Monday, November 08, 2010

Fear of Parenting...

So, I'm a little bit bent out of shape over something I read recently. This article, by Erica Jong, has me more than a smidge pissed off. I'll start by saying that Erica Jong has a right to whatever opinion of parenting she sees fit, obviously. And I imagine she *thinks* that her essay for the Wall Street Journal, like her novels that have been so influential for the past few generations of women, is empowering and feminist. And perhaps it is to some women. But to my mind, and my sensibilities as a parent, it is condescending and insulting.

First of all, am I the only one who thinks Jong makes it sound as though motherhood is something just now "coming into fashion"? "Bearing and rearing children has come to be seen as life's greatest good." I'm sorry, Ms. Jong, to my understanding, women have been bearing and rearing children for the greater good of our species since...well, the beginning of our species. I get that she's referring to the surge in interest over celebrities-turned-mother and reality TV moms; I also clearly see she holds a solid disdain for a woman like Angelina Jolie who has had the narcissist audacity to exercise her prerogative to have biological children after having also adopted.

But I think Ms Jong is missing out on an important reality of our current culture. ALL elements of daily life are blown-up and out of proportion for our viewing pleasure. Want to see the process of finding a life partner boiled down to a series of drama-laden dates and flowers? Watch the Bachelor. Want to see early-20-somethings in all their hedonistic STD-ridden glory? Switch on the Jersey Shore. Reality TV and tabloid magazines have highlighted and glorified all manner of our daily lives until they are amped up into the realm of sensationalized fantasy, barely matching what we regular old folks experience in our daily lives. Same goes for motherhood; most intelligent people raising kids today, men and women, don't expect to outfit their kid like the Cruise's do Suri, nor do they expect to have the small army of help that perhaps a Kate Gosselin has in raising her reality TV goldmine brood. Anyone who believes that raising a child is easy because Angelina Jolie is doing it has bigger problems than to deal with than whether or not they breastfeed or wear their babies in slings, another element of parenting that Jong later criticizes.

I'm not saying that this is the height of sophistication and intellectual society. Far from it, it's really not. Recently I've rediscovered NPR and Public television and my brain is grateful for the hiatus from the Real Housewives and the Kardashians. Truly. But if I want to buy a magazine to see the latest pictures of the Jolie-Pitt clan and read Angelina's words about motherhood, I hardly see how this makes me a desperate mother circling the drain of my existence or a pathetic victim because I stay at home with my child.

And this: Never mind that there are now enough abandoned children on the planet to make breeding unnecessary. I did not realize that population maintenance was human kind's main motivation behind procreation. Thanks for clearing that up for me, Ms. Jong. I instinctively get my heckles up when someone boils parenting down to the simple biological act of "breeding." It just rubs me all kinds of the wrong way. Although statistically, she surely has a point that there are millions of children out there in need of loving families, which just confuses me as to why she'd single out women like Angelina Jolie and Madonna to insult, who have surely elevated the world-wide awareness of the need for adoption. And then I remember, they are not only adoptive parents, but were also narcissistic enough to "breed" their own biological children as well. And I guess that's what makes Jong clutch her pearls in horror and disgust?

As for her contention that Dr Sears' books are the "bible of parenting," I have to say, as a parent of a 4.5 year old myself, whose social circle is comprised of almost entirely other parents of preschool-aged children, I know as many parents who never picked up any of Dr Sears' books as those who did. I know as many people who opted to follow the advice of Dr Sears' seeming polar opposite, Dr. Weissbluth as did Dr. Sears'. It seems like a convenient assertion for Jong to make, as it heightens her argument that we are all brainlessly baby-centered, Dr Sears automatons. But it's just not the case.

Jong's attack on "Attachment Parenting," something which she seems to have read an awful lot about, is kind of embarrassing. By cherry-picking bits and pieces of Sears' books, much of it out of context, she creates a parenting of philosophy which strips the parent of their sense of self and humanity, presenting a mother as a veritable machine who lets no one else touch, let alone tend to, her child; a woman sweating over dirty cloth diapers and toiling over baby-food mills, a baby attached to her breast 24/7. Calling attachment parenting "quaint" and saying it's goal is to "perfect" children shows me, as a person who has associated herself with attachment parenting to some degree since her child's birth, that Jong really doesn't have much information about it, aside from what she's formulated from a bunch of reading--and clearly much of that reading has been anti-AP.

I would like to personally assure Erica Jong, who seems so desperately concerned for my well-being as a woman, that I do not feel "victimized" by my choice to breed, to stay at home with my child, to have carted him around in a sling, to have co-slept with him in some form or another for the past 4.5 years, or to have breastfed him for a year and to not have a ton of help, aside from my husband and close friends and family. Nope. Not victimized at all.

