Why Mommy Wars Exist

May 16, 2012

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The latest TIME magazine cover, featuring my friend Jamie Grumet breastfeeding her three-year-old son, has reignited the mommy wars in many a combox over the past week.

I have to say, I never knew there was such a thing as “mommy wars” until my friends began having children and complained of criticisms they experienced from other moms about the way they were parenting. On one hand, this didn’t make sense to me: Why would moms — who know first-hand that raising kids is the hardest job in the world — spend their precious time and energy criticizing other moms? But then I remembered I had a masters degree in counseling and a great deal of experience working with women, which has given me some insight into why women criticize each other.


This isn’t just a problem among moms; it begins long before children come along, when we learn to compare ourselves to other women and judge ourselves (and them) as less then, better than, prettier than, skinnier than, smarter than, more talented than.

Every mother spends many waking hours wondering how she’s doing: Has she made the right choice about which diapers to use? Would it be better to let Junior cry it out or pick him up at every squawk? What should she do about the fact that breastfeeding is not going as planned? Is she making the right school choice? What if she’s screwing up this kid? What if he turns into her worst nightmare and then blames her for it? What if she could find some guidebook written by God to tell her exactly what to do for every parenting challenge?

Every mom wants to get it right. She wants validation. She wants to know that her choices are the right ones. And while she might say there’s more than one right choice in parenting styles and decisions, deep down, she’s still afraid that hers are not the right ones unless everyone else agrees. And the best way to feel sure of yourself — or so it can seem — is to judge someone else who’s doing things differently.

Don’t get me wrong, there are still rights and wrongs in my book. But there are so many parenting issues that don’t belong in the right/wrong paradigm. How long you breastfeed your child is one of them. Whether you use attachment parenting techniques or whether you don’t is another.

There’s no quick fix to ending the mommy wars. Peace begins at home, as they say. Each mom, each woman, has to make a conscious decision to give the benefit of the doubt, to encourage rather than tear down, to be okay with differences. And each of us needs to dig deep and admit to our own insecurities — not necessarily to tell the whole world about them, but so that we can find support and grow in confidence.

We can also just smarten up and put things in perspective. Kristen Howerton at Rage Against the Minivan wondered in a recent post why we’re so petty — why we care about things like breastfeeding toddlers in public when there are children out there who don’t even have mothers. I have to agree. When you think about the things women and children and families face across this world, including right here in our own country, you have to wonder why anyone bothers with the stuff of mommy wars. I guess because it’s easier to gossip with girlfriends or pass judgment on a website than to do something to reform the U.S. foster care system, or address the orphan crisis in places like Haiti, or solve the problem of human trafficking. The media frenzy around Jamie and the TIME cover reminds me of just how backwards things can be.

Do you agree?

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1 Meg May 16, 2012 at 9:32 am

Mom wars is spelled P-R-I-D-E.


2 Therese May 16, 2012 at 9:32 am

When I think of “the mommy wars,” I’d never before thought of arguments about types of parenting, but of the economic choices that mothers make – i.e. stay home or go to work. In that case, there is SOME insecurity that is rooted in the same concern – will my children be okay? – but there is so much more, too… and the choices are more difficult because they are often not based on empowerment, but on a deficit model.

My optimistic side recognizes that the tension and ongoing dialogue that follows these “wars” is part of a chaotic process that will – hopefully – lead to better solutions. My concerned side gets irritated because criticism of individual choices (i.e. attachment parenting) distracts from this more important issue. After all, no one is forced to attachment parent, but there are many moms who don’t feel that they have an option to support their careers/make needed income or be with their kids as much as they want.

I hadn’t thought of it until I read this, but now I wonder whether the attachment parenting issue isn’t especially charged because it involves naked breasts. Shocking! But it seems not unlike the issue of sexual harassment, which people seem to love to talk about because it involves the word. I taught employment law for a long time and that was always a hot topic, even when incidents of actual problems were rooted in other forms of discrimination. Similarly, the male child sucking on a naked breast on the cover of TIME is more provocative to profile than is the REAL need to restructure the workplace. Hmmmm…. Makes you think! If women lead a conversation based on our most pressing concerns, I bet economic security and fulfillment in work (defined as parenting and career) would take priority every time over whether or not someone chooses to nurse her toddler.


3 Zoe Saint-Paul May 16, 2012 at 4:36 pm

“Mommy wars” seem to be made up of numerous battles and the economic/work/stay-at-home issue is definitely one of them.

Your comment about naked breasts brings up something I’ve been thinking about re: the TIME cover, and that is whether it would have created such a hoopla if Jamie wasn’t so young/pretty/sexy looking. What if she was slightly overweight, average looking, and more matronly? People would still think the photo was weird, but I’m guessing it wouldn’t have created such a splash. In general, our we seem to have a problem associating sex appeal with nurturing/maternal gestures. A woman is not really allowed to be both. (Not that the photo itself was very nurturing, but hopefully you get my point!)


