Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Article: "Motherhood: the new oppression"

Margaret Wente, one of my favourite columnists at The Globe & Mail, had a recent piece titled "Motherhood: the new oppression." A provocative title, and I'm sure some people are outraged (haven't dared to read the comments yet). (I wonder whether any of them have pointed out that Wente herself has no children? & how dare she comment on that which she does not know, etc. etc….) I know some people find her infuriating (at one point a few years back, she had the entire province of Newfoundland pissed off at her), but I usually enjoy her humour, her calm practicality & her sometimes contrarian point of view.

I found myself nodding as I read the motherhood column. Wente starts out by describing her own childhood, & how, by today's strict standards, her own mother was a lousy parent. (Mine too, it would seem.) In an age of "helicopter parenting," she writers, "The obligations of responsible mothering have been ratcheted way up." And she's not just talking about the constant monitoring of Junior's grades, friends, after-school activities & playdates. (Or, as I read in a recent New York Times article, cyberbullying, which has ratcheted up traditional bullying tactics to a considerable degree.)

Wente writes:

"Once upon a time, the conveniences of modern life (processed foods, Lysol spray, disposable diapers, clothes dryers, polyester sheets) liberated women like my mother from their chains. But now, their granddaughters are clamoring to clap the shackles on again. Someone’s got to mash the organic applesauce, hang the diapers out to dry, and breastfeed the kid. No matter how enlightened the parental units, that someone will generally be Mom.

"It seems to me that if you had deliberately devised a plot to oppress women, it couldn’t get more diabolical than this. Highly educated, progressive and enlightened mothers don’t need men to oppress them. They’re perfectly capable of oppressing themselves!

"...it occurs to me that the high moral bar we’ve set for modern motherhood is a tremendous deterrent to motherhood itself. Any thoughtful woman would have to think twice, thrice, or three times thrice before committing to a task with such demanding standards. Can you blame them for deciding not to? If we want to raise the birth rate, perhaps we need to lower the bar."
She has a point. You know, as much as I wanted children, I have to admit -- at times, I find myself relieved that I didn't. I know parenting is hard work, but yes, the bar these days does seem to be set incredibly high.

I grew up in a much more laissez-faire time when it came to parenting -- & I didn't/don't feel in the least bit deprived. Which means I'm more than a little taken aback by some of the stories I hear, in the media & from parents I know.

I can remember dh's cousin's wife telling me, several years ago, when her daughters were in about Grades 7 & 5, that she thought that maybe -- MAYBE -- the time had come to allow her kids walk to school without her. But ONLY if they went with the two next-door neighbour boys -- and ONLY if they promised to go the long way around & avoid the shortcut through the park, where the local teenagers hang out. (The "long way around" is just a few short blocks -- 5, maybe 10 minutes from their house. )

This seemed somewhat bizarre to me. I guess I didn't realize how few kids these days actually walk to school, nevermind unescorted by an adult, even if they do live just a few blocks away. (No wonder childhood obesity rates are skyrocketing.)

I told her, "I walked six blocks. To kindergarten. By myself, usually. Across a highway." & got a disbelieving stare. Of course, I hastened to add, this was smalltown Saskatchewan in the 1960s. (Yes, I am dating myself here, horribly.) Everybody walked to school then, unless they lived in the country & had to be bussed. Even though most of our moms didn't work then, nobody drove us anywhere, unless maybe it was pouring rain or blizzarding outside (& in that case, school was probably cancelled anyway).

I didn't tell her about how my sister, our best friend & I used to take a picnic lunch & head to the playground a few blocks away for the afternoon. By ourselves. We were all no older than 8 at the time.

Or about how, when I was a bit older, I used to ride my bike by myself all over town. I never told my mother where I was going (I probably didn't know, I just wanted to ride around) & she never asked. She knew I'd be home for dinner.

Needless to say, I am incredibly thankful that I grew up at the time & in the places that I did. We had so much more freedom than even the kids in those small towns today probably have. I find myself feeling kind of sorry for them sometimes.

Maybe if I'd had kids right away after we got married, I would have escaped the recent helicopter phenomenon -- or at least had more energy to cope with it all, lol. Had Katie made it here as scheduled, she'd be 11, almost 12 years old, & we'd be right in the thick of things. And yes, I'm sure I would have found a way to cope, somehow (you do what you gotta do...) -- but honestly? I don't think I could measure up to the standards that seem to be required of today's parents. I get tired just reading about it all.

A woman I work with is constantly on the phone with her nanny, organizing her daughter's activities. She's enrolled in gymnastics, dance & drama, plus a few other things I probably haven't thought of here. Not to mention scheduling play dates.

The kid is not even two yet.

