May 18 2012

Mothering Between Extremes

Diana McKibben

There will always be theories declaring the best way to raise one’s child, and there will always be critics. Mothers face an array of new choices today, both at home and in the workplace, and as parents navigate the many different ways to raise healthy and well adapted children, a tension is perceivable between a school of thought which declares that moms should be hyper-attentive (perhaps included in this camp is the theory that recommends raising children as “naturally” as possible); another camp champions female independence and autonomy in the face of it.

Pamela Druckerman wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal last February on the superiority of French parenting in which she lauded the French approach to teaching children to be patient by not answering their every cry or call. French parents are involved but not “obsessed” Druckerman wrote. The problem with middle-class parenting in America, according to Druckerman, is defined by a slew of negative terms like overparenting, hyperparenting, helicopter parenting, etc.

Indeed, it seems that helicopter parents are real in America. The Christian Science Monitor posted a 50 question interactive quiz last April testing the degree of parents’ hovering tendencies. One hesitates to answer honestly to a question such as, “Would you ever give a cookie back to your toddler after she dropped it on the kitchen floor?” You seem overprotective if you throw the cookie away immediately, but you seem to take a risk if you blow the cookie off and give it back to your kid.

Perhaps in its own league is the model called “attachment parenting.” This month’s issue of TIME Magazine sparked controversy because the cover showed a mother and her 4 year old, who is breastfeeding while he stands on a stool. The three basic tenets of attachment parenting, coined by Dr. William Sears (author of The Baby Book 1993) are breastfeeding, potentially into the child’s toddler years; co-sleeping (bringing babies to bed with parents or pulling a crib alongside the parents’ bed); and “baby wearing,” which refers to carrying a baby in a sling.

While the aim is to foster a stronger physical connection between mother and child, attachment parenting might actually place too great a strain on mothers, argues French author Élisabeth Badinter, known for her writings on feminism. Her most recent book, The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women poses the idea that “natural” mothering, so-to-speak, means women essentially relapse into the confining domestic sphere of society.

Isn’t there a healthy middle ground which satisfies both a baby’s and a mother’s needs? Sabrina Parons responded to Badinter’s thesis in Forbes magazine, arguing that the real issue today is not “that women feel forced to stay at home and be barefoot and pregnant,” thus somehow threatening their individuality and autonomy. Instead, independent women must increasingly learn to ask for what they need. So, working mothers, who are much more common as families depend on two-parent incomes, shouldn’t feel ashamed to go home before six o’clock to prepare dinner for her children if she is also an effective professional.

There will always be the push and pull between compulsive or overindulgent parenting on the one side, bringing its own extremes, and the desire to be an autonomous and independent woman on the other. Today, women have more freedom than they’ve ever had to both work and raise children, but this still means women often have to make tough choices, and sacrifices, because someone will lose out if you try to “do it all,” and it shouldn’t be the child. Today’s modern mother shouldn’t conform to an extreme, but seek to strike a healthy balance between meeting the needs of her children, the first priority, and also meeting her needs as a woman.

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