The “mommy wars” aren’t real—but the attack on American women is

We were always on the same team.
We were always on the same team.
Image: Similac
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Most ads make the products they’re selling seem more important than they really are—like the new Jeep SUV that’s going to save the planet. Similac’s viral “Mother Hood” ad does the opposite: it trivializes infant formula by mercilessly parodying every modern, moneyed parenting choice as obsessive sanctimony.

The two-and-a-half-minute video, seen by nearly 7 million on YouTube as of this writing, pits various cliques of moms and one of stay-at-home dads converging at the playground, armed with their bottles/nipples/strollers/yoga pants. It’s the love child of “Shit Park Slope Parents Say” and The Warriors.

“Here come the breast police,” says the leader of moms with bottles, spraying as they go, as if marking their territory. “One hundred percent breast-fed, straight from the source,” the leader of the other pack retorts.

The situation escalates, the verbal volleys hitting on a range of childbearing and rearing but return to breast versus bottle (“Nipple up, ladies!”). Confrontation is imminent, were it not for a stroller let go, inadvertently sent careening downhill. What happens next is the ad’s emotional plea: the baby is saved by group effort—factions disappear, and now it’s playground utopia, with everybody on the same team.

“No matter what our beliefs, we are parents first,” Similac offers. “Welcome to the sisterhood of motherhood” (without apologies to the dads).

It’s a nice message. More than one parent I surveyed admitted it made them tear up. Except…oh those tired “mommy wars”! And how clever of Similac to perpetuate them even as it massages our heart centers.

The thing is, mothers are not at war—we are under attack. The mommy-war construct benefits the status quo—including formula companies—by goading us to point fingers at each other rather than at the terribly unsupportive system we live in.

The mommy-war narrative equates everything as a “choice”—as if we are all in complete control of whether we feed by breast or bottle, work or stay home, can afford a Bugaboo or a night nurse—when the reality is much more political than personal, and never so black and white. Every decision happens within the context of our resources and work flexibility, not to mention our bodies and babies and the healthcare we receive—not just our own values and desires.

If we are obsessing over other women’s decisions, we’re not advocating for the systemic change that would allow more of us to have the kind of births and babymoons we might want. With breastfeeding, it so happens that most US women choose it, but relatively few do it as much or for as long as they intended.

I don’t live in Park Slope—but close enough—and the kind of judgment satirized by Similac hasn’t been my experience in the year that I’ve been a parent. The parents I meet at the playgrounds and cafes by and large seem happy to have another adult to talk to, usually about sleep (sleep training, co-sleeping, not sleeping) or even real adult issues.

Over the weekend I brought the ad up at a gathering of mothers. We launched into a long conversation about moving through the world both fearing being judged and actually being judged, and everybody had specific examples. They ranged from subtle—a mom saying, “We don’t eat off the floor” to her kid while my friend’s kid was doing exactly that—to being cornered for hours at a wedding and “lectured” by another mom about the need to sleep-train. We all had stories of random strangers, not obviously parents, voicing concern that our babies were getting too much exposure to the weather, whatever the weather. Those of us still breastfeeding at 13 months, 18 months, and beyond, felt and sometimes even heard opprobrium—”Oh, you’re still breastfeeding?”

It’s true that the world judges, and it probably always has. And come on, we have judgments too, even if we keep them to ourselves. It’s primal—we think of children as a collective responsibility on some level. People who’ve worked through a problem feel entitled to offer tips. And we should be able to take them or leave them.

Yet something has made us less resilient. And here’s the real phenomenon that I think the ad is tapping into: mothers are under such scrutiny—think of all the prenatal testing, all the monitoring during pregnancy and labor, and how we are arresting mothers for letting their kids walk to the park or for having a miscarriage. We are on the defensive; there is no support in the culture for instinctive parenting, and mothers in particular are being watched.

Instead of doing what feels right, we need external validation. We need a courtroom defense. And we live in the information age. We can validate our decisions with reams of data.

The danger of fortifying a decision with that much evidence, however, is that we become wedded to it, and something as subjective as what time your baby should go to bed becomes rigidly fixed in one’s mind as the best time for all babies. We become convinced that we know the answer. It’s no longer a question of problem solving, it’s a question of morals. Enter sanctimony and self-righteousness.

The Similac ad seems to challenge us: What if something were really at stake? Let’s not get caught up in the small stuff. Stroller/carrier, formula/breast, work/home—these are trivial. It’s the baby we should be focused on.

But breastfeeding is not trivial. Nor is deciding to put your career on hold to stay home. Or deciding to keep working and pumping. Or not. Because maybe you have no choice. These are often difficult, challenging decisions, and they are in the interest of a healthy baby, which is inseparable from a healthy mother and a healthy family. The ad is manipulative in that way: it puts us in emotional stirrups, a nurse taunting, “Don’t you want a healthy baby?” which is code for: your instincts and informed decisions don’t matter. You are not important.

That’s why Similac would spend its advertising dollars underselling its own significance. If formula isn’t that important then the constellation of decisions we call parenting aren’t either, and neither are the social supports that families need in order to do it and not be so sleep-deprived, insecure, and scared that we turn on each other.

I think that’s why the ad really makes us cry. We want so badly to be on the same team.