Spend every moment with your child? Make your own baby food and use cloth diapers? Erica Jong wonders how motherhood became such a prison for modern women.
Unless you’ve been living on another planet, you know that we have endured an orgy of motherphilia for at least the last two decades. Movie stars proudly display their baby bumps, and the shiny magazines at the checkout counter never tire of describing the joys of celebrity parenthood. Bearing and rearing children has come to be seen as life’s greatest good. Never mind that there are now enough abandoned children on the planet to make breeding unnecessary. Professional narcissists like Angelina Jolie and Madonna want their own little replicas in addition to the African and Asian children that they collect to advertise their open-mindedness. Nannies are seldom photographed in these carefully arranged family scenes. We are to assume that all this baby-minding is painless, easy and cheap.
Today’s bible of child-rearing is “The Baby Book” by William and Martha Sears, which trumpets “attachment parenting.” You wear your baby, sleep with her and attune yourself totally to her needs. How you do this and also earn the money to keep her is rarely discussed. You are just assumed to be rich enough. At one point, the Searses suggest that you borrow money so that you can bend your life to the baby’s needs. If there are other caregivers, they are invisible. Mother and father are presumed to be able to do this alone—without the village it takes to raise any child. Add to this the dictates of “green” parenting—homemade baby food, cloth diapers, a cocoon of clockless, unscheduled time—and you have our new ideal. Anything less is bad for baby. Parents be damned.
We also assume that “mother” and “father” are exclusive terms, though in other cultures, these terms are applied to a variety of aunts, uncles and other adults. Kinship is not exclusively biological, after all, and you need a brood to raise a brood. Cooperative child-rearing is obviously convenient, but some anthropologists believe that it also serves another more important function: Multiple caregivers enhance the cognitive skills of babies and young children. Any family in which there are parents, grandparents, nannies and other concerned adults understands how readily children adapt to different caregivers. Surely this prepares them better for life than stressed-out biological parents alone. Some of these stressed-out parents have come to loathe Dr. Sears and his wife and consider them condescending colonialists in love with noble savagery.
We like to think mothering has always been the same, but it’s encompassed practices as diverse as baby farming, wet nursing and infanticide.
Someday “attachment parenting” may be seen as quaint, but today it’s assumed that we can perfect our babies by the way we nurture them. Few of us question the idea, and American mothers and fathers run themselves ragged trying to mold exceptional children. It’s a highly competitive race. No parent wants to be told it all may be for naught, especially, say, a woman lawyer who has quit her firm to raise a child. She is assumed to be pursuing a higher goal, and hard work is supposed to pay off, whether in the office or at home. We dare not question these assumptions.
No wonder that Elisabeth Badinter’s book “Le Conflit: La Femme and La Mère” (“The Conflict: Woman and Mother”) has become a best seller in France and will soon be published around the world. Ms. Badinter dares to question attachment parenting, arguing that such supposedly benign expectations victimize women far more than men have ever done. Attachment parenting, especially when combined with environmental correctness, has encouraged female victimization. Women feel not only that they must be ever-present for their children but also that they must breast-feed, make their own baby food and eschew disposable diapers. It’s a prison for mothers, and it represents as much of a backlash against women’s freedom as the right-to-life movement.
When a celebrity mother like the supermodel Gisele Bündchen declares that all women should be required to breast-feed, she is echoing green-parenting propaganda, perhaps unknowingly. Mothers are guilty enough without more rules about mothering. I liked breast-feeding. My daughter hated it. Mothers must be free to choose. But politicians may yet find ways to impose rules on motherhood. Mandatory breast-feeding isn’t imminent, but it’s not hard to imagine that the “food police” might become something more than a punch line about overreaching government. Mothers, after all, are easy scapegoats.
Madonna with daughter Mercy James in April.
Gisele Bündchen with baby Benjamin in September.
Angelina Jolie with Zahara and Maddox in 2007.
In truth, nothing is more malleable than motherhood. We like to imagine that mothering is immutable and decreed by natural law, but in fact it has encompassed such disparate practices as baby farming, wet-nursing and infanticide. The possessive, almost proprietary motherhood that we consider natural today would have been anathema to early kibbutzniks in Israel. In our day motherhood has been glamorized, and in certain circles, children have become the ultimate accessories. But we should not fool ourselves: Treating children like expensive accessories may be the ultimate bondage for women.
Is it even possible to satisfy the needs of both parents and children? In agrarian societies, perhaps wearing your baby was the norm, but today’s corporate culture scarcely makes room for breast-feeding on the job, let alone baby-wearing. So it seems we have devised a new torture for mothers—a set of expectations that makes them feel inadequate no matter how passionately they attend to their children.
I try to imagine what it would have been like for me to follow the suggestions of attachment parenting while I was a single mother and full-time bread-winner. I would have had to take my baby on lecture tours, in and out of airports, television stations and hotels. But that was impossible. Her schedule and mine could not have diverged more. So I hired nannies, left my daughter home and felt guilty for my own imperfect attachment. I can’t imagine having done it any other way. Even if every hotel and every airport had had a beautiful baby facility—which, of course, they didn’t—the schedules of children are not so malleable. Children are naturally afraid of unfamiliar baby sitters, so parents change their lives to accommodate them. In the absence of societal adjustment to the needs of children, parents have to revise their own schedules.
