The XX Factor

When the “Mommy Wars” Aren’t Just About Mommy

Let the nodding in agreement begin. Taffy Brodesser-Akner has written an essay for Salon blaming the “Mommy Wars,” in which “mommies,” (who have somehow become a different, often reprehensible, and certainly mockable subsection of society, in spite of the fact that about 80 percent of all women are mothers at some point during their lives) attack each other for working or not working or nursing or not nursing or slinging or not slinging, playing on our collective fear that we suck at this whole mothering thing. Erica Jong fears that she got it wrong. Molly Jong-Fast fears that she is getting it wrong right now, even as we speak.

This seems reasonable enough, particularly if you believe the so-called “Mommy Wars” are really about parenting or “mommies” at all. In some of Brodesser-Akner’s examples, the usual human instinct to band together in times of uncertainty is probably all there is to it, and, as she says, there is really no more uncertain person out there than a new mother trying to fit an infant into a sling.

But Jong’s point (although I question how she made it), and that of Elisabeth Badinter , goes beyond the pettiness of the “Mommy Wars.” Both argue that creating a culture that effectively requires women to “attach” themselves to their infants by co-sleeping, constant carrying and a nursing schedule that precludes both work and sleep, will affect women as a whole, pulling them at least temporarily out of the workforce and discouraging their participation in the more intense careers. If we lump that question in with debates on co-sleeping and home-made baby food themselves, we miss the opportunity to consider what Jong was really saying. It’s not an argument against attachment practices as choices. It’s an argument against making attachment practices the default for “good” parenting, making the choice between returning to work after having a baby and staying home appear even starker than it already is, and eliminating the need for changes in the workplace entirely. Going back to work can be made easier for a new mother, but if she has to be physically attached to her baby for the next two years, then we just gave HR departments across the country a reason not to even try.

Parenting is difficult to begin with. Working while parenting tough on both sexes (although harder on mothers, as witnessed by this study showing that women’s sleep is interrupted for child care more than twice as often as men’s). Those are things we really need to talk about, and, occasionally, to talk about in ALL CAPS. In spite of years of fighting for equality and female advancement, mothers and fathers have not achieved anything even close to parity on the job.

Yelling at each other, online or elsewhere, over whether our parenting practices agree is indeed silly. Examining the ways parenting trends affect the roles of men and women in society isn’t. Let us not throw that particular baby out with the bathwater. That is, of course, if you believe in giving children baths.