free to decide these things based on their individual circumstances, rather than a parenting book?


9 thoughts on “Internet Roundup: Motherhood Part 2

  1. The only thing I don’t like about these internet roundup posts is that great articles get published after mine goes up, so I end up adding comments to say, “Oh, this one is good too!”–cover-its-not-right-for-everybody
    The woman pictured in the Time cover was on TV this morning saying breastfeeding and attachment parenting are “not right for everybody,” “you need to do what’s best for your family,” and most importantly, “you’re not a bad parent, your child will still be ok.” It seems like she personally is less judgemental and militant than many other parents who share these practices and philosophies, so she does not deserve any condemnation. When it accepts alternatives as equally valid and healthy, there is nothing wrong with attachment parenting.
    This post directs attention away from the ridiculous Time cover and toward the problems in our social services and foster care system, where many children don’t have mothers at all.
    Scary Mommy, the only mom blog I’ve ever read much of at all, made fun of the Time cover and got flamed for it. She also calls for an end to the mommy wars.
    Lisa Belkin calls the Time article and picture “bait” for outrage and pointless debate that only serves to divide mothers. “I am not Mom enough to take the bait. To accept TIME’s deliberate provocation and either get mad at this woman for what I think I know about her from this photo, or to feel inferior, or superior, or defensive, or guilty — or anything at all, if it means I am comparing myself to other mothers.”

  2. Of course, it’s linked in the Jezebel article. But really, don’t take that author’s word on it. With closing arguments like “Seriously, can you imagine marrying a guy who was breast fed till he was six and slept in bed with his mom till he was nine and then having to deal with her domineering bullshit at Thanksgiving,” Morrissey kind of tears down her own house.

    • I agree somewhat. Jezebel’s writer was unnecessarily snarky, and judgy against attachment parents. The whole NYT debate where Bialek’s short article came from is worth reading, here’s a link to that: Bialek is right that there are some aspects of attachment parenting that fit feminist goals: women supporting each other and standing up for having a voice in their own medical care. That stuff sounds great to me. I agree that attachment mothers are rarely “subjugated” and freely choose this style and are usually fulfilled by it.

      I don’t 100% agree with Bialek because of this: “We believe that breast milk is biologically and nutritionally superior to anything formula manufacturers tell you is equal to it.” That word “superior,” along with “maximize” in the first paragraph, implies that non-breast-feeding mothers are inferior, and that’s judgemental. As soon as that judgement enters the picture, there are women who are being undermined and shamed, and that’s not feminist to me. She says attachment parents are “humble” and “eschew perfection,” but that’s not consistent with “superior.” If her rhetoric was completely free of words with value judgements I could believe that she’s “humble” and “imperfect. “I’m glad she says “it is just as much a feminist choice to be a parent as it is to not be one,” because I agree, but her phrasing makes it seem like by choosing to have a child she automatically chose to parent in this way. She doesn’t mention a third option, which is having a child and choosing not to follow attachment parenting practices, and she doesn’t say that that is equally valid.

      A lot of Bialek’s arguments are about what’s “natural,” and that’s a notion that was deconstructed pretty well by Badinter in her book, though I didn’t go into this fairly academic discussion in my review. First of all Badinter questions how we can even accurately know what is “natural.” Then she discusses how just because something is “natural’ doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good, and unnatural things are not automatically bad, but often good and useful. Arguments about returning to what’s “natural” often rely on essentialist notions of gender, like that women are “naturally” nurturing or posess some marvelous “maternal instinct.” Some feminists, like Bialek, find these essentialist ideas empowering, and other feminists find them oppressive. I lean toward the second of these feminisms, but see the appeal of the first.

      There seems to be a spectrum here. La Leche’s 10 commandments are one extreme, then Bialek, then Time’s pictured mother who’s not judgy, then the several mothers I’ve linked to and quoted who are against judgement of all kinds in the middle. Then you start to move toward the other side, which I haven’t explored, in which stay-at-home moms and attachment parents are dismissed and ridiculed as dependent on men, lazy, anti-feminist, etc. As in most things, extremes = bad, and middle = good.

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