As the so-called ‘mommy wars’ rage, we need to stop blaming mothers, celebrate good enough parenting, and focus instead on providing structural support for parents.
I wasn’t going to write about mothering again so soon after Mother’s Day, but the popular culture forced me into it. The May 21st cover of Time magazine depicted a young mother breastfeeding her almost 4-year-old son. The headline screamed, “Are You Mom Enough?” with the subtitle celebrating attachment parenting “guru” Dr. Bill Sears. The cover photo was clearly designed to stimulate dialogue and it has indeed done that. The morning shows and blogosphere have been eagerly pulsating with discussions of extended breastfeeding, attachment parenting, breastfeeding in general, and the competition between moms that the Time headline was obviously intended to elicit.
As someone who has taught a course on the psychology of mothering, I find this debate a bit tiring because, as with most topics on mothering, it never seems to change. Some people bemoan the fact that most children aren’t breastfed at all while others are up in arms because older kids are breastfeeding beyond the age they should stop. The attachment parenting crowd states that this is the way we parent “naturally,” while others insist that it is not good for children, and it’s too hard on mothers (and let’s be honest here, when we’re talking about the majority of the work of childcare, we’re talking about mothers; I didn’t see a father depicted or even mentioned on the Time cover). The upshot of all of this is that we have a lot of voices yelling about “the right way” to parent a child and, in the course of getting swept up in the tornado of controversy, are completely missing the point.
There is no one “right way” to parent. If there were, we would all know what it was. The fact that there are so many alternatives out there on how to raise a child is a testament to the diversity of our lives. What is good for one family will not be good for another. As such, the point to all of this is that the one thing we can all agree upon is that the best way to raise children is together. As in, it takes a village to raise a child. Yes, that saying is beyond trite by now, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Children fare best when they are raised within a community of caring people who strive to make things easier for families. And yet, here in the United States where we constantly talk about “family values,” that is just what we fail to do.
Instead of putting into place the institutional supports that would greatly ease the difficulty of parenting (for a list of those supports, see my previous post “Playing the Mother Card: Why We Need a Winning Hand”), our society enthusiastically embraces each and every controversy that pits mothers against each other. Vaginal delivery or C-section? Breast or bottle? Crib or co-sleep? Board room or play room? The catalog of mothering competitions could go on, but the crux of the issue is that no matter what we do, mothers are between a rock and a hard place. We will endure judgment for any decision we make because, at the end of the day, none of us are deemed “mom enough.” How can we be? The rules keep changing, while the support keeps dwindling, and this combination leaves most of us just plugging along trying to do the best we can.
While I’m not one for conspiracy theories, I can’t help but notice that this means that we mothers are just where they want us to be. As long as we keep competing with each other and trying to meet increasingly impossible expectations, we won’t make waves. As long as we have mothers to blame for not doing it right, then necessary changes won’t be made. And no profession has made it more of a mission to blame mothers than doctors.
Doctors of all stripes (unfortunately, this most definitely includes psychologists) have blamed mothers for everything, from causing schizophrenia and other mental illnesses, to chastising them for being ambitious (stage moms), being overprotective (helicopter moms), and emasculating male children (mama’s boys). Some mothers even get blamed for the father’s addictions or abuse because they didn’t fight hard enough to stop it. Fathers are not held up to the same standards. Any involvement in their children’s lives is lauded, lack of participation is ignored, and they rarely are blamed for the mother’s behavior. Moreover, being a “daddy’s girl” is considered to be a positive quality showing the bond between father and daughter.
I have to admit that I find it just a tad ironic that almost every famous parenting “guru” out there — you know, the ones preaching to mothers how they should parent — has never been a mother. We’ve had a parade of male doctors from Dr. Watson, Dr. Spock, Dr. Brazelton, Dr. Dobson (from Focus on the Family), and, of course, Dr. Sears, all telling us what we should do. Given that all of them were married and very busy advocating parenting advice, you have to wonder how they had the time to actually parent all that much themselves, or whether that was a responsibility primarily left up to the children’s mothers. My experience with parenting is that it is a job that is easy to dictate, but hard to put into practice. Thus, I tend to approach with caution the advice of someone who hasn’t had a large amount of experience with it.
Time magazine chose their cover picture and story hoping to drum up some controversy and discussion. I agree that mothering issues need to be better explored, but I would like to change the focus. Instead of blaming mothers for not doing it right, I’d prefer it if the emphasis were broadened to include an analysis of all the obstacles mothers face. Instead of judgment, I’d like it if people started wondering how they can help. And instead of handicapping the people we trust to raise our future, let’s figure out how to ensure that we are all “mom enough” to succeed. Now that would be a discussion that I’d like to have. It’s time.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Pat Orner Oliver on .on and was last reviewed or updated by