Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticityby Emily Matchar
Amid today’s rising anxieties—the economy, the scary state of/i>
Emily Matchar offers a smart, measured investigation into the cultural, social, and economic implications of a return to domesticity in this fascinating book “chock-full of historical context, strong research and compelling personal stories” (Christian Science Montor).
Amid today’s rising anxieties—the economy, the scary state of the environment, the growing sense that the American Dream hasn’t turned out to be so dreamy after all—a groundswell of women (and more than a few men) are choosing to embrace an unusual rebellion: domesticity. A generation of smart, highly educated young people are spending their time knitting, canning jam, baking cupcakes, gardening, and more (and blogging about it, of course), embracing the labor-intensive domestic tasks their mothers and grandmothers eagerly shrugged off. They’re questioning whether regular jobs are truly fulfilling and whether it’s okay to turn away from the ambitions of their parents’ generation.
How did this happen? And what does it all mean? In Homeward Bound, acclaimed journalist Emily Matchar takes a long, hard look at both the inspiring appeal and the potential dangers of this trend she calls the New Domesticity, exploring how it could be reshaping the role of women in society and what the consequences may be for all of us.
This groundbreaking reporting on the New Domesticity is guaranteed to transform our notions of women in today’s society and add a new layer to the ongoing discussion of whether women can—or should—have it all.
“Divakaruni is a poet as well as a novelist—a fact on display in this mystery, which unfold like a time-lapsed lotus. . . . [She] weaves the issues of the caste system, Hindu and Muslim differences, modern Indian women balancing love and duty, and prejudice into the fabric of her story. It’s the smell and feel of Kolkata that resonates long after the book is finished.”
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Read an Excerpt
It’s midafternoon in Downers Grove, a quiet middle-class Chicago suburb. I’m sitting in the sunny second-floor classroom of the Bellies to Babies childbirth and parenting studio, a space of pale wood floors decorated with black-and-white photos of breast-feeding babies, listening to three women chat idly while their children play. Topics of conversation include: which iPhone app is best for charting ovulation, how big your nipples get during pregnancy, and what happens when an IUD “migrates.”
Twenty-five-year-old Claire, wholesome and fresh-faced in a pair of chic cat’s-eye glasses, carries her fourteen-month-old daughter, Rosemary, in a gray Boba wrap baby sling.
Gina, twenty-seven, has a short spiky hairdo and a retro-cool pink polka-dot sweater. Her two-year-old son, Cooper, scoots around the pale wood floor of the studio.
Anne, thirty-four, has curly black hair and a casual outfit of khakis and a cardigan. Her four-and-a-half-year-old son, Derek, runs around the room making whirring noises like an airplane taking off.
There is something incredibly cool and modern about listening to women talk so openly about their bodies. Veterans of 1970s-era consciousness-raising groups would, I think, be proud—these women don’t need to be introduced to their cervixes with a hand mirror; they’ve already become intimately familiar with their own anatomy via “fertility awareness” (like checking your own cervical mucus with your thumb and forefinger for signs of ovulation) and drug-free childbirth.
At the same time, there’s something deeply old-fashioned about the way the three women have thrown themselves so deeply into the role of mother. As partisans of what they call “natural parenting,” the three breast-feed on demand, share beds with their children, carry them in slings rather than in strollers, and generally devote much of their time to providing their kids with the purest, most natural food and environments. The Bellies to Babies studio, where Anne is an instructor, is a gathering place for these kinds of parents, offering classes in breast-feeding, prenatal yoga, placenta encapsulation (i.e., turning your placenta into vitamin pills), baby massage, and holistic nutrition.
“This is how people have always parented,” says Claire, handing Rosemary an apple slice from a glass jar she’s brought with her.
Rosemary flashes a gummy pink grin and waves the apple slice above her head as if she agrees.
The DIY ethos of New Domesticity truly flourishes when it comes to parenthood. Over the past decade and a half, hyperintensive parenting has become de rigueur for educated Americans. Some adhere to specific parenting philosophies like “attachment parenting,” which emphasizes continuous physical closeness and immediate parental responsiveness to babies’ cues. Others fastidiously monitor their children’s environments, using cloth diapers, feeding children exclusively organic foods, giving them wood toys rather than plastic. Collectively, you might describe these intensive modes of parenting as “DIY parenting.”
DIY parenting is about wearing your baby in a sling rather than pushing him in a stroller. It’s making your own baby food rather than buying it at the store. It’s homeschooling your child rather than sending her to public school. It’s giving birth at home rather than relying on a hospital. It’s about the idea that parents—usually mothers—know best and ought not to “outsource” care to day cares or food companies or schools if they can avoid it.
This type of “intensive parenting” has become “an imperative” for middle- and upper-middle-class families, says Janet Golden, a historian who has written several books about the history of parenting and baby care. “It presumes you have the time and resources to devote to your own small family and that doing so is a way of developing their futures,” she tells me.
As DIY parenting continues to rise in popularity, it’s generated a scorching-hot debate. Is DIY parenting a sexist throwback, a way to push women into full-time domesticity by telling them it’s what’s natural and best for their children? Or is this truly a revolutionary way to parent, one that will benefit babies, mothers, and society at large?
“IT FELT SO MUCH MORE NATURAL”: THE APPEAL OF DIY PARENTING
Before she got involved in natural parenting, Anne was so anxious and unbalanced she regularly took antianxiety medication—“You name it, I was on it,” she says. Working as a teacher, the native Chicagoan became friendly with a fellow instructor who was also a birth doula, who got Anne interested in natural childbirth and healthy living. Anne gave birth to Derek without painkillers, using the Hypnobabies self-hypnosis program, followed by a daughter two years later.
When Derek arrived, breast-feeding was a nonnegotiable must—like any DIY parent worth her salt, Anne is a firm believer that breast-feeding is critical for healthy babyhood. But it didn’t come easily.
“With breast-feeding, I struggled, as ironic as it is,” she says, smoothing back her curly hair as she watches Derek careen around the room. “I always had latch problems. But I didn’t care what I had to do—I was not going to feed him formula. It would have broken my heart if I couldn’t breast-feed.”
Anne and her husband still share a “family bed” with their two children.
“It felt so much more natural,” she says. “I had a crib, but I never used it. I felt so awkward, my child not being with me.”
When her son was older, she didn’t feed him any jarred baby food, preferring the “baby-led weaning” method, which involves letting children go directly from breast-feeding to eating solid food on their own. Proponents say it helps with hand-eye coordination and ensures babies won’t be overfed.
With her daughter, Anne was “so much more lax,” feeding her boxed rice cereal.
“I won’t do that again,” she says ruefully. “She has so many more allergies.”
Claire, who has been interested in natural parenting since college, gave birth to Rosemary at home, in a room specially decorated for the birth, after reading books about home birth and researching the topic online. With home birth, “I felt so much safer and more comfortable,” she says, while hospital birth held “so much scarier consequences.” She worried about being forced into medical interventions, like an epidural or a caesarian section, worried about doctors and nurses not sharing her values around breast-feeding and postbirth bonding.
Rosemary’s home birth went perfectly, Claire says, and she plans on delivering her second child the same way—her loose shirt hides the bump of her current four-month pregnancy. Her parents, however, thought she was crazy. Claire’s mother, in particular, doesn’t understand her daughter’s all-consuming brand of motherhood and frequently asks her, “If you stay at home, what’s your identity going to be?”
“My mom wanted her [Rosemary] to cry it out!” says Claire indignantly, referring to the method, popularized by pediatric sleep expert Dr. Richard Ferber, of training babies to self-soothe by allowing them to cry themselves to sleep for longer and longer time periods. For many DIY parents, crying it out is the moral equivalent of putting bourbon in a baby bottle.
“Gosh, that sounds like my mom!” says Anne with a sigh. “Mine are freaking out because she’s not vaccinated,” she adds, gesturing toward her daughter.
All three women nod.
The women, Gina explains, believe in vaccinating their children only on a selective or delayed basis. This often causes friction with their more traditionally minded families.
“My mother-in-law is head of infection control for one of the area’s largest hospitals,” she says, her sweater inching up to reveal a star tattoo on her wrist. “We just lie and tell her we’re fully vaccinated.”
