Monday, March 16, 2009

A Thought About The Mommy Wars

Lisa Belkin of Motherlode, the parenting blog at The New York Times, has a post today about how breastfeeding supposedly isn't the end-all be-all in infant nutrition it has been touted to be. In her post, Belkin quotes author Hanna Rosin, who has an article coming out challenging some of the science behind the benefits of breastfeeding.

Reading the quotations from Rosin's article, I was struck by how, well, grumpy she is. For example:

On learning that the findings that show a correlation between formula-fed babies and future obesity are "inconsistent" Rosin writes:

Inconsistent? There I was, sitting half-naked in public for the tenth time that day, the hundredth time that month, the millionth time in my life — and the associations were inconsistent?

On the career-related trade-offs nursing mothers have to make in order to breastfeed:

It is a serious time commitment that pretty much guarantees that you will not work in any meaningful way.

On the biological fact that women are the only ones in the relationship equipped to actually nurse the baby:

. . . I was propped up in bed for the second time that night with my new baby (note the my). My husband acknowledged the ripple in the nighttime peace with a grunt, and that’s about it. And why should he do more? There’s no use in both of us being a wreck in the morning. Nonetheless, it’s hard not to seethe.

I have no wish to start breastfeeding vs. formula battle here on this blog. I have nursed three babies and I'm all for breastfeeding, even if the inverse correlation (Note! correlation and causation--NOT the same thing, btw!) between nursing and obesity is "inconsistent." I have friends who have exclusively nursed, some who have exclusively formula-fed, some who did a bit of each.

How is it that we were able to remain friends despite our differences?

I'd like to point out something critical that is often overlooked when people think about, write about, or personally engage in the so-called Mommy Wars. Mommies (and Daddies) who have not aligned their values properly--selfishly--get grumpy and defensive when they are challenged.

Which brings me to Amy's recent post on Selfish Parenting. It's a good post so you should go read it right now. Back? K.

Parenting, just like any enormous human endeavor, requires vast amounts of time and effort to do it properly. It requires so much time and effort that you will be unable to choose to do certain other things for a good chunk of time. In economics, this is known as an opportunity cost.

When you have chosen to become a parent for selfish reasons, because you really, really want to, then you will see the other things that you can't do as an acceptable trade-off. If you haven't really thought through your values, or if you allow yourself to be pressured by what you believe others (aka "society") would have you do, you'll see those other things you traded off in order to become a parent as sacrificed values. And you'll get grumpy because sacrificing values is something to get grumpy about.

When I was pregnant with Ryan, I knew I was going to breastfeed for at least a year. But I also knew I was going to resume my career at the end of that year. When he was about 9 months, I realized several things all at once: that I didn't want to give up being a full-time parent if I didn't have to; that my career was less of a value to me than it had been; that most of the money I earned in my career would be sucked up by childcare expenses. Brendan and I had several long discussions and I chose to stay home full-time with my small child.

It hasn't always been an easy situation and there are certainly times when I miss not having a "real job" (ha ha!), but I'm happy with my decision because it's what I wanted to do. I chose a higher value over a lesser value. I was selfish about it. The decision was selfish for Brendan, too. And then we selfishly chose to have two more kids.

If I had REALLY wanted to go back to work and stayed home with my child instead, I would have been grumpy. If I had REALLY wanted to formula-feed but allowed myself to be guilted into breastfeeding because of the "Mommy Wars," then I would have been grumpy, and/or guilty if I had been unable pull off the nursing gig. If I had REALLY wanted to send my kids to school instead of keeping them home, then I would be grumpy about this homeschooling deal.

And if our circumstances changed and I needed to go back and earn a wage, I'd do it. Heartbreaking as it would be, I'd do it if we needed my income (after childcare!) to eat or pay our mortgage or gain some other higher value. While that situation would not be my ideal, it would not be a sacrifice; allowing our home to be repossessed would be sacrificial.

I guess what I'm saying is that I see so many women wrestle with these "Mommy War" issues--breast or bottle, disposable or cloth, stay-at-home or career--who end up feeling somewhat guilty about their choices. And there's absolutely no need for guilt if you have considered where your priorities are and chosen accordingly, chosen the things that will make you happiest.

If women were properly focused on achieving the values that are dear to them, then they'd have no time for such silliness. They wouldn't second-guess their decisions, even if someone else chose differently. They wouldn't accept unearned guilt for their choices either. And I suspect these silly "Mommy Wars" would disappear.

Anyway, reading that Motherlode article made me realize why I've never really become caught up in this battle. Because I'm happy about my choices; because I haven't sacrificed.

Besides, with the economy going the way it's been going lately and our needing a new roof on the cabin (don't get me started), I've got enough to be grumpy about already.


Deb said...

Hey, thanks for linking to Amy's blog in this post! I hadn't seen her site before, but now I have a whole new thoughtful, well-spoken Objectivist parent blog to read. Great!

C. August said...

You are Rational Mommy, hear you roar! (I'm not kidding. You have described a roadmap for both happy moms and dads here.)