4 Haley @ Carrots for Michaelmas May 16, 2012 at 1:40 pm

I think you are exactly right about the source of “mommy wars.” Motherhood is something women invest in so wholeheartedly and agonize over that it makes women feel better to say that THEIR methods are the only right way to raise children. The idea that a different style of parenting might be better for a different family is somehow threatening.

I think the author of the post you linked to definitely puts things into perspective. But I think there were some logical fallacies in the post, as well. She seems to think that you should only care about one thing: the most unjust of situations, and so you cannot care about anything else. Should we care about motherless children? YES! Does that mean that choices we make when we parent our kids, who do have a home and a family, are “inconsequential” as she says? No. Is adoption and justice for these children an issue we should all get behind? Yes! Does that mean it’s the only issue we have to care about? No. That’s like saying, “I can’t care about hunger in the U.S. because the hunger in a foreign country is much worse!” That just doesn’t make sense to me.

The choices we make as mothers (such as breastfeeding or not) are not inconsequential or else nobody would bother arguing about them. However, these discussions MUST be tempered with understanding and compassion. Not everything works for every family at every time. I am breastfeeding my second-born indefinitely and I get to stay home with my kids. I wasn’t able to breastfeed my firstborn very long at all and I had to work full-time. Extended breastfeeding and attachment methods just weren’t going to happen under the circumstances of our life at that time. And that doesn’t mean I was a bad mother. If I had been judged by other mothers then when I was trying my very best, it would have been so hurtful!


5 Zoe Saint-Paul May 16, 2012 at 4:37 pm

Well said. And I do agree with your second point — it was a weakness of KH’s post.


6 Zoe Saint-Paul May 16, 2012 at 5:19 pm

A friend emailed me with some comments that I think add to this conversation. Here’s an edited version of what she wrote:

“The one glaring piece missing from your post here is the reality that other people’s children, and their parenting styles, influence my own children. The cry-room at church is the perfect pietry dish to experience this. I’ve never had to endure something more psychologically demanding and draining; it’s so challenging to deal with the *other* children. The habits I’ve tried to instill in my girls can vanish in a few minutes as they see the antics performed by children whose parents espouse a different parenting style. Usually, not all is lost, but it’s really challenging if the same child is present every day. (One was always getting my eldest to do things she would never dream of doing on her own). Not to say that my children or parenting is perfect, but it’s really challenging to deal with parents that seem to disregard their children’s behavior.”

Very challenging, yes. However, I don’t hear you saying that you’ve been screaming “Your parenting sucks!” in the cry room. (Though I’m sure you probably wanted to :-) Instead, you probably look for ways to deal with it and navigate the challenge. I’ve heard many parents say that public playgrounds are full of the minefields you describe. All these parenting styles trying to get along… and they simply *don’t* when they come together in a small space.

This, to my mind, comes down to making sound judgements in the moment, establishing rules in common spaces where possible (can the cry room have some basic rules posted?), and negotiating/making requests when necessary.

The mommy wars I speak of above are those that are waged in public forums, where sweeping generalizations are made, and judgements are given from on high about things that are not objectively right/wrong.


7 Jimmy May 16, 2012 at 11:07 pm

While I can appreciate you’re friend’s emailed concerns, I don’t think it necessarily explains or excuses the tension behind the mommy wars. For the rest of our lives, we can expect our kids to be in regular contact with kids who fail to meet whatever standards we have for our own (even at church). Part of our job as parents is to explain to our kids in no uncertain terms that, while Sally may act/say this and that, you my sainted daughter are not allowed to, end of story. And then grit on Sally’s parents to your heart’s content. This will happen all the way from the cry room to the board room.


8 Zoe Saint-Paul May 16, 2012 at 11:46 pm

Good point, Jimmy.


9 Jimmy May 16, 2012 at 11:21 pm

I think you’ve got it when you talk about insecurity and each of us wanting to parent the “right way.” Choosing to parent one way, unfortunately, carries with it the implied assumption that the parent did so because he/she thought that course was best. If that is the case, then choosing something else must be wrong. Right?

What this ignores is the great truth of parenting: While we all want to do what is best, no one really knows what that is, and in the moment we tend to act according to what works right now, for this specific kid under these specific circumstances. We are sleep deprived and stressed out, and just trying to get by without royally screwing up the kid.

Somewhere along the lines we convince ourselves that our parenting style is some sort of rational choice we carefully analyzed before implementing perfectly according to plan.


10 Zoe Saint-Paul May 16, 2012 at 11:48 pm

Parenting is such a fluid, changing thing, and influenced by so many things. Thanks for the thoughtful comments.


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