We are in a period of retrenchment against progressive social policies, and the women pursuing political life today owe more to Evita Peron than to Eleanor Roosevelt. “Mama grizzlies” like Sarah Palin never acknowledge that there are any difficulties in bearing and raising children. Nor do they acknowledge any helpers as they thrust their babies into the arms of siblings or daddies. The baby has become the ultimate political tool.
2,000 Years of Parenting Advice
- Proper measures must be taken to ensure that [children] shall be tactful and courteous in their address; for nothing is so deservedly disliked as tactless characters. —”The Education of Children,” Plutarch, A.D. 110
- I will also advise his feet to be wash’d every day in cold water, and to have his shoes so thin, that they might leak and let in water.… It is recommendable for its cleanliness; but that which I aim at in it, is health; and therefore I limit it not precisely to any time of the day. —”Some Thoughts Concerning Education,” John Locke, 1693
- But let mothers deign to nurse their children, morals will reform themselves, nature’s sentiments will be awakened in every heart, the state will be repeopled. —”Emile: or, On Education,” Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1762
- Even very little children are happy when they think they are useful. “I can do some good—can’t I, mother?” is one of the first questions asked….Let them go out with their little basket, to weed the garden, to pick peas for dinner, to feed the chickens, &c. —”The Mother’s Book,” Lydia Maria Child, 1831
- Babies under six months old should never be played with; and the less of it at any time the better for the infant. —”The Care and Feeding of Children,” L. Emmett Holt, 1894
- Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinary good job of a difficult task. —”Psychological Care of Infant and Child,” John B. Watson, 1928
- The more people have studied different methods of bringing up children the more they have come to the conclusion that what good mothers and fathers instinctively feel like doing for their babies is usually best after all. Furthermore, all parents do their best job when they have a natural, easy confidence in themselves. Better to make a few mistakes from being natural than to do everything letter-perfect out of a feeling of worry. —”The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care,” Benjamin Spock, 1946
Indeed, although attachment parenting comes with an exquisite progressive pedigree, it is a perfect tool for the political right. It certainly serves to keep mothers and fathers out of the political process. If you are busy raising children without societal help and trying to earn a living during a recession, you don’t have much time to question and change the world that you and your children inhabit. What exhausted, overworked parent has time to protest under such conditions?
The first wave of feminists, in the 19th century, dreamed of communal kitchens and nurseries. A hundred years later, the closest we have come to those amenities are fast-food franchises that make our children obese and impoverished immigrant nannies who help to raise our kids while their own kids are left at home with grandparents. Our foremothers might be appalled by how little we have transformed the world of motherhood.
None of these parenting patterns is encoded in our DNA. Mothering and fathering are different all over the world. Our cultural myth is that nurturance matters deeply. And it has led to “helicopter parenting,” the smothering surveillance of a child’s every experience and problem, often extending as far as college. It has also led to pervasive anxiety (among parents and children alike) and the deep disappointment that some parents suffer when their kids become less malleable during their teenage years.
Giving up your life for your child creates expectations that are likely to be thwarted as the child, inevitably, attempts to detach. Nor does such hyper-attentive parenting help children to become independent adults. Kids who never have to solve problems for themselves come to believe that they can’t solve problems themselves. Sometimes they fall apart in college.
Much of the demand for perfect children falls on mothers, and now we are hearing a new drumbeat: the idea that prenatal life determines post-natal life. In her much-discussed new book, “Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives,” Annie Murphy Paul describes the ever-expanding efforts of researchers to determine how maternal diet, weight, stress, exercise and other factors can influence fetal development. Ms. Paul is sensibly resistant to alarmism on these issues, but you cannot read her book without asking: And who is in charge of prenatal life? The mother! Does one glass of wine doom your child to fetal alcohol syndrome? No, but you could be forgiven for thinking so, judging by the hysterical reaction that often greets an expectant mother who dares to sip Chardonnay.
What is so troubling about these theories of parenting—both pre- and postnatal—is that they seem like attempts to exert control in a world that is increasingly out of control. We can’t get rid of the carcinogens in the environment, but we can make sure that our kids arrive at school each day with a reusable lunch bag full of produce from the farmers’ market. We can’t do anything about loose nukes falling into the hands of terrorists, but we can make sure that our progeny’s every waking hour is tightly scheduled with edifying activities.
Molly Jong-Fast, at about age 4, and her mother, Erica, in France around 1981.
Our obsession with parenting is an avoidance strategy. It allows us to substitute our own small world for the world as a whole. But the entire planet is a child’s home, and other adults are also mothers and fathers. We cannot separate our children from the ills that affect everyone, however hard we try. Aspiring to be perfect parents seems like a pathetic attempt to control what we can while ignoring problems that seem beyond our reach.
Some parenting gurus suggest that helicopter parenting became the rage as more mothers went to work outside the home. In other words, it was a kind of reaction formation, a way for mothers to compensate for their absence and guilt and also for the many dangerous and uncontrollable things in the modern family’s environment. This seems logical to me. As we give up on ideals of community, we focus more and more on our individual children, perhaps not realizing that the community and the child cannot be separated.
In the oscillations of feminism, theories of child-rearing have played a major part. As long as women remain the gender most responsible for children, we are the ones who have the most to lose by accepting the “noble savage” view of parenting, with its ideals of attachment and naturalness. We need to be released from guilt about our children, not further bound by it. We need someone to say: Do the best you can. There are no rules.
Erica Jong is a novelist, poet and essayist whose 20 books have been published around the world. “Fear of Flying” is her best-known novel, with 20 million copies in print.
Full article and photos: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704462704575590603553674296.html