The Feminist Mother: Yes, We Are.

from Parent Pap Magazine 2007

Lisa Miller’s “The Retro Wife,” published in the ‘take with a grain of salt’ New York magazine has done what, I assume, the author was hoping for; this trend article has garnered her an awful lot of attention. In the many critical conversations that have followed the article, including important ones about why biological determinism is misogynist, and how glaringly privileged the article’s subjects appear, it is impossible to ignore the mother-shaming that is the too often bi-product of contemporary feminist conversations.

I can confidently say that Miller’s article hasn’t added much depth to the canon of feminist theory (except maybe on the ‘do not do’ self). Despite the by-line that “feminist can have it all – by choosing to stay home,” she hasn’t done much beyond demonstrating the gaps between (1990s) feminist discourse and the lived realities of, you know, real women.

The life choices of Kelly Makino, the white, cis-female main character in Miller’s story, is by no means a realistic representation of most women (or self-identifying feminists). Although, according to a recent post on Jezebel, both Makino and Rebecca Wolf were misrepresented, the entire article is steeped in a slurry of gender essentialism and biological determinism. A reader can’t help but walk away with the message that women shouldn’t bother with all this ‘work stress’ and just focus on the easy peasy parts of house-keeping and child-minding:

…[s]he has given herself over entirely to the care and feeding of her family…The maternal instinct is a real thing, Kelly argues: “Girls play with dolls…so women are raised from the get-go to raise children successfully. When we are moms, we have a better toolbox.”

In addition to the glaring issues around ‘woman as mother’, Miller also chose to focus her story around a life that is unlived by most women. The privilege in Makino’s life that is documented in comments about ipads, shopping, swim lessons, real estate holdings, and executive education isn’t going to ring true with most stay-at-home female parents. Early in the excessively verbose piece, Makino actually appears to whine, “why can’t we just be girls” a sound bite for the spoiled and coddled child Makino is dressed-up as throughout the entire article.

The article, from start to finish had me curling my toes and swearing at my screen – Makino is not my concept of a feminist, but is bordering on misogyny, and practically making out with patriarchy in almost every quote. I will spare you any additional breakdown of the piece because it has already been done, here, here and here.

But.

This piece by Jaclyn Friedman over at The American Prospect, left me with an equally disappointed and disgruntled set of feelings. First, let me say, I am a lover of Jaclyn Friedman, she is a prolific writer, a proponent of safe and woman-centered sex, and she is the Executive Director of Women, Action and Media. All of these bits of amazing had me re-reading the article that left me with as much rage as the Miller article – because, how could Friedman come out so negatively against mothers?

I mean, Jaclyn Friedman isn’t the first one to attack mothers. Rosin’s anti-breastfeeding piece from The Atlantic, and Erica Jong’s, Mother Madness from the New York Times, are companion reading for anyone who wants to hate-on mothers. It appears that Jaclyn Friedman has decided to join this company by slapping together diverse groups of parents and labeling them as non-feminist, privileged folks, living in “a grown-up bedtime story for elites.”

I was head nodding through the first half of the article as Friedman dismantled the multiple issues with Miller’s article and her subjects. But without segue, OR REASON, Friedman decides to myopically attack Attachment Parenting. I’ll admit to personally not using the term attachment parenting, because, sadly, it is a style of parenting that has been co-opted by one man’s attempt to monetize a gentle approach to birthing and caring for our children. But, attachment parenting or gentle parenting – I know what Friedman is referring to and I am insulted. And furious.

Why is it acceptable for other feminists to critique and judge my feminism based on the parenting philosophy that I use to raise a child? Friedman seems to be misinformed in her alignment of attachment parenting with ‘The Retro Wife’ representation offered by Miller.

