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Why it's easier to be a good daddy than a good mommy

Time magazine's recent 'breast-feeding cover' fueled another spat in the 'mommy wars.' Debating the 'perfect mother' ideal is a misogynistic narrative. We need to stop pitting moms against moms and start fighting the real battles, like defending against attacks on women's health care.

By Chris Bobel / June 1, 2012

Camie Goldhammer, chair of the Native American Breastfeeding Coalition, holds her daughter after testifying before the Seattle City Council Monday April 9. A proposed law before the council would add a mother's right to breastfeed her child to other protected civil rights. Op-ed contributor Chris Bobel says 'Western society’s story of the 'good mother' or 'perfect mom' ' is limiting and degrading.

Elaine Thompson

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Time magazine’s controversial cover from a couple weeks ago, which depicted young mother Jamie Lynne Grumet while her 3-year-old son stood on a stool suckling at her breast, was yet another unhelpful salvo in the "mommy wars."

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Ms. Grumet’s contrived pose seemed to throw down the gauntlet to moms everywhere: “Who’s the better mother?” And media outlets have been picking up the debate ever since.

The ongoing firestorm surrounding Time’s cover reveals how limiting and degrading Western society’s story of the “good mother” or “perfect mom” really is. It’s a narrative steeped in misogynistic assumptions about womanhood – at once self-sacrificing and inevitably deficient.

Mothers are measured against an impossible standard because they are women. Fathers, as men, are held to a markedly lesser set of expectations. It is, therefore, much easier to earn props for being a good Daddy than a good Mommy.

The Time story was about attachment parenting, a practice in which parents keep their kids close through co-sleeping, breastfeeding on demand, and “baby wearing.” Many attachment mothers breastfeed their children until age two, three, or four.

Thanks to Time’s art department, the magazine made extended breastfeeding, and by extension, attachment parenting, look like something freaky. The reality, however, is that this practice is ancient and global and works beautifully for many families.

I confess that when I conducted research on moms like Grumet for a book on natural mothering, I began with some skepticism. I was only a quasi-attachment mom myself, and ambivalent about combining this “old world” parenting with my very “new world” career.

Didn’t these moms get sick of their kids? Were their family lives really more harmonious than those of parents who took a more mainstream approach? Was it worth it?

But as I listened to moms tell me why they chose and maintained this particular approach to child rearing, I grew to respect them. They were smart, resourceful, and incredibly self-reflective women, and their parenting choices made sense for them.

However, I also came to realize that attachment parenting was easier for moms who enjoy some measure of financial privilege and “cultural capital,” the non-monetary but potent assets that enable social mobility. In other words, attachment parenting was facilitated by those who had access to resources, such as job flexibility or a social safety net – things most women don’t have.

This realization forced me to think beyond the natural moms and consider the struggle mothering entails for far too many women in American society. The truth is, all mothers are under the microscope all the time, and we are trained to see them through the exacting lenses of gender, race, class, sexuality, nation and religion.

All mothers are supposed to be equal, but some mothers clearly are more equal than others. Which is why Time did not choose to put a large woman, woman of color, or lesbian on its cover because such women would not have fit with society’s stereotypical, deeply engrained (if subconscious) ideal of the “perfect mother.”

Alas, our culturally constructed standards of motherhood typically fail to make room for all kinds of moms in all kinds of circumstances. And that’s a bigger problem than the proper duration of breastfeeding.

So when Time's cover asked, “Are you mom enough?”, that was the wrong question to ask. Instead, we should be asking if we, meaning all of us with the power to either help or hinder mothers, are doing enough to support mothers, motherhood, and families.

After all, the work of mothering is everyone’s concern, not just for mothers themselves. When mothers receive support, all of society benefits, today and far into the future. Thus, let’s shift our focus: Are the rest of us – dads, bosses, legislators, and policymakers doing enough?

We need to stop pitting moms against moms and start fighting the real battles. Defend against attacks on access to women’s health care. Fight cutbacks to programs serving poor and working-class women. Push back against the sexualization of women’s bodies (which leads far too many to dub the Time cover as obscene.) Demand better flexibility and benefits for mothers in the workplace.

When we fight these battles, we can put in place real support for all women to be the best mothers they can be.

Chris Bobel is associate professor of women’s studies at UMass Boston and the author of “The Paradox of Natural Mothering” (Temple University Press, 2002).

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