The Real Casualties of the “Mommy Wars”

Hanna Rosin’s recent article in The Atlantic, “The Case Against Breast-Feeding,” has, predictably, garnered a lot of attention and generated plenty of controversy.  In the article, Rosin recounts her own (largely successful) experiences with breast-feeding, while also documenting the often fanatical messages espoused by “Breast is Best” devotees.  Rosin’s article is incredibly comprehensive and thoroughly-researched, yet at its core is a sentiment far more important than the scientific research and motherly testimony Rosin provides: Given that most research examining the benefits of breast-versus-bottle feeding is inconclusive at best, the growing divisiveness between those who breast feed and those who don’t harms moms, babies, and ultimately our culture more than any packaged baby formula ever could.

The article has been classified as another tome in the large library documenting the “mommy wars,” the seemingly endless battles between women over what is best for the children.  Anyone who came of age in the 1980s has seen several incarnations of the “mommy wars.” The feminist struggles of the 1960s and ’70s may have largely been movements against a patriarchal society, but as women gained more power in society and enjoyed more choices in their lives, they seemed to stop fighting “the man” and instead have turned against one another, and no aspect of this battle has garnered more coverage than what the news media loves to call the “mommy wars.”

In the early to mid-eighties, as more women began to work outside the home, the media portrayed this “war” as being a face-off between “working moms” and “stay at home” moms. Women who juggled career and family were portrayed by the “other side” as being selfish, denying their children their full attention–even the appropriate amount of love. Meanwhile, many working moms looked at stay at home moms as hopelessly backward and lacking in ambition, sometimes even accusing them of sending the “wrong” message to daughters everywhere about what it means to be a woman in the modern world.

Eventually, as divorce rates rose and as the cost of living increased such to make it necessary for many women to work outside the home whether they wanted to or not, the “mommy wars” quieted down a bit, at least for a while. The 1987 film, Baby Boom, starring Diane Keaton, stands as an interesting “cultural artifact” of the time period: Keaton’s character–a work-obsessed corporate type with a stereotypical “Type A” personality–inherits a baby after a distant relative dies suddenly. Finding it frustrating and unpalatable to be chasing after a child while also trying to keep up with clients and work, Keaton’s character (J. C. Wiatt) initially tries to find the little one another home. But as J. C.  continues to interact with the baby–lo!–she finds that she has discovered the motherly intuition that clearly lies deep inside every woman. The movie ends with Keaton’s character finding a great guy who is good with the baby and who has endless patience for J. C., who by that point has launched a successful business making homemade baby food–a maneuver that allows her to fulfill her desire for a career without sacrificing the time she spends with her child. The message: Ladies, you can “have it all”–all it takes is the seed money to start a successful business out of your homey Vermont cabin where you can cuddle your baby while talking on the phone with sales reps. No sweat!

As women’s roles in society (and in their families) changed and evolved, so did the legislation that governed the places in which women worked. Hence, employers are required to provide at least six weeks of maternity leave, and many larger, more profitable companies (recognizing the payoffs associated with attracting and keeping qualified employees by providing longer leaves) offer new mothers up to six months of time at home, and at least a few weeks of family leave to new fathers. In addition, because so many women start families much later in life than their counterparts did twenty or thirty years ago, many new mothers find they feel established enough–with their finances and work experience–to safely leave their careers entirely for the first few years of their child’s life in order to parent full-time.

The media has been happy to cover this trend, but only insofar as it can be viewed through the lens of the “mommy wars.”  Now that greater numbers of women are choosing to stay at home with their kids, it seems a new era of competition has emerged, between the “Alpha-moms”–over-achieving, highly educated mothers who parent their children as “perfectly” as possible–and “Beta-moms”–a group that resists over-the-top children’s birthday parties and handmade everythings. Recently, in a perspective on KQED Public Radio in San Francisco, a woman (one of the “Beta-moms,” presumably) expressed her relief over the findings of a David Lancy study that revealed that the idea that parents (read: mothers) should play with their children constantly is not only a relatively “new” approach to parenting, but also one that could be problematic.  According to an article in the Boston Globe that paraphrased Lancy, certain groups are “too aggressively promoting this intense, interventionist parenting style to low-income parents, and […] are are too quick to claim that adult-child play is crucial for human development.”

Certainly, the reaction of many mothers (particularly the well-read, well-educated, over-achieving types that Lancy is referring to) would likely be to cite the research that supports their brand of “helicopter parenting” in which they involve themselves extensively in all aspects of their child’s life. And indeed, plenty of research suggests that kids who are read to have improved literacy, and children whose parents interact with them frequently have better vocabularies and, perhaps, a more secure sense of self. But to frame this conversation as one about what moms “should” be doing is to miss the point entirely. As the woman’s perspective on KQED indicated, her relief stems not from the idea that her more hands-off parenting approach is not harming her children; rather,  her reaction stems from a slight release in the pressure to be the kind of mom that others feel she should be.

Ultimately, what harms women (and children) everywhere is society’s willingness to judge mothers (and for mothers to judge one another) for the choices they make for their own families. Through all of the incarnations of the “mommy wars”: working vs. not working, breast feeding vs. bottle feeding, intensive play vs. a more “hands-off” approach, there has yet to be any version of the “daddy wars.” Somehow, dads have escaped the media’s relentless attention regarding what it means to be a parent–especially, what it means to be a “good” parent. Where are the articles about dads who judge other dads based on how much they see their children or how much their career limits or doesn’t limit the amount of time they spend at home?  One hopes not that we will soon begin to see coverage of the “daddy wars,” but that we will see a lessening of the ownership that collective society so often claims over women–over their bodies and how they use them, over their children and how they raise them.  What we would all benefit from is less reporting from the front lines of the “mommy wars” and more of a focus on the end that too many fights preclude: a lasting peace and understanding that leads to support of one another rather than judgments that pull us apart.

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About Sarah

Grammar goddess, cultural critic, full-time media junkie. I read, I bake, I watch tv. And then I write about it.
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One Response to The Real Casualties of the “Mommy Wars”

  1. Amy says:

    Well done! It is always a relief to find non-judgmental ‘mom friends,’ since everything the media reports about moms these days seems to highlight these battles. Whether it be stay-at-home vs working mom, breastfeeding “lactivists” vs formula users, co-sleeping parents vs straight-to-the-crib parents, etc, we seem to be constantly pitted against each other. And not just by one another, but by the media. I feel that the bottom line is this: If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. If going to work fulfills a woman and staying home depresses her, she should go to work for the sake of her and her family. There is nothing wrong with day care. However, if staying home feels right and working away from baby is much too emotionally and physically difficult, then the stay at home life is for her. We can analyze the effects of day care, formula, breastmilk, etc, ad nauseum, but there is no clear answer other than a mother’s happiness and *it’s* effect on a child. Thanks for writing this!

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