Nora, the Prison Guard

If you believe Erica Jong, this:is my 18 (21…25…?) year prison sentence.

In case you missed it, in The Wall Street Journal ‘s “Saturday Essay” last weekend, Jong wrote about the evils of attachment and green parenting:

You wear your baby, sleep with her and attune yourself totally to her needs. […] 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.

She doesn’t mince words, either, stating that

[a]ttachment 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.

She even mentions Elisabeth Badinter’s book Le Conflit: La Femme and La Mere, which says “such supposedly benign expectations victimize women far more than men have ever done.”

Wow.  When I read that Monday, I didn’t know what to think; in the days following there has been much discussion sweeping through the world of parenting blogs (WSJ’s The Juggle and Motherload,  for example), and I still find myself struggling with the fact that a woman who fought for women’s rights doesn’t like it that some women choose to stay home; that some women find fulfillment at home.  Isn’t women’s liberation all about the ability to choose work or family or both?

Apparently not.  Apparently, I have been brainwashed into thinking that cloth diapering, baby wearing, breast-feeding, and staying at home are the only way to parent, and Jong believes I am naively deluded into thinking this is fulfilling…or something.

But here’s the problem I have with that: my mother (whom I love very much) worked full-time, as did my husband’s mother (who is, in fact, a small business owner).  If anything, my parenting and lifestyle is quite opposite from those in which my husband and I were raised, and while I don’t doubt the existence of mothers who snub those with parenting philosophies conflicting with their own, I haven’t felt any pressure (and I do have many friends who attachment parent to a greater degree than I).

I knew I wanted to be a stay-at-home mother before I had kids.  Before I was married, even.  By the time I was a freshman in college, before I had heard about the benefits of breast-feeding, natural childbirth, or sustainable living and eating, I could have told you that was what I wanted to do with my life:

(Sorry, I couldn’t help myself…Halloween 2004)

I knew that, because I had watched my own mother struggle with working and raising children, and I knew I didn’t want to be in the same situation (nor did I want my kids to be in the same situation).  This feeling is common to many women of my generation (and those 10 or so years older) – I’ve written about this “opting-out revolution” before. Interestingly, this feeling is also mirrored in Jong’s own daughter, Molly Jong-Fast, now a stay-at-home mother, who wrote a follow up piece defending her mother’s “ambivalent” parenting…if you can call this a defense:

This is where I say what’s true: that my mother was as good a mother as she could possibly be. I am slightly in awe of how much my mother did. I could never have raised kids and made money. My mother did a lot of things right as a parent. With help from my father, she sent me to many private schools and a whole menagerie of therapists, bought me a pony and generally gave me a far more luxurious life than any of my forebears ever had. […] Famous people, who are often intensely driven workaholics, are typically not focused on their children. We saw each other, but my mother was filled with the fear of slipping into domestic life and sabotaging her own career.

I have a hard time believing that all of these women, children of working and traveling and professional mothers are opting for a more child-centered parenting relationship because they feel pressured to do so.  If anything, I believe we are choosing to focus on our children because we have experienced the incompatibility of a full-time, high-powered career and a healthy family life – especially with a brand new baby.

If the U.S. had more family-friendly maternity leave policies (like the rest of the developed world), attachment parenting wouldn’t be so incompatible with a career.  Jong is right on one front, our corporate-driven culture makes an attachment-like parenting style difficult; but an attachment-like parenting style can also make a corporate-driven lifestyle more bearable.    It was through breastfeeding and co-sleeping and taking Nora with me on business trips that I could feel okay with working when it was what I had to do (but didn’t want to do) for my family.  If I hadn’t had those things, I would have had a hard time convincing myself she thought I was any different from the babysitter.  As for cloth diapering and making my own baby food, these are things that mirror the way Chris and I live in all facets, not just parenting.  Simple living is something we value.  I don’t eat processed food, why would I feed it to my baby?  We try to have as little trash as possible, why would we create diaper trash when there is a perfectly reasonable reusable option?  And since I’m being honest, it’s also about the huge amount of savings financially – I’ve bought maybe 5 jars of baby food EVER, we bought (mostly used) cloth diapers for a one-time price, and we don’t even buy baby wipes.  Forget imprisonment; not having $25-35 extra on our weekly grocery bill is freeing.

