About the Author
Emily Matchar writes about culture, women's issues, work, food and more for places such as The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Salon, The Hairpin, Gourmet, Men's Journal, Outside, and many others. She lives in Hong Kong and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with her husband.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Homeward Bound CHAPTER 6
It’s midafternoon in Downers Grove, a quiet middle-class Chicago suburb. I’m sitting in the sunny second-floor classroom of the Bellies to Babies childbirth and parenting studio, a space of pale wood floors decorated with black-and-white photos of breast-feeding babies, listening to three women chat idly while their children play. Topics of conversation include: which iPhone app is best for charting ovulation, how big your nipples get during pregnancy, and what happens when an IUD “migrates.”
Twenty-five-year-old Claire, wholesome and fresh-faced in a pair of chic cat’s-eye glasses, carries her fourteen-month-old daughter, Rosemary, in a gray Boba wrap baby sling.
Gina, twenty-seven, has a short spiky hairdo and a retro-cool pink polka-dot sweater. Her two-year-old son, Cooper, scoots around the pale wood floor of the studio.
Anne, thirty-four, has curly black hair and a casual outfit of khakis and a cardigan. Her four-and-a-half-year-old son, Derek, runs around the room making whirring noises like an airplane taking off.
There is something incredibly cool and modern about listening to women talk so openly about their bodies. Veterans of 1970s-era consciousness-raising groups would, I think, be proud—these women don’t need to be introduced to their cervixes with a hand mirror; they’ve already become intimately familiar with their own anatomy via “fertility awareness” (like checking your own cervical mucus with your thumb and forefinger for signs of ovulation) and drug-free childbirth.
At the same time, there’s something deeply old-fashioned about the way the three women have thrown themselves so deeply into the role of mother. As partisans of what they call “natural parenting,” the three breast-feed on demand, share beds with their children, carry them in slings rather than in strollers, and generally devote much of their time to providing their kids with the purest, most natural food and environments. The Bellies to Babies studio, where Anne is an instructor, is a gathering place for these kinds of parents, offering classes in breast-feeding, prenatal yoga, placenta encapsulation (i.e., turning your placenta into vitamin pills), baby massage, and holistic nutrition.
“This is how people have always parented,” says Claire, handing Rosemary an apple slice from a glass jar she’s brought with her.
Rosemary flashes a gummy pink grin and waves the apple slice above her head as if she agrees.
THE RISE OF DIY PARENTING
The DIY ethos of New Domesticity truly flourishes when it comes to parenthood. Over the past decade and a half, hyperintensive parenting has become de rigueur for educated Americans. Some adhere to specific parenting philosophies like “attachment parenting,” which emphasizes continuous physical closeness and immediate parental responsiveness to babies’ cues. Others fastidiously monitor their children’s environments, using cloth diapers, feeding children exclusively organic foods, giving them wood toys rather than plastic. Collectively, you might describe these intensive modes of parenting as “DIY parenting.”
DIY parenting is about wearing your baby in a sling rather than pushing him in a stroller. It’s making your own baby food rather than buying it at the store. It’s homeschooling your child rather than sending her to public school. It’s giving birth at home rather than relying on a hospital. It’s about the idea that parents—usually mothers—know best and ought not to “outsource” care to day cares or food companies or schools if they can avoid it.
This type of “intensive parenting” has become “an imperative” for middle- and upper-middle-class families, says Janet Golden, a historian who has written several books about the history of parenting and baby care. “It presumes you have the time and resources to devote to your own small family and that doing so is a way of developing their futures,” she tells me.
As DIY parenting continues to rise in popularity, it’s generated a scorching-hot debate. Is DIY parenting a sexist throwback, a way to push women into full-time domesticity by telling them it’s what’s natural and best for their children? Or is this truly a revolutionary way to parent, one that will benefit babies, mothers, and society at large?
“IT FELT SO MUCH MORE NATURAL”: THE APPEAL OF DIY PARENTING
Before she got involved in natural parenting, Anne was so anxious and unbalanced she regularly took antianxiety medication—“You name it, I was on it,” she says. Working as a teacher, the native Chicagoan became friendly with a fellow instructor who was also a birth doula, who got Anne interested in natural childbirth and healthy living. Anne gave birth to Derek without painkillers, using the Hypnobabies self-hypnosis program, followed by a daughter two years later.
