Like Lauren, I have followed the debates around feminism and attachment parenting and free range parenting and helicopter parenting with increasing frustration and disappointment. I think Lauren is fundamentally right that these kind of debates fuel the judgments and assumptions that divide moms (and dads, though fatherhood is far less politicized in these conversations).
I also feel deeply disconnected from these conversations, because I don’t identify deeply with any of these parenting philosophies, even though my identity as a mother is increasingly a cornerstone of both my most intimate and most public identities.
One of my mentors in undergrad described her feminist identity as a landscape, a terrain, that she moved through over the course of minutes, hours, days, weeks, years, a lifetime. In that moment, as a 22 year old with very clear, intense politics, I struggled to understand how and why she embraced a feminist politics broad enough to wander around in. I get it now. It’s not unlike my own feminism these days. And it’s very much like my parenting.
For me, there are very few hard and fast lines about how to be a good mom to my kids. Instead, there’s a landscape of options, choices made based on what I need, what they need, and what works. To use the classic example of breastfeeding:
I decided before D was born that I wanted to breastfeed her, and I did, despite having to go back to work 5 weeks after she was born and pump in an office I shared with several other women and one man. Sometimes I loved breastfeeding D and sometimes I found it isolating and exhausting. Sometimes I nursed her in public and sometimes I gave her bottles of breastmilk and sometimes I gave her bottles of formula. When I quit pumping around 6 months and tried to wean her to only nurse at night I got pregnant and ended up weaning her entirely.
Lucy was born tongue-tied, latched but never sucked, and refused all coaching by me and lactation consultants. I can vividly remember calling my mom in tears on my way home from a breastfeeding support group meeting so frustrated and sad that I had this baby who just didn’t want to learn to nurse and my mom said, much more sympathetically than it’s going to sound when you read it here, “Honey, is this really going to matter when she’s in kindergarten?” I pumped for a couple months, decided I would rather enjoy the holidays with my girls than spend them pumping, and started buying formula at Target.
Margeaux was a champion breastfeeder from the moment she was born, even through our miserable return to the hospital when I developed pre-eclampsia after she was born. But she didn’t gain weight. She didn’t lose weight either—she just persisted, a tiny peanut tucked in the sling, calm and content and sleepy and just not growing. I went back to the breastfeeding support group, worked with an amazing, patient, nurturing lactation consultant, and unlike Lucy, Margeaux responded to every intervention. And because she’s baby 3, I have ended up nursing her at every restaurant, brewery, playground, mall play area, and family birthday party. She’s 15 months and still nursing, happily. I had absolutely no intention of being an extended breastfeeding mom, but here we are. It still works for us, so we’re still doing it. It never worked for Lucy, so I let it go. It worked for D and I for a while, and it was okay when it stopped working.
I know that moms on playgrounds and in restaurants and waiting rooms have judged me as a weird hippie attachment parent. I have seen the looks and I have heard the things they say when they assume I’m not listening (or maybe they just don’t care). Yes, I am breastfeeding a 1 year old. But the 5 minutes of nursing that they see on the playground is the tiniest glimpse of a much more complex story. I would love for someone to simply say, “How did you decide to keep nursing her after she turned 1?” I would love to be able to explain that she is incredibly precious to me because of those days we spent together in the pre-eclampsia fog, and I’m frankly, deeply, grateful, that I’m able to have these little stretches of closeness with her. I would love to be able to explain that actually, I think formula feeding is perfectly okay and in fact, I did it, because feeding my babies, like all my parenting choices has basically been about doing the best I can given who the kid and I are in that particular moment.
If you see me on the playground, I might be chasing my kid around with a juicebox or I might be nursing a 1 year old on a bench or I might be yelling “You climbed up there yourself and I am absolutely positive you can climb down!” or I might be letting a 1 year old climb up a slide that’s totally not age-appropriate because really, how am I going to stop her? Some days my girls need me more and some days they need me less. Some days they want me to cheer for every rung on the ladder and some days they don’t even notice whether I’m there or not. Some days I point to the water fountain and some days I bring juiceboxes. I’m doing this one day at a time, people, sometimes even one hour or one minute at a time. I’m making my way through a vast landscape of parenthood and I’m writing my map as I go, and just because our paths crossed at one particular intersection and we were going opposite directions doesn’t mean I wouldn’t love to sit down and talk about where we might go next.
I don’t think I’m an attachment parent or a helicopter parent or a free range parent. I’m trying the best I can to raise smart, thoughtful, curious, brave, strong, independent daughters. As far as I can tell, some days that means holding hands and some days that means giving high fives because they did it all by themselves. As long as they know I love them, I’m telling them the truth, and I believe in them, I figure we’re going to be okay, with or without organic juice boxes. I think this is probably true for more moms than just me. I wish we could talk honestly, from a place of empathy, about what’s working, why we chose it, and how we might help each other along the way.