There was an evening in the early 1990s that we had a dinner party, and the couple with a newborn put the baby – in its bouncy chair – on my set dinner table.
There was no request to put the baby on the table where we were going to eat, just the parental assumption that because the baby was the centerpiece of their life, it would be OK to make it the centerpiece of my dinner party.
I was socially paralyzed. Cute baby; wonderful baby; amazing baby. But this was a dinner party of adults who, heretofore, had met regularly and had wonderful conversations over leisurely dinners.
What was I going to say? Nothing.
What was I going to do? I became a silent – but studious – observer of parenting differences, taking notes that would amount, ultimately, to my own internal parenting manual for that time in my early 40s when my husband and I finally did become parents.
That dinner party remains a vivid memory: The first shot across the bow in my experience of the “mommy wars.” Or as the latest thesis on the topic, a New York Times Sunday Style section story, called it: “differences over parenting.”
The mommy wars often center on the stay-at-home-or-not issue; but it does go beyond that to parenting styles. The Times story centers on friendships that go MIA when babies arrive, and quoted an expert who boiled it all down to the “I’m a better mother than you” syndrome.
I definitely didn’t like that mom putting her baby on my dinner table; but it had nothing to do with what kind of a mother – good or bad – I thought she was.
For me, it was about having a life. Would her choice of parenting style mean that she – the person she’d always been – was now going to be defined solely by motherhood?
I know the “mommy war” artillery is cocked and ready. And I can hear the shriek of incoming fire now, and it sounds like: “Selfish!”
But I’ll duck that. Our daughter came along after our journalism careers had taken us all over the world to experience war zones, third world poverty, super-power politics, amazing cultures, interesting friends. We had a life. We didn’t want to give it up – we wanted to share it with our daughter. We didn’t want an infant, toddler, tweener, or teen to define our lives; we wanted to set the tone and define hers.
We would not indulge a picky eater (OK, so we romanticized macaroni and cheese from a packet by calling it “pasta,” but she loved blue cheese and sushi before she made it to kindergarten).
We would cultivate a life of the mind for her, she would know the value of “alone time” and figuring out how to entertain herself (OK, so a mother’s group I was in turned shocked faces to me when they heard this concept – "alone time!?" But I never had to peel my daughter off me to get her to enjoy a half-hour playing with her toes, or blocks, or looking at books from infancy on up).
We would travel and she would follow (OK, we did go to Disneyland when she was three, but she peaked her first 14-er in the Rockies at age 9 and prepared and ate her first escargot in France at age 5).
We would not interrupt conversations for her every whim (OK, there were some false starts, but we learned together how it could be minimized and by age 3, she had some manners).
And I would keep my career (OK, I left reporting for editing, but a flexible schedule and good childcare have let me and my daughter have the best of both worlds).
I know – considering the many “mommy war” stories I’ve lived or read over the years – that my style of parenting leaves some parents with as much of the “What do you say?” paralysis I felt over my dinner party centerpiece 20 years ago.
So as I’ve started editing the Modern Parenthood blog, I’ve been prompted to look at the parenting style I tried to cultivate. One thing that helps lower the mommy wars tension is humor – we’re all climbing the same parenting mountain, trying to get our kids to the summit safe, sound, and happy. Our trip-ups along the way can be pretty funny.
Modern Parenthood developed a semi-tongue-in cheek parenting style quiz: Are you a Helicopter Parent? My daughter – now 14 – and I took it together. It was a fun way to suss out “parenting differences” in our own family.
It turns out that my daughter thinks I can be both a Helicopter Parent (ie: a hovering micromanager) and the kind who simply hands the keys to the chopper over to her (ie: lax).
I was glad to hear her say that – if it’s not just wild mood swings of a crazed mother, it may be some positive news that there is some balance in my parenting style that she discerned. At least, according to our very unscientific quiz.