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Friday, May 18, 2012

Dear Abby: The Mommy Wars

Today I will be kicking off my "Dear Abby" series, where I do a post on a topic that a reader has suggested to me.  I've decided that I will do these posts every Friday.  Which means fathers everywhere will soon be confused when everyone starts saying Thank God It's DAD every Friday.  You can explain to them that DAD is Dear Abby Day.  I'll be too busy blogging.

Today's topic is the magazine cover heard 'round the world.  It's this rectangular powder keg, in all its glossy glory:

I picked up Time's May 21, 2012 edition the other day.  The last time I read a Time magazine was the time I forgot to bring my book to the gym in 1999.  Upon greeting my long not-lost non-friend, I closed my right eye so I could stop looking at Jamie Lynne Grumet's boob and was immediately underwhelmed.  Either Time is really taking a bullet for the eco-conservative Green Team or they've hit the bottom of the material well, because the issue was shorter than the alphabet books my daughter makes at pre-school.

I'm guessing the slight heft of the magazine is more owing to the latter.  In fact, if I were to put on my Michael Jordan I'll-Bet-On-Anything hat, I'd wager that the editors at Time are afraid that's exactly what they're running out of: time.  I bet they're desperate for readership and trying to cut costs so that Father Time doesn't tell Time that its time is up.

After I read the mommy article, I became convinced I was right.  And I was mad I lost my Michael Jordan speed dial button because I could have just made myself some millions.

The desperation over at Time was confirmed because the content of the article only tangentially related to the explosive image and headline on the cover of the magazine.  Clearly the boob-sucking pre-schooler and the gauntlet-throwing "Mom Enough" challenge were simply a clever ploy to get all of us riled up and ready to spend $5 on 6 pieces of paper.  If they'd accurately depicted the "related" story in a pictorial, it would be a photo of a grandfather dressed in scrubs lecturing a frazzled mother while trying to hide his giggling from her.  And the caption would read "Science -- Who Needs It?"

Needless to say, I have a lot of reactions to the story, but I'm going to try to boil them down to three. 

Reaction 1:  The actual subject of the cover story, Dr. William Sears, is a jerk.

The focus of Time's reporting is not Pilates teachers with breasts just waiting to be suckled.  Instead, it's Dr. William Sears, who published the first edition of The Baby Book in 1992.  In that brick of a book (it's 767 pages long!), Dr. Sears advocates for "attachment parenting."  Boiled down, attachment parenting dictates that "the more time babies spend in their mothers' arms, the better the chances they will turn out to be well-adjusted children."  The basic tenets of such a doctrine are that:

  • Mothers should not let their children fuss.  At all.  Every cry should be tended to.
  • Mothers should not put their babies down.  Ever.  If mommy needs to use her hands for something other than toting Junior, Dr. Sears sells a sling that mommy can rig to her torso and deposit Junior into.
  • Babies should "co-sleep" (ie. share a bed with) their parents.
  • And yes, as Time walloped us over the head with, mommy should breastfeed Junior for as long as possible.  Biologically possible.  Not socially-acceptable possible.
As I will discuss more below, I have no real issue with attachment parenting in and of itself.  It is certainly not for me, but if some mothers feel like that's how this whole parenting mystery unfolds itself for them, fine.  And wow.

But I have a real issue with Dr. Sears.  He, together with his wife, cobbled together the attachment parenting movement relying on their personal histories, their Catholic faith, and their random reading choices.  Both Dr. and Mrs. Sears felt abandoned by one or both of their parents in their own childhoods.  Both are deeply religious.  And both got the idea for their life's work from a book called The Continuum Concept.

This book was written by Jean Liedloff, a college-dropout turned part-time model who decided to go dig for diamonds in Venezuela in about the 1960s.  (I'm serious.  On all counts.)  She noticed that the indigenous people in the South American jungle carried their children with them all the time, and that those children seemed to "cry less" than American babies.  Based on her uneducated observations, she wrote The Continuum Concept and told mothers everywhere they needed to be more "connected" to their children.  She went on to decide never to have children of her own.  The Searses went on to decide to make her their prophet.

They've so bought into the attachment parenting thing that Mrs. Sears actually says things like "[leaving a baby] to cry in her crib damage[s] her brain."  Dr. Sears is quick to chime in with a comment that putting a baby in a crib is putting a baby "behind bars."  The only way to save your baby from dyslexia or jail, they conclude, is for mommy to a stop everything except lactation.

