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?

[pullquote align=”right” color=”#555555″]There are MANY right ways to raise children.[/pullquote]

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.