The thing I find most strange about these “mothering guilt” articles is that they are usually written by someone from the majority who thinks she is being bullied/oppressed by the minority.  Yes, breast-feeders are a minority, especially once the baby is 6 months or a year old or two years old.  In its most recent report, the CDC cites home births as representing only 0.59% of all births in the U.S.; epidural use is as high as 80-90% in some hospitals, meaning natural birth occurs less than 20% of the time.   Cloth diaperers are just as rare, and more US mothers work than those who stay home.  Yet, somehow, this minority of women is creating oppresive standards for all women?

Jong isn’t the only one who thinks the average mother feels guilty for not following these trends, Kathryn Blundell made the same argument when she wrote an article about her decision to formula feed for Mother and Baby magazine.  But I don’t buy into the notion that a minority of mothers who choose these parenting paths are to blame for the guilty feelings of those who don’t choose them.  As a parent, you have to be confident that you are doing the right thing for your family and, as LLL says, that you know your baby better than anyone else.  If you aren’t confident in any decision, then you better think twice.  There will always be parents who parent differently from me; if I’m certain in my parenting choices then those differences won’t matter.  If I start to feel guilty about the choices I’ve made, it’s because some part of me knows I ought to feel guilty.  In parenting, as in life, you choose your own guilt.

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18 responses

  1. Avatar

    I can’t agree anymore. Years ago it was considered selfish for a mother to go into the world and have a career instead of staying home to raise their children. Unfortunately the pendulum has swung the other way since then, society has become ingnorant in actually thinking that it is better for a mother to just drop the kid off at the day care center or get a nanny to raise the kid. Society also has come to believe that if a mother is selfless enough to stay home with their child and raise them that the mother is lazy. I think that today’s beliefs about the stay at home mom are non-sense. This is why we have so many bad a** kids these days, because nobody is staying home to raise their kids. With the astronomical cost of the $600-$1000 a month daycare bill , I cannot even see the point that folks try to make by saying that mothers have to work now because a families have to have a 2nd income. Unless the mother has one heck of a college degree and salary, the only person making extra income from the mother working is the child care provider!!!!!!! I believe that if a mother wishes to do so, that she should at least be able to stay at home with the child until they are old enough to watch themselves and be a little more independent. Our kids need their parents to raise them and they always have, it just is what it is no matter how many idiots want to say other wise.

  2. Jessica Myers Avatar
    Jessica Myers

    I totally agree with you. I got flack from some for breast feeding (still am and she’s 20 months old), for wearing Ella in a sling, and for co-sleeping. It’s what works for OUR family. I have never given anyone a hard time for formula feeding, not one comment. Why do these women feel the need to say something about how I choose to feed or parent my child? Perhaps they do feel guilty about their choices, but I am not pressuring them to parent “my way.” I have never felt like I am in a prison. This has been the most wonderful experience of my life!

  3. Amber why don’t you send this to the Wall Street Journal. Your rebuttal is excellent and I am sure there are many who share your thoughts and feelings.

    1. do it amber!!

  4. Kate Antisavage Avatar
    Kate Antisavage

    Amber, I love reading your blog. This piece was particularly interesting and well written. I agree with the comment about sending it to the Wall Street Journal. Your daughter is absolutely beautiful! Congrats on all your successes 🙂 ~Kate

    1. Thanks, Kate! It’s always nice to know that I have readers!

  5. Very interesting, especially to someone who doesn’t have a child yet. I’m not sure what I’ll be doing when the time comes but you definitely have me thinking, Amber. 🙂 Very well written!

