Anthony Devlin/PA Wire
Was it just a few weeks ago that Time ran a cover story claiming women were poised to become “the richer sex”—getting more education than men, working up a storm and, in one out of four marriages, bringing home the fatter slice of bacon? That was followed by Katie Roiphe’s fact-free Newsweek cover story alleging that women have become so weary of being in charge, they long for men to dominate them in bed. Well, never mind all that. Now, according to Time, women are giving up on careers to embrace attachment parenting—breast-feeding their kids till age 3 or more; having Baby sleep in your room, if not your bed; and “babywearing”—carrying your baby in a sling every minute of the day and never, ever letting it cry. Corner office? Bondage and spanking? Turning yourself into a human kangaroo? It’s hard to keep up.
I was originally going to write this column as an attack on women who have fallen for the attachment-parenting spiel, which makes them feel endlessly guilty and then encourages them to project that guilt outward onto more relaxed mothers. Women are so eager to blame themselves and one another about, well, everything—weight, looks, clothes, sexual behavior (you haven’t lived till you’ve heard a seventh-grade girl refer to another as a “ho”), marriages and, of course, baybeez, every wrinkle of whose behavior is directly attributable to their mothers’ having made some small but fatal mistake.
But that would be to join in the attack on mothers. As it happens, I agree with French feminist Elisabeth Badinter, who, in her short, sharp polemic The Conflict, argues that intensive, obsessive mothering bodes ill for women’s equality. As long as women’s primary focus is domestic, men will run the world and make the rules (and if you are happy with a Congress that’s only 17 percent female, you can stop reading right now). Dr. Bill Sears, guru of attachment parenting and, not incidentally, a devout Christian, is fairly explicit that mothers shouldn’t have jobs—he even suggests that couples borrow money from their parents to enable the wife to stay home. (That Romney-esque suggestion shows how class-based attachment parenting is.)
Not only is this arrangement bad for women; I don’t think it’s necessarily good for children either—being hovered over constantly and obliged to serve the emotional needs of an adult who has blocked herself from normal adult modes of pleasure and accomplishment. (One woman profiled in Time has even given up her friends. The only time she let anyone else care for her baby was when she was in labor producing another.) What does attachment parenting tell daughters about how big their dreams should be? How does it teach sons not to expect women to cater to their every whim? How does it teach any child that the world does not revolve around him or her? It’s true that only a tiny number of families practice attachment parenting to the full—there are only 5 million stay-at-home mothers in the whole country, and most of them are either very wealthy or very poor—but its ideals are pervasive: as Badinter puts it, Baby is king; Mom is servant.
Child-rearing fashions come and go, but they’re always about regulating the behavior of women—middle-class educated women. If these discussions were really about children, we would be debating the policies that affect them—what to do about our shocking level of child poverty, for example. It’s not on the radar except insofar as single mothers, with their selfish, licentious, man-spurning ways, can be blamed for it. Yet child poverty surely affects children’s well-being more directly, and more injuriously, than a pregnant woman indulging in the occasional glass of wine, or the momentous question of whether to use cloth diapers or disposable ones. And only tangentially are child-raising fads about fathers; men are more “involved” now than fifty years ago, but you won’t catch them beating themselves or one another up over not making organic baby food from scratch. Indeed, Time’s attachment-parenting package includes a humorous “Detached Dad’s Manifesto,” which suggests that Dad’s role is to provide “a little dose of fatherly distance” from attachment parenting’s heavy demands. That tells you everything you need to know about these guilt-inducing scripts.
Badinter blames intensive mothering for distorting feminism and pulling women back into the home. But one could also say it’s a socially approved way of withdrawing from a workplace that, in addition to all the usual sorrows and pains, has been sexist in general and hostile to mothers in particular, and of resolving the frustrations of the double day—women’s greater domestic burden. (These are also features of French life, despite France’s excellent daycare system.) America is famously unfriendly to mothers—no paid parental leave, a lack of affordable daycare, patchy after-school, long workdays, little vacation. Even legally mandated paid sick days are controversial. Individual mothers manage to negotiate these shoals—after all, most mothers are employed—but overall, lack of social supports is America’s way of telling them they don’t really belong at work. Their real job is at home.
Work/life balance is usually listed as a “women’s issue.” That’s because “life” in that context does not mean socializing, learning new things, volunteering or enjoying yourself. It means the traditional work of women—raising kids and doing housework. For similar reasons, the trade-off of shorter hours for no promotion is called the “mommy track”—not the “parent track,” and certainly not the “daddy track.”
Where Badinter goes wrong is that she blames women for adapting to this unjust state of affairs by moralizing their own subjection and making it the basis for their identity. This lets men off the hook yet again. For the “mommy wars” to end, maybe the “daddy wars” have to begin.