“He’s only been vaccinated once, because I felt pressured,” says Anne, of her son. “I’m waiting until he’s five. My feeling is that they can get their immunities from daily living. I don’t trust what they’re putting in those things.”
“I don’t know anybody who actually does every vaccine,” says Gina.
“The CDC schedule?” Claire snorts, referring to the Centers for Disease Control’s vaccine schedule, considered the standard by mainstream medicine. “Nobody. Among people like us, I’d be scared to say that she had had a vaccine.”
Gina, a former sommelier whose short dark hair and tinkling laugh give her a pixielike demeanor, became interested in natural parenting when she became pregnant with her son. Scared by stories of awful hospital births—forced C-sections, women made to lie on their backs when they wanted to squat, unnecessary episiotomies—she began to research alternative methods.
“I wanted to own my own birth,” she says as she scoops her son up and begins to breast-feed. “I guess that was my definition of feminism. Whatever I had to do to empower myself was what I was going to do.”
That initial research into alternative birthing methods “completely changed the course of my life,” Gina says. She became connected to a strong and vibrant community of like-minded women, women who were interested not only in alternative birth, but in all kinds of alternative parenting practices. She ended up giving birth with the help of a doula and a self-hypnosis program, laboring for thirty-eight hours without painkillers. Afterward, she was so impressed with the doula’s work she decided to train to become one herself. She’s now attended several dozen births in the Chicago area, and the natural parenting community has “completely taken over [her] life.”
When the recession fell, Gina decided that perhaps this was a sign she should stay home. Though living on her husband’s sixth-grade-teacher salary hasn’t been easy, she feels she wouldn’t be able to have as close a relationship with her son as she does if she were still working—at two, he still breast-feeds, and she tries hard to follow his feeding and sleeping cues. If she was working full-time she wouldn’t be able to cook from scratch or use cloth diapers as easily, all important parts of natural parenting.
While she never envisioned herself as a stay-at-home mom, she loves it, she says. Embracing the role, she now blogs about motherhood, homemaking, and being a doula under the name Hipster Homemaker. She feels that by practicing eco-friendly natural parenting, she’s part of a revolution.
“This is the new wave of feminism,” she says, stroking her son Cooper’s silky blond hair. “Women who grow their own food and make their own diapers. Women taking back the home. This is my domain.”
The 1950s mom would have laughed at the idea of homeschooling or home birth. Part of living in an authority-loving, paternalistic society was deferring to experts like doctors and teachers. Part of living in a society where homogeneity was valued meant going with the flow. You gave birth at the local hospital like everyone else. Your kids went to the local public or parochial school, unless you were especially wealthy. In any case, the economy of midcentury America was less competitive and less “winner take all,” so parents did not spend nearly as much time strategizing about how to get their children any possible advantage. In fact, parents usually spent less time worrying about their kids in general. Kids were expected to defer to all adults. Knowing your neighbor would discipline Johnny if she saw him playing in the road eased some of the burden off parents.
All this led to an attitude toward parenting that was somewhat more . . . relaxed than what you see today. That stereotypical 1950s homemaker drinking a cocktail while the kids played kick-the-can till dark? She really existed.
Today parents are expected to be the total authorities in their children’s lives. Parents are taught to question everything they hear and make sure it “feels right” for their particular family. This can be empowering but also exhausting—every vaccine and preschool and baby-food brand must be rigorously vetted by Mom or Dad (usually Mom). A neighbor wouldn’t dare discipline your child. Even if you know your neighbors—and many of us don’t—you are likely to have totally different ideologies about discipline and child rearing. Increasingly, the neighbor won’t even give your child a snack, since she doesn’t know what dietary philosophy you might adhere to. Is sugar okay? Is gluten? Is meat? Motherhood becomes, in the words of academics Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels, “an individual achievement, something you do alone, and you alone can screw up.”1 Mom is not just Mom, she’s also teacher, nutritionist, doctor, cook, and so on. No wonder 70 percent of Americans say motherhood is harder today than it was twenty or thirty years ago!2
The story of parenting in the twentieth century is about a slow move from a cold, expert-focused, authoritarian style of child rearing to the warm, ultra-intense, DIY style we see today. How did we get from there to here?
A hundred years ago, Americans were all about rigid, hands-off parenting. (“If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the morning,” advised early-twentieth-century psychologist John Watson in his 1928 book of parenting advice.) Through midcentury, “scientific” child-rearing advice was all the rage. Experts advocated rigid regimens for sleeping, eating, and potty training. These experts lamented the “incompetence and inconsistency of mothers, and the social woes they caused,” writes Ann Hulbert in her marvelous 2003 book Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children.3 Midcentury mothers were cautioned against “momism,” the kind of overly close, overly protective parenting that would turn out sissies and weaklings—a real cultural fear in the paranoid, macho Cold War era.
Postwar parenting guru Dr. Benjamin Spock was the first to challenge this ideology. “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do,” he told mothers. He encouraged women to use their instinct to feed babies when they seemed hungry and comfort them when upset, ideas which were so revolutionary at the time that Vice President Spiro Agnew even took a pause from his busy schedule to accuse Spock of corrupting the youth with his permissiveness. The tides of parenting were clearly turning.
As part of the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, women continued to question the paternalism of doctors and child-rearing experts (even Spock). In 1971, the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective published Our Bodies, Ourselves, a health care guide written to help women empower themselves to make their own medical and childbearing decisions. The book helped launch the so-called women’s health movement, which sparked interest in natural parenting techniques like home birth and extended breast-feeding.
At the same time, the idea of communal solutions for child care was receding further out of reach. In 1971, the Comprehensive Child Development Act, which would have established a federally funded, locally controlled system of day care, passed Congress with broad bipartisan support. But Nixon vetoed the act, denouncing it as a Soviet-style threat to the nuclear family.
By the 1980s, parenting was becoming an increasingly anxious and intense activity. As mothers continued to enter the workforce, conservatives moaned about the decline of the American family and the media perpetuated endless cycles of panic about satanic day care operators and Halloween-candy poisoners. An increasingly competitive, “winner take all” economy gave rise to the idea that children must be carefully cultivated to be able to compete for the spots in elite colleges that would earn them decent jobs. Hence the “overscheduled child” being shuttled from soccer practice to tae kwon do to French lessons. Parents felt increasingly responsible for their children’s success or failure, giving rise to so-called “helicopter parents” who are so consumed with their child’s sense of worth that they might even do said child’s homework for him.
Additionally, thanks to readily available birth control and greater access to education and jobs for women, the age of first-time parents had risen dramatically. In 1970, the average age of a first-time mom was 21.4; by the mid-1980s it was 24. By 2000, nearly 25. People are now having fewer kids—the average woman in 1960 had more than 3.5 children. By 1990, she had just over 2. Yet by 1997, there were 5 times more parenting books sold than in 1975.4
Older parents with fewer kids had the time and resources to invest heavily in the cultivation of their children. They wanted to do everything right. Throughout the 1990s, the general anxieties about the environment, the food supply, and the education system grew, hitting parents particularly hard. Many began investing larger amounts of time in protecting children from the outside world. Everything became suspect—food, vaccines, public schools, day care. The media and corporations encouraged this kind of suspicion, often stepping in to sell products—organic baby food! Baby Einstein!—meant to fill the gap that public systems like the FDA and the public schools were supposedly leaving open. All this led to the growth of what historian Stephanie Coontz calls “the myth of parental omnipotence.”5
“As a historian, I suspect that the truly dysfunctional thing about American parenting is that it is made out to be such a frighteningly pivotal, private and exclusive job,” Coontz writes. “Modern discussions of maternal employment, day care, divorce, and single parenthood are distorted by the myth that parents can or should be solely responsible for how their children grow.”6
As psychologist Madeline Levine put it: “Never before have parents been so (mistakenly) convinced that their every move has a ripple effect into their child’s future success.”7
Then came Dr. Sears.
If you live near any major or medium-sized city or college town, chances are you’ve seen parents walking around with their babies tucked snugly into cloth slings tied to their chests. This may just be for convenience—look, Ma, no hands!—or it may be that these parents are AP-ers.