When Derek arrived, breast-feeding was a nonnegotiable must—like any DIY parent worth her salt, Anne is a firm believer that breast-feeding is critical for healthy babyhood. But it didn’t come easily.
“With breast-feeding, I struggled, as ironic as it is,” she says, smoothing back her curly hair as she watches Derek careen around the room. “I always had latch problems. But I didn’t care what I had to do—I was not going to feed him formula. It would have broken my heart if I couldn’t breast-feed.”
Anne and her husband still share a “family bed” with their two children.
“It felt so much more natural,” she says. “I had a crib, but I never used it. I felt so awkward, my child not being with me.”
When her son was older, she didn’t feed him any jarred baby food, preferring the “baby-led weaning” method, which involves letting children go directly from breast-feeding to eating solid food on their own. Proponents say it helps with hand-eye coordination and ensures babies won’t be overfed.
With her daughter, Anne was “so much more lax,” feeding her boxed rice cereal.
“I won’t do that again,” she says ruefully. “She has so many more allergies.”
Claire, who has been interested in natural parenting since college, gave birth to Rosemary at home, in a room specially decorated for the birth, after reading books about home birth and researching the topic online. With home birth, “I felt so much safer and more comfortable,” she says, while hospital birth held “so much scarier consequences.” She worried about being forced into medical interventions, like an epidural or a caesarian section, worried about doctors and nurses not sharing her values around breast-feeding and postbirth bonding.
Rosemary’s home birth went perfectly, Claire says, and she plans on delivering her second child the same way—her loose shirt hides the bump of her current four-month pregnancy. Her parents, however, thought she was crazy. Claire’s mother, in particular, doesn’t understand her daughter’s all-consuming brand of motherhood and frequently asks her, “If you stay at home, what’s your identity going to be?”
“My mom wanted her [Rosemary] to cry it out!” says Claire indignantly, referring to the method, popularized by pediatric sleep expert Dr. Richard Ferber, of training babies to self-soothe by allowing them to cry themselves to sleep for longer and longer time periods. For many DIY parents, crying it out is the moral equivalent of putting bourbon in a baby bottle.
“Gosh, that sounds like my mom!” says Anne with a sigh. “Mine are freaking out because she’s not vaccinated,” she adds, gesturing toward her daughter.
All three women nod.
The women, Gina explains, believe in vaccinating their children only on a selective or delayed basis. This often causes friction with their more traditionally minded families.
“My mother-in-law is head of infection control for one of the area’s largest hospitals,” she says, her sweater inching up to reveal a star tattoo on her wrist. “We just lie and tell her we’re fully vaccinated.”
“He’s only been vaccinated once, because I felt pressured,” says Anne, of her son. “I’m waiting until he’s five. My feeling is that they can get their immunities from daily living. I don’t trust what they’re putting in those things.”
“I don’t know anybody who actually does every vaccine,” says Gina.
“The CDC schedule?” Claire snorts, referring to the Centers for Disease Control’s vaccine schedule, considered the standard by mainstream medicine. “Nobody. Among people like us, I’d be scared to say that she had had a vaccine.”
Gina, a former sommelier whose short dark hair and tinkling laugh give her a pixielike demeanor, became interested in natural parenting when she became pregnant with her son. Scared by stories of awful hospital births—forced C-sections, women made to lie on their backs when they wanted to squat, unnecessary episiotomies—she began to research alternative methods.
“I wanted to own my own birth,” she says as she scoops her son up and begins to breast-feed. “I guess that was my definition of feminism. Whatever I had to do to empower myself was what I was going to do.”
That initial research into alternative birthing methods “completely changed the course of my life,” Gina says. She became connected to a strong and vibrant community of like-minded women, women who were interested not only in alternative birth, but in all kinds of alternative parenting practices. She ended up giving birth with the help of a doula and a self-hypnosis program, laboring for thirty-eight hours without painkillers. Afterward, she was so impressed with the doula’s work she decided to train to become one herself. She’s now attended several dozen births in the Chicago area, and the natural parenting community has “completely taken over [her] life.”
When the recession fell, Gina decided that perhaps this was a sign she should stay home. Though living on her husband’s sixth-grade-teacher salary hasn’t been easy, she feels she wouldn’t be able to have as close a relationship with her son as she does if she were still working—at two, he still breast-feeds, and she tries hard to follow his feeding and sleeping cues. If she was working full-time she wouldn’t be able to cook from scratch or use cloth diapers as easily, all important parts of natural parenting.
