Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Pox on Both your Houses - Dissecting the Mommy Wars

They don't have as high a profile as the Wars of the Roses or the Crusades, but the Mommy Wars are about as senseless, though admittedly less lethal.

And what are the Mommy Wars? In short, they are sometimes direct, but often passive aggressive battles and skirmishes between women over who has the right way to give birth, feed a baby and raise a child. And since they are fights primarily between mama bears, things can get ugly. However all women can feel free to take part - mothers, mothers of mothers, mothers-to-be. The only eligibility for enrollment is that you're female and that you have something nasty to say about another woman's chosen approach to parenting.

If you're a man, you are automatically excluded from taking part in these battles. Apparently it's anatomy that determines authority. I recall being at one gathering of mostly women and trying to voice an opinion - no, a fact about breastfeeding and being stopped in my tracks by the power of silence and angry stares. It seemed that if I hadn't breasts, I hadn't the right to speak on the matter.

But I am going to speak on the matter because, when it comes to child bearing and parenting, I believe the breastfeeding controversy beautifully illustrates the length to which many women will go in order to undermine and alienate each other, and in the process badly shake all mothers' confidence in the job they're doing. So here it goes - a few observations on breastfeeding from a father:

Breast milk is better for a baby than formula
This is not a discussion point or a controversial statement. It's a fact - "settled science," so to speak - much more settled than climate change. Even Nestle admits that it's product is inferior. So, in a perfect world, with all things being equal, it's better to breastfeed than to bottle feed. Of course all things aren't equal for all families. But for anyone still living in denial about the benefits of breast milk (and sadly there are more than a few), it's time to wake up to reality, get some backbone, and own up to the decisions that you make regarding your child instead of denying the implications of your decision. Decisions aren't made in a perfect world, but they're still your decisions.

Decisions aren't made in a vacuum
I swore I would never let my child cry herself to sleep before I had a child who wouldn't sleep. But letting Chloe learn how to sleep on her own was the best and most sane decision we ever made as parents in our circumstances. Was there another way? For many children, yes, but not for Chloe. This is a choice we made, knowing full well that many people, Dr. Sears included, do not believe it's a good choice for the child (you see, sleep training is another front in the mommy wars). Letting our girl cry was not easy, and we still wonder, did we do anything wrong? But we made a choice, the best choice we could make. And all choices have consequences.

Whether to breastfeed or not is simply one of thousands of decisions parents make about what to do to and for their children. Newsflash to the Breast is Best vigilantes: Breastfeeding is a good idea, but it's not the most important choice parents will ever make for their children. In fact, it's so far from the most important of parental choices that all the hyped up battles about it are really quite laughable. Get over yourselves.  How about using the massive amounts of time and energy you use trying to indoctrinate and put pressure on mothers to fight for school lunch programs, or nutritional education programs for North Americans, whose children are often fed such terrible diets that they suffer from malnutrition. And if you want to encourage more women to breastfeed, take some of the pressure off and offer more reassurance and support. I remember asking our breastfeeding expert about the possibility of using formula from time-to-time to let Julie go out for a night or sleep better. The shocked look on her face said it all. I might as well have been talking about feeding her Coke.

Chloe breastfed until she was two. And we're both very proud of this because it took a fair amount of work when she was first born (she was premature). But we were well informed that breastfeeding is learned, that it's not always easy, that you need to keep trying. We knew how important it is for the father to play a supporting role. We took it one step at a time.

Despite all of the pressure, all of the literature, all of the posters in the hospitals, many women don't know what we knew. They're anxious when it doesn't work. They turn to their spouses for support and don't always get it. Their doctor may be pushing for them to switch to formula because the child is losing weight. Their own mothers may be pushing them to switch to formula because they don't feel good about the decision they made themselves years ago. Good lord, being a new mother today is a lot of pressure. And when a mother does turn to formula, because she hasn't received the help and support she needed, she feels like a failure, like she's doing her child harm.

Formula is not Cheetos:

Formula is made from cow`s milk. It`s not ideal, because we`re not cows. But it`s a good alternative to breast milk. Now, I have all sorts of ethical problems with the formula industry - how it started, how it indoctrinated women and led to a whole society that now feels the need to buy powdered milk to feed their kids, etc., but the truth is, formula is alright. As an analogy, it maybe represents the difference between whole wheat bread and organic sprouted wheat bread. O.k., the sprouted stuff is better, but come on, we`ll get by o.k. on the regular stuff.

This leads me to the point of this whole diatribe. To breast feed or not to breast feed, to hold your baby or not to hold her, to self-soothe or to boob soothe. These should be personal choices influenced by literature, theories, and your own comfort. They're theories that need to be applied to individual realities. Why do women feel the need to battle over issues that have little or no power to force them to make decisions one way or another in their personal lives and that really have little impact on the people that surround them?

Breastfeeding is not the issue. How women treat each other is. And the approach of late is terribly self destructive and points to an insecurity in mothers that's as old and powerful as any competition between men. These are class wars, social wars, and not a health and parenting wars. They might as well be the female version of a pissing contest. To be feminist is to breastfeed. To be feminist is not to breastfeed. To be a good mother is to hold your baby. To hold your baby is to hold women back. It's all a lot of hot air being used to disguise real insecurities and real struggles for power, respect, and social conformity.

Love your children, set some boundaries, model behaviour, and don't worry, they'll probably turn out fine. And if you're truly worried about what to do with your kid, go read Dr. Spock. It's a classic, but it will probably calm a lot of your fears. Oh, and I have a confession to make. We fed Chloe Kraft Dinner last week.


  1. It's true that it shouldn't be a competition....but you weren't supposed to tell about the KD!!

  2. Interesting post, Sean. It's so true how women can be so unsupportive, competitive and plain mean to each other, whether you have children or not, no matter the stage of life you are at. It's such a shame.
    Thanks for sharing about KD and showing us that it really is about making the right decisions at the right time, for the right reasons. At the end of the day, will Chloe be harmed by having KD? probably not since it isn't her usual fair. What she may have is a fun memory of this crazy orange pasta she had for lunch/dinner with her family. And that's what it is all about!

  3. Thanks Kirsti. I agree, the phenomenon is not limited to parenting. I notice it especially in the workplace. On the other hand, the women in my life are, by far, some of the most interesting, engaged and compassionate people I know. It's complicated, but deserves attention.