Attachment parenting (or “AP” among the cognoscenti) has become the dominant parenting philosophy in many parts of America in the early twenty-first century. In her memoir Poser, Seattle writer Claire Dederer recalls her own experience as a new mother: “There were many ideas extant about parenting, but you wouldn’t know it to visit North Seattle (or, based on friends’ reports, West Los Angeles or Brooklyn or Portland, Oregon, or any other liberal bubble town). In North Seattle, there was attachment parenting, and that was about it.”8
Dr. William Sears, the father of modern attachment parenting, is the most influential parenting guru of the new millennium, the Dr. Spock for Gens X and Y. The California pediatrician first introduced his philosophies in 1992’s The Baby Book, which has sold more than 1.5 million copies. He later codified these philosophies in 2001’s The Attachment Parenting Book, which introduced a generation of parents to the “7 Baby B’s” of attachment parenting: birth bonding (mother and baby should be together 24/7 for at least the first six weeks of life), breast-feeding (extended, if possible), babywearing (carrying your baby on your body rather than putting him in a stroller or baby seat), bed sharing (sleeping with baby in the adult bed), belief in baby’s cries (crying is a sign of baby’s distress; never let a baby “cry it out”), beware of baby trainers (don’t try to put a baby on a sleep or eating schedule for your convenience), and balance and boundaries.
Sears claims the Baby B’s help create secure “attachment”—a durable parent-child bond that will supposedly protect children from the slings and arrows of life. Expounding on what’s known in psychology as attachment theory, Sears theorizes that if some attachment is good, more is better. A parent’s job is to carefully pay attention to baby’s “cues” in order to more immediately meet their needs. “The first step in learning to guide your child is becoming an expert in your child,” he writes.
In addition to The Baby Book and The Attachment Parenting Book, “Dr. Bill,” as Sears calls himself, has published twenty-eight other child-rearing books, including the evangelical-oriented The Complete Book of Christian Parenting and Child Care (Sears and his wife, Martha, are Catholics turned evangelical Christians turned Catholics again). He is a consulting pediatrician for Parenting magazine (official circulation 2.23 million,9 but read by anyone who’s ever waited in an ob-gyn office) and the official pediatrician of the website Parenting.com. The Sears empire includes Sears’s three physician sons, seen on the home page of Sears’s extensive website wearing stethoscopes over their necks and smiling kindly like younger, handsomer Marcus Welbys. “Dr. Jim” Sears is a cohost on the popular CBS medical talk show The Doctors. “Dr. Bob” Sears, who has written a bestselling antivaccine book, appears regularly on shows like The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Dr. Phil. “Dr. Peter” Sears, the coauthor of two Sears-brand books on childhood nutrition, is the most recent addition. William Sears’s reach also extends to food and child care products—Sears sells an extensive line of natural child care items, such as Cool Fuel “all-natural” kids’ snack bars ($16.99 for eighteen bars) and supplements like Immune Pom-Blueberry Fruit Chews with “Wellmune” ($22.95 for a one-month supply). For $595, you can sign up to become a Sears-certified healthy-living coach; classes are taught via Sears’s “eCampus.” Graduates who hope to set up shop as healthy-living coaches can buy, for an additional fee, marketing materials for their new businesses.
It is impossible to be a new parent today and not have been influenced by Sears’s ideology. Sears’s ideas—keeping babies in slings, co-sleeping, extended breast-feeding—have become thoroughly part of the norm for educated parents, even those who don’t actually practice AP (attachment parenting, like ballet or Mandarin, is always “practiced”). It has, as parenting-book author Pamela Druckerman noted, become the “new common sense” for American parents.10
Many of the DIY parents featured in this chapter practice some form of attachment parenting, or at least have been influenced by the philosophy. Attachment parenting fits right into the twenty-first-century progressive ethos of self-sufficiency, sustainability, and the elevation of the “natural.” For eco-conscious parents, cloth diapering and making DIY baby food are appealing. For parents disgusted with the modern rat race, ancient practices like babywearing and co-sleeping seem to offer a connection to a simpler way of life. For children of stressed-out baby boomers, the idea of a slower, more instinct-based way of parenting makes sense.
The claims for DIY-parenting styles such as AP can sometimes sound as bombastic as a late-night infomercial. Attachment parenting, Sears writes, “immunizes children against many of the social and emotional diseases which plague our society,” producing children who are “compassionate,” “caring,” “admirable,” “affectionate,” “confident,” and “accomplished” (“faster than a speeding bullet,” “more powerful than a locomotive,” and “able to leap tall buildings in a single bound” seem to have been left off the list!). As Sears openly states, children raised with the AP method are “smarter” and “will turn out better than if you hadn’t practiced attachment parenting.”
Mothers who practice extended breast-feeding are promised results ranging from better emotional health to fewer allergies.
“Breast-feeding a toddler helps with the child’s ability to mature,” says La Leche League. “The closeness and availability of the mother through breast-feeding is one of the best ways to help toddlers grow emotionally . . . Your milk continues to provide immunities and vitamins, and can help protect your toddler from illness and allergies.”11
Diaper Free Baby, a website dedicated to “elimination communication”—allowing babies to go diaperless by watching their faces for signs of potty need, then holding them over a bowl or plastic potty—touts the “75 benefits of elimination communication.” These alleged benefits range from “Reduces the risk of diaper rash” to “Encourages the development of a trusting relationship” to “Supports babies in developing self-confidence from infancy.”
Though elimination communication may seem marginal, it’s grown increasingly common in recent years. Since its inception in 2004, Diaper Free Baby has established support groups in thirty-nine states and sixteen different countries.
DIY parents are also promised closer relationships with their children.
“I feel emotionally invested in my children,” says one parent quoted in Sears’s The Attachment Parenting Book. “I have spoken to other parents who don’t seem to be as emotionally invested in their children, and I think they are missing out on one of the best experiences in life.” Economic and environmental benefits are also a draw. “Attachment parenting is better for parents, better for babies and better for the earth. It really IS a much better way!” reads the tagline of A Much Better Way, a popular “natural family living” site. The site features articles on topics like the negative environmental impact of formula feeding, frightening videos of traumatic-looking hospital births, and sales on products like “Swaddlebees Econappi” cloth diapers.
Since the benefits of DIY parenting are thought to be so huge, it’s not surprising that other types of child rearing are considered lacking, perhaps even harmful. And with DIY parenting, the easy or convenient option seems almost inevitably the bad one. Yes to extended breast-feeding. No to formula. Yes to home birth or natural birth. No to hospital birth with painkillers. Yes to co-sleeping. No to letting baby “cry it out” as they fall asleep.
Mothering magazine, the publication of record for DIY parents, warns of the dire consequences of letting babies cry it out: “there is no doubt that repeated lack of responsiveness to a baby’s cries—even for only five minutes at a time—is potentially damaging to the baby’s mental health . . . possibly leading to feelings of powerlessness, low self-esteem, and chronic anxiety later in life.” Yikes.
Mothers who don’t breast-feed are warned that they’re making their children obese, stupid, sick, or worse. Claire, the Chicago mom, mentions how sad it is that women don’t know that breast-feeding can reduce your risk of breast cancer by 60 percent (according to the American Cancer Association, “some studies have shown that breast-feeding slightly lowers breast cancer risk, especially if the breast-feeding lasts 1½ to 2 years”).12
Hospital births are often portrayed as Dantean trips into an underworld of screaming women; callous, Pitocin-pushing nurses; and knife-happy obstetricians.
In Ricki Lake’s influential 2008 documentary, The Business of Being Born, a French obstetrician is brought before the cameras to claim that C-sections prevent moms from bonding with their babies. “It’s simple,” he says. “If monkeys give birth by Cesarean section, the mother is not interested in her baby.”
No wonder women like Claire are scared to give birth in hospitals.
In the past few years, the term “birth rape” has even been thrown around to describe traumatic, disempowering hospital births. Sheryl, the owner of the A Much Better Way website, characterizes her first birth that way.
“The birth was an unnecessary induction at thirty-eight weeks,” Sheryl tells me. “It was violent, traumatic, and one I definitely characterize as birth rape (in every sense of the word). I had flashbacks for years. It changed everything about who I am.”
Her second birth was a “UC”—natural-mom slang for “unassisted childbirth,” or home birth without a midwife or attendant.