The couple peddles this lifestyle despite the fact that there is no scientific support for their statements and mountains  of it to contradict them.  They hold essentially firm despite the decidedly sexist undertones of their message, which they try to soften with suggestions that fathers "do the dishes" or book mommy a massage.  Their response to doubters is simply to say that their method is the method God likes, and that their preaching is based on the practices that have worked for them.  Then they condemn any mother who would dare put her baby on a schedule or on a bottle, even though that's the method Dr. Spock likes, and those are the practices that have worked for millions.

My bottom line: if your idea of childbirth is just moving a baby from the womb to other side of your epidermis, enjoy your years as a kangaroo.  I just hope you have a reason better than Dr. Sears' say-so to do it.  To my mind, his game is an exploitative racket.

Reaction 2:  The whole "Mommy Wars" firestorm needs to be extinguished.

Time magazine is just as exploitative.  After the whole Ann Romney "don't tell me I don't 'work' just because I never 'worked' outside the home" debacle, the world has fallen down the Mommy Wars rabbit hole.  "Working" moms versus stay-at-home moms.  Attachment parenting versus helicopter parenting versus I just want my kid to be a good person and not too clingy and eat the occasional vegetable parenting.  Time magazine asking if you're mom "enough."  As if mothering is some beach the U.S. Marines are trying to storm.

Enough, already.  In the history of time, no perfect parent -- much less mother -- has ever been identified.  Probably because every parent started off as the kid their parents scarred or neglected or screwed up in some way.  Imperfect children grow up to be imperfect parents, and the whole wide world is made up of imperfect people. 

Some kids grow up to be better people than other kids grow up to be, sure.  But I think it'd be tough to argue, with a straight face, that Johnny is so much more well-adjusted than Albert because Johnny piggy-backed his mother until he outweighed her.  There's a lot that goes into making us who we are.  Of course a huge building block is how we're raised during our formative years.  I can say, though, that a lot of who I am is the result of things I had to go off and do on my own during, for example, the big bad years of kindergarten.  My mother could have never let me shed a single tear under her watchful eye, but I probably would have still suffered from confidence issues after a crush wasn't reciprocated or some other fact of life -- that my mother had no control over -- hit me upside the head.

In other words, an extra month of breast-feeding does not, to my mind, a Mother Theresa or Warren Buffett or Gisele Bundchen (I'm using her as a self-confidence standard-bearer) make.  Not in and of itself.

What WILL make a difference, way more often than not, is a semi-sane, semi-grounded mother.  And whatever it takes for mommy to find the sweet spot to her parenting is what mommy should do.  As long as, of course, it's not the sweet taste of coke on her teeth after she snorts a line or some similarly illegal and universally frowned upon parenting technique.

Mommy pitting herself against mommy is just unhelpful.  Spend your time taking care of your kids and taking care of yourself, in the way and to the degree that resonates with you.  Don't worry what the mommy next door is doing if it's just to criticize it.  Find a different way to reassure yourself that what you're doing is right for you and yours.  Cutting your fellow mommy down to size to make yourself feel righteous is very middle school of you.  That's a sure-fire way to teach an imperfect attitude and approach to life to those kids hanging from your neck.

And every media outlet or other third-party who wants to do the pitting just to generate sound bites is beyond unhelpful -- it's cheap.

Reaction 3:  This is just too good of an opportunity to pass up.

Despite all of the above, there's no way to look at that cover and not feel like it's raining softballs.  In that vein, let's end this on a light note. 

I think you can take your cues from your kid on when is the right time for you two to stop with the breast-feeding routine.  If your kid can verbalize any of the following, I'd say you're getting more than just cues that the end is 'nigh.  You're receiving spam from Mother Nature delivered via a megaphone:

  • "Mom, I need to wash down the spaghetti o's.  Has your right breast recovered from this morning?"
  • "Hey guys, I need to take a break from tag.  I'm parched.  Mom, put down your book and pull up your t-shirt!"
  • "Move over, Sam!  You're hogging all the boobs!"
  • "Today Bobby was telling me about these things called juice boxes.  What in the world are those?"
  • "Mom!  I passed the test!  I got my driver's license!  Can we celebrate with both sides?!?"

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  1. Can we celebrate with both sides! LOL!

  2. this was hilarious.