While she never envisioned herself as a stay-at-home mom, she loves it, she says. Embracing the role, she now blogs about motherhood, homemaking, and being a doula under the name Hipster Homemaker. She feels that by practicing eco-friendly natural parenting, she’s part of a revolution.
“This is the new wave of feminism,” she says, stroking her son Cooper’s silky blond hair. “Women who grow their own food and make their own diapers. Women taking back the home. This is my domain.”
FROM BABY TRAINING TO BABYWEARING: THE RISE OF DIY PARENTING
The 1950s mom would have laughed at the idea of homeschooling or home birth. Part of living in an authority-loving, paternalistic society was deferring to experts like doctors and teachers. Part of living in a society where homogeneity was valued meant going with the flow. You gave birth at the local hospital like everyone else. Your kids went to the local public or parochial school, unless you were especially wealthy. In any case, the economy of midcentury America was less competitive and less “winner take all,” so parents did not spend nearly as much time strategizing about how to get their children any possible advantage. In fact, parents usually spent less time worrying about their kids in general. Kids were expected to defer to all adults. Knowing your neighbor would discipline Johnny if she saw him playing in the road eased some of the burden off parents.
All this led to an attitude toward parenting that was somewhat more . . . relaxed than what you see today. That stereotypical 1950s homemaker drinking a cocktail while the kids played kick-the-can till dark? She really existed.
Today parents are expected to be the total authorities in their children’s lives. Parents are taught to question everything they hear and make sure it “feels right” for their particular family. This can be empowering but also exhausting—every vaccine and preschool and baby-food brand must be rigorously vetted by Mom or Dad (usually Mom). A neighbor wouldn’t dare discipline your child. Even if you know your neighbors—and many of us don’t—you are likely to have totally different ideologies about discipline and child rearing. Increasingly, the neighbor won’t even give your child a snack, since she doesn’t know what dietary philosophy you might adhere to. Is sugar okay? Is gluten? Is meat? Motherhood becomes, in the words of academics Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels, “an individual achievement, something you do alone, and you alone can screw up.”1 Mom is not just Mom, she’s also teacher, nutritionist, doctor, cook, and so on. No wonder 70 percent of Americans say motherhood is harder today than it was twenty or thirty years ago!2
The story of parenting in the twentieth century is about a slow move from a cold, expert-focused, authoritarian style of child rearing to the warm, ultra-intense, DIY style we see today. How did we get from there to here?
A hundred years ago, Americans were all about rigid, hands-off parenting. (“If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the morning,” advised early-twentieth-century psychologist John Watson in his 1928 book of parenting advice.) Through midcentury, “scientific” child-rearing advice was all the rage. Experts advocated rigid regimens for sleeping, eating, and potty training. These experts lamented the “incompetence and inconsistency of mothers, and the social woes they caused,” writes Ann Hulbert in her marvelous 2003 book Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children.3 Midcentury mothers were cautioned against “momism,” the kind of overly close, overly protective parenting that would turn out sissies and weaklings—a real cultural fear in the paranoid, macho Cold War era.
Postwar parenting guru Dr. Benjamin Spock was the first to challenge this ideology. “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do,” he told mothers. He encouraged women to use their instinct to feed babies when they seemed hungry and comfort them when upset, ideas which were so revolutionary at the time that Vice President Spiro Agnew even took a pause from his busy schedule to accuse Spock of corrupting the youth with his permissiveness. The tides of parenting were clearly turning.
As part of the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, women continued to question the paternalism of doctors and child-rearing experts (even Spock). In 1971, the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective published Our Bodies, Ourselves, a health care guide written to help women empower themselves to make their own medical and childbearing decisions. The book helped launch the so-called women’s health movement, which sparked interest in natural parenting techniques like home birth and extended breast-feeding.
At the same time, the idea of communal solutions for child care was receding further out of reach. In 1971, the Comprehensive Child Development Act, which would have established a federally funded, locally controlled system of day care, passed Congress with broad bipartisan support. But Nixon vetoed the act, denouncing it as a Soviet-style threat to the nuclear family.
By the 1980s, parenting was becoming an increasingly anxious and intense activity. As mothers continued to enter the workforce, conserva...
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