Have I had bad days? Sure. Have I had days when I felt like I was going to lose my mind with the Backyardigans and the racing of hot wheels around the living room? Of course. But this is my job. I defy anyone with any job to tell me that they never have a bad day. That they've never left the office wishing they'd win the lottery and not have to go back. Of course, when moms have a bad day, we blame it on their decision to stay at home, we blame the parenting philosophy they've chosen, we say they've somehow done it to themselves and that they are flying in the face of feminism to chose to do something so backwards as to stay home with their children. When office co-workers go out for happy hour to blow off steam, we call it comradarie. When a mom has a glass of wine with another mom, we raise an eyebrow, "tsk-tsk" and wonder if they are drowning their regret at having bred in the first place, and using alcohol as a coping mechanism.

I do have to say that I agree with some of the points Jong is trying to make. I also think that some of the AP-zealoty types are eye-roll inducing and absurd. I made it clear here that I thought Giselle Bundchen's assertion that breastfeeding should be legally mandated, and all of the anti-choice implications that came with it, made her a Grade-A douchebag. So Jong and I agree on that.

However, I disagree with Jong that government should not play a bigger role in our jobs as parents. Just as there are government agencies to protect the safety and rights of a company's employees, there should be more laws protecting the rights of mothers--to breastfeed where and when their child is hungry, even if its in front of other people; and for those women who exercise their right to choose to go back to work, to be able to bring their breast pumps into their places of work and to have the time to pump food for their child. If Joe and Joanne have the right to go out for a cigarette break at a designated spot on the company property, Jane should be allowed to have a quiet designated spot to pump at regular intervals as well. That, in my opinion, is feminism. If Jane chooses to formula-feed her child because she's returning to work? Or just because it's what works best for her in her situation? Great. That, in my opinion, is feminism.

But I agree with Jong's assertion that there are a plethora of ways to parent a child and that parents should be free to choose the best way to raise their child. Amen to that, sister. So I guess that's what bothers me the most about Jong's attack on attachment parenting. I know few, if any, parents who ascribe to AP who will not let their child be cared for by another person they know and trust, just like any other parent. I know few people who ascribe to AP who expect all other parents to abide by the same philosophy or techniques, or bear the scrutiny of their judgment.

Sure, I admitted (I believe in the same post I linked in the above paragraph) that it used to be really easy to judge--as a new parent, your insecurities often translate into an ardent zeal towards your chosen philosophy that makes you look down on others who choose to do things differently. That fades. By the time my child was 2-ish, I'd long since given up my sleep-deprivation induced belief that there was one "right" way to raise a child. Now, 4.5 years into parenting, I know very few people who still feel any sense of "I did things the right way" as much as they feel a sense of "I did things the way I felt was best for my family." I cringe when I think of how I used to go 9-rounds on message boards with women who were making different choices from mine. The reality is that most moms mellow as they become more comfortable in their roles as mom; what others choose to do is far less important to them than what they are doing with their own families. Are there zealots on every side of every issue? Sure. But deriding an entire philosophy because of a few wingnuts hardly seems reasonable. Jong doesn't seem to come off any better in her article than those she's ridiculing.

And I can assure Ms Jong with 100% certainty and honesty that the last thing I am striving for in either my parenting, or in my child himself is "perfection." No where in any of the Sears' books I have read have I seen a contention that following AP will lead to "perfect" children or "perfect" parenting. That's just shoddy reasoning on Jong's part, in my opinion, and makes her entire article sound pouty and derived from her own sense of guilt. Guilt which I don't think she needs to have. I'm sorry if any one ever made her feel guilt over the parenting choices she made in the 70's and 80's, but hurling her anger at an entirely different group of parents, in an entirely different generation of parenting, hardly makes sense to me.

If Jong is trying to say that we, as women, should be free to choose to parent as we feel best, why then the attack on a method of child-rearing that a huge number of families find to be satisfying, rewarding and fulfilling? If she's saying that as feminists we should strive to be as true to ourselves as we can be, why would she be so adamantly against a woman making a choice about motherhood that is ultimately satisfying to her as an individual? I certainly don't blame Jong for having a bevy of nannies and for traveling for work while her child was young. People do that. And their kids grow up to be happy, adjusted members of society, just as I am hopeful mine will.

