There’s one thing you can definitely expect when you are expecting and that’s misinformed debate about irrelevant issues.
In Sydney for the Writer’s Festival, British writer Jeanette Winterson gave an arresting speech about her grim childhood as an adopted child of a detached and cruel devotee of the Pentecostal Church.
As a fresh wave of the “mummy wars” flooded across the net last week, Winterson’s story was a sobering reminder of the factors which really impact on a child’s wellbeing, from love and intimacy within the family to alleviating poverty amongst children.
In the debate which is fast bordering on the absurd, a Time Magazine cover story showed an attractive 26 year old mother breast feeding her child as she gazes belligerently into the camera eye under the headline ‘Are you mom enough?’
It came on the tail end of a controversy sparked by US Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann Romney, talking about her ‘job raising five boys’. Democratic Strategist Hilary Rosen retorted that Ann Romney ‘had never worked a day in her life’ and it was on for young and old.
Women (and men) on all continents leapt to the defence of their sisters and they were divided once more by the tired old lines of breast vs bottle, childcare vs stay at home, sleep-in-the-bed vs controlled crying, attachment vs free range, all while children of both camps play indistinguishable from the other in the dirt.
There is little medical consensus, for instance, even on the benefits of breastfeeding, the most scientifically monitorable aspect of child rearing, much less on the other minutiae of child rearing.
As author of Is Breast Best? Professor Joan Wolf writes in the Journal of Health Politics and Law, research about breast feeding is “inconsistent, lacks strong associations, and does not account for plausible confounding variables, such as the role of parental behaviour in various health outcomes.”
But of what use is science in a debate that has taken on a semi-religious quality? Where scores of women with no experience are writing books on how to raise children and millions of women are following blindly in their wake.
In What To Expect When You’re Expecting, a book which has sold nearly 12 million copies in the US, the writer extorts pregnant women “Before you close your mouth on a forkful of food, consider, ‘Is this the best bite I can give my baby?’
But if it’s not based in fact, what is the debate really about? One can’t help feel that the debate is skimming the surface of a much deeper fjord of reason.
Feminists Erica Jong and Elisabeth Badinter frame the debate in feminist terms – saying that it’s about equality of rights within the family – who has the right to parenthood and work and who has a right to a decent childhood – while the only rights that are fully enshrined are those of men who can easily have both without compromise.
But it’s difficult to argue that educated women of the first world (many of whom have experienced the heights of career success) are staying home because of male oppression.
That view still clings to the ultimately outdated and fundamentally sexist idea that women have to somehow conform to one stereotype or the other – whether that is a working behemoth or a nurturing stay at home queens – when we all know that the reality is quite different.
I’ve been working a year and half part time since my daughter was 8 months old. But now I wouldn’t mind leaving. After a break, I might want to work again. For most of us, we are career women, mothers, lovers and plenty of other things as well. These are not ‘feminist issues’, but just part of the ebb and flow of life.
In any case, the genie is out of the bottle on women working. Female participation rates in Australia have never been so high at 65.3% in 2010/11; so there’s simply no going back.
More recently, the NY Times and Time magazine, focused on the pathology of attachment parenting and the idea that attachment parents stemmed from the divorces that swept through society in the 1970s.
So does that make it a crime? To suffocate your child in love? Is that the worst thing we can do? Jeanette Winterson, who spent many a night locked in her family’s coal cellar, might beg to differ.
It would be prudent at this point to remember that many great thinkers from Marx to Gramsci have pointed out that our cultural beliefs can reflect the underlying forces and interests of society.
The fierce tide of resentment that boils against attachment parenting must be at least in part because the rights of the child at some point interfere with our own rights and those of others who might need our labour– our rights to a great career, our right to our own time and so on.
But we let ourselves get carried away by this debate simply because its easy to have a clear cut point of view.
By focusing on things we can control, we can forget about the infinitely more difficult issues of parenting – loving our children, reforming the workplace so people can spend time with their families or ending child poverty.
Jeanette Winterson’s conclusion: love is the highest value. Now that’s something worth talking about.
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