While we all laugh at the women on MDC who take the “natural living” aspects to extremes (some would say, their logical extreme), almost all of modern parenting discourse, even the supposed mainstream, is informed by the AP/NFL ideal.
Pick up an issue of Parents magazine from the last 10 years. I don’t think anyone would deny that Parents is chief among parenting magazines which AP/NPers love to hate for being too ‘mainstream’; look, they advertise formula! and neglect-o-matics! Eeeeew!
Yet, it also seems that every issue also has ads for breastpumps, nursing aids, slings…not to mention the articles. Oooh, look, here’s a slideshow about various baby carriers (including slings) you might choose to “babywear” your baby with. Here’s an article about celebrity moms who had home births (‘celebrity moms’ being a code word for what the ‘in crowd’ is doing). Yet another touts the benefits of waterbirth. I won’t belabor you with yet more links, but if you search the website, you’ll find plenty about how to troubleshoot breastfeeding problems, women who co-sleep (though with appropriate safety caveats), and an absolute plethora of articles on how to bond with, stimulate and play with your baby.
All this in a decidedly mainstream American publication aimed at “parents” – which, overwhelmingly, means mothers. We won’t even discuss Parents‘ major competitor, which has none other than Dr. Sears himself on staff, or supposedly-mainstream website Babycenter’s Dr. Susan Markel. And just like women’s fashion magazines embody Wallis Simpson’s adage that “You never can be too rich or too thin”, thus parenting magazines, even the mainstream ones, often give one the impression that “You can never be too devoted”. Or maybe, “You will never be devoted enough, no matter how much you try. And you will screw up your kids”.
Popular and supposedly mainstream parenting manuals were speaking the language of bonding and attachment (also referring to ‘parents’, but really putting the onus upon Mom) long before Sears ever appeared on the scene. Both Sharon Hays (author of The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood) and Diane Eyer (in her excellent book, Motherguilt) fingered the mainstream triumvirate of Spock, Brazelton and Leach as the main purveyors of parenting guilt back in the mid-90s. The non-parenting media isn’t exactly free of such material either, in its almost gleeful rush to quote even unpublished, non peer-reviewed studies like the Baby Buggy nonsense in the previous post, or how daycare is evil and ‘experts’ who advise sleeping with your 5-year-old baby.
Now, most mainstream women can laugh and shrug the nonsense off…most of the time. But the steady drip-drip-drip does, at some point, leave many of us with “what ifs” and entirely unnecessary guilt. What if “they” were right and the meds I took during labor damaged her little brain? Are vaccines the reason he has ADHD? Would he have gotten into the select preschool if I’d only breastfed him for linger? Should I even be sending her to preschool, instead of quitting my job and playing all day with her on the floor?
It’s enough to drive a mother (and it’s almost always the mother) crazy. It really helps to remember, though, that generations upon generations of mentally and physically healthy human beings have been raised in a myriad of environments…something the books, magazines, and newspapers don’t emphasize nearly enough. Maybe a little historical perspective is in order. Maybe it’s more important to resurrect that old dinosaur, Winnicott, and his concept of the “Good Enough Mother” (emphases mine):
The good-enough mother tries to provide what the infant needs, but she instinctively leaves a time lag between the demands and their satisfaction and progressively increases it. As Winnicott states: “The good-enough mother…starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure” (Winnicott, 1953). The good enough mother stands in contrast with the “perfect” mother who satisfies all the needs of the infant on the spot, thus preventing him/her from developing.…
…As the infant develops, the good-enough mother, unconsciously aware of her infant’s increasing ego-integration and capacity to survive, will gradually fail to be so empathic. She will unconsciously “dose” her failures to those that can be tolerated, and the infant’s developing ego is strengthened, the difference between “me” and “not-me” clarifies, omnipotence is relinquished, a sense of reality begins to emerge, mother can be increasingly seen as a separate person, and the capacity for concern can develop. This way the mother helps the child to develop a healthy sense of independence. Failure in this stage may result in the formation of a False self.
In a future post, we’ll be looking at an example of a society raised all “wrong” (in which even the mothers were, apparently, not good enough), which somehow managed to emerge with its psyche intact ;-).