Sunday, November 28, 2010

Maybe I'll be crotchety, instead: rambling about Second Wave feminism.

I was going to post this on a forum, but figured that it would be better written here, mainly because I'm over participating in the Mommy Wars and I don't even have kids. I'm going to preface my comments with a heterocentrism warning: as Jong's critique assumes a heterosexual relationship, my comments are going to fall along those lines as well. I imagine that the negative effects of following the Attachment Parenting philosophy would be mitigated in homosexual relationships, for while one partner would be affected, it wouldn't necessarily reinforce the gender roles and women's economic inequality.

A few weeks ago, Erica Jong published an editorial in the Wall Street Journal's blogs section decrying Attachment Parenting as a prison that guilt-trips women into parenting practices whose benefits haven't been entirely proven at the expense of their careers:
You wear your baby, sleep with her and attune yourself totally to her needs. How you do this and also earn the money to keep her is rarely discussed. You are just assumed to be rich enough. At one point, the Searses suggest that you borrow money so that you can bend your life to the baby's needs. If there are other caregivers, they are invisible. Mother and father are presumed to be able to do this alone—without the village it takes to raise any child. Add to this the dictates of "green" parenting—homemade baby food, cloth diapers, a cocoon of clockless, unscheduled time—and you have our new ideal. Anything less is bad for baby. Parents be damned.
 Jong goes on to point out that the hyperemphasis on extended breastfeeding (lasting longer than one year) that Attachnment Parenting is known for virtually demands that women be the primary caregiver, the one to stay home and be attached to the baby:
Attachment parenting, especially when combined with environmental correctness, has encouraged female victimization. Women feel not only that they must be ever-present for their children but also that they must breast-feed, make their own baby food and eschew disposable diapers. It's a prison for mothers, and it represents as much of a backlash against women's freedom as the right-to-life movement.
 Needless to say, I didn't read the comments. Jong's opinions on this subject aren't exactly popular in this day and age, and I've been hesitant to say that I agree with her. When I first heard of Attachment Parenting several years ago when one of my friends was expecting, the ideas it espoused immediately struck me as being not only incredibly classist and elitist, but that it was simply the same old What to Expect prison revamped into a slick, faux-progressive package. I'd find the whole "Raising a self-actualized, progressive child is the best thing that a woman can possibly do!" thing quaintly hilarious if it weren't 1) coming from people who would otherwise be on my side who 2) were actually serious when they said it. I blame my feminist and women's and gender studies background; it's caused me to be immediately suspicious of any parenting scheme that overtly targets mothers and attempts to guilt trip them into making the "right" choice, which nearly always comes at the expense of their social and economic freedom. Doubly so if it involves reinforcing the more that women are intrinsically more nurturing than men and, as such, should be shoehorned into that familial role.

It seems like parenting books are hardly ever evidence-based in any meaningful sense; they cherry pick whichever studies happen to support their agenda and then order you to do it or else you are screwing up your child forever. I find the Attachment Parenting philosophy and the oft-maligned What to Expect series to be two sides of the same coin. Though they have different political agendas, they both seek to guilt-trip women and families into making the "right" choice. What to Expect makes women feel guilty about what they eat while they're pregnant, The Baby Book makes women feel guilty about what they feed the child once it's out. Both involve an ever-present implicit threat: "You don't know what you're doing, and if you don't listen to us, your kid will be permanently damaged and it'll be all your fault." That's a pretty heavy burden to lay on anybody, and it always seems to fall heaviest on mothers.

Where Attachment Parenting is concerned, it is of critical importance that 1) your baby is with you at all times, and 2) you breastfeed until the child self-weans. I don't think that babywearing or extended breastfeeding are intrinsically bad in and of themselves, but I do think that the expectation of such places a huge burden on women (as men can't breastfeed, women become the "logical" choice as to who stays home and attaches themselves to the baby). This simply isn't economically feasible for the majority of families, who require two incomes to stay afloat, which is why my first impression of Attachment Parenting was "classist and elitist, the parenting equivalent of conspicuous consumption." Who other than the wealthy can afford for one member to take two to five years away from the workplace per child, and have the time and financial resources to cloth diaper and prepare one's own organic baby food with locally-sourced produce? Oh, that's right, women whose earnings potentials are so low that the cost of daycare would be higher than their income, so what's worsening her economic potential a little bit more? That's not something I would consider a good thing. I also find the cavalier "just take out a loan!" attitude similarly irresponsible; I'm pretty sure a teenager would be better off with financially stable parents who can pay for his college education than ones who are still neck-deep in debt from the loans they took out in order to stay home with him the first three years of his life.