The most absurd part of Jong's argument, to me, is not even her attack on attachment parenting, as much as when she bitches because women are ultimately the ones responsible for prenatal care. As if it could be any other way? As if that's some sort of grand plot to keep women down? She doesn't go so far as to call a fetus a parasite, but she does bemoan the fact that we aren't "allowed" to down the Chardonnay during pregnancy like we can when we aren't. Nevermind the fact that her assertion about the no-alcohol hysteria is very last-decade. Most of us who have been pregnant in the past decade have been told by our OBs and encouraged by our older female relatives to go ahead and have a glass of wine after our 2nd trimesters. I know very few women freaking out about the possibility of fetal-alcohol syndrome these days. Jong seems to be flailing here, and reaching for a reason to be pissed off at motherhood, in my opinion.

I'm really exhausted by this inability to "win". If you stay at home, you are pitied as a woman losing herself among the countless games of Candy Land and loads of laundry, stuck in a "prison". If you work, you are seen as a detached parent not giving your best to your child (at least that's how Jong contends she felt). One 'side' says it's brand of feminism is the "best" kind and contends that women choosing the other path are somehow victims.

How about giving women the credit for being complicated and intelligent people that they are? I know women who have gone back to work almost immediately after giving birth; I know women who didn't reenter the work force until their children started high school. I know women who formula-fed from day one and I know women who breastfed their children into preschool and beyond. I know women whose children never spent one night in their beds; and I know women who joke that they will co-sleep until college. All of them/us have good days and bad days. We are all exhausted and drained at the end of most days. We all wonder sometimes, in moments of frustration, if we've made the right choice for ourselves and our families. But more than that, the vast majority of us derive tremendous joy from our families and the choices we've made.

I'm disappointed by Jong; I've always admired and respected her writing. I know other women who have read this article and felt that it was empowering, and that's great. But to me it just looks like another woman claiming to be a feminist while putting down an entire group of women for making a choice different from her. To me? That's not feminism.


Sarah said...

I really liked the article, but I don't think she's judging families who practice AP-- indeed, she seems to be a little defensive about not being an APer herself.

I think she's judging a culture that sets unrealistic expectations for mothers and then judges mothers harshly when they fail to live up to the impossible good mother ideal.

I am a breastfeeding babywearer who took my babies to the office when they were tiny, but Sears has always left a bad taste in my mouth, precisely for the reasons Jong articulates (and not anti-Sears stuff but his actual writings).

I also really like her point about green parenting and the incredible work it brings with it.

swonderful said...

I love this post because it feels like we are just talking and I am nodding along.

I couldn't even get through that whole article because Ms. Jong sounds so angry that her points all seem clouded and illogical. I can't help wondering what set her off? I mean, truly? It sounds like someone said something or someone she knows and dislikes is a certain way and this is really about something personal that has to do with her own life, you know?

sarah said...

Sarah, thanks for responding; I've talked to other people who interpreted the article the same way as you. I had too hard of a time getting past what I saw as Jong's condescending tone to see that in it. I don't consider Sears a guru either, but I thought foisting all the blame for stressed out parents on the concept of Attachment parenting was unnecessary, and bound to put a whole group of people on the defensive. It seemed like a snarky message board post to me more than a thoughtful look at how women should support each other in our choices as parent.

Hyacynth said...

Sarah, brilliant expression of your thoughts. I agree so much with you in nearly every aspect.
This is the job *I chose.* And just because I choose to do it in a way that allows me to follow my intuition does not mean I'm inprisioning myself.
Great writing, as always, my friend.

lonek8 said...

can we just get back to the whole "there are now enough abandoned children on the planet to make breeding unnecessary" thing? how did all those abandoned children get there? Are we actually supposed to stop breeding entirely and thus die out as a species, or should just this generation stop so that we can account for all the extras that are apparently running around everywhere? I'm confused how this suggestion is supposed to work.

Nice article and analysis, Sarah!

Becca said...

Her tone *is* kind of condescending and defensive and message board-ish, I agree. But I think her point is that society has put unreasonable expectations on motherhood and it is a disservice to everyone. I really agreed with your analysis as well. As you get more experienced you realize you just do the best you can with your particular kids and family and interests and don't worry so much about everyone else.

Anonymous said...

Really, you're just looking for something to get all worked up about. Like the first commenter said, she's commenting about how society sets women up to fail as mothers. You are the one reading way too much into it, and getting all uppity and defensive. Relax. She doesn't care if you co-slept, baby-wore, or breast-fed, or didn't, and she doesn't seem to think anybody else should, either.

Anonymous said...

(wait, i have more to say!) I just don't see where you are seeing all these "attacks" on AP. I see it as her saying, "Lookit, it's a tough gig to be a mother; a woman can't do it alone, especially to the impossibly idealistic standard of being 100% "attached" to the kid 24/7, especially when she has to, you know, bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan and such, bc, let's face it, kids are expensive and lots and lots of women need to work in order to provide for them, so give these mothers, and all mothers, a break, and let them know it's OK to get help, it's OK to do what you need to do for your kids, whether it's leaving them w/ a baby sitter while you go to work, or giving them some jarred babyfood, or putting them in pampers. It's all OK."