This is the way T and I approach all of our decisions about parenting and money and family life, and we never have regrets. Sure, it would be nice if some things worked out better, but we never take sacrificial actions. We are always focused on pursuing our values... two of which happen to be asleep upstairs.

Stephanie Ozenne said...


Miranda Lake Barzey said...

You make an excellent point, one that goes beyond parenting. If you allow yourself to be dictated by what everyone else says (society, popular "science", your mother), then you're acting in a way that puts YOUR priorities FIRST. You sacrifice your values for something else, something less. Hence, grumpiness.

I see this a lot in college. Kids are there because they think they have to be there, that it's impossible to make a living without a degree. All their friends were going. "It's what you do after high school." Or their parents pushed them into it. Many end up unhappy, apathetic, or just clueless, because they don't know what they're doing with their lives.

I try to constantly evaluate what my values are, and if college meets them. So far, it does. But I'm prepared to switch schools or even leave if my needs ever change.

And thanks Jenn. You parenting posts get me thinking about how I'd approach raising my own kids (you know, in that far off place called the future, where I'm not living on student loans?).

Such Lovely Freckles said...

How sad, that this woman has to reason with "the husband only grunts, while I have to sacrifice my precious sleep". It's not wonder she's bitter.
I'm with you 100%. This post was so well written, and I thank you for it.

Kelly Elmore said...

My only argument is that there are some things that I think good parenting (or good working or good studenting or good whatever your choices are) that are not negotiable. If you choose to do the job, you must, if you possibly can, do the thing. For me, breastfeeding is one of those things. If you choose to have babies, you should try to breastfeed them. If, after much trying and lactation consultants, or after depression or illness or something, you can't, then you give formula and I don't blame you. But I don't think it is okay to say, "Well, my values say I need to get more sleep, so let's just formula feed."

Kelly Elmore said...

One more thought. Lots of people talk about the mommy wars and mean that we should not judge each other. Each family is different and such. But I think it is okay to say that some people are good parents and other aren't. I know gymnastics coaches who I think are good and those who I think aren't, but we don't have any wars at work. Moms should just feel free to judge each other all the day long, but keep their mouths shut unless it affects them, like other career folks do.

Rational Jenn said...

Kelly, I agree that one should certainly use one's judgment and also that there are also "best practices" in parenting as well as other fields of endeavor.

I was just focusing on the aspect of secondhandedness and/or sacrifice that seems to be inherent to the Mommy Wars.

Use your judgment and focus on your values and the opinions of others be damned! If more parents did that, there would still be SAHMs and career-types, etc. But no need to make a big federal case.

And also, knowing when to keep your mouth shut is a good skill, too. :o)

Kelly Elmore said...

I'm just not sure that all the essential practicing of parenting (and I mostly mean in the first year or two) are compatible with most careers. I don't think little babies should go to day care. I don't think they should get formula because Mom is at work. I don't think they should spend most of their waking hours with people who don't really love them. I know what you mean about selfishness, and I totally agree with you. I just think that if you cannot selfishly give that first year or two over to care of an infant, perhaps it would be better not to have one. I don't think most careers in the modern world (though there are some I am sure) are compatible with the needs of infancy.

Kelly Elmore said...

I meant the essential practices of parenting. I should probably edit my posts!

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...


I posted a comment yesterday at another blog that discussed the same article that you have. Essentially, I said that I didn't feel grumpy about breast feeding because it was a pleasant and very convenient way for me to feed my baby. I did not frame my parenting around what anyone else did, I did what seemed sensible to me. As you said, this did not mean that all was sweetness and light overall, but since I was honoring my own choice, those unsweet and dark moments could easily be put into perspective.

You've got it with respect to the Mommy Wars. The big deal is made because women are not happy with their choices, and feel pressured to do what everybody else is doing. As my grandmother used to say: "Who cares about what other people think? Let them think! It's good for their brains."

Beth said...

I like your summary:

If I had REALLY wanted to go back to work and stayed home with my child instead, I would have been grumpy. If I had REALLY wanted to formula-feed but allowed myself to be guilted into breastfeeding because of the "Mommy Wars," then I would have been grumpy, and/or guilty if I had been unable pull off the nursing gig. If I had REALLY wanted to send my kids to school instead of keeping them home, then I would be grumpy about this homeschooling deal.

One reason for grumpiness (as you point out) is going along with self-sacrifice instead of selfishly choosing your highest value.

Another unhelpful perspective which can lead to grumpiness is the failure to accept the limitations of reality, the famous old "wanting to have your cake and eat it too." Wanting both a career and to be a full-time mom, wanting both the advantages of breast feeding and the freedom of bottle feeding, etc.

But there is only so much time. There are opportunity costs. If you are unwilling to accept that fact and get on with the challenging task of identifying your true highest values, the temptation remains to just get pissed off at reality and be grumpy (or beat yourself up with guilt for not being able to do it all.)

Unfortunately, I speak from experience.

On second thought----maybe that's a "fortunately I speak from experience" because I am learning to do so much better with this lately.