The Mommy Wars won’t end until parents take responsibility for their own insecurities

It’s on.
It’s on.
Image: Fanqiao Wang
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I am the mother of two small children. Like a lot of parents, I want my kids to set the table for dinner and clean up after themselves when they’ve finished. I’ve taught them to say “please” and “thank you.” That’s parenting for you: a series of small choices that you make day after day, and year after year, each one designed to mold our children’s lives in some way. I breastfed each of my kids for 13 months. I give them wood toys to play with, and plastic toys, too. I take them to the park and let them play inside. I encourage them to read books, but they have sometimes been known to watch TV for hours at a time.

I know there are moms out there who do things differently than me–moms who would be very upset to learn that my children watch so much TV. This is to be expected. Not all parents raise their children the same way, and that’s fine. The problem is when some parents feel that theirs is the only correct way to raise children.

Whether out of love, or protectiveness or arrogance, such squabbles constitute the many battles of the long-maligned “Mommy Wars.” Sometimes silly, sometimes bitter, the mommy wars aren’t a new concept. But they are a tiresome one. Why, in an increasingly progressive era, can’t we just leave the parenting to the individual parent?

Take my friend Jennifer, for example. Jennifer formula-fed her baby. When other mothers found out, she was ashamed. “How can you not breastfeed?” they asked. “Don’t you know that breastfeeding is the healthiest option for your baby?”

The World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control (among many other health organizations) do highly encourage breastfeeding. But, as Courtney Jung points out in this insightful New York Times column, the issue has taken on a wholly unnecessary moral righteousness: “There is a difference between supporting a woman’s decision to breastfeed through policy changes like improved maternity leave, flexible work schedules and on-site day care facilities, and compelling women to breastfeed by demonizing formula.”

While plenty of the battling is linked to alpha mothers asserting their point of view, there are many forces at work, some of them corporate. In an article published on Salon last October, Mary Elizabeth Williams discusses how advertising plays a role in facilitating the fraught battles over feeding. For example, baby formula brand Similac released a commercial this fall not-so-subtly criticizing breastfeeding mothers for judging the moms who formula feed. This kind of commercial only fans the flames of the Mommy Wars.

Such judgement is certainly frustrating to the moms who find themselves targets. But there are potentially darker consequences as well.

Jessica Zucker is a clinical psychologist who specializes in women’s reproductive and maternal mental health–particularly new moms and mothers who have experienced post-partum depression. For some women, Zucker says, the overbearing comments begin before the baby is even born and plant seeds of doubt that may stay with mothers for years.

“I received so many inappropriate body image comments when I was pregnant,” Zucker tells Quartz. “It then leads into how you’re going to birth.” Moms begin to question their choices: Should they have had a natural birth? Should they have declined the pain medication? “The person who got the epidural, even if they say they feel good about their choice, often walks away [from conversations with other moms] feeling like they didn’t try hard enough,” Zucker explains. “They think, ‘Maybe I should have tried harder or been in pain longer or maybe I’m not as strong as this other person.’”

For some women, this type of conversation is more than exchange of different opinions. “I get a lot of referrals from women who planned or expected to have an un-medicated birth and ended up with a Caesarean section. This in part contributes to them plunging into a depression—or at least that’s what they think is the reason why they’re feeling so depressed and disconnected from their child,” Zucker tells Quartz.

So what can mothers (and fathers) do? First of all, parents have to interrogate the roots of their dogmatism. Are you telling another mother what to do because serious harm is being done? Or is there perhaps another reason? Zucker tells Quartz that mothers sometimes aggressively assert their own viewpoints in order to cover up insecurities.

The second thing we need to do is realize the toll that inflexible thinking takes on our children. In the real world, people change their minds as they learn new information, growing and learning from each other’s triumphs and missteps. Children need to know that there can be two different but equally valid ways of doing something.

I distinctly remember when a mom friend of mine commented on my decision to stay home with my kids. At the time, she was preparing to go back to work full-time, and just couldn’t understand how I felt our family was going to be able to survive on one income. I stared at her blankly, not really knowing how to respond.

My friend couldn’t afford to stay at home, and I sympathized with that. But at the same time, her family finances were none of my business. Every parent has problems, and we should be able to speak candidly about them, not patronize or project our own jealousy onto others.

“If people are willing to share the spectrum of experience in motherhood, then we would all feel more normal and more connected, less competitive, less alone or isolated.” Zucker tells Quartz

Alas, it seems unlikely that the Mommy Wars will ever totally be over. But that doesn’t mean we can’t individually break out some white flags. What if this year, we made a commitment to judge less and empathize more when it comes to our kids? Let’s listen to one another more and talk less. It does take a village to raise a child, so perhaps the villagers could stop gossiping so much about another so much. It’s distracting us from the fun part: actually raising our children.