It’s not hard to see why so many parents gravitate toward DIY parenting. The way these parenting styles are promoted, it seems that the stakes are high, the results black-and-white. An unmedicated childbirth is “calm and natural,” while a C-section leaves you unable to bond with your baby. Extended breast-feeding will produce a secure, happy toddler, while early weaning leaves a sickly future obese person. Carefully controlled diets give children the immunities to eschew vaccines, while rice cereal introduced a bit too early leaves a child ridden with allergies.
If you could control these things, why wouldn’t you?
Skepticism and suspicion toward communal institutions—doctors, schools, public health organizations, day cares—are central to the DIY-parenting philosophy. When you don’t feel safe giving birth in a hospital, when you don’t trust your pediatrician or the CDC’s vaccine recommendations, when you don’t trust commercially available baby food, when you don’t believe in day care or think schools are adequate, what do you do?
You do it yourself. Hence the dizzying rise of practices like home birth, homeschooling, vaccine refusal, and DIY cooking and gardening, and the increasingly negative attitude toward communal solutions like day care and public schools.
Sears and other DIY-parenting gurus encourage skepticism by privileging the idea of maternal instinct over the knowledge of experts like pediatricians or child-development researchers: “ ‘What I learned from attachment parenting is that there is no expert better than me for my baby,’ ” Sears writes, quoting an AP parent.
“Doctors are just technicians in white coats,” says Shannon Hayes, the Radical Homemaker—we’ll meet her in chapter 8. “I’m the mother.”
Home birth is a prime example of the “mother knows best” philosophy. Once considered extremely fringe, the domain of the kind of women who roll their own tampons out of wheatgrass, it’s now become an aspirational goal of the educated classes. Rates of home births rose 20 percent between 2004 and 2008, with a 94 percent increase among white women—in 2008, 1 in 98 white women had their babies at home (compared with 1 in 357 black women and 1 in 500 Hispanic women).13
The popularity of home birth is driven by a profound and widespread dissatisfaction with the current standard of care in American hospitals. Many believe that hospital births are overmedicalized, with doctors and nurses pushing for unnecessary medicines and procedures to speed up the process. Home-birth advocates point to the United States’ climbing C-section rate (32 percent of all births in 2010)14 as evidence of the problems with contemporary obstetrics. Many also say that hospitals are simply unnecessary for healthy women and that birth should not be treated as a medical emergency.
DIY-parenting culture has embraced the idea that the medical system is impossibly flawed and the best solution is giving full control back to Mom.
For some mothers, a devotion to DIY covers up gaps in our country’s social safety net. Janelle, a thirty-three-year-old mom of four in the Philadelphia suburbs, can’t afford health insurance. Janelle’s a stay-at-home mom, while her husband is a self-employed tiling installer whose employment has been sketchy since the recession hit. But, she says defiantly, she doesn’t need insurance anyway.
“We consider our insurance taking care of ourselves, being healthy, and eating organic foods rather than spend a ridiculous amount of money we don’t have each month,” she says.
And while she and her husband can’t afford private school, Janelle says she will “never” send her kids to public school because she doesn’t “agree with the public school system at all.” She believes in “gentle” education that allows kids to learn at their own pace and develops their creativity. So she, like a growing number of other mothers, doesn’t send her children to school at all.
When I was a kid in the 1980s, the only homeschoolers I ever met were the children of religious extremists (and this being the South, the bar for religious extremism was set pretty high). These homeschoolers dressed funny, were clueless about pop culture, and generally didn’t fit in with the little Baptists and Methodists on our YMCA basketball team.
Today, however, a homeschooled child might well be the whimsically named spawn of educated creative-class city dwellers (the number of homeschoolers in New York, for example, grew by 36 percent in the past eight years).15 And they will be in good company.
The number of homeschooled American children leapt from 850,000 in 1999 to 1.1 million in 2003 to 1.5 million in 2007,16 though actual numbers may be much higher. As Stanford political scientist Rob Reich writes, “Once a fringe phenomenon, home schooling is legal in every of the fifty states and is widely considered the fastest growing sector of K–12 schooling.”17
Indeed, homeschooling is growing fast among educated, liberal parents, the type most likely to embrace hyperattached parenting styles. For many, homeschooling is a logical next step on the natural-parenting path.
Claire, the mom from the Chicago birth center, plans on “unschooling” her children. Unschooling is an increasingly popular method of homeschooling that involves, in a nutshell, allowing kids to learn about whatever they want to, whenever they want to. And, conversely, not forcing them to learn anything they don’t want to until they’re “ready” (and therefore want to).
“It’s like homeschooling, except I’m not the teacher, she is,” Claire says, nodding toward fourteen-month-old Rosemary. “This is the way I wish I had been allowed to learn—complete and total freedom to study however you want.”
Sheryl, the forty-one-year-old owner of the A Much Better Way natural-parenting website, also unschools her children.
“I feel that school is an extremely unnatural environment for children,” she says. “They only get one childhood and I want it to be full of lizards, mud, puddles, leaves, and trees.”
It sounds nice, and that kind of pastoral vision of childhood is part of what makes homeschooling and unschooling so appealing. For Gen X and Y parents who remember being unhappy in school, homeschooling has an especially emotional pull.
“I hated school when I was growing up,” says Jen, a thirty-eight-year-old homeschooling mom in Boulder, Colorado. “I couldn’t figure out why I needed to do it, why I should be excelling at these arbitrary things . . . I wanted to really give [my kids] a chance to love learning and not just memorize things. Why shouldn’t kids just be able to learn to sail a boat if that’s what they want to do?”
Jen and her husband initially sent their son to Montessori school, where he was anxious and unhappy. So Jen began homeschooling, which she plans on doing through high school.
In Jen’s progressive community of Boulder (the kind of place where people boycott Whole Foods for being “too corporate”), most of her friends are stay-at-home homeschooling moms, all of them well educated with interesting careers behind them—writers, newspaper reporters, ER nurses. These women all turned away from their careers to throw themselves fully into the lives of their children. What was more important? they asked. Having a high-powered career or raising the happiest, healthiest children by having the time to meet their individual needs on a one-on-one basis?
Courtney, a thirty-one-year-old crafty, gardening, from-scratch-cooking stay-at-home mom in Iowa City, says she’s interested in exploring homeschooling when her son’s old enough, since she’s concerned about the school environment.
“I’d worry about what my son was eating at lunch, and the advertising at schools, and the pop in vending machines, and the cleaning solutions they use on the floors,” she says. “I kind of want to opt out because it’s easier to maintain a little bit of a bubble at home.”
Many of the homeschooling parents I’ve talked to seem to simply be loath to give up quality time with their kids. After all, when you’ve nursed a child through toddlerhood, sending her off to preschool might seem like an untenable separation. Plus, for women who have centered their entire lives around intensive child rearing, homeschooling keeps a void from opening up.
“I really, really believe that kids need their parents,” Janelle says. “So many of our society’s problems are stemming from the fact that from six weeks on we stick our kids in child care, they go to school at five, and they go off to college at eighteen.”
“YOU JUST HAVE TO FOLLOW YOUR OWN HEART”: DIY PARENTING AND THE ANTIVACCINE MOVEMENT
The “mother knows best” attitude of DIY parenting that leads to parents opting out of traditional establishments can take a dangerous turn. The prime example of this is the antivaccine movement. This is not to say that all parents who practice natural or attachment parenting are against childhood vaccines. But many are. And, like DIY parenting itself, antivaccine attitudes are spreading.
A twenty-nine-year-old friend of mine recently brought her baby daughter to her Chapel Hill pediatrician for her first round of vaccines. Before they could even sit down, the doctor launched into a defensive dialogue about the importance of vaccines for preventing deadly diseases. “Uh, of course,” agreed my friend, who happens to have a degree in public health.
“Oh, good,” the doctor said, sighing. “I have to deal with so many parents who fight me every step of the way.”
Vaccine refusal has become its own epidemic in America over the past decade. Initial fears about a vaccine-autism connection were sparked by a single 1998 paper by British doctor Andrew Wakefield, who was later found to have fabricated data and subsequently lost his medical license. Though numerous studies have since failed to find any connection between vaccines and autism, fears about immunization have metastasized. Today antivaccine parents cite everything from worries about mercury in vaccines to the idea that contracting a disease “naturally” is better for a child’s overall health. While these fears are roundly dismissed by the scientific and medical community, they continue to influence millions of parents. No amount of reassurance from experts seems to help, and skepticism of vaccines has become a common thread linking many natural parents.