(ps- I'm esposa from the nest if you remember me,
I haven't posted in forever but I've always liked your blog.)

sarah said...

Esposa, I have to say I've always been a huge fan of Erica Jong, so "looking for something to get upset about" was the last thing on my mind when I saw an article about parenting written by her. I'm sorry that I seem uppity to you, but I definitely see an attack on AP in the article.

"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"

That is a pretty stark attack and strong accusation against attachment parenting. Saying that AP encourages victimization and makes a prison for women is clearly an attack on AP from where I'm sitting.

She also goes on to say that AP is the perfect tool for the political right, as it keeps mothers from being involved in the political process. This also kind of made my head explode, as many of the women I see involved in local politics ARE mothers and parents, teaching their kids as they go and encouraging the next generation to be involved as well. And some of the most intelligent and politically involved parents I know are the same parents who read Sears' books and practiced AP. I claim absolutely NO connection between the two, but I think when she makes the claim that AP keeps mothers from being politically aware and involved, she's just flinging baseless ideas around.

I think Jong throws some serious accusations and blame at AP in sort of a ridiculous way. I absolutely agree w/ her that parenting is difficult and parents feel like they have to compete to create the "perfect" environment for our children, but she tosses all the blame for this on Attachment Parenting, which seems to be a silly generalization based on a very little actual knowledge about AP.

Thanks for the response; I am glad to see that others got something different and more positive out of Jong's article.

The story of Tress: said...

Now this is the kind of discussion I was hoping to prompt when I put the article up on my wall! You know where I stand on this already - I believe the other Sarah who comented on here pretty well mirrors how I interpreted it as well as Anonymous (minus the uppity remark. But I *might* observe that your readiness to perceive an attack kinda sorta illustrates Jong's point that society has made all us mothers rather defensive. Just sayin'. Love you!)

sarah said...

sigh. Okay, I guess I"m the only one reading those direct quotes from the article in which Jong directly blames the concept of Attachment Parenting for all of this mommy angst. Okay. Message received. :-)

sarah said...

To add to the discussion, here's a link from today's NYT Motherlode in response to Jong's article.

Amy said...

But the way I am doing it IS totally the best way! Haha.

I just don't have the energy to get all hopped up about pieces like this anymore, likely because I feel like I am barely keeping my head above water raising my three kids and doing what I have to do to survive.

Seems like every few weeks, some editor decides it's a good idea to run a story like this and get some page views and circulation bumps and stir up a bunch of controversy. And of course, it's pitting women against each other.

Good post, I like to see people discussing it!

MamaBear said...

I got annoyed within the first couple of paragraphs and couldn't stand Jong's tone long enough to get through the rest of the article--this is the rebellion that happens in a former English major who is no longer required to read stuff she hates. ;) I love how people turn it around so that Madonna and Angelina Jolie are somehow selfish and superficial for adopting impoverished children--these are the same people who try to make anyone who attempts to be environmentally concious seem like a total douchebag, and that also seems to fit Jong pretty well. When did trying to be a good person suddenly become worthy of mocking, and acting like a total ass become the superior mode of behavior?

Barnmaven said...

I didn't read the article (I will now, though), but I have to say I LOVE this post.

It seems to me that many women get defensive about their parenting choices - but its also true that there are women who go on the offense against other parenting choices. I belong to a mama's forum, a small and fiesty bunch of women who fall somewhere in between the crunchy mamas and the other end of the spectrum. We're not crunchy enough for the one group and we practice too much AP and non-circ'ing for the other. The interesting thing is that it is the one place as a mom I've found where someone might ask some advice, everyone will offer their experience, and no one gets criticized. There are moms who use cloth, moms who use 'sposies, moms who will swat a butt and moms who won't, moms who breastfeed and moms who formula feed, and as smart and fiesty as we all are, no one ever says "if you don't do it the way I do it you're a bad parent." In fact, the standard response is "I wouldn't presume to tell anyone else how to raise their kids. We're all doing what works best for us, individually."

I wish that as a whole the community of mothers could be more this way. Its sad to see groups continually on the defensive or on the attack.

This is a well written, passionate and articulate post, Sarah. Loved reading it.

Been there, done that said...

Maybe this is the best commentary on Erika Jong's her daughter.
Click the following to access the sent link:

Grandma Bear said...

Grandpa Bear's comment: "Erika Jong is a loony, why would anyone pay attention to her?"