It takes guts to buck the trend & face down the disapproval of other parents. One of my friends has, to some extent. For many years, she asked her kids each year -- did they want to enroll in soccer? Hockey? Gymnastics? They weren't interested in doing anything after school, other than hanging out at home or with their friends. And, aside from swimming lessons (a cottage owner who's afraid of the water herself, she has insisted that her children learn to swim), she hasn't forced them to do anything they didn't really want to do. Eventually, they did find their own interests -- the daughter takes piano lessons & was accepted into a performing arts school; her son is playing ball this summer. But she admits, she used to get a lot of weird looks from other parents when they asked her what activities her kids were involved in.

I'm not sure what the answer is. But yes, sometimes it feels good to remind myself: it's not my problem.


  1. My husband's sister has two girls - 7 and 10 - and her life revolves around their activity schedule. I think about Skeeter growing up around them and worry that he will have those same expectations. Because that is NOT my idea of fun.

  2. You get tired reading about it - I get tired thinking about it - cause yes it's all true. Play dates? Whatever happened to playing after school? Oh, that's right, kids don't play outside in their neighbourhood anymore. The mothers I know live in the city, so therefore, chances that they live next door to a family with similarly aged kids are slim and you have to cross busy streets to make it to the park. One woman I know actually stood by her kid on this old firetruck in a playground (as in right beside him) while he "steered" it lest some other kid try to horn in on the action. Apparently kids need to be "guided" in their play. Oh, brother!

  3. I LOVE this post and the article too.

    When we took our yearlong break from TTC, I used some of that time to read about current parenting styles and trends. I realized that even if I became a mother, my child's childhood was probably not going to be anything like my own. It's a different world. I'm not sure how much it has to be.

    Recently I've read "Simplicity Parenting" and "The Last Child in the Woods," which had a lot of ideas on how to buck current trends and raise more self-reliant, laidback children. The first book was especially good.

    I did not struggle through infertility to go to K.indermusik and G.ymboree or to feel guilty for using jarred baby food (and formula, and disposable diapers). But attachment parenting has met the "green" movement, which has met the new frugality, and the result is pretty regressive and oppressive. Honestly, I only know one other young mother who admits to using jarred baby food. My neighbor makes her own laundry detergent. A lot of stay-at-home mothers, in particular, seem to feel a compulsive need to take on as much work as possible while discounting the value of their time and energy, saying "It just takes a little time to do this." This troubles me as a SAHM, as a feminist, and also as the parent of two young daughters.

    Thanks for letting me rant. : )

  4. Great post (and article). It's the absolute truth. I can't remember a single time past age 7 or so when my mom would walk me anywhere. By the time I was 12 or 13, I was watching other people's children. I feel bad for today's children. Their parents are so involved in their lives that kids just don't have time (or know how) to be kids anymore. It's ridiculous. In some ways, it makes me thankful that I don't have little ones. In other ways, it makes me want to have kids even more so I can prove to society that children can be raised without all of this fuss... and still turn out okay in the end. :)

  5. By the way, I'm frequently asked what my twins "do." They are 20 months old. When I say "um, they play with each other, usually in the backyard," the other person is very quick to suggest myriad organized activities. Oddly I get this question more from women in their late 50s and 60s, who perhaps are used to hearing about grandchildren's or friends' children's busy schedules.

  6. This is Guera...I find it easier t post anonymously and tell you who I am sometimes...I still have trouble with WordPress...or yet, they still have trouble with me. But anyway, I love this post. Love it. Sometimes I think I am just not cut out to be a parent but have yet to be able to say that outloud to anyone in real life. Whatever happened to just playing outside after school every day?

  7. thanks for posting. while i didn't agree with all of her finer points (e.g., i don't think 'modern conveniences' ever made anything easier for women and for mothers - i think, rather, that they raised the standards), i do think her argument is true.

  8. It IS incredibly competitive being a mom these days. I think many of the mothers out there have driven themselves nuts.
    Just the difference between myself and my youngest siblings is huge, in how we grew up.
    I was babysitting newborns when I was 11 years old, and then after the parents came home I would walk a mile home. In the dark.
    Yet these days I don't know anyone who hires a young babysitter anymore, and people living in much safer neighborhoods than I did drive their children everywhere.
    I am am still incredulous over the free range parenting movement. That it even has a name.
    That being said, I do cloth diapers and do the mostly organic food thing, but that is about as far as it goes. I am already getting pressure to join up with mom groups and get the baby involved with stuff. Its bizarre.

  9. I completely agree with you. I used to ride my bike for hours and my parents would have no idea where we were. And I hadn't really thought about the reactions that I would have gotten from other mothers when I didn't enroll my kids in a million activities. I'm a big fan of learning how to play and use your imagination, rather than being guided and taught every second of your life.

  10. I think there is a lot of truth to this. I used to walk or ride my bike to school every day. We'd get driven if it rained. And we used to play outside after school every day until my Dad whistled for us to come in for dinner. I don't see kids doing that around my neighborhood and I think it's sad. I aspire to not be that helicopter Mom.