Numbers of unvaccinated children have spiked in the past ten years, especially in progressive, affluent parts of the country like Northern California and Boulder, Colorado. In California, for example, numbers of schoolchildren with “personal-belief waivers” excusing them from vaccines doubled in the first decade of the twenty-first century. In some crunchy Northern California counties, the number of kids with these personal-belief waivers exceeds 10 percent. At some progressive private schools, unvaccinated kids are the majority—at one San Diego–area private school, for example, 83 percent of the kids have personal-belief waivers.18
Since a vaccine’s success depends on so-called herd immunity, about 90 percent of the population needs to be vaccinated in order to prevent outbreaks. As percentages of vaccinated children drop lower, outbreaks of preventable childhood diseases have begun to occur with increasing frequency. In 2011, measles cases quadrupled in the United States, a situation blamed on vaccine refusal.19 In 2010, the worst whooping cough epidemic in sixty years broke out in California. Ten babies were killed, most of them still too young to be vaccinated and therefore reliant on herd immunity; the outbreak was blamed on the state’s low vaccination rates. Similar outbreaks have been seen in Virginia, Minnesota, Chicago, Colorado, and other areas.
These antivaccine parents aren’t stupid. Like most DIY parents, they’re often highly educated, highly thoughtful people whose very thoughtfulness leads them to question authority.
“I feel like people are getting smarter. They’re standing up for themselves and they’re making decisions based on knowledge instead of following everybody else,” said one antivaccine California mother quoted in a news story.20
Like many antivaccine parents, Janelle, the Pennsylvania mom, talks about her decisions in terms of freedom, personal choice, and being empowered to make her own decisions. As an attachment parent who believes in primal motherly instinct, she felt comfortable listening to her gut when it came to immunizations. When she took her oldest daughter to get her DPT vaccine, the toddler looked at the needles, looked at her mother, and said, “Don’t do this to me.”
Janelle felt her gut wrench. “I was like, ‘Oh, you’re right. My heart’s telling me not to do this,’ ” she recalls.
Her conclusion: “You just have to follow your own heart” when it comes to medical decision-making.
She didn’t have her other children vaccinated, and she’s come to believe (contrary to accepted mainstream science) that vaccines are full of antifreeze and heavy metals, and that a healthy lifestyle will provide her children with strong enough immune systems to fight off disease.
For Janelle and several other mothers I talked to, vaccines are seen as a dangerous shortcut to health, a way of abnegating the real responsibilities of motherhood. The proper way to achieve health, according to Janelle, is a careful regimen of exclusive breast-feeding and organic foods.
“You need to take responsibility for your life,” she says.
It’s easy to look at someone like Janelle or the Chicago moms and say they’re irrational, irresponsible, hippies. But at the same time, it’s easy to see how they came to their conclusions.
Dr. Sears and his sons have had a major part in spreading antivaccine attitudes. In 2007 Sears’s son Robert Sears published The Vaccine Book: Making the Right Decision for Your Child, which advocates a reduced schedule of vaccinations. In the book, Sears suggests that public health agencies like the CDC are dangerously cavalier about vaccine side effects, that vaccines should not be mandatory, and that “natural” immunity is better than vaccine immunity (hence the rise of so-called “pox parties” to infect kids with chicken pox the old-fashioned way). The book sold more than forty thousand copies, and “Dr. Bob’s Alternative Vaccine Schedule” has become a mainstay of progressive parenting. Mainstream physicians, however, view this alternative schedule as dangerous nonsense. “Sears’ misrepresentation of vaccine science misinforms parents trying to make the right decisions for their children,” reads an aggrieved article in the journal Pediatrics.21
In vaccine skepticism, we see two larger social trends that influence New Domesticity come together: (1) the growing distrust toward conventional medicine and science, and (2) the idea that individuals—like mothers—should follow their instincts rather than defer to authorities.
On the one hand, the idea of questioning authority and doing your own research rather than blindly deferring to experts is a worthy one. In the 1950s, paternalistic doctors amputated legs and lopped off breasts without even bothering to tell patients they had cancer. The subsequent backlash—the insistence on patient autonomy and informed consent—has clearly changed our medical system for the better. The women’s health movement of the 1970s, which empowered women to ask questions and challenge authority when it came to their own bodies, was revolutionary; the idea that parents would educate themselves about medical issues is a huge step forward.
But it seems clear that, at least when it comes to vaccines, this attitude has gone too far.
Advocates for “vaccine choice” defend the individual rights of the parent above any community health considerations. Peggy O’Mara, the longtime editor of Mothering magazine, tells me she believes in “trusting women as experts” and teaching parents to do their own research rather than simply deferring to authority. For her, professionals like pediatricians and public health researchers should be used only as “consultants.” O’Mara has stuck to this attitude, even when it’s generated huge controversy for Mothering. The magazine has regularly been criticized by public health officials as being antivaccine. In 2001, the magazine featured a heavily pregnant Christine Maggiore on the cover, next to the headline “HIV+ Mothers say NO to AIDS Drugs.” Maggiore, an HIV-positive activist who believed that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, was praised in the magazine for her independent thinking, portrayed as a fierce woman warrior fighting against a patriarchal medical establishment. It also praised her decision to breast-feed her two children, despite ample evidence that breast-feeding transmits HIV from mother to child. Maggiore and her baby daughter have both since died of AIDS.
Still, to O’Mara, a mother’s choice is paramount. “You have to decide for yourself,” she says.
Many wonder whether DIY parenting is problematic when it comes to questions of gender equality. Do DIY parenting’s ideals require that a woman subordinate herself to her family? Does the fascination with the idea of what’s “natural” lead to a “biology is destiny” philosophy at odds with egalitarianism?
To begin to answer these questions, we first must understand the two different lenses through which most people view these issues. The first lens is what’s often termed “liberal feminism.” The second is what’s often called “cultural feminism.” Liberal feminism suggests that most gender inequality is culturally based. When faced with a question like “Why are women only 4.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs?” a liberal feminist might respond: “Because girls are socialized to be less competitive than boys, female businesswomen are punished for ambition while men are praised for it, companies don’t accommodate women’s needs by offering reasonable maternity leave, women still shoulder the majority of the child care,” and so on.
Cultural feminism is the idea that some gender inequality is actually just “gender difference” and that we should honor women’s (and men’s) natural, inherent natures. When asked the CEO question, a cultural-feminist might respond: “Women are naturally less competitive than men, and why is that a bad thing? Why should ‘success’ be measured on a male-designed scale—why should we view a CEO as more successful than a mother of four happy, well-cared-for children? The fact that we don’t honor women’s natures as nurturers is frankly sexist.”
In some aspects of New Domesticity, especially when it comes to parenting, we seem to be seeing a shift away from liberal feminism toward cultural feminism. In The Paradox of Natural Mothering, academic Chris Bobel writes about the dominance of the cultural feminist attitude in the natural-parenting community. “When I asked women to explain why they constructed a child-centered, mother-dependant, simplified lifestyle, I heard a similar refrain: natural mothering respects and reflects our nature as females,” she writes. “Women are designed, with wombs, breasts, and ‘the mothering hormone’ (oxytocin) to nurture children. Men are not.”
Many of the women I’ve interviewed have similar attitudes:.
“It seems like such a natural thing for a woman to do, to care for children and the home and so forth,” says Sofya, the Wisconsin blogger. “I guess, maybe as a result of the feminism movement—which is good in so many ways—it came to be something people viewed negatively.”
In an e-mail, Claire, the mom from the Chicago childbirth center, eloquently describes her choices as an expression of her feminism:
Because my working mother offered me few practical skills beyond sewing on a button and reheating processed food in a microwave, I have used my time since leaving the academic sphere to re-acquire knowledge and abilities that women throughout history have taken for granted. It actually requires a decent understanding of scientific method, philosophy, education, politics, psychology, nutrition, medicine and spirituality to run a household with confidence, joy and wisdom. So am I unfulfilled and limited, when I believe I am at the forefront of a revolution in my children’s learning, our country’s food system, the faith of my childhood, the nourishment of our marriages, a crisis in our economy? Absolutely not. To tackle these issues and more on a daily basis from the command center of my quaint suburban home is more exciting and meaningful than I know how to communicate. And while my willingness to sacrifice my own career in favor of my husband’s may be more June Cleaver than Betty Friedan, in light of the direction I see our nation’s families and communities going, nothing could feel more right or more poignant to me.
