The XX Factor

Criticizing Other People’s Parenting Shouldn’t Be Off Limits

Women understand the power of dissent.

Thinkstock/ CREATISTA

In her recent New York Times op-ed, “What Knitting Can Teach Us About Parenting,” writer and pediatrician Perri Klass praises the merits of the knitting website Raverly, where everybody is nice to one another. Why, she wonders, can’t parents treat one another more like knitters?

“[I]n the age of our great common internet living room, it’s kind of striking how that Greek chorus of disapproving curmudgeons stands ready to tell you clearly and absolutely that you’re dangerously overindulgent, criminally underinvolved, cruel in your adherence to traditions, or unconscionably cavalier in your willingness to let them go,” Klass writes. Better, she says, for parents to follow the maxim they’ve likely shared with their kids: If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

I agree with Klass that ad-hominem attacks directed at individual parents should be off-limits, but I don’t think that should make all debate surrounding parenting issues off limits. My proposed maxim: If you don’t have anything nice to say about a particular set of parents, don’t say anything about them—but do feel free to critique their positions and examine their provenance. It’s clumsy, I know. But it’s also necessary if we want to continue the ongoing projects of figuring out what motherhood looks like without the constraints of sexism and of elevating caretaking to a serious issue worthy of rigorous debate.

The mandate “don’t judge” is sacrosanct among parenting bloggers and online mom groups. Judging is considered an act of betrayal or an attempt to perpetuate the mommy wars. I get the instinct; making sure our children are reasonably happy and healthy is a Herculean effort in itself, and most of us lack the bandwidth to deal with any extra resistance. Still, by eliminating all resistance we are actually doing ourselves a disservice. Parenting does not happen in a bubble. Instead, our choices are informed by the imperfect and sexist world in which we live. We parents, especially moms, benefit from trying to tease out why we feel compelled to make the choices we do and considering whether they are the best choices for us, as individuals and a community, in the long run.

Take for example the debates surrounding labor and childbirth. Of course women should not feel like they have to defend their labor experience (as long as they didn’t put their baby in danger), but they should be pushed to consider whether their C-section was necessary, or whether their midwife or doula was more interested in if they were “natural” than if they were comfortable. The decision to breastfeed or not, sleep train or not, make one’s child’s birthday party crafty and Instagram-worthy or not, work outside the home or not: These are all bound up with longstanding ideals surrounding motherhood—ideals that are both a source of pleasure for many women and continue to hold women back.

Also, many of our society’s more disagreeable values manifest themselves through parenting. Are we raising selfish, materialistic, and ambition-obsessed children? Or empathetic, well-rounded ones? We can’t discuss this without getting into the particulars of how parents parent, why they are parenting that way, and what we, as parents and as a society, can be doing better. Having these conversations is an affirmation of the power of caretaking, not a degradation of it. We’ve just begun to grapple with the serious implications of care work and why those who do it deserve support; this is not the time to shy away from rigorous analyses or thoughtful debate.

We, as parents and women specifically, shouldn’t feel demeaned by debates about parenting; we should feel inspired by them. They are a necessary part of the process of untangling motherhood from the patriarchy and figuring out what exactly this whole motherhood thing might look like outside of it. I’m thrilled to be living in a world in which breastfeeding, along with many other maternal health and early parentood issues, is a topic that many people take very seriously, and cringe when I hear accusations that anyone taking a stand on the subject is guilty of fanning the flames of the mommy wars. In fact, I consider much of what many dismiss as the “mommy wars” as progress; we are taking issues surrounding motherhood and childrearing more seriously than ever and have got a lot to say about it. And rightly so; there’s far more at stake here than a knitted shawl.

Among the many myths about the female mind debunked during this election season is the belief that women are incapable of engaging in debate without making it personal or becoming emotional. Megyn Kelly’s recent exchange with Newt Gingrich and Hillary Clinton’s many interactions with Donald Trump show us just how un-fragile and un-petty women can be—especially when compared to their male interlocutors. The same goes for moms. We know what’s at stake, for us as women and our children, and we can take it. Let’s keep talking.