Babies, hostages in the mommy wars

sad baby 2 month old on isolated white background

The mommy wars are fights to the death.

No, not the deaths of the participants, but the deaths of confidence in their ability to mother their children.

Wait, what? You thought that the mommy wars were about children and their well being?

There are MANY right ways to raise children.

How naive! Yes, children are involved in the mommy wars, but, unfortunately, their role is as hostages.

The mommy wars are about one thing, and one thing only: who is the best mother?

Given the viciousness with which the mommy wars are fought, you might think there was an actual award at stake, a Mommy Nobel Prize, complete with international recognition, adulation and a cash annuity. The stakes are far smaller though every bit as important to the participants. What’s at stake is who can claim the designation of “best mother” within the social circle of other mothers.

Wait, what? You thought that the best mother is the one who raises healthy, happy children?

How naive! Looking at the children leaves much too much to chance.

In the first place, it is difficult to point to one baby as happier than all the others. Most babies are happy and healthy when given love. Why not wait until children are older to determine who is the best mother? Even those who are most adamant that natural childbirth, breastfeeding and attachment parenting produce the best, most accomplished, most well adjusted children recognize that the “best” parental inputs don’t ensure the “best” outcome. Therefore it is critically important to judge mothers by the process, which can be controlled, and not the outcome, which cannot.

According to natural childbirth advocates, unmedicated vaginal birth produces the healthiest, happiest, most accomplished children. But look at all the teens in a high school class. Can you tell whose mothers had epidurals or C-sections? No you can’t.

According to lactivists, breastfeeding produces the healthiest, happiest, most accomplished children. But look at an Ivy League graduating class. Can you tell whose mothers breastfed them and for how long? No you can’t.

According to advocates of intensive mothering, attachment parenting (“baby wearing,” extended breastfeeding, family bed) produces the healthiest, happiest, most accomplished children. But look at Nobel Prize winners. Can you tell whose mothers practiced attachment parenting? No you can’t.

Given this reality, is it any wonder that combatants in the mommy wars are obsessed with process and ignore outcome?

That’s not to say that children aren’t involved in the mommy wars; they are, but their role is as hostages, props for their mothers to act upon, without regard for what is actually best for them.

So women martyr themselves by forgoing epidurals which have no impact on babies and risk their babies lives by refusing needed C-sections in order to be the “best” mother.

So women let their babies scream in hunger, become dehydrated and require hospitalization for IV fluids by refusing to supplement with formula in an effort to be the “best” mother.

So women risk their mental health and the health of marriages and intimate relationships to practice attachment parenting in an effort to be the “best” mother, never considering that postpartum depression and ruined marriages are harmful to children.

The truth is that, “Who is the best mother?” is the wrong question entirely.

Each child has only one mother and does not compare his/her mother to other mothers. The competition between mothers is irrelevant to children. What counts for them is whether THEIR mother is meeting THEIR needs. The secret of mothering is that successful mothering is not outer-directed, it is inner-directed. The secret of mothering is not comparing yourself to other mothers, but asking yourself, “Am I doing MY best to provide what MY child needs?”

There is no reason to ignore your own needs, either. If you have unbearable pain in labor, use pain relief; if you need medication that is incompatible with breastfeeding for your physical and mental health, formula feed; if you and your husband want to keep your bed for yourself, do that. The truth is that none of these choices determine whether your children will be happy and healthy, let alone accomplished.

The sad fact is that many mommy bloggers, mommy message boards, and medical paraprofessionals are mommy war-mongers. They encourage the vicious efforts of some women to destroy the mothering confidence of other women because it benefits them. Perhaps they are mothers themselves and can only bolster their self-esteem by battering the self-esteem of others. Perhaps they fuel their blog (and in some cases their blog income) by promoting an us against them mentality that makes participants feel good, but does nothing for children. Perhaps their entire business model (doulas, lactation consultants, etc) depends on convincing women that buying their services will ensure mothering superiority.

It is widely recognized that we have been raising a generation of children many of whom are entitled, unable to tolerate disappointment or failure, and incapable of separating from their parents and shouldering adult responsibilities on their own. Could that be due, in part, to the fact that we have been raising children as hostages in the mommy wars, acted UPON by mothers determined to demonstrate their mothering superiority, rather than raised with their own needs in mind? It’s too soon to say, but it is certainly worth considering.

If we cared about children, as we claim that we do, we would be spending a lot more time individualizing mothering and a lot less time creating one size fits all prescriptions (natural childbirth, breastfeeding, attachment parenting) for being the “best” mother. We would be spending a lot more time supporting women in the choices that are best for THEIR children, not denigrating them for failing to mirror the choices we believe to be best for OUR children.

Let me be clear: I am often accused of “hating” unmedicated childbirth, breastfeeding and attachment parenting. How could I hate them if I did all three?