Choosing a simpler life does not offer me a paycheck, a pat on the back from the parents who paid for a “wasted” education, or reassurance from my feminist upbringing that screamed “You can be anything you want to be—and you damn well better want a career because we FOUGHT to shatter that glass ceiling for you, honey!” But what it does offer is worth more than any amount of money or recognition to me—the chance to fight for a shockingly healthy, lasting marriage, the opportunity to sit and sip tea while my child brings me book after book to read to her rather than hearing her day recounted to me by a daycare worker and the endless putterings and ponderings that my kitchen, my community, my Netflix subscription, my library and my backyard have to offer. Do I sit in my pajamas some days and eat homemade ice cream and accomplish very little? Absolutely. But am I blissfully happy, intellectually fulfilled and physically healthy while doing so? I’d have to say, resoundingly, yes. So no, my feminism is not squelched, but rather best expressed through an occupation that I find vital to the authentic sustenance of my family and community.
Natural mothering does have its roots in a reaction against 1960s and ’70s liberal feminism. Peggy O’Mara, the editor of Mothering magazine, points out that Mothering was founded in 1976, at a time when, as she says, “the act of mothering was being really maligned by the feminist rhetoric.”
But many don’t agree that “biological equals natural equals best.” Some experts, in fact, think it’s a flat-out wrong. We don’t go around killing our rivals just because it’s natural, they say. We don’t smile upon men who cheat on their wives with younger women, even though such behavior might be evolutionarily adaptive. Evolutionary and biological answers only get you so far; the reliance on them is a glib and shallow, if undeniably popular, way of understanding human behavior.
“Although we tend to think that, perhaps because of hormones, there is something natural about fathers being more hands-off, biology offers us a lot more flexibility than we might think,” points out psychologist Cordelia Fine, a sharp critic of biology-as-destiny thinking.22
As Chris Bobel writes, the goal of natural parenting—“cultivating a gentler, less material, more family-centered social climate”—is worthy, but the philosophy can reinforce sexist, limiting visions of womanhood. “The natural mothering rationale accommodates patriarchal visions of women and mothers,” she writes. Reinforcing the idea that women are simply natural caregivers is basically a modern take on the “a woman’s place is in the kitchen” blather of yore. Venerable French thinker Elisabeth Badinter made international waves in 2012 with her ferocious anti-natural-parenting polemic The Conflict, in which she suggests that “women are falling victim to sociobiological fictions that reduce them to the status of female mammals.”23 She describes natural parenting as “a movement dressed in the guise of a modern, moral cause that worships all things natural.”24
According to Badinter, by buying into natural parenting women are voluntarily holding out their wrists for a new kind of shackles. This time, instead of being oppressed by men, they’re allowing themselves to be oppressed by babies and by the ever-higher bar of Good Motherhood. Time-consuming natural mothering—the cloth diapers, the constant attachment, the obsessive controlling of their children’s environment—limits women’s ambitions and turns them into servants to their children. Since they believe it’s “natural,” they find it hard to question.
In reading Sears’s book, it’s not hard to see why some parents find attachment parenting oppressive. The goal of Sears’s attachment parenting seems to be a near-supernatural melding of mother and baby. Sears talks frequently of developing a “sixth sense” or being completely “in tune” with a baby, and writes that when an AP mother is separated from her baby “she feels as if part of herself is missing.” He writes approvingly of mothers who can bear to be apart from their children for only short time periods and “can’t imagine anything that’s more fun or satisfying” than being with baby. He glowingly describes how his own wife always sets her watch to California time when she travels, to keep herself connected to her children and know what they’re doing from minute to minute. While Sears claims to support working mothers, he’s also written that moms should ideally work from home and that mothers who choose to work might simply not “understand how disruptive that is to the well-being of their babies.”25 Sears and his wife have also suggested that moms borrow money in order to quit their jobs. In fact, they gave money to their sons’ wives to allow them to stay home. “It was the least we could do,” said Martha Sears in Time magazine.26
“Basically, I think the idea of attachment parenting is a way to force women to cut back on their role in the workplace,” says sociologist Louise Roth, herself the mother of three young children.
Reading things like the following, from natural-parenting guru and La Leche League affiliate Dr. George Wootan, can indeed make one more than a little queasy:
Let me submit to you that the need for mother is as strong in a toddler as the need for food, and that there is no substitute for a securely attached mother . . . If he scrapes his knee, or gets his feelings hurt, he can’t put his need on hold for two hours until Mommy is home, and the babysitter—or even Daddy [emphasis added]—just won’t do as well as if Mommy was there . . . I believe that many women return to work not out of necessity, but because they (or their spouses) want to maintain the two-income lifestyle to which they’ve become accustomed. These parents need to do a little soul-searching about what they really need and not sacrifice their child’s best interests.
Mother is better than Daddy? Really? This raises another important question: does natural parenting, with its emphasis on mothers’ natural role, discourage egalitarian parenting?
JJ, a thirty-two-year-old writer and mother of two in Los Angeles who calls herself a “natural parenting dropout,” thinks that attachment parenting asks more from mothers than from fathers and tends to erode gender equality in relationships. With its focus on motherly instinct, “motherly hormones,” and exclusive breast-feeding, it can be hard for Dad to find his role.
“A lot of attachment parenting—though it explicitly says otherwise—becomes very much about mom’s monopoly on the babies,” she says. JJ also thinks that the “rigid structure” of attachment parenting discourages dads from feeling competent and confident with their own children. “If you want men to be involved in child care, you can’t tell them exactly how to do it,” she says. “If there’s only one way for a father to properly interact with his children, he’s probably going to check out.”
“Attachment-parenting philosophies really are mom-centric,” agrees her husband, Alden, thirty-four. “They do somewhat disenfranchise the father.”
In New Zealand, La Leche Leaguers rallied against an antismoking ad featuring a celebrity rugby player tenderly bottle-feeding his infant daughter. One might think that an ad showing such a stereotypical beefcake nurturing a child would be welcomed for promoting shared parenting.
But to hard-core Leaguers, the breast is always best. So Mom must feed, not Dad.
Melanie, the thirty-eight-year-old mom and PhD student in Austin, says “attachment parenting is the most antifeminist parenting strategy you could practice” and points out that the ideology of natural parenting can sound awfully similar to right-wing fundamentalist ideas about the sanctity of motherhood as a woman’s highest calling. “You’re so liberal you’ve swung around to where you’re not that different from that Duggar woman,” she says, referring to the notoriously fecund Michelle Duggar of TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting fame. The Duggars, fundamentalist Christians from Arkansas who don’t believe in birth control, live a frugal, family-centric lifestyle, complete with DIY laundry detergent, homeschooling, and (in the case of the Duggar grandchildren) home birth. The Duggars may be working in the service of God, while the natural moms in this chapter are working in the service of Nature. We’ll talk more about the parallels between the extreme right and the extreme left in chapter 9.
“IF I DON’T DO THIS, I’LL BE THE WORST MOTHER EVER”: THE PRESSURES OF DIY PARENTING
Through the past half century, parents have wrenched control away from patriarchal “experts” and proclaimed the validity of their own instinct. But with greater control comes greater responsibility—too much, for some.
Few understand this better than JJ, the thirty-two-year-old “natural parenting dropout” from Los Angeles.
When she first had her daughter, now three, it was a foregone conclusion that JJ would practice attachment parenting. Raised in a middle-class home in Northern California, JJ often felt neglected by her own working parents, who “paid no attention to whether I was coming or going.” She vowed that when she had kids, she would give them all the attention she felt she’d missed out on. That, plus her natural inclination toward all things crunchy, made attachment parenting the obvious choice. Really, it was hardly a choice at all—everyone in JJ’s social circle practiced attachment parenting, or at least claimed to.
“Attachment parenting is sort of conflated with social class,” says JJ, who describes herself and her husband as living a “lean lower-middle-class existence” in status-conscious L.A. “So when you roll with educated liberal types in the big city, attachment parenting is what people do.”
