A Truce in the Mommy Wars

The rage on, and it seems that all parenting subjects have become grounds for entrenchment, judgment, and even coercion. Feeding, diapering and sleeping with your baby have become lifestyle assertions that transcend the personal and give way to the militant. While the media, government and special interest groups are key players in this cultural roadblock to much-needed change for parents and their families, I think it would do us well to look at our own role as foot soldiers in this dirty little war.

By no means do I mean to add more guilt or responsibility to parents: my goal, in fact, is the exact opposite. Yet if we really want to change the current divisive climate and reframe the debate, we need to understand our own participation in it. In the process of thinking about this, I have found myself returning to three ideas: the role of judgment, the need for respect, and a holistic view of parenting.

It is inevitable that we will judge not just ourselves but others as parents. We do so in all other areas of life, from bigger issues such as politics and religion to mundane details like the flowers your neighbor grows in his garden. We like or dislike the choices of others, compare them against our own, and make judgments as to the types of persons we think they are. These judgments inform small decisions (whether we talk to our bus companion or busy ourselves with a book) and larger ones (whether we befriend the neighbor with the wild garden).

Our cultural climate, however, has suffered the erosion of tolerance and compromise, and this is particularly apparent in the polarization defined by the red/blue states. This all or nothing thinking has permeated parenting, where the stakes may be even higher because they conflate with the religious and political agendas of all sides. Rather than simply disagreeing with someone else’s parenting style, and often triggered by a single issue or decision, we are quick to say ‘bad parent’. And not just in our mind, but loudly and publicly.

Take as an example that much-maligned mother Britney Spears. (I use her as a common shorthand.) I am amazed at the aggressive and insulting criticism of her parenting. Now, there are many things to be said about Spears. To play the judging game, the first that spring to mind are that she is immature, impulsive and sometimes lacks good judgment. These qualities have ensured her tabloid existence, and not surprisingly have marked her parenting choices. Yet does this make her a bad parent? Why can’t she just be an inexperienced, immature, impulsive parent that sometimes lacks good judgment? Why is there a need to vilify and ridicule her? Why is calling her bad making so many people feel good?

This is where we need to exercise respect. It is essential to remember that, in the end, all (or most) parents do what they think is best not only for their child but also for their family. Even parents who are impulsive or lack good judgment are doing their best, whether we like their results or not. There are no perfect parents, including ourselves, and the tolerance we practice today may be the one that saves us tomorrow.

By no means am I condoning things like child abuse or advocating tolerance for negligence: don't get me wrong. (Keep in mind, however, that what may be negligence in your book may not be so in mine, and vice-versa. A good example of this is co-sleeping.) Yet we do cross a line when, for example, we play the “pin-the-tail-on-the-bad-parent” game simply because a mother decided not to breastfeed her child. Even in areas where the choice may seem clear to me, I try to think about what other parents may be facing. The medical profession is not necessarily helpful or without controversy, and in the same way that I don't trust a drug manufacturer to have my best interests in mind, someone else may not trust a non-vaccine advocacy group to have their best interests in mind. I have to accept that difference. Others may research an issue and come to the opposite conclusion from mine, or perhaps they may choose not to research, period. I may not agree with them, but everyone has a right to parent in the best way that they see fit, and I will defend their right to do so because only by doing so can I protect my own.

Navigating the world of parenting is not easy, and when asked about most subjects I limit myself to offering information, resources, and my own experience. It's a fine line to tread, because often in telling your experiences, you are advocating for your choices. That's why I try to be mindful about those conversations (or posts). I don't always succeed, and if you ask for my opinion I'll tell it to you straight. But it's what I aspire to, just like I'm trying to be the best parent I can.

Along the same lines, I think we need to look at parenting in a more holistic way, rather than focus on areas of disagreement. My relatives and friends make parenting decisions that are different from my own, and this should not be a deal breaker. In fact, there is much I can learn from them. Good or bad parenting, if we want to speak on those terms, are a matter of many decisions, day-to-day routines, efforts, commitments, and emotions. There are also plenty of regrets, mistakes, and circumstances beyond our control. We all win, including our children, by practicing tolerance and respect and refusing to participate in the judge-a-parent fest. As Queen Ann commented on a previous post:

Can I blame someone for choosing another way? I shouldn't, and I believe mothers deserve to be treated with unjudging respect, but I have to admit that I am not perfect at it. Am I the only one who believes in respect for all but who still struggles with unkind thoughts about women who "took the easy way out"? I find I have to work on that constantly. So I will.


Anonymous jacqueline said...

This is so true. Today I overheard two women rake a mother over the coals because her sons are "wild". They, I guess, were twins, and in the opinion of the judges, the mother gave them too much sugar and not enough discipline, and so on. Well, neither one of these judges was even a mom (talk about not having a jury of your peers). And I felt so dejected afterwards, that I wished I had stood up for this mom. I was on the other side of a room divider though so clearly eavesdropping.
Anyway, your post really addressed the climate that we feel we can judge another persons parenting/mothering, and this does not feel right to me anymore.

10:23 PM  
Blogger Pippin said...

Excellent article. This subject has bothered me for some time now. An experience such as motherhood should be a tie that binds women together, yet it often just serves as a platform for judgment and polarization. This is often why I avoid parenting message boards altogether - someone inevitably starts attacking another person's parenting philosophy.

6:22 AM  

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