Thursday, May 24, 2012

That Time Article that Everyone Else has Already Written About




Am I mom enough? Gee I think so. How are you doing, really?

I.

I don’t know much about psychology, and probably even less about feminist theory (all waves), and if you haven’t read my disclaimer about not knowing jack shit and just using this space to spout off about what I observe using my marginal critical thinking skills, probably now would be a good time for you to go read that part of this site before you go all apeshit in the comments and accuse me of not knowing anything. Right. I beat you to that conclusion.

But here’s what little I do know. More women than men are going to college. Getting into good secondary schools is harder than ever for women (and marginally less so for men). And when women get out of school, and are looking at how to balance their personal and professional lives, they encounter a job landscape the main feature of which is a hyper-competitive approach to job advancement that largely entails working long hours in order to access the top-paying jobs. Remember when it was “news” that Sheryl Sandberg admitted that she left work at 5:30 every day? This puts her home just barely in time to eat a family dinner and give her kids baths prior to bed, which is hardly a lot of time for bonding or fun shared experiences. And I think women can be excused for not finding family togetherness crammed into 2 hours of a day to be an especially compelling vision of parenthood.  Fair enough. I’m not convinced either.

If I had more energy, here’s where I might write for a while about the possibility that in another country where paid maternity leave was mandatory, and health care universal, attachment parenting might not be a totally terrible idea. But here in the USA you make a hard choice between your career and your kids’ level of care. Since that fact is unlikely to change in the near future, there is little point in lamenting how it might be otherwise.

Given the work/family options, is it any wonder that some women opt-out of work completely, and turn their well-honed competitive and intellectual skills to the question of how to curate the perfect childhood? Thank God we have Dr. Sears, Attachment Parenting Expert, to tell them how and to validate their decision as the most important thing anyone could ever do for society. Too bad he is full of crap.

II.

According to Time, Dr. Sears gives money to his daughters-in-law in order for them to enjoy a nice lifestyle and still stay at home with the kids.

Let’s just take a moment together to allow the oh-holy-shit-ness of this fact sink in.

Good?

First, OMG, their father-in-law is paying them to be the kind of parents he wants them to be. I get that the daughters here made their own choices to marry into the attachment parenting guru’s family, and yet it’s hard not to see this as coercive. What if one mom gets partway into it and discovers that she is really unhappy and wants to seek work outside of the home? Having your father-in-law pay you (and let’s be clear, it is not your mother-in-law paying, because she has never had a real income because duh, she stayed home with the kids) to ignore your desires and keep up with the attachment parenting would make changing the situation fantastically difficult.

Props, I guess, to Dr. Sears for at least recognizing that parenting is real work worthy of getting paid for? That said, the very fact of his paying means that he understands clearly the financial sacrifices that he is asking women to make, and yet he cynically continues to push his agenda. On upper and middle-class women.

Because obviously, being a stay at home mom is hard work. Unless you are poor. And then society says it doesn’t count. Society says something along the lines of, “Go get a job and stop leeching off the rest of us, you lazy welfare queens.” No quantity of Dr. Sears books or articles is going to convince the majority of Americans to fund poor people’s goals of attachment parenting. And I suspect Dr. Sears knows this.

Look, I don’t know how Dr. Sears votes. But I do know that there is one presidential candidate on the record telling his wife that her job as stay at home mom was more important than his high-flying career - a message echoes throughout every page of Dr. Sears’ site.  And amazingly, this political party is not known for supporting paid maternity leave, or welfare programs, or any of the social fabric that might make attachment parenting attractive to more women.

III.

Attachment parenting in inherently anti-feminist. I have not read his books, but a perusal of Dr. Sears website gives a pretty clear idea of his teaching, and his vision of family life is, as a friend of mine described it, “unbalanced.”

Attachment parenting means that you are a stay at home mom, end of story. Your husband cannot be the attached parent because he does not have the boobs, and breastfeeding is absolutely key here to developing an intuitive, addicted response to your baby. Dr Sears allows that you may occasionally need time apart from the baby, but please note that you should not expect to enjoy it because it will “feel wrong” when you are apart. Notice how Dr. Sears tells you not simply what to do, but also how to feel?

When your baby cries, you won’t mind, you see, because you will be so bonded. No amount of sleep deprivation will upset you. It’s amazing. You’re trapped by needing to bond 24/7, and by Dr. Sear’s logic, you’re not even allowed to feel in any way upset about it.

Your husband is different. It’s probably the penis that causes this. Also maybe his capacity to earn money. Anyway, he can’t attach the way you can. Don’t even try it. Dr. Sears says it’s separate but equal or some shit like that.

When I read this crap, my first concern is always for the moms. And I have lots of economic concerns like what happens if your husband dies or leaves you? Or what happens if he loses his job? What happens if you just decide one day that you need something else in your life, but you haven’t worked for over a decade, and you don’t even really understand what it is that they have done to Microsoft Word, let alone any other program you might reasonably be expected to know? Being a SAHM should be a choice, but it is wise to recognize it as a choice with some pretty deep financial consequences. But really, this has been thoroughly covered before.

More importantly, however, what happens to the sense of self when you attempt attachment parenting? When you believe that the most important thing you can do in a given day is to analyze and respond to the changing needs of your child, and to determine the best possible approach to managing their development, how do you define yourself?

