The discussion continues this week about feminist writer Elizabeth Badinter's book, The Conflict, which, amongst other things, is critical of the way attachment parenting 'tethers women to the home and family'. It doesn't really surprise me in the slightest that a style of parenting that often places the needs of children first and those of adults second is coming under fire, in a culture that acclaimed analyst Elizabeth Young-Bruehl has recently dubbed, 'childist'. Even the debates about Badinter's book and its implications for motherhood and feminism seem to be completely devoid of any mention of children's needs, rights or perspective.
Children in our world are frequently portrayed as 'difficult', 'naughty', 'trouble', an impediment to adult enjoyment and progress, destroyers of careers and social lives, even 'the enemies of good art'. As parents we are often encouraged to view our relationships with our children as a place of conflict, in which we must 'pick our battles' and keep the upper hand. But this is all 'made up stuff', and, once we realise this, we can either accept it, or reject it as just another attitude, concept or construct. We can wriggle out of its grasp and run free, liberated to see our children not as 'enemies', 'devils' or 'little monsters', but as fellow humans with whom we can have a rather wonderful time.
Here are a few of the more obvious 'anti-child' attitudes I have noticed; you might like to dispute them or even add your own in the comments below...
Are they a Good Baby?
New mothers hear this question all the time, and often wonder how they are supposed to answer, especially if, like most babies, their child is not 'good' in the sense that they cry, nurse often, and wake frequently at night. The question suggests that, right from the start, a child who vocalises their needs and disrupts the lives of adults is 'bad', and a problem that needs to be fixed. Enter the 'baby trainers' - a whole library of 'experts' who will advise you on all manner of methods designed to discourage your child from 'manipulating' you into twenty-four-hour responsiveness.
Are they sleeping through yet?
Research indicates that a baby or small child to sleep through the night is an entirely unrealistic expectation. And yet we continue to ask this question and perpetuate the myth that a baby should be able to do this from an early age and than one who isn't is problematic and needs training. Co-sleeping is often declared dangerous and discouraged, leaving a mother struggling to get up and down all night to attend to her baby. The focus of advice, (such as this one, the worst I've ever seen!) is most often on the adults discomfort at being woken several times each night. They are therefore usually advised to place the baby some distance away and become less responsive to their cries. This may or may not fix their sleeping 'problem', but what's in it for the baby?
A Rod for your Back...
Parenting choices that are child centred are often described as ways of 'making a rod for your back'. For example, responding to your child when they are distressed, saying yes if your child indicates that they would prefer not to sleep alone, nursing on demand...indeed any behaviour that indicates that the baby or child is being given a say in how they would like to be treated. Our culture discourages parents from meeting children's needs in this way, suggesting that this will only lead to the child dominating the parent. Fear of allowing a child to 'be in charge' or 'take over' often encourages parents to ignore both their own instincts and their child's requests, and move away from democracy towards dictatorship.
Getting your Life Back...
New mothers are bombarded with messages and imagery that suggest that their lives can and should return to 'normal' as soon as possible after the arrival of their baby. Nothing epitomises this better than the current trend for celebrities to hit the red carpet within weeks of giving birth, proudly displaying figures that are just as slim and toned as they were pre-baby. They are rarely seen to have their new baby with them; it is as if the child, and all evidence of them, has been erased. Women who are not celebrities are similarly encouraged to emulate them by losing weight, weaning early, and returning to social life / work as soon as they can. The child is quite literally invisible here - all the emphasis is on the wants and needs of the adult.
Happy Mother = Happy Baby
This phrase is often used to suggest that it is right and beneficial for a mother or parent to put their needs first. Everything from time away from your children, to leaving your baby to cry it out so that they sleep through the night, is justified and excused by the concept that anything that makes the mother happy will naturally have a beneficial impact on the child. The language of this little phrase betrays a world in which the needs of the adult are given full priority. Rarely, if ever, do we hear the words inverted: A happy child = a happy mother.
Time-Out on the Naughty Step...or worse...
As babies reach toddlerhood, the language of conflict and struggle only worsens. Often popular culture encourages us to feel that a battle of wills is underway, that we as the adults must win at all costs. We are pitched against our children, and if they defy us, or find that their young brain has trouble inhibiting their behaviours, we are told that we 'must not let them get away with it'. Techniques such as the 'naughty step' are used on very small children who have little or no concept or understanding of cause and effect, often isolating and humiliating a child at the very time they need love and guidance the most. Worse still, smacking / spanking is still considered by many to be an acceptable parenting approach.
Parents, especially mothers, are often told that it's important to have time away from their children, to 'be themselves', or have 'me-time'. Whilst it's true that in all relationships it is healthy to follow your own interests, and maintain your own identity, the current emphasis on 'me-time' again perpetuates the idea that time spent with children is undesirable and that what every woman should really want is to lie on a beach alone drinking cocktails. Mothers who aren't so bothered about having 'me time' are accused of losing themselves and living their lives through their children. Worse still, the 'me-time' conversations often take place in the presence of the children themselves. How must they feel, to be talked about in this way, as if to get away from them is the pinnacle of their parent's ambitions?!
Women reading this might well know the answer to that final question, since in living memory it has been acceptable for a man to refer to his wife - 'ball and chain', 'her indoors' or 'trouble and strife' - in this way. In all our debates about modern feminism, let's not forget what it feels like to be a second class citizen, to be discriminated against, to be treated with disrespect and little regard for our needs. All struggles are mostly psychological. As soon as we change our mindset, the rest quickly follows. Let's change our attitude to children, and put an end to yet another 'conflict'.