JJ thinks today’s mania for DIY parenting is the result of the boredom felt by creative, educated women when they quit or pull back on their careers to raise children.
“Being a stay-at-home mom to one child, a baby, when you’re a mom of one is not really a full-time job,” she says sotto voce, as if revealing a dirty secret. “You’ve got a lot of other time. I think that’s where all the canning and the cloth diapering and that frenzy comes in. You have this time vacuum. It really isn’t that hard to look after one kid all day long.”
So why did JJ and so many of her friends give up their jobs? I ask her. “It was always financial,” she says, explaining that she had to leave a good university teaching job because she couldn’t afford day care. “You just can’t pay for child care, and you lose the career, whether you want to or not,” she says.
Friends of hers who made healthier salaries still found themselves blocked by lack of maternity leave and workplace flexibility, she says.
“It’s really awful to go back to work full-time when you have a six-week-old baby,” she says. “When you have to choose between going back at six weeks or quitting their jobs, a lot of women chose to quit their jobs. It is really awful to go back so soon. If this was Canada and we had that yearlong leave, it would be very different for a lot of people.”
But we’re not Canada. And so JJ and many of her friends found themselves stay-at-home mothers, whether or not they’d ever intended to be. And, like JJ, many of them found themselves at loose ends. Immersion in high-intensity parenting seemed to fill some of that vacuum, and the idea of doing something that was better for everyone—your baby, yourself, the environment—was highly appealing to JJ’s set of socially conscious peers.
But JJ quickly began to feel that she was falling short of natural-parenting ideals. Shortly after her daughter was born, JJ discovered she had insufficient milk supply for exclusive breast-feeding. Since breast-feeding is central to DIY parenting, she felt like a terrible parent.
“I thought, ‘If I don’t do this, I’ll be the worst mother ever,’ ” she recalls. “[Breast-feeding] was the crucible. If I didn’t, I was going to be a failure.”
So JJ, like many young mothers today, went to “extraordinary lengths” to breast-feed. She worked with lactation consultants, attended breast-feeding support groups, and pumped breast milk with a mechanical pump on a nearly constant basis.
“I was pumping around the clock, every three hours,” she says, groaning at the memory. “All night and all day, I was hooked up to a breast pump. I was feeding her from a bottle while I was pumping, sometimes simultaneously, then washing the pump. You have to sterilize it, so I’d spend fifteen minutes pumping, fifteen minutes sterilizing, then have two and a half hours to rest before going back through the whole process.”
This obsession with being able to breast-feed wasn’t just physically and emotionally taxing for JJ. “It really precluded bonding with my daughter,” she says. “I could have just been feeding her formula and not dying inside.”
In retrospect, JJ sees her interest in attachment parenting as being tied up with her own class anxieties. “It was like when smoking was an upper-class thing to do, and then upper-class people stopped smoking and it became a lower-class thing. [Breast-feeding] became the thing to do when you’re culturally aware. It fed into my own class anxieties. Like it’s trashy to buy your baby’s food at Target. If you’re a good and classy and clean upscale lady, then you’ll make your breast-feeding work.”
Exclusive breast-feeding has become symbolic of a certain kind of parenting, giving the practice a moral weight far beyond the reality of its health benefits. Recently, there’s been a move by some women to question this breast-feeding mandate. In an (in)famous 2009 Atlantic story, “The Case Against Breast-feeding,” Hanna Rosin writes that “in certain overachieving circles, breast-feeding is no longer a choice—it’s a no-exceptions requirement, the ultimate badge of responsible parenting. Yet the actual health benefits of breast-feeding are surprisingly thin, far thinner than most popular literature indicates.”
The extreme proponents of breast-feeding have indeed become fairly notorious for pushiness and judgment as of late (the fact that terms like “lactivist” and “breast-feeding Nazi” even exist illustrates this point), leaving women like JJ bereft when they’re unable to measure up.
Suzanne, a thirty-four-year-old Los Angeles mother of two, also had trouble nursing and wound up bottle-feeding her babies. She quickly learned that this was the moral equivalent of slapping them in public. Strangers at the store would scold her about her formula use. “It was like, ‘Oh my God, why aren’t you breast-feeding?’ ” she recalls grimly. “ ‘Aren’t you worried?! Are you sure you should take him outside? Aren’t you worried his immune system is compromised?’ ”
Though groups like La Leche League, originally started by a group of Catholic housewives in the 1950s, have been promoting breast-feeding since then, the pressures didn’t use to be nearly as intense.
“My mom didn’t breast-feed any of her three children, and she basically thought I was crazy for being hung up on this,” JJ says. When her sisters had their babies a decade or so ago, it was not a big deal. But by the time her middle sister had her son two years ago, her “class-conscious” husband pressured her to breast-feed.
Eventually, JJ decided that the pressures of DIY parenting were bad for her and bad for her children. She went back to work as a writer and has taken what she describes as a pragmatic approach to motherhood. This has meant losing certain friendships with women who remained wrapped up in all-consuming child rearing.
“This really time-consuming parenting precludes Mom having a life and precludes Mom maintaining a sense of self,” she says. “Women become totally subservient to their role of mother, and they become mothers [above] all the other parts of their identity . . . It’s maddening to watch how many women become erased by motherhood.”
Ultimately, JJ thinks the judgment surrounding parenting choices comes from fear.
“We’re all very insecure,” she says. “Maybe it’s different in small towns, but in L.A. none of us are going about parenting the way our parents raised us . . . I’m making it up as I go along. So everything is a choice. And when everything is a choice, it means you could have chosen something different. That makes mothers desperately insecure, myself included. What if I’m making my kids stupid for feeding them jarred foods? What if there’s more BPA in there than I had understood? What if they’re right and I’m wrong?”
At the end of the day, there’s very little evidence to suggest that DIY parenting benefits children more than other loving parenting strategies. Some of the foundational principles of DIY parenting—breast is always best, “crying it out” is bad, day care is harmful—seem to be based on faulty or nonexistent data.
Critics point out that Sears’s attachment-parenting philosophy is derived from attachment theory, the mid-twentieth-century idea that children need to form secure attachments to their caregivers. No one disputes this. But attachment theory studied children who were severely neglected or institutionalized, not kids whose parents failed to co-sleep or babywear. Just because neglect is bad doesn’t mean hypercloseness is best.
“There is a very big difference between neglecting a child and not being with the child all the time,” sociologist Louise Roth tells me.
Extended breast-feeding, the topic of much teeth-gnashing for stressed-out new moms, has surprisingly thin data. While it’s clear that breast-feeding can confer some important immunological benefits to babies, the idea that it’s “liquid gold” that will make for smarter, thinner, healthier adults has little evidence to back it up. But the idea that it might has generated a massive amount of guilt for moms, especially working moms. The idea that allowing babies to cry it out will cause brain damage, central to attachment parenting, is not scientifically supported. In fact, a recent study in the journal Paediatrics reported that allowing for controlled crying reduced infant sleep problems and cut down on maternal depression, and that children left to cry it out did not show any long-term physical or mental health effects.27
Yet the media continues to take advantage of the emotional issue with alarmist stories of little scientific merit. The fact that crying raises cortisol (a stress hormone) has led to headlines like “Avoid putting the under-threes in daycare if you can.”28 Yet many things raise cortisol levels (like brushing your teeth), and there’s no evidence that this causes harm. And children placed in quality day cares have consistently been shown to do just as well as children who stay at home.29
The claim that DIY parenting is simply a return to our roots—“this is the way people have always parented,” as Claire said, or, in the words of Attachment Parenting International, “Attachment Parenting isn’t new. In many ways, it is a return to the instinctual behaviors of our ancestors”—is also disputed by experts.
Anthropologist David Lancy, author of The Anthropology of Childhood, points out that in developing countries mothers may frequently nurse their babies but otherwise pay them “relatively little attention.”30 In fact, he says most developing-world mothers practice what he calls “detachment parenting,” taking a utilitarian view of babies as future workers and investing relatively little in them emotionally, since they often die from disease at an early age. And while American attachment parents believe that stimulating babies is crucial and natural, Lancy notes that mother-child play is considered “absurd” in much of the developing world.
In Lancy’s view, attachment parenting is little more than a “secular religion,” based on a confused interpretation of mid-twentieth-century attachment theory.