What I hate is the claim that the way that I raised my children is the way that everyone ought to raise theirs. We need to stop using our children as hostages in the mommy wars and declare a truce.

If I’ve learned anything at all in nearly 30 years of mothering and more than 30 years as a physician, it is that there are MANY right ways to raise children. It is my belief that the “best” mother is the one who cares deeply for her child and lets her child know it. It isn’t natural childbirth or breastfeeding or attachment parenting that makes a good mother…

It is love.

  • Chi

    OT: But has anyone seen this douche-waffle? (Seriously there are a great many names I’d like to call him and that was about the tamest).

    https://twitter.com/Onision/status/643202117788831744

    What boggles my mind is that he’s not even a privileged white woman and he’s shaming formula feeding mothers!!! What the hell makes him an expert on the subject?

    Fortunately there seem to be a few sane people among his followers who are telling him that boobs don’t always work the way they’re supposed to.

    • Sarah

      NEWMANITIS.

  • Liz Leyden

    “It is widely recognized that we have been raising a generation of children many of whom are entitled, unable to tolerate disappointment or failure, and incapable of separating from their parents and shouldering adult responsibilities on their own. ”

    By whom? What is their evidence? Has any generation even though their children weren’t spoiled, self-centered, and not ready to shoulder adult responsibility? Most of the entitled people I’ve encountered were wealthy. elderly, or both.

    • calliope

      Let’s see – I work in HR, for nearly 20 years now. Over the last five years or so I have had more and more parents come to the interviews, or call and yell at me for not hiring their child, or come to the office to get an application for their child.

      My friend is a professor. At the end of every semester she has to deal with irate parents who get pissed at her for flunking their children, because they didn’t do the work. She has been a professor for 25+ years, and this problem has only been occurring over the last 10 or so.

      So yes, there is something *severely* wrong with this generation when it comes to personal responsibility and not being able to wipe their own backsides. I would have never thought to call my child’s professor or the place they didn’t get a job and yell at them. I would have chalked it up to life lessons. My kids made mistakes but they learned from them. I was there for support and to teach, but didn’t do things for them.

      • Who?

        I’ve heard of both happening in my world also.

        When my son applied for one of the local universities, they sent his dad and I a nice letter assuring us he would be making a good choice if he went there, that they would be looking out for him, etc.

        Weird.

        So while I think LL’s point is broadly true-the lament ‘young people today’ is as old as time itself-there are also some different dynamics happening.

        • calliope

          Neither of my children’s universities sent letters like that to us. The closest thing was the parent tour after they had made their choice of which accepting university to choose.

          I am glad my children are raising their own children to be able to function on their own one day. They might be the only ones of their generation who can!

          • Who?

            The university both kids went to didn’t either, it was just this particular one. I presumed they were softening us up for some fundraising, as much as anything else.

            It’s a wonder to me that parents who put so much effort into raising their children have so little confidence in their ability to cope as they get older. Or maybe the parents think this is how to remain relevant and important in their children’s lives.

            We’ve just this weekend had a group of parents arrested for getting into a fight on the football field over an interaction between two fifteen year old players. There’s been a few similar over the last couple of years, really disturbing.

          • KeeperOfTheBooks

            To be filed under “when the kids are behaving more maturely than the adults…”

      • That sounds like a parent problem, not a young-person problem. Blame the parents for calling the professor or coming to the interview or yelling at you (without their child there) for not hiring the child.

        The child, if ze knew the parent was doing that, is probably mortified.

      • The Computer Ate My Nym

        My kiddo’s not university age yet but my niece and nephews not only decided on which university they wanted on their own, took all their own classes without parental help, and paid for their university with only marginal supplementation from their parents. OTOH, there were already when I was an undergraduate, nearly 30 years ago, kids whose parents hovered and tried to do their work for them. I don’t know if that’s more common now than then, but I’m certain it’s not universal for either. The kids are all right. Every generation is a “failure” yet here we still are.

      • demodocus

        I went back to school a few years ago (for post-bac certification) and a professor of ours always adds something to the effect that he’s not taking any of our parents’ calls. It made us old fogies snort.

