Thursday, March 18, 2004

Mommy Myth Review

The Mommy Myth has gotten a lot press lately. I quickly dismissed it a few weeks ago for its sloppy research and poor writing. I thought I would dismiss it in more depth today.

The authors claim that a dominant ideology today makes women feel guilty if they don’t spend 24/7 with their kids bolstering their self esteem and developing every emerging talent.

This is true. Raising children today is a much different enterprise than it was in the 1950s or 60s. My mom didn’t strap us kids into car seats, which meant that it was easier to go places and to share carpooling with neighbors. She put us to sleep on our stomachs, which is much easier than putting babies to sleep on their backs. She gave us solid food much earlier and filled our bellies with formula, which meant that we slept through the night quicker. She shoved us out the backdoor and we amused ourselves in the backyard with a stick and a hole. We had no dance classes, music classes, or playdates. We cried in our cribs until we went to sleep. If we didn’t like dinner, we went hungry. She read us stories, of course, and sang us songs, but she didn’t do it all day. She had the house to clean and dinner to make for my dad.

What is the source of this more demanding style of parenting? The authors blame a vast right wing conspiracy, which they intelligently call the Committee for Retrograde Antifeminist Propaganda or CRAP. (Call me an academic snob, but I was really irritated by this. Also, trying to be cute, they call the former Soviet Union, those pesky Russkies. Finger nails on a blackboard.)

Now I’m not an expert on Dr. Laura, but I don’t think that she is the source of the new demanding style of parenting. I believe that conservatives just want women at home, and are not prescribing activities for the mother.

Unless the Sears are in league with CRAP, I think that the new style of parenting has other sources. Child development experts, safety experts, and parents themselves have brought about these changes.

As soon as you find out that you’re pregnant you are given a library of books on how to make the smartest child. (I wrote about it before here.) And we buy them. Parent magazines report on these studies and respond to the demand for information and publish detailed articles about how to do yoga with your 6 month old baby, how to sing to your fetus, and the dangers of one hour of TV a day.

Why do we buy this stuff? Why do we put so much time into parenting? Well, partly it’s because we love our kids. It’s natural to want to do the best thing for your kids. If a study shows that TV lowers your child’s IQ, we have to turn off Barney, even if it means that we don’t have time for a shower that day. Maybe, it also has to do with the fact that the middle class feels much more insecure than it did in the past. There are less career opportunities for those who fail to flourish in school and more income inequity.

This new style of parenting is much tougher on those who work. And this is the unstated point of the Mommy Myth. I’m home most of the time, and I’m pretty drained after a long day of parenting. How much worse is it for a woman who picks up her kids from daycare at 6:00, makes dinner from scratch, cleans up the kitchen, sorts the mail, reads stories, gives baths, brushes teeth, and puts the kids to sleep? She puts the kids in front of the TV to make the dinner and while she gets ready for work in the morning. She knows that her kids haven’t gotten this high maintenance parenting at daycare, and there’s no way she can do much in that hour or two that they are home together. She’s too exhausted from work to engage in stimulating chatter with the kids; maybe even loses her temper too often. It’s tough.

Instead of stating that point, which is interesting and good, the authors get defensive. (This mothering thing makes us all defensive.) They defend the old feminists who said that we could do it all, they make weird causal assumptions, and they fail to show that their kids have thrived without their full attention.

One of the pressures (there are others) on the work of the previous generation of feminists comes from child experts, not Dr. Laura. Attachment parenting and Baby Mozart are pressuring women to leave the work force and forcing feminists to think up new solutions.

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