Because I've been set a corker of a topic to write about, and because my response is taking time and zapping the last remaining energy I possess today (except the tiny bit that I need to climb the stairs and hurl myself into bed), this post will be in two parts, spread over two days. Here is the tantalising introduction to my argument. Tune in tomorrow for the cracker of a finale.---------------------------------------------
Okay, so it's Monday and Mondays are for hitching up your pants, rolling up your sleeves and getting stuck into things. (Sometimes they are for swanning around in your bathrobe but, alas, not today.) Today, I'm going to tackle one of the big topics given to me last week - the "good" mother. So, hang onto your hats.
First of all, let me preface this by saying that my good friend Jenny - a mothering scholar currently finishing her PhD in the field of mothering studies - set me this here little topic. So, let's just acknowledge up front that I am wading into a whole pool of scholarly discussion without even some yellow floaties to attach to my poor flailing arms.
Secondly, this is a huge topic - one we could all talk about until the cows come home (and many have) and still not reach a conclusion. So, my aim here is to not even attempt a conclusion but to simply share some thoughts that have been noodling around inside me of late. There has been a little bit of discussion generated on the very interesting Apron Strings blog which stems from a recent article by the well-known author Erica Jong. In this article, Jong takes a (rather wild and whipping) fire hose to the modern parenting school of Attachment Parenting and questions whether it is a new source of oppression for women. She rejects it as a form of hyper-parenting that is a "new torture for mothers—a set of expectations that makes them feel inadequate no matter how passionately they attend to their children." For Jong, Attachment Parenting leaves mothers and fathers guilt-ridden and exhausted and leaves children ill-equipped for life beyond childhood and family. In a final advice-giving flourish she exhorts us to abandon Attachment Parenting and just "do the best you can. There are no rules."
This article is terribly written, badly argued, and filled with questionable evidence used in support of dubious claims. Indeed, I am sorely tempted to agree with Suzie MacKenzie when she wrote in The Guardian a decade ago: "Jong is incorrect all over the place, and never more so than when she writes." However, my interest here is not to defend Attachment Parenting against Jong but to think about the role of parenting advice in the construction of what it is to be a "good" mother.
I am heartily sick of advice. Particularly of the parenting variety. This doesn't stop me seeking it out, reading it or listening to radio shows when authors, bathing in the warm glow of their recent conclusions, wax lyrical about what we should all be doing. I just continue to feel exasperated each time I do. However, I continue to tune in for two reasons. The first is that, like many of us, I rely on people, hopefully experienced ones if not experts, to guide me in all endeavours where I am a novice. The second reason, though, is that, like all of us, I am deeply embedded in the culture I live in and, whether I like it or not, pay some attention to the norms, social mores and competing dynamics that shape that culture. Believe it or not, parenting advice fits here and is used to both describe the world we have, as well as to shape it.
Almost all parenting advice, in the veritable library of parenting advice available to us, is presented as generally neutral, sound, authoritative and intended only to be a benevolent guide along the bewildering journey of new parenthood: "The instruction manual that Mother Nature forgot..." or "the 'baby-bible' of the post-Dr Spock generation." While they may be many of these things, they are not neutral, non-political, scientific descriptions of how to parent. Rather, I think they are actually complex moral arguments, presented in a sometimes misleadingly straightforward "how-to" format, that describe not only what you should do as parents, but who we ought to be (as mothers and fathers) and who our children should become as future members of our culture. For example, it doesn't take much digging to find the moral virtues that the Sears (of Attachment Parenting fame) believe a parent should have: "to be in harmony with their children...to [be able to] read their babies' cues, and...respond intuitively and appropriately...and who enjoy parenting." Not, we might note, something less touching like: "to provide food, water and adequate shelter for ten years until they find a job and start contributing to the family income," which might have been something a working class family a hundred and fifty years ago might have considered fair. I pick on the Sears simply because I have their book close to hand, but a quick dip into most other parenting books will show that they are not alone in drawing a picture of who it is good to be as a parent.
"So, what is wrong with that?" I hear you mutter. Well, nothing, except for the fact that none of them acknowledge that they are making moral claims and that they are tailoring the research they cite to fit a worldview they hold about the kinds of mothers, and fathers, they believe ought to populate the western world.
Stay tuned for part two where I tie all kinds of complex and thinly observed loose ends into one helluva argument.