    • KeeperOfTheBooks

      Though, speaking as someone who used to work in academia, I do think this generation has a serious hover-parent problem, I also think it can vary wildly due to background.
      I grew up in what I will freely admit was anything but an ideal environment: abusive, neglectful, and so on. However, from a young age I was expected to do *everything* for myself related to academia, from teaching myself algebra (yay “homeschooling!” /sarcasm) to dealing with all the college app process. On the other hand, my DH (who was also homeschooled) and his siblings had their parents filling out their financial aid applications and directing them in scholarship searches all the way through college and, in his case, for his graduate program. None of them has ever so much as filled out a FAFSA.
      I’d kind of like to do a happy medium between the two when DD and any siblings come along. I think it’s a bit much to expect the average 17-year-old to not only know what they want to do with their life but also make wise decisions re: college choices without any direction, but I also think that by 17 someone should be able to hold down a job, do their own taxes, and sure as hell fill out their own FAFSA, though of course DH and I would be happy to help with any questions that arise during that admittedly confusing process. To me, at that point your kid is very nearly an adult; they should ideally be making adult-level decisions while checking in with parents from time to time to make sure they haven’t overlooked something. Ideally, mind you. 😉

      • The Bofa on the Sofa

        The problem in college is not that parents are more protective or hovering because they don’t trust their kids, it’s because they are paying for it to a much greater extent then before. College costs have risen so much that parents are having to pay a bigger share than they used to, and consequently, they are protecting their financial investment.

        Moreover, they are expecting more in accountability from schools than they used to. The calls are not about “how can you do this to my poor baby” it’s “I pay a lot of money so my baby can go to school and he/she deserves better than what you are giving”

        It’s not about the kids, it’s about the money.

        • KeeperOfTheBooks

          You know, that’s a very good point, though I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive.
          For background, I worked at a community college and then a private-but-academically-inferior-in-most-areas college. The “my poor baby” stuff was (unsurprisingly) far, FAR more common at the cc, but it did crop up at the private one, usually at the same time as “I can’t believe that the deadline that was given some eight weeks ago at the beginning of the semester actually applies to my Special Snowflake! The mental trauma caused by her extreme halitosis made it IMPOSSIBLE for her to email you by that time to schedule a test session!”

  • Tara

    An often overlooked victim in the mommy-wars is the husband/father. Here’s my open letter-

    Dear women who treat their husbands like back-burner sperm donors,
    Your actions speak louder than the words in your patronizing letter.

    http://www.mothering.com/articles/open-letter-sexually-frustrated-husbands/

    • Amy M

      Ugh, what drivel. (hers, not yours). If I’ve learned anything in 11yrs of marriage and 6.5yrs of parenthood, its 1)compromise is key 2)marriage needs to be nurtured too—if you neglect it, it may not be there when you are ready to go back to it 3)children are not/should not be the center of the universe and they benefit by learning that their parents value their partners and wish to see that [the partner’s] needs (not just sexual!) are met too and 4) a sex problem is usually the symptom of a greater problem in the marriage, its rare that the amount/type/whatever of sex is the central issue.

      When the children were babies, and I had PPD, my marriage suffered. First, I needed help for my own sake. But then, my husband and I worked very hard (and still work hard) at seeing that each other’s needs (emotional, sexual, etc) are met because we love each other and we want our marriage to last. I was lucky that my husband was very patient for a long time, but if I’d chosen to continue to ignore his needs once I got to a healthier place, we would not be married today.

    • ladyloki

      These women only want husbands so the guys can bring home a paycheck and be a sperm donor. They don’t give a crap about his needs. He’s not allowed to have any. He’s just supposed to go into the stud barn until permitted to come out.

    • Francesca Violi

      How totally patronizing and yet unfeminist this letter is! She seems to take for granted that fathers don’t have a clue about what it means to raise children… I mean, I assume that after 5 years and 2 kids (her husband’s case) an adult man doesn’t need to be explained how rewarding yet demanding taking care of little children can be, as he experienced it himself? Instead she addresses her husband like an older child, rather than a peer engaged in her same “mission”.

  • Bugsy

    Really nice post – so much of it rings true to me. Both of my parents were teachers, and the idea that you can tell the kids who were from C-section deliveries/extended breastfeeding/baby-wearing is something that amuses them.

    That being said, having worked in higher education for nearly a decade, I do think you can recognize some of the kids w/ attachment parents. My university was fond of telling a story about a student whose parents insisted on replacing the tile flooring in his dorm room with wood. I had one student whose mom showed up the first week of school to visit her….when the student was studying abroad in Australia. There were countless others who couldn’t do anything without mommy or daddy’s input – or worse, they expected mommy/daddy to manage their entire university experience for them.

    That aside, I otherwise completely agree with the premise of this post that this type of mothering is more about the mom than the kid. What if the kid doesn’t like co-sleeping, extended breastfeeding or cloth diapers? The lactivist I knew openly pushed the boob on her preschooler even though he expressed zero interest in it.

  • demodocus

    That kid in the photo looks amazingly like my grandfather. Same expression when erring kids did something wrong. lol

  • sdsures

    When I was little, I’d go over to my best friend’s house to play, or she’d come over to mine. Beforehand, each parent would work out who was doing to driving, pickup time and so forth.