While kids clearly need love, nutrition, and security, it doesn’t seem to matter much exactly how this is given. A kid who grows up co-sleeping, eating homemade bread, and being homeschooled is unlikely to have any clear advantage over a kid who grows up crying it out, eating Jif peanut butter sandwiches, and attending decent public schools.
Yet DIY parenting has grown so popular because it seems to fill a deep-seated need for parental control in an anxious world. It attempts to fill a gap left by our often-lacking social safety net, which doesn’t provide us with safe enough food systems, good enough schools, or a responsive enough medical system. It also seems to offer an “out” for women who can’t or don’t wish to find outside employment. If it’s “necessary” to stay home and bond with baby, then of course Mom isn’t working. It also seems to appeal to creative, educated moms, who are used to cerebral work and constant stimulation, something traditional homemaking and child care don’t necessarily provide.
“I DON’T NEED THE GOVERNMENT TO LOOK OUT FOR ME, BECAUSE I CAN LOOK OUT FOR ME”: IS DIY PARENTING SELFISH?
As is the case with vaccine refusal, there are ways in which DIY parenting can privilege extreme individualism at the expense of the group. So we must ask ourselves whether, by focusing so much attention and energy on the minute needs of one’s own child, the larger society suffers. For example: when affluent, educated parents decide to homeschool, public schools lose out on involved PTA parents and capable school-improvement advocates. Or when parents spend all their money and energy searching for the best organic baby products, there’s little energy left to lobby for consumer product regulations that might benefit everyone.
In her book Perfect Madness, about the rise of obsessive, time-consuming parenting, Judith Warner writes, “Our neurotic quest to perfect the mechanics of mothering can be interpreted as an effort to do on an individual level what we’ve stopped trying to do on a society-wide one.”
Back at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, everyone’s kids, rich and poor alike, were vulnerable to the same problems: a banker’s child could die of listeria from unpasteurized milk just as easily as a chimney sweep’s child. Therefore, parents with high socioeconomic status—the ones with the greatest social and political clout—advocated for policy changes that ultimately benefited everybody. These policy changes included the creation of the federal United States Children’s Bureau (1912) to deal with child welfare and health needs; the passing of the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906), which banned the sale of mislabeled and adulterated food products; and the passing of a number of school-reform bills. It was during this period—now known as the Progressive Era—that high school education became widely available to the middle class, that federally funded prenatal clinics were built across America, and that the profession of social work was born. Infant mortality took a steep decline, diseases like diphtheria and typhus decreased sharply, and day-to-day food safety increased hugely. In 1880, a bag of candy might contain lead, mercury, or chromium, while milk could be diluted with water or adulterated with chalk.31 Half a century later, consumer protection laws meant a mother could serve her children store-bought milk without worry.
Ultimately, the Progressive Era gave way to pressure from business and political interests, who warned that such collective reforms were dangerously socialist and undermined economic interests. That attitude has more or less informed the way the United States has dealt with progressive reforms ever since—as a battle between private business interests and public good.
Historian Janet Golden observes that we’ve abandoned the idea of communal good in favor of individual, family-focused solutions. “We don’t have a collective political sense that all of our children are our future citizens,” she says. “We twenty-first-century dwellers have been waiting over one hundred years for universal prenatal care. We don’t have that. We don’t have a movement for universal subsidized high-quality day care . . . I don’t see people out there demanding that anymore.” That’s a scary thought. The rise of DIY parenting means that there are fewer people fighting for institutional changes like better EPA and FDA oversight, volunteering to improve the public schools, working to improve health care for everyone, etc. Ironically, much of today’s “progressive” parenting is more about deregulation than regulation. While, in the words of historian Glenna Matthews, “faith in the capacities of the expert was one characteristic of the Progressive generation,” today we see the exact opposite.32 The kind of people who, one hundred years ago, would have pushed for the Pure Food and Drug Act are now advocates of making raw milk unregulated. Parents who would have crusaded to develop new vaccines to beat diseases like diphtheria and polio are now loudly proclaiming that the government has no right to force them to vaccinate their own kids. Women who might have fought for federally funded day care now say things like “I don’t want strangers raising my children.” In über-crunchy Portland, Oregon, a parent-led protest nearly derailed a city plan to add fluoride to the water in 2012. Though the city’s lack of fluoridated water (Portland was the largest city in America without fluoride in the water) had led to rampant tooth decay, especially among the children of the poor, the suspicious antifluoride faction felt their right to keep fluoride away from their own families was paramount.
“We have the right to raise our families the way we want,” says Janelle, the Pennsylvania mom, who says she does her best to educate fellow parents on their right to not vaccinate their children.
“I feel strongly that short of checking for signs of abuse or neglect, the government should entrust families to make their own decisions concerning both education and health care,” says Claire, the Chicago mom.
Claire, of course, is an educated woman who cares deeply about her daughter and goes to great lengths to keep her safe and healthy. Her homeschooling is informed by her familiarity with educational theorists like John Holt and thinkers like Ivan Illich. She’s done her homework, and it makes sense that she thinks the government doesn’t have the right to second-guess her.
As Golden explains, “people with political power don’t feel that their own children are at particular risk” these days. We’ve moved far away from the world of the late nineteenth century, when disease knew no social bounds. For a dramatic example, look at the presidents of the United States. In the decades leading up to the Progressive Era, every single American president suffered the death of at least one young child, usually due to infectious disease. The death of a president’s child today would be a frightfully rare and shocking incident, as would the death of any child born to parents of middle or high socioeconomic status.
The United States still has one of the worst infant mortality rates in the developed world, and African-American babies are nearly twice as likely as the average to die within the first year of life.33 An educated Caucasian like Claire, the young woman who felt that hospital birth held “so much scarier consequences” than home birth, is the kind of woman most likely to worry about her birth experience. She’s also the kind of woman who, by dint of her social class, is by far the least likely to experience the tragedy of a baby’s death.
Golden sees parental uninterest in collective solutions as part of a larger “decline in the social contract,” one that happens to be particularly evident in the world of children. “As a scholar, I’m very disturbed that we have more [media] articles about toxins in the home than the fact that we live in a country where we don’t have universal prenatal care,” she says. “We’ve moved from collective concern about infant and child welfare into this very privatized focus on ‘my child’ and this intensive child-rearing.”
Carolyn Hough, an anthropologist who has studied modern motherhood, agrees. “I can so relate to that frustration and that feeling that the system is broken,” she says. “There’s no collective sense of responsibility, so there’s been this kind of trend toward ramping up expectations on parents—mothers specifically.”
This ramping up of expectations is extremely class based, she points out. If only middle- and upper-class parents have the resources to meet these higher expectations, then they become symbols of status. Since extended breast-feeding is hard to balance with full-time work, it suggests that the mother is wealthy enough to stay home. Organic foods suggest money and educated tastes.
Chris Bobel, the author of The Paradox of Natural Mothering, blasts the progressive shrugging off of government oversight as privileged class “narcissism.”
“What would turn you off government oversight?” she asks. “Because you don’t need it. You can educate your own children, you can feed your own children and protect them . . . You can live in a community with clean water and clean air and clean soil. [You can think], ‘I don’t have to worry about disease in the way a poor family does. I can prevent illness by the very choices I’m able to make and expose my child to. My child has pretty severe dyslexia—I can hire tutors. I don’t need the government to look out for me, because I can look out for me.’ ”
So in the twenty-first century, parents with resources and education feel they can best protect their child by “opting out” of the system. If the government isn’t doing a good job at regulating the food supply, then parents with money and education can buy organic, local food from the farmer’s market. If the schools aren’t good, parents can homeschool or choose a charter or private school—wealthy parents are “abandoning public education,” Golden says. If parents worry about chemicals in household products, then those with the time, money, and inclination can make their own cleaning products or buy pricey VOC-free rugs and paints. Which is all well and good, but these options are not so freely available to working-class parents with less time and money. They’re the ones who will be left behind if we collectively abandon the effort to push for better social and governmental solutions.
Meet the Author
Emily Matchar writes about culture, women's issues, work, food and more for places such as The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Salon, The Hairpin, Gourmet, Men's Journal, Outside, and many others. She lives in Hong Kong and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with her husband.
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