It also bears mentioning that I'm not a fan of the over-emphasis on breastfeeding. Breastfeeding, whether you do it for six weeks or six years, is not the be-all, end-all of good parenting, and to act as though it is places an enormous and disproportionate amount of parental responsibility on the mother. My stepmother is a lactation consultant, so I am well aware of the health and nutrition benefits that breastfeeding offers to both the baby and the mother (having been on the receiving end of many an informative lecture). However, I am entirely unconvinced that these benefits outweigh the child's need to have clothes on its back and a roof over its head or the mother's need for social and economic freedom and sanity. I feel the same way about whether or not a parent stays home, though I have doubts as to whether the benefits of one-on-one parental interaction outweigh the adaptability and socialization benefits that being in daycare provides. Whether or not it's objectively better in the way that breastfeeding is remains unclear, but even if it is, it's not worth sending a family plunging into poverty or making a woman miserable because she's going stir-crazy cooped up in the house.

Throw in the quasi-racist, culturally ignorant worship of the noble savage, and that sums up the bulk of my objections.

The reaction to sentiments like Jong's (and my own) haven't been pretty. In the forum post I was considering posting this in, the vast majority of the criticism has involved harping on Jong's choices and implying (or saying overtly) that she's a bad mother because her career as an author led her to leave her daughter in the care of nannies, and that she has a personal, vested interest in criticizing a parenting philosophy that is diametrically opposed to the path she took as a parent. I was disappointed that the conversation turned in that direction, but not particularly surprised. It is anathema in our society for a woman to put her career on equal (or greater) footing with her family, especially if it involves leaving her child in the care of others. Women like Jong are castigated as cold, ball-busting bitches who only care about their careers and money, and whose priorities are woefully mislaid. It's funny (and by funny, I mean sexist and infuriating) how this vitriol is virtually never directed at workaholic men who leave the care of their children and homes entirely to their wives, whether they work or not (Second Shift, anyone?).

It also came as no surprise to me that nobody thought to consider the role of Molly's (Jong's daughter) father in all of this. Why wasn't he stepping in when his ex-wife was out on a book tour? Why was he absolved of parental responsibility while Jong was being raked over the coals? Was his career as a minor science-fiction novelist somehow more important than Jong's, whose writings have improved the lives of millions of women? Why? Why should he escape criticism while his ex-wife was being raked over the coals of bad motherhood? As I said: sexist and infuriating.

What I found even more infuriating was the vitriol that was heaped on Jong and other "reactionary Second-Wave feminists." Hating on second-wavers is a longstanding pet peeve of mine. Like the rest of us, they did the best they could in a far-less-than-ideal situation, and managed to do a lot for us young/(post)modern/Third Wave/wtfever feminists that I think we take for granted:

  • The formation of the EEOC, or Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, which investigates incidences of sex discrimination, sexual harassment, and pay inequity.
  • Passing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which bans sex discrimination in the workplace, including sexual harassment and pregnancy discrimination.
  • Passing Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, which bans sex discrimination in education. If you're a woman and you got to play school sports, you have Title IX to thank.
  • Agitated for affirmative action policies to take sex into account. White women, incidentally, have been the greatest beneficiaries of these policies.
  • Instituted consciousness-raising groups.
  • Successfully demanded access to hormonal contraceptives and abortion rights.
  • Advocating no-fault divorce laws and communal property laws.
  • Founded numerous battered women's shelters.
  • Instituted women's studies programs at universities across the nation.
  • Expanded the right of women to claim child support and alimony.
  • Enacted laws against domestic violence and marital rape.
  • And a whole lot more. Read the wiki entry if you're curious.

They certainly weren't perfect (I could discuss at length the way the movement was afflicted by racism, classism, and transphobia), but at the same time, I don't think they deserve the vitriol that gets heaped on them regularly by younger feminists. They don't deserve to be labeled cold-hearted, baby-neglecting, man-hating reactionaries who never get laid and want to ruin everybody's fun. I'm honestly pretty disappointed in fellow feminists who are so unfamiliar with the movement's history and the important players in it that they fall prey to parroting the same crap that misogynists threw at the Second Wave-rs during the sixties, seventies, and eighties. Those who participated in the Second Wave are still around, and they still, as Jong's article demonstrates, have a lot to offer us if we choose to listen to them.

1 comment:

  1. Excelent posting! Somehow I had never heard of Attachment Parenting before!