Friday, June 26, 2009

Declaring War on the Mommy Wars

A Pissed-off Mother and the Nonviolent Revolution

It was my husband’s fault, and started like this: “I’m just trying to teach him something. Come on, he’s the only kid in day care who can’t feed himself and doesn’t talk yet.”

I was supposed to be going out for a run while Ian took Saturday morning duty and fed our 20-month-old his cereal. Instead, I burst into tears as Ian blinked in confusion and our son John banged his spoon on the table.

“What’s wrong?” asked the tired, slightly overworked husband whom I knew had woken up with a headache and was doing his best not to be grumpy.

I just shook my head. There is no possible way to explain to a non-mother the load of guilt that came crashing down with his innocent words. What he heard was a simple statement of fact: John doesn’t yet use a spoon to feed himself, and his words so far are limited to warped versions of “plop,” “cheese,” and “thank you,” with slightly clearer “uh-oh,” “all done,” and “meow.”

What I heard was a repetition of the same thing I hear every time someone sends me a link to one of those damn articles about militant breastfeeders, or stay-at-home moms versus employed moms, or an attack on attachment parenting, or an attack by non-parents on mothers who dare to complain about the stresses of motherhood, or a debate about the merits of reading and Baby Einstein, and when and how to potty-train. What I heard was this: You’re a bad mother. Every choice you make is wrong. You are not doing enough. You’re doing it all in the wrong way. You should be more involved, pay more attention, spend more time, slice off the rest of your identity to devote every iota of yourself to raise the most well-adjusted and intelligent child according to the requirements and schedule we have laid out for you. Either that, or hand him over to caregivers who will do a better job.

Maybe I should blame it on the article I read the day before, in which a writer beat up on mothers who post pictures of their kids as their Facebook profile photo (yes, I’ve done it). She, as so many others have done, lumped me in with a non-existent camp of mothers who are intellectual idiots, socially inept, enamored of their children, and burying our own lives in order to spoil a bunch of cute parasites. Nevermind that I have a degree in mathematics, still do symbolic logic for fun, like to discuss Proust with those who have read him, had a career as a good copy editor, and am a working writer.

It’s not I who defines myself only by my child. It’s you. As long as my intellectual conversations are sometimes spiced with the word “poop,” I am dismissed as a brainless twit. On the other side, as long as my conversations about our children are peppered with the phrase “sometimes I just want to run away,” I’m a selfish beast who doesn’t love my son.

I am sick of it. There are CEOs and politicians getting paid millions, if not billions, to screw up their corporations, screw over the people who depend on them, and screw every last piece of life out of the planet. And all mothers can do is yell at one another for not doing the most difficult, most important, and least-paid job on the planet absolutely perfectly?

My bursting into tears wasn’t my husband’s fault. He’s doing the best he can, and, smart person, does not read all the parenting and Mommy War articles I do. Maybe it’s my fault for reading them at all, one more way I’m screwing up as a woman and a mother.

In the twenty months since my son was born, I’ve learned two things: One, that a mother’s instinct is almost always right. That doesn’t mean her decisions are right. But if she’s in touch with herself, her child, and an inner voice that has nothing to do with have read Dr. Spock and Dr. Sears twenty times, her instincts as to what is best for her child, and what her child’s needs are, are generally going to be on the mark.

The second thing is that society—the media, other mothers, often family, and a lot of people in the community—are going to do everything they can to both drown out that voice, and to convince a mother that her instincts are utterly wrong. In fact, the message is, those instincts will damage your child’s social adaptation, ruin his or her chances of getting into a good college, give him or her asthma, obesity, a complete lack of independence, fear of dogs, an addiction to television and sugar, probably a drug problem, psychological insecurity, and lack of judgment. And they’ll hate vegetables and reading unless you do it all just right.

I would like to say, politely, to all these people, shut up. On both sides. Just. Stop. Yelling. Information and education is essential. Expressing your frustration is necessary so others don’t feel ashamed for feeling the same way. But this is, without a doubt, the hardest job on earth. Any mother out there dealing with guilt or anger or bewilderment or frustration, do you really want to lay any more of that on the shoulders of other mothers?


I have opinions, even strong ones, about many things regarding motherhood. I believe breastfeeding and breast milk have incalculable health benefits that formula can never compete with. But I also know that breastfeeding can also be difficult or impossible. And, having used a hospital-grade pump for a month when my son was in the NICU, I know it feels exactly like being a milked cow and have trouble imagining making time for it during employment, especially with an unsympathetic boss. I also know babies raised on formula who are doing beautifully.

I believe a baby physically needs its mother for the first three months of life, possibly even six. But I also know that, in a society that seems headed on a crash-course of productivity, believing that everyone needs to work until they’re ground into dust, two weeks with your new baby is a blessing. Three months is a priceless gift, and six months an unheard-of treasure. A professional woman who can spend six months devoted to her baby and then go straight back into her career without being sidelined or passed over for promotion? Millions of us envy you handful.

I believe children who don’t go into nature regularly will turn out more anxious and have weaker cognitive reasoning than children who spend less time with toys that beep and more time watching trees and birds. I believe plastic is akin to a slow-acting poison, and that the powder-come-gel in disposable diapers is probably toxic. But I use Pampers; my son has plenty of plastic toys. And I know how hard it can be to get outside each day when there are a million demands on your time.

I believe people who think parenthood is a lifestyle choice akin to picking out a car or switching careers are fools. But I also pity them, because if they don’t believe that parenthood is a community effort, then they don’t believe in a functional society.

I believe that being a mother has added dimension and depth to my life I could never have imagined. But I also believe those who choose not to have children can live and love just as deeply.

So right here, right now, I am declaring war on the Mommy Wars. Or, more to the point, I am declaring a truce on the Mommy Wars within myself and my relationships. I am laying down my weapons. This is the nonviolent revolution, the new motherhood.

If you want information or advice, I will give it without judgment. If you want to talk about the difficulties of motherhood, and the guilt and the fears, I’m in. If you hate yourself for having lost your temper or having lost your identity, I want you to know you’re not alone. If you just want to talk about a good book, and not worry that mentioning poop in passing will scare someone off, I’m with you.

If you give your children love, and food, and change their diapers relatively regularly, and haven’t yet thrown them out the window, I say to you: Good job. You’re a good mother. And so am I. Whether or not my son learns to guide his spoon to his mouth anytime soon.