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Dear Erica Jong: We Parent in a Vacuum, Not a Prison

mother and baby

Is this woman wasting her time on this baby?

I agree, Paula, that feminist icon Erica Jong way overstates the strictness of “attachment parenting” in her piece over the weekend in The Wall Street Journal. She and others like her seem to think attachment parenting is an oath, as if before any Moby Wrap purchase mothers must first check an “I agree” box, obligating them to clear the home of formula, bury the binkies and draw baby baths the exact temperature of the womb.

In reality, AP is a buffet of options and strategies with all sorts of different ends: stopping your baby from crying, lowering expenses, getting extra sleep, and indulging in that strangely fixating thing called mother love.

Jong also conflates AP with helicopter parenting just to drive home her claim that today’s generation of mothers is letting down hers, because we’re goofy and sentimental and too susceptible to images of Heidi Klum’s baby bumps and Angelina Jolie’s carefully curated international family. Just as one woman’s Medela pump is another mother’s prison, though, one mother’s helicoptering is another mom’s advocacy. There’s no one size. We are not a monolith. There are no hard and fast rules.

For the most part, we’re all trying our best — the majority of us just happen to do it in a kind of vacuum. We don’t get maternity/paternity leave. Some of us don’t have insurance. Grandparents live half-way to the moon. Housing and childcare is freaking expensive. According to Jong, though, attachment parenting is to blame. Sure, that’s where the wheels finally came off.

Jong claims we’re in a period of “retrenchment against progressive social policies” (Sarah Palin, etc.), but I’d like to know when such policies were ever trenched (or whatever the opposite of retrenchment is). It’s not as if the Mama Grizzlies came on the scene and suddenly my high-quality, inexpensive childcare went away. When was the last time a progressive social policy helped my insurance-less neighbor’s kids see an eye doctor or dentist? Damn that retrenchment from federally mandated excellent public schools! Guess I’ll drive the kids across town everyday so they can grow up educated enough to ponder the writings of Jong, et al. Oh wait, I already do.

The problem with Jong’s argument is that she’s blaming (or at least mocking) the victims. She thinks we modern moms are the makers of our own demise. But attachment parenting didn’t suddenly convince a vast network of human resources offices to shut down the mandatory six-months paid maternity and paternity leave. Remember? We’ve never had anything remotely like that in the U.S. Not one of feminism’s waves has won us that.

Which is why I find Jong’s (and others’) gripes about what wearing a baby is doing to women in this country (and others) so hard to take seriously. Taking the baby with us, strapped to our bodies, says something about motherhood that, honestly, her generation reviled. Bringing the baby along to the bar tells the world that being a mom is really kind of fun. Perfect? No. Stress-free? Definitely not. Uncompromising? Never, never, never. But parenthood for those who chose it? Eh. It’s pretty cool. (And also temporary and fleeting. So the boobs belong to the baby for a year. Who cares?)

Jong said she hired a nanny because she couldn’t possibly travel with her baby daughter. But some women did, and that paved the way for others to do it too. You could call that attachment parenting. And I don’t get why that bugs Jong so much. I think it’s good that work and family can be equally important, that women have shown their loyalty to both. Working moms commute with their babies, pump breast milk at work or negotiate for flextime or longer maternity leave. And baby-wearing, postpartum depression-experiencing dads do it too. Is it perfect? Far, far from it. Could it use some progressive political policies? Yes, please. And this time, ones on the books that exist outside of our imaginations.

Pregnancy and motherhood in itself isn’t the collective curse that it was when working-woman Jong had her daughter. Or when my working mother, a Jong enthusiast, had me. Jong rolls her eyes at the so-called “cult” of motherhood, but I say let’s praise it. I’m glad pregnant women are obsessed over, and not looked on with pity or disgust or assumptions that they’ll soon be housewives, as they were sixty years ago. I dare say it has something to do with the front-and-center placement of babies in contemporary pop culture, in the strollers we push through crowded urban streets, in the fact that companies recognize us as big fat cash cows and interesting TV-show storylines.

Don’t blame the Baby Bjorn for a lack of female CEOs and law partners. It’s not for cloth diapers that women researchers at universities have lower rates of tenure than their male counterparts. One can co-sleep and practice medicine. But we can’t get much further than we are now without the help of past generations of new moms (and dads!) and the persistence of the young up-and-comers to support families — dads included.

Instead of telling us what we’re doing wrong, prominent women like Erica Jong need to advocate for what still needs to be done and not wait for today’s mother to do it all. I mean, we’re moms! We’re busy!

We’re busy with more than just hand-knitting bite cloths and pureeing organic squash. We’re raising feminist daughters and feminist sons. Believe me, we know exactly what we’re doing wrong. But cut us some slack. Show us some love. And focus your disappointment about the state of women and feminist ideals where it counts: on the men and women who make the laws, which, unlike the “rules” of attachment parenting, actually mean something and shape the future.

Photo: flickr.com/amcdawes

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