Thursday, April 7, 2011

Late to the Party: Erica Jong vs. Dr. Sears

This past November Erica Jong wrote an essay in the Wall Street Journal, criticizing the philosophies of Attachment Parenting and its advocates William and Martha Sears. She questioned whether attachment parenting is a prison for mothers. How I missed it when it first came out I do not know; the argument between attachment- and other styles of parents always means an amount of back-and-forth commentary on the Internet that is prolific to say the least.

In her essay, Jong writes, As long as women remain the gender most responsible for children, we are the ones who have the most to lose by accepting the "noble savage" view of parenting, with its ideals of attachment and naturalness. We need to be released from guilt about our children, not further bound by it.

First off, what is so "savage" about raising our own children in a style that children have evolved being raised? Yes of course we should lose the guilt, to which mothers are too often subject no matter what we do. But should we lose the ideal of strong attachment with our children?

Jong writes that our media display "an orgy of motherphilia" that romanticizes parenthood." Nannies are rarely photographed, giving the impression that motherhood is easy and cheap. What she fails to account for is that childcare is expensive. For me to go to work, I must pay someone to look after my child. For me to stay home, I forgo the paycheck to which I as one half of a dynamic DINK duo took wholly for granted. Either way, there is a high price to be paid. Considering that reality I would prefer to raise my own child. And I did, for many months, before I finally missed the work I love so much that I returned to a short week. We hired my brother to manny for us three short days a week and he made money (because childcare is expensive) but my son was in the care of family. It worked for us and I realize we were lucky that family was around and available. But for the amount of money I make doing the work I love, it would have been cheaper for me to stay home.

Jong writes,

Indeed, although attachment parenting comes with an exquisite progressive pedigree, it is a perfect tool for the political right. It certainly serves to keep mothers and fathers out of the political process. If you are busy raising children without societal help and trying to earn a living during a recession, you don't have much time to question and change the world that you and your children inhabit. What exhausted, overworked parent has time to protest under such conditions?

This is a faulty argument. It is true that most people are working too hard to look up and participate in politics. But that isn't the fault of choosing an attached style of parenting. It is because we set our lives up within a capitalist framework, all nuclear family, atomized, isolated, and most importantly, overly materialistic. 

Besides, working outside the home means paying for childcare so we can work outside the home. Most women have to work a lot to make that financially worth doing. Why Jong assumes the "working" mother has more energy and inclination to participate in politics after the outside workday than she would as a stay-at-home mom, I have no idea. Nor does she account for the great many women and men who become actively engaged in local politics after becoming parents.

Jong continues, Attachment parenting, especially when combined with environmental correctness, has encouraged female victimization. Women feel not only that they must be ever-present for their children but also that they must breast-feed, make their own baby food and eschew disposable diapers. It's a prison for mothers, and it represents as much of a backlash against women's freedom as the right-to-life movement. . .Our obsession with parenting is an avoidance strategy. It allows us to substitute our own small world for the world as a whole. But the entire planet is a child's home, and other adults are also mothers and fathers. We cannot separate our children from the ills that affect everyone, however hard we try. Aspiring to be perfect parents seems like a pathetic attempt to control what we can while ignoring problems that seem beyond our reach.

But the "environmental correctness"  Jong disparages is in itself an active a form of political  progressiveness. In our political climate, environmental concerns are of paramount importance. To enact practices at home that support environmental sustainability and social justice is far from an avoidance strategy: it is one way of actively engaging with the world as a responsible citizen. I have no desire to be a "perfect parent." I want to live as a responsible world citizen. My choices in what I buy, what I boycott, how I use natural resources in my parenting are only one manifestation of my personal politics.

At the end of the day, attachment parenting is only anti-feminist if you define feminism as a woman's ability to participate in the work force in exactly the same ways that men do. I would say I expect more from Erica Jong but that isn't true. As a second-wave feminist in the United States she is only saying what I would expect her to say. American feminism has forgotten that equality in the workplace isn't the only right worth having. American feminism has done wonderful work with regard to reproductive rights, but it has forgotten that mothers are women too.

We forget to work for decent maternity leave, perinatal health care, support for families - particularly for single mothers, but for all families. Instead, we denigrate those who choose to work, or who choose to stay home.  We forget that for many people there simply isn't a choice, and that for others the choice is made from a place of blind immersion in a capitalist construct. We don't acknowledge (or we fail to realize) that our problem isn't how we choose to balance home and work, but that by equating freedom and success with paid work we allow work to take precedence over nearly every other concern. Family, children, and planet included. We forget there may be other, more sustainable (and dare I say, more fun) ways to live.

This is why, as crunchy granola Lefty as I tend to be, I always hesitate to call myself a feminist. It seems to me that feminism aims too low; it seeks only to have equal access to everything that men have. I'm not satisfied with what men have, and I don't think men should be either. We need to stop infighting (men vs. women; "working" vs. stay-at-home-moms; attachment- vs. other parents) and turn our attention to places where we can affect change that benefits everyone. "Environmental correctness," far from an imprisonment for mothers, is good for everyone and seems as good a place as any to start.


  1. By hesitating to call yourself a feminist, you do nothing to "raise" the bar or reshape the look of it. Come on in and help create a movement that is more inclusive and good for everyone.

  2. Gina, I truly appreciate this comment. You called out my sloppy and inprecise writing and made me think. I should clarify my point by saying that my unwillingness to identify soley as a feminist hasn't stopped me at all from behaving as one. My youthful political life was full of things like clinic defense and organizing political and cultural events and groups for women. Now that I am older and have a child I am interested in maternal and perinatal care as being a huge issue. To that end I have offered free labor support for teen and underprivileged mothers. I financially support women in developing nations via, as well as Planned Parenthood (where I have spent many months volunteering at various times in my life); I boycott Nestle.

    It's probably completely semantic but I shy away from using descriptors like 'feminist' because at the end of the day the issues I am most interested in have to do with the rights of humans (both male and female) vs. the rights of corporations (and by extention, protecting the planet).

    But another way, I think sexism and its legislations are symptoms of a bigger problem and I am more interested in addressing that root problem than its various manifestations.

  3. (Score one for not editing- that should have read, "PUT another way.")


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