Tuesday, July 01, 2003

The Mommy Wars

Why are parenting issues like natural childbirth vs. epidurals, breastfeeding vs. formula, and stay at home vs. work outside the home so divisive for women? Obviously there are some men who also get wrought up about these issues, but they're primarily right wing whackos who want to control every aspect of women's lives and are justifying it with loud cries of "What about the children!" Most of the energy expended on these topics is coming from women attacking other women's choices (men pretty much get a pass in these debates, as if they have no input in how their children are raised). Why is it that so many women are threatened by the idea of other women making different parenting choices?

I think Dawn Friedman has part of the answer when she writes, "When I was first home and was feeling so sad and defensive and angry that it was such a financial sacrifice, I thought that every parent ought to make the same choices that we did. When people told me that they couldn't afford to be home, I'd feel like my head was going to blow up. "We can't afford it either," I'd think, "And we're doing it!" I had a huge martyr complex about it. But now, stepping back from those difficult first years, I can see that just because someone can do it doesn't mean they should. We'll be paying for our decision forever. The loss of my income and my retirement is permanent and we're unlikely to catch up. I also think how hard it was for me -- truly convicted that our decision was the absolutely right thing for Noah -- and I think that for someone who doesn't have the same issues with child care that I do, the sacrifices wouldn't be worth it." We are all so deeply invested in our parenting choices (especially women, who are more likely to be defined by their roles as mothers than men are by their roles as fathers) - we've agonized over what the right choices are and we've frequently made sacrifices to do what we feel is best for our children. This makes the idea that we may have made the wrong choice very scary. And it's always easier to think you've made the right choice if everyone around you is doing the same thing. Black and white is much simpler than shades of grey. If other parents made different decisions then it can call into question whether you should have made the decision you did.

But here's the thing - these decisions can never be black and white. The ways we choose to parent our children are based on our own childhoods, our personalities, our children's personalities, all the varying circumstances of our lives. Each family's circumstances are unique, so "the best thing" for each family is going to be slightly different. It's a waste of time to compare our choices to other people's, because they are basing their choices on a different set of factors. We not only have to have the courage of our convictions to believe that what works for us is best for us, but we also have to trust other women (and men) to make the best decisions for their own families. Maybe then we can stop competing for Mommy of the Year and start supporting one another.


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