Friedman assumes that attachment parenting is practiced only by the ‘elites’ and is an exhibition of the privilege that allows us to all remain home with our children – thereby promoting heteronormative, man/work, woman/home approaches to family. This is an incredibly short-sighted and incorrect assumption. Certainly, some attachment parents will have privilege and will count themselves among the elite class. But, I am confident that elite ‘families’ are more likely to be double income earning, nanny-sharing families and less likely to practice attachment parenting.

Friedman essentially denies the parenting and nurturing power of males by suggesting that attachment parenting encourages them to “feel like puffed up alpha males”. Again, she is incorrect. Attachment parenting, in both theory and practice, encourages deep bonding between child and both parents (and additional caregivers, such as family members and family friends). Concepts such as baby-wearing, co-sleeping, responding with care, feeding with respect, and gentle discipline are all models that exemplify and encourage men to nurture their children while connecting with their abilities to be an attentive care-giver. How is my partner and his focus on parenting his son with love and respect a promotion “of old school gender roles”? How is incorporating gentleness and compassion, understanding and need-based care a collusion with retroactive gender roles?

Certainly, the focus many attached parents place on breastfeeding could be understood as ‘anti-feminist,’ but I consider this view to be limiting. Breastfeeding my son was my choice, and there are many attached parents who choose not to breastfeed, but find other ways to feed their children with respect.

Friedman, like any other feminist, would take issue with me making assumptions about her life. So, I ask: why is she allowed to question my parenting, privilege-awareness, and feminism? Why are women who decide to stay home immediately labeled as privileged and slapped off the feminist table, our values no longer of importance and our expertise no longer relevant? I may not be contributing piles of cash to the life that we lead, where we live with gratitude on the salary of my partner, and my income as a freelance web designer/writer – but I am contributing to the world as a mother. Every day I am teaching compassion and tolerance. Every day I am raising an ally. This isn’t just a lefty privilege utopia dream – this is my life – and you don’t get to suggest that my adoration of my son and my choices to parent him gently isn’t analogous with radical feminism. Never do I assume that mothers who work outside of the home (or those who practice more conventional parenting) love their children less. Never do I assume that women who are child-free are ‘less-than’. So why is it acceptable for you to assume that I am less of a feminist (or that I am elite) because I stay home with my son?

The assumptions are massive Ms. Friedman. You assume we choose to stay home. You assume that our careers and training are in demand. You assume that getting pregnant was easy, and thus we find it easy to be separated from our children. You assume that we can afford day care or nannies or child care programs. You assume that we aren’t single parents. You assume that our children are not in need of special care because of biological, emotional or psychological issues. You assume that we are heterosexual. You assume that we aren’t doing ‘work’ in our homes. You assume that we aren’t running our own small businesses and maybe making little money, but love what we do. You assume that we aren’t volunteering and helping our communities. You assume that we don’t live in poverty. You assume that we haven’t sold our houses to parent in this way. You assume that we don’t suffer from illnesses that prohibit us from going back to the work force. You assume that we are all privileged elites. You assume those of us with the luxury of choice are throwing back to ‘old school’ gender roles. You assume that in having children and choosing to parent in a compassionate, intensely emotional and needs-based manner that we are simpering June Clevers working against the advancement of women and the destruction of a patriarchal society.

I say bullshit. I suggest that before you start suggesting that attachment parents aren’t capable of anything more than pushing an elite, heteronormative, white, cis, privilege-fueled dream that you actually get to know some of these people. I know many people of colour, many gay, many lesbian, and many financially marginalized people who are practicing attachment parenting – are they throwing it back retro-style, too? No. And neither am I.

I acknowledge my privilege. I am a cis woman, with a few degrees (and some crushing debt), in  a mutually beneficial and consensual partnership. We live in Canada and have an apartment that we can afford, which I consider to be safe and comfortable. But we are not the elite, Ms. Friedman. I fight everyday to see the intersectionalities within the larger movement of feminism, and I everything that I do as a woman, as a feminist and as a mother is for ALL women. I wish that you could afford me the same respect.

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