    I liked my best friend’s mom because she could be counted upon to pick my friend up maybe just a little bit longer, so we’d have more time for play. My mom, on the other hand, was always punctual.

    Darn it!

  • Amy

    My younger daughter does compare me to other mothers, very few of whom she has spent any appreciable time with. When I make brownies or her favorite eggplant lasagna, I’m the best mom in the world! When I make her clean her room, she wants a different mom.

    • Amazed

      When my mother put an end to her toddler’s attempt to show his artistic tendencies by decoration the walls of the bathroom with his own poo, he declared that he’d get a different mom. Very well, she said, there was a line of moms waiting for him just beyond the window. He went, looked over, and found none, therefore he resigned to his fate and his current mom’s authority.

    • The Computer Ate My Nym

      If you made me brownies and eggplant lasagna, you’d be my favorite mom too. At least until you wanted me to clean my room. (Sorry. Some of us just never do grow up. Also, now I want lasagne.)

      • Amazed

        A friend of mine cannot imagine how anyone could argue with anyone else over cooking. Just let the other person do it, she says. Well, this summer was one of the best in my entire history with my mom. The stove breathed its last, so neither of us could let the other do the cooking. She couldn’t let me and I couldn’t let her. Love and peace all around!

    • MaineJen

      So it’s not just my kids, then…we go from “I’m so glad you’re my mom!” to “I want to live in a different house…” daily. So exhausting!

  • Amy M

    I remember having a discussion about this stuff with an acquaintance some years ago. She believed there was a best/right way to do things, with babies. She said (and I still hear/read this all the time today in various places): “Why have a baby unless you can give it the best.” Even then, I thought, well, I’m going to give my children MY best, but who is to say what is objectively best? What’s best for a given baby and family will be based on their individual circumstances. We could all agree that abusing/neglecting children would be the worst, but there’s no one best.

    My friend had to concede that 1)most parents DO give their children their best and 2)she was/is quite privileged and had access to choices that many women just don’t have. Regardless, she was convinced that babies whose mothers stayed home for at least the first year were better off, and babies who went to daycare as infants were disadvantaged. When it was pointed out that most children do fine in daycare, and it even confers some benefits, she suggested that that could only be true in the most high-end daycares and if the daycare wasn’t The Best, the baby would be disadvantaged. Then it was pointed out that most daycares are fine, and that parents tend to send their children to the best they can afford. I don’t remember how it ended, but I doubt her mind was changed, at least not at the time.

    Anyway, years later, her child is in elementary school, and doing fine as far as I can tell. My children are also in elementary school and doing fine. As Dr. Amy pointed out above, if all our children could play together, no one watching would know how they were parented as babies.

  • Taysha

    I worry. I worry about what my parenting will do to my children. I worry about our choices, our outcomes, their outcomes. Their life. I worry because I love them. They’re my little assholes and I will tear anyone who messes with them apart (after I give my kids a chance to tenderize the offender).

    I have never subscribed to the idea that anyone has a right to criticize me for not doing things their way and I have never pushed my views on others. The utter amounts of vileness thrown on women in an attempt to cower them are maddening. May we raise a generation of women who know their worth is much more than what ideology they follow.

    There are hills I will die on. Breastfeeding, formula feeding, attachment parenting, solids, hatting, younameit are not it.

    My children are that hill.

  • Sarah

    I love this. Thank you so much, Dr Tuteur. Your blog has helped me detach my emotions from my inability to breastfeed and allowed me to focus on what’s actually important. You are a voice of reason in a sea of woo.

    “Life began with waking up and loving my mother’s face.” – George Eliot

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  • Cobalt

    This is beautiful. And true, and necessary.

    Thank you!

  • Cobalt

    Third paragraph from the bottom, “children” should be “childbirth”.

    • Kq

      Yeah, it sends a very different message otherwise lol

      • Chi

        Hahaha yeah who DOESN’T hate unmedicated children? If they’re not medicated they just run around like unleashed hurricanes. 😛 😛 😛

        • The Computer Ate My Nym

          I think you’ve just confirmed the NCB people’s worst fears about us with that statement…

          • Chi

            Except it was sarcasm. I know that doesn’t translate too well via text, but, I think the maniacal hahahahaha would have given away that it was meant to be humorous and not at all serious. I definitely do not advocate medicating children simply to make them better behaved.

          • The Computer Ate My Nym

            Oh, I know it was sarcasm. I meant it sarcastically too but apparently am not very good at written sarcasm.

          • D/

            Nah, you’re good … and to join in, I was thinking it’s not so much that the unmediated littles would be hated, but that the medicated ones might be loved just a bit more.

          • demodocus

            I have to admit my toddler-boy was much easier to deal with on the oxycodone. We had a clean house for several days! 😉

    • Amy Tuteur, MD

      Thanks! Fixed it.