Imagine a cocktail party where everyone introduced him or herself with reference to a car.
Hi, I’m Debbie and I drive a Ford Explorer
Nice, to meet you Debbie. I’m Karen and I drive a Lexus RX350. Let me introduce Kathy; she drives a Subaru. And here’s Margie. She drives a Ford Explorer just like you.
Hi, Margie. I’m so glad to meet someone else who drives a Ford Explorer. It can be tough to be a Ford driver in this culture when no one else cares enough about their country to buy American cars.
What might we conclude from this brief exchange? First, it is clear that the people in this group have constructed their identity around car ownership, not simply differentiating between those who own cars and those who don’t, but tying identity directly to specific brands. Second, even in this short exchange, we can see that identity creation through brand choice leads to a form of security, through a sense of belonging to a self-chosen group. Third, although the car appears to be central, this is not about cars at all; it is really about self-definition.
Sounds ludicrous to create an identity around car brands, doesn’t it? Yet is strikingly similar to the current penchant for creating identity around specific parenting choices, also known as parental tribalism. According to Jan Macvarish:
The idea of ‘parental tribalism’ … [is] descriptive of a tendency among individuals to form their identities through the way they parent, or perhaps more precisely, through differentiating themselves from the way some parents parent and identifying with others …
Macvarish is a scholar in the relatively new field of “parenting culture.” She is a member of the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies. The Centre’s key areas of research are common topics for discussion on this blog, including (among others): risk consciousness and parenting culture; the management of emotion and the sacralisation of ‘bonding’; the policing of pregnancy (including diet, alcohol consumption, smoking); the moralization of infant feeding (including breast and formula feeding, weaning); and The experience of the culture of advice/’parenting support’. Each of these topics is also a basis for parental tribalism.
Parental tribalism involves constructing an identity around parental choices, or rather constructing an identity centered on differentiating themselves from parents who make different choices. It is perhaps not coincidental that Mothering.com, the leading publication in the “natural” parenting community, refers to its individual message boards, each denoting a different parenting choice, as “tribes”, thereby highlighting differences and encouraging the construction of maternal identity around these differences.
Strikingly, many of these choices, although they appear to concern the well being of children, are really about the self image of parents. As Macvarish explains:
…[T]the focus on identities reflects adult needs for security and belonging and, although the child appears to be symbolically central, in fact ‘the cultural politics of parents’ self-definition have eclipsed a concern with the needs of children.
I have often said that homebirth, for example, is not about babies, and it is not even about birth. Homebirth is about mothers, their experiences, their needs and their desires.
As with all forms of tribalism, parental tribalism leads to conflicts:
[T]there is a frailty and sometimes hostility in real or imagined encounters between parents, where the parenting behaviour of one can either reinforce or threaten the identity of another. What is noticeable in contemporary mothers’ descriptions of their parenting experiences is that many feel stigmatised or assume a defensive stance about their parenting choices, even those apparently making officially sanctioned choices. For example, some breastfeeding mothers express the view that society still sees breastfeeding as abnormal, despite the fact that they are very much swimming with the tide of official advice …
Websites and publications concerned with attachment parenting, natural childbirth, homebirth and lactivism emphasize and encourage this hostility. There is an almost paranoid certainty that other mothers are watching and criticizing. The resultant defensiveness is the true source of the hostility. By aggressively promoting their own choices, aggressively demeaning the choices of other mothers, and aggressively insisting that anyone who makes different choices is implicitly criticizing them, advocates of attachment parenting, homebirth, lactivism, etc. encourage the very conflicts that they claim to deplore.
These conflicts do not benefit children, anyone’s children, in any way. That’s not surprising since it’s not about children, but about parental self image. Indeed, constructing identity around parenting choices has the potential to harm children, by ignoring the actual needs of children in favor of promoting the mother’s sense of security and belonging.
This piece first appeared in November 2010.