Forget crunchy mothering; our goal should be supple mothering

Young ballerina in a black suit is dancing in dark

Many women proudly identify themselves as “crunchy” mothers. It is meant to invoke granola — natural and healthy. But there’s no evidence that crunchy mothering is more natural or healthier, just like there’s no evidence that granola existed in nature.

Yet the appellation is more accurate than crunchy mothers realize. Granola is hard, unyielding, but it is easily smashed and becomes soggy and falls apart with the application of milk. And though crunchy mothers like to pretend that they are child centered and self-sacrificing, the truth is that crunchy mothering is rigid and performance obsessed, the audience being other mothers.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Supple mothering — adaptable, resilient, respectful of children’s differences and kind to mothers.[/pullquote]

Good mothering has nothing to do with being crunchy and everything to do with being both supple and resilient, qualities that can’t be found granola. What do I mean?

Supple mothering is adaptable; crunchy mothering is not.

The greatest defect of crunchy mothering is that it rests on the belief that one size fits all. Unmedicated vaginal birth is supposedly right for every baby and every mother; breastfeeding is supposedly best for every child and every mother; baby wearing is supposedly comfortable for every child and every mother; the family bed supposedly meets the needs of all.

If I’ve learned anything at all from mothering four children, it is that one size NEVER fits all. Every child is a unique person with individual needs that can differ subtly or dramatically from other children. Supple mothering means being able to conform to the individual child’s needs and desires whether that child needs a C-section in order to survive, formula feeding in order to thrive, or anything else that may not be part of a mother’s image of how she planned to mother or what she imagined her child might become.

Supple mothering is resilient; crunchy mothering is not.

Mothering is an extremely stressful and demanding job. My children are grown and though the physical work has receded into the past, the emotional imperatives have not. They know that I still worry about them (and are probably annoyed about it); they are sure that I will glory with them in their successes, and they can be confident that I will take their disappointments as hard or even harder than they do. I am always in their corner and have been since the day each was born.

In order to be there for them, I have had to be resilient and part of resilience is being realistic in my expectations of them and of myself. Supple mothering allows for that. It predicts that mothering will not be easy; it anticipates that children will not always adhere to the goals you have in mind for them or for yourself and it counsels adaptation not rigid adherence to a pre-existing plan.

Supple mothering also teaches women to be good to themselves. A woman who chooses an epidural in labor is not “giving in”; she is meeting her own need for pain relief. A mother who chooses not to breastfeed (even when she could have done so) is not selfish; she’s appropriately caring for herself. A mother who needs to sleep without a baby her in her bed is not depriving her child; she is shoring up her own reserves to improve her ability to parent that child.

Moreover, supple mothering allows women to adapt to their children. I have a friend who insisted that she would never let any daughter of hers play with Barbie dolls. Then she had a daughter who loved Barbies. Despite the fact my friend abhorred Barbie, she ultimately gave in to her daughter’s entreaties and bought her several. That took guts and humility, recognizing that perhaps she did not necessarily know what was best for this particular girl. Barbie turned out to be a passing fancy and her daughter never fell prey to the belief that she was expected to look like Barbie or behave in docile way. Supple mothering views adaptation as a strength, not a weakness.

Supple mothering supports; crunchy mothering blames.

One of the best books about parenting I ever read is Far From The Tree by psychiatrist Andrew Solomon. It’s about one of the most challenging aspects of parenting, recognizing that your child is not you and that’s okay. The task is made far more difficult when the child differs from you in major ways: children who are deaf, autistic, transgender, etc.

Solomon notes:

… The attribution of responsibility to parents is often a function of ignorance, but it also reflects our anxious belief that we control our own destinies. Unfortunately, it does not save anyone’s children; it only destroys some people’s parents, who either crumble under the strain of undue censure or rush to blame themselves before anyone else has time to accuse them …

Though Solomon writes of extreme parenting challenges, the urge to blame is  integral to crunchy mothering. That’s why crunchy mothering groups are filled with women who deride other mothers who had epidurals or C-sections, and who feel entirely comfortable insisting that women who don’t breastfeed are lazy. It’s both a function of ignorance about childbirth and breastfeeding, as well as the desperate belief that mothering is a matter of imposing your will. In fact the crunchy mothering ethos has become so ingrained in middle class white women that they don’t wait for others to blame them; they blame themselves and feel guilty about epidurals, C-sections, formula feeding, or something as basic and banal as needing sleep in order to function.

That’s why lactivist groups are hell bent on attacking The Fed Is Best Foundation for supporting ALL women REGARDLESS of the ways they feed their babies. Crunchy mothering is incapable of supporting women who make different choices; it can only blame. Lactivists think the ability of Fed Is Best to offer support regardless of circumstances is a weakness and betrayal of breastfeeding when, in truth, it is an evocation of supple mothering. It counsels women to be adapatable when it comes to infant feeding and to reject guilt for refusing to adhere to rigid rules about breastfeeding. And it saves lives, too. Crunchy mothering is so rigid and demanding that letting babies die from hypernatremic dehydration is waved off as “rare” when the reality is that it is common.

Supple parenting lets mothers save their strength for real parenting challenges; crunchy mothering pretends that trivial decisions are parenting challenges.

Childbirth, infant feeding, and issues like the family bed AREN’T the hard parts of parenting and they aren’t the important parts, either. They pale into insignificance behind the real challenges of parenting: dealing with differences, disabilities, bullying, poor school performance, lack of friends, major disappointments, risky behavior, drug use, depression and drunk driving. And that’s hardly an exhaustive list.

It takes strength to deal with these challenges, strength that should be husbanded, not wasted on meaningless issues like childbirth and infant feeding. There’s absolutely no need to feel guilty about safe mothering choices like C-sections and formula feeding. What should you feel guilty about? I guarantee that once they are old enough to talk your children will tell you … and tell you … and tell you.

The bottom line is that crunchy mothering isn’t good for children and it isn’t good for mothers. We should reject it. Our goal should be supple mothering — adaptable, resilient, respectful of children’s differences and kind to mothers.