The Hook of the “Mommy Wars,” and Feminism

You’ve probably heard the hubbub lately over the recent cover of Time magazine that has frustrated and angered many mothers because of its deeply problematic representation of extended breastfeeding. Leave aside the many, many reasons for which this photograph and its accompanying title “Are you Mom enough?” are ridiculous, merely provocative, and not at all an attempt at a serious conversation. Any intelligent reader/viewer can discern these problems for herself. I don’t want to talk about that. I want to talk, instead, about why it’s happening–and what’s at stake.

A recent article in the New York Times asked this question: “Has women’s obsession with being the perfect mother destroyed feminism?”

I want to ask a different question: What is the political function of misdirecting the energy and attention of what could be–if socialized differently (i.e. if we change, each of us to the degree she can, the culture around mothering)–what has the potential to be the most active, politically invested, communally powerful demographic on the continent (namely the mothers these “mommy wars” target)? What is at stake politically in the fact that an increasingly community-oriented generation of intelligent, educated women who are mothers (many of whom, by the way, would take serious issue with the military language of “mommy wars”) is being asked to waste its energy defusing bombs lobbed in the direction not of professional targets but civilian ones (it’s not primarily the so-called experts who come “under fire” so to speak, but the moms themselves: why?).

Part of the answer, obviously, is to sell things–newspapers, magazines, more books that tell women what to do and why they’re not doing it (i.e. mothering) well enough. But another part of the answer, I’m increasingly convinced, is a bit more heinous. Here’s why I think so. Moms, for the most part, aren’t at war. Sure, the early months or years of trying to find or create some kind of genuine community to be part of can be frustrating and bewildering. But virtually every mother of young children that I know personally is actively involved in creating that kind of community for herself in the absence of it being pre-fabricated for her–with heartening results. Everywhere I look, I see women reaching out to one another–often despite work preferences, sleeping preferences, nursing/feeding preferences. Most of the moms I know repeat some variation of this phrase like a mantra to each other: “It’s whatever you can live with, whatever works for your family.”

No, most of the moms I know aren’t at war; they’re at peace. They’re practicing peace in an important, politically engaged, compassionate way. They’re failing and trying and falling down and getting up every day. They’re doing the hard work of building a family, building their part of a community, building the world.

So I think there’s something very suspect–and dangerous–about the fact that bombs keep getting lobbed into a peaceful civilian population trying to create functional, mutual motherhood. It’s the “mommy wars” themselves that are a threat to feminism, and we need to ask who (of course, I don’t mean one person, but what cultural force) is orchestrating them, and why. Who stands to gain, who stands to lose. And, as the moms I know are getting very good at asking themselves and each other: What can we do about it?

More and more we are learning, the moms I know and me, how to put our energy into creative/artful resistance, into not participating in whatever supposed controversy is current. What if we took this one step further and instead specifically used that energy we are saving to advocate–in whatever way we can manage today, and tomorrow, and the next day–for the things mothers qua mothers tend to care about very deeply (e.g. the environment, education, health care, social justice)? This is the way the work of mothering gets done: by women doing their (flawed, imperfect) best with what they have every day. And, I believe, this is also the way the work of cultural/social change will get done–if we can pull our attention away from the things that don’t matter, and fasten it upon the things that do.

In other words, what if we let the “mommy wars” make us into feminists again–as an act of resistance, rebellion. Not by imagining that the important choices we make are whether to breastfeed or not, work at home or away (of course these matter, but we mustn’t be distracted by ad hominem arguments into thinking our choices here define our worth as mothers)–but by reinventing motherhood, however we inhabit it individually, as also a social role that involves women supporting each other at a personal level (which IS political) and helping to build a broader culture we want to be part of, and want our children to inherit.

Strangely, I might be arguing for a feminism that allows that the personal doesn’t have to be quite so political. Of course, it is. But the work of peace over war is the work of accepting difference, accepting conflict–and still living together, side by side, supporting one another, still working toward some communal goals. We’re getting better at this all the time.

But it matters to think about who benefits from our attention getting sucked up by the “mommy wars.” Because it’s way easier to defensively criticize someone else than to do the real political work of, for example, resisting the “manic economy“, or defending the environment, or challenging the form and content of education, or building a culture that is gender-equal (if not gender-neutral), that is habitable for everybody, regardless of what the interior of their mind looks like or how it functions, or what their body looks like, or what gender they identify with/as, or what religion they practice, or who they love.

It’s easier to criticize someone else’s mothering than it is to account for the cultural legacy of women feeling shame for not being able to, in the words of researcher Brene Brown, “do it all, do it perfectly, and never let them see you sweat.” She adds: “Shame for women is this web of unattainable, conflicting competing expectations about who we’re supposed to be. And it’s a straight jacket.” (If you have time, I highly recommend that you watch her two popular TED talks about shame, vulnerability, and courage–see below).

Here’s my challenge: do something else. Instead of wasting your time or energy reading the Time article (notice I haven’t linked to it here), listen to Brene Brown, or have a beer (or both).

So, Time magazine, that’s quite a hook you’ve got dangling there, and you’ll probably pull in a lot of what you’re looking for (there are always some people out there looking for a good chance to get their hate on). But I have to tell you: Most of the moms I know can see through this kind of thing by now. Most of us aren’t biting.


1 comment to The Hook of the “Mommy Wars,” and Feminism

  • Amber

    This is so true! Thank you for writing about this. The sad thing is that this “war” pits us against, not only our friends, sisters and mothers, but, ourselves. Which is why you are right that Brene Brown is just what we all need!

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