Like it or not, we tend to define our lives by what we do. I am a Director of Communications, a writer, a runner, a mother, a healthy meal cooker, and an occasional yogi. Add that all together, and you get a pretty clear picture of me as a person, my values, and where I like to place my energy (i.e. it doesn’t all go into internet screeds). My husband is a professor, a father, and a woodworker. That shorthand is even easier. Our actions are better personal definers than our beliefs. For example, do you believe in food for the hungry? Good for you. I do too. But until one of us starts a food bank, it’s pretty disingenuous to claim that belief as a key component of personal identity.

To spend your life in service not to the needs of others per se, but to a very specific handful of people (your children) is a very narrowing pursuit. In other words, being a stay at home mom does not make you the same thing as a preschool teacher. Add to that the Attachment Parenting tenet that all your needs are secondary – you will get your run in if and only if one of your children does not need you. Children, by definition, are black holes of need. Pour in hours of story reading, park playing, sandcastle building, zoo-strolling, and general awareness-paying, and they will continually demand more. Attachment parenting is a Sisyphean task. Children will never be satisfied. You will never get your run in. Shame on you anyway for wanting to. Aren’t you sufficiently attached?

Your three- year old son does not get any nutritional benefit from sucking on your tit. That benefit ended at least 2 years ago. So why does he do it? It’s comforting probably. Also it is one thing in his world that he can control. Too bad the thing he is controlling is you. Would his childhood really be worse if you taught him how to get his own cup and pour his own drink? If you were so inclined, you could probably even manage this teaching project in the few hours between dinner and bath time. I speak from experience.

IV

Look, lady on the cover of Time, I see here that you are 26. Now I am not that far away from 26, and I remember it clearly. And what I most recall about it is how adrift I felt. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, and I was casting about to figure out what my vocation would be. But I didn’t have a kid. And I can see how, if I had been a parent like you, it would have been really fucking tempting to just devote myself to the most extreme form of competitive parenting I could uncover and get really good at it. I can see how being an attached parent would have filled that vocational void, and probably given me the fire of some self-righteous earnestness besides.

But from where I sit now, well, your path looks pretty awful, honestly. From my limited experience parenting, I don’t see my kids being happier when I give them everything. I just see them wanting even more. To create space for both myself and them to grow, I detach. I give them a variety of experiences not orchestrated by myself alone. From this position, I can’t curate the perfect childhood for them, but I’m not sure that is really what kids need anyway. They seem to delight in finding solutions to their problems all on their own. They are getting really good at creative independent play. And I am as self-actualized as I have ever been.

I enjoy my life. I enjoy my kids. And that feels like success.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Giving Up on Calvin


My daughter, who is in Kindergarten, just put on her first musical called "the Three Piggy Opera." Cute, right? 200 parents crammed into the multi-purpose room with camcorders, and smart phones, and DSLR cameras, and made digital memories of the great event. I chose to sit and listen.

Now I had always understood the story of the three little pigs as something of a cautionary tale, so I was surprised to hear in the overture,

"Each of the piggies did work very hard,
work very hard,
work very hard. 
Each of the piggies did work very hard 
to build a house
with a pretty green yard."

Ummm, what? Isn't the three pigs supposed to be a thoroughly Calvinist tale? Two little piggies decide that they would rather sing and play than learn masonry and sweat it out in the sun, and they very nearly pay with their lives for their foolishness? Young children, be ye not so foolish, etc. Hard work is consonant with salvation.

Of course, the story continued to deviate. The piggies didn't make bad choices in the building materials department of the Home Depot. Instead, each little piggy ran randomly into peddlers who happened to have something they could use as building materials, and they took what was made available to them. Huh.

If you are wondering whether or not I was the only parent in the room to notice these discrepancies, the answer is yes. Or anyway, Eleanor's friends' parents seemed puzzled when I brought it up. This probably didn't do wonders for our capacity to hang out together in the future. Really, I'm generally more fun to talk with than this makes it sound.

(Then after the show, I had a crisis, because although school wasn't technically out for another half hour, the teachers were clearly done, and the aftercare wasn't open yet, and I am apparently the only asshole who is expected to be at work Friday afternoons? And none of this was communicated in the weekly newsletter, so I hadn't planned for it. It sucked.)

But as I was driving back to work, late, I thought more deeply about the artistic liberties taken with the Three Piggy Opera, and it occurred to me that the author was (probably inadvertently) portraying a much more accurate view of the world than the original story. All the piggies did their best work with the materials available to them. It wasn't laziness or foolishness that made them easy prey for the wolf. It was bad luck. They took what was available at the time that they needed it, and despite their best efforts to turn their materials into workable homes, two of the three failed. 

I'm not going to blame the Three Little Pigs for my youthful idealism, but I believed (far longer than was warranted, given my experience) that if I was smart enough and worked hard enough that I could achieve anything. How that notion eventually got thoroughly beaten out of me is a very long story for another time. It strikes me that perhaps now is the right time in Eleanor's development to ditch the Calvinist morality tales. Truth is that you do the best with what you have, and sometimes you fail and sometimes you get lucky. End of story.