  6. I loved it, Amber! I really agree with you. I haven’t read the Jong article, but now I really want to just so I can build some ammo for my own counterattack! I find being a stay-at-home mom (the name of which could use some revision, since staying at home hardly describes the hard work we are doing!) liberating in ways I would not have expected. Go-at-home- mom is more apt!

  7. Alicia S. Avatar

    Wow, fabulous post, Amber. I really enjoy reading your blog. Granted Ahren and I don’t have children yet (and I have baby fever like CRAZY) my thoughts and viewpoints line up with a lot of yours in regards to parenting. Part of the reason w…e haven’t had kids yet (aside of him being scared out of his mind… :-/) is that it is not possible for me to stay at home at this point. At some time, I may decide that if I must work to have children, I will do it because having children is too important to me, but for now, I’ll deal with the baby fever and wait. I have several friends who work full time in addition to being mothers (one, a single mother) and that is NOT the life I want to have. Insane schedules, getting up at 5am every day, running yourself ragged and then only getting to spend a few hours with your child(ren) at night?!!? NO THANKS! Not to mention someone else raising your children. I’m not knocking them for choosing (or not having much of a choice for) that lifestyle, its just not on my list of things to do.

    Again great post. I’m positive Nora is going to turn out to be a great little person because of the time, effort and love you pour into her. More power to you…keep all the great posts coming!

  8. Guggie Daly Avatar
    Guggie Daly

    I also suspected that Erica’s rant was based more on her own insecurities and less on any true theory about the changing culture of parenting in our society.

    Anyone who does things such as nursing in our chauvinist culture, babywearing, making your own baby food, cloth diapering etc knows that these are things you have to RESEARCH and truly CHOOSE or else you won’t be doing them. Once you do your research and commit to it, they are fairly simple. But they are not easily accessible in our culture. In other words, the very fact that a woman is doing any of these things for her children shows that she is NOT pressured, she is NOT bullied, she is NOT oppressed.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Guggie, it’s a really good point. It did take me a long time (and a lot of research) to learn about many of these options.

    2. Exactly how I feel Guggie, we are the ones doing the research and making the INFORMED decisions not just “going with the flow” and daring to get back to nature. If anything we are the ones who get bullied for our CHOICES. Dr.’s telling moms to stop breastfeeding or not to breastfeed at all or you WILL have an epidural or you WILL have this c-section or I will have you put in jail. Moms get bullied and pressured all the time into unnecessary medical births, when’s the last time someone was PRESSURED to have a home birth? The whole insinuation by the author of that article is completely absurd when you really stop and think about it. Another one is the vaccination issue, it’s funny how those who call out those who do no vaccinate have not actually done ANY research on vaccines. Because certainly if they DID do the research they would probably come to the same conclusion as those of us who have researched it thoroughly and see the evidence right in our face and all around us that vaccines do more damage than good. Parents like Erica are insecure and are the ones trying to put the blame on US for their own GUILT, she should be ashamed at writing such drivel.

      I guess I should just unlatch my 16mth old daughter from my breast and let her sit on the floor and cry, give her an oreo cookie and let her play with some lead paint chips and after she’s done put her in her crib and walk away until she eventually falls asleep, because you know afterall I might make Erica feel bad for doing what’s best for MY CHILD!??? really? really!

      1. Emilee, I completely agree with you about the vaccine thing. I don’t think vaccines are evil and I don’t have a problem with people choosing to use them – there are certainly conditions and situations that warrant vaccine use. But, I do find it very curious that these parents have NO IDEA what is in them or how they’re made; that they would blindly inject the mystery substance into themselves or their children. It’s the same way with food. It seems to me we live in a culture which celebrates and normalizes a lack of education, rather than one that encourages informed decision making.

    3. Amen!!

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  10. Thalita Dol Avatar
    Thalita Dol

    I couldn’t agree more.
    Excelent post!

    a big hug to you from Brazil,

  11. awesome. perfect post. thank you. i’d stand up and clap, but i’m imprisoned by the sleeping baby on my lap.

    1. Haha! Thanks, Julie!

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