The following is a talk I presented at the 2016 Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement Conference this past October in Toronto, ON. I enjoyed my time at the conference, but will add that I was a little dismayed to see that many of the people there were still so focused on mothers, that babies were being completely left out. If people who want to represent mothers can’t get behind the dyadic nature of parent-child then the root of our problem is far bigger than I feared. I hope we can move towards a matricentric feminism, but only insofar as it manages to represent all of motherhood (or parenthood really as you’ll see in my talk below) and that includes the child.
About a year and a half ago an article by Lauren Apfel, the editor of Brain, Child Magazine, made the rounds arguing that sleep training – namely extinction sleep training like crying-it-out and controlled crying – is a feminist issue. In it she states that arguing against leaving babies to cry (presumably in hopes of teaching them “good sleep habits”) isn’t right as it sets women back. How? Because women do most of the nighttime caregiving and to “fully function” in society they need a full night’s sleep.
Given I spend a lot of time talking about extinction sleep training and why it’s wrong, this was that was brought to my attention by many different people. I know the science well enough to tell you in detail how extinction sleep methods do nothing for our infants’ sleep and why children sleep the way they do. I can and do regularly work with families to find methods that respect their infants’ biological needs while respecting the family’s need for more sleep. But this was actually the first time I had heard a feminist argument in favour of sleep training. Most feminists I know are against the practice, but I know the type of feminists we would call matricentric feminists.
What struck me with this article is that it highlighted two assumptions that are central to the marriage between patriarchy and liberal, or neoliberal, feminism. When I speak of liberal feminism, I speak of the feminism Andrea spoke of yesterday which began in the 80s and has continued to today: A feminism driven to show the world that us women can do whatever it is that you thought only men could do, that we are not slaves to our biology (in fact, should we even care about biology?) and can be “so much more” than mothers. The feminism, in short, that flourishes on the patriarchal playground.
These assumptions – which I’ll get to in a minute – expose how both patriarchy and liberal feminism have merged to create what I refer to as “the detached mother”. I know much of what I say may raise eyebrows and may elicit strong feelings of defensiveness based on the position I take, but I want to assure you that I don’t think the mothers of this generation and before are “bad”, but rather we’ve done what we can with the playground we’re playing on, yet we likely struggle more than any other group on the playground because the two forces driving our narrative – patriarchy and liberal feminism – don’t have us as mothers, or our children, in mind.
So what are these assumptions?
1) The first assumption is that whatever is happening during the day, or what Ms. Apfel calls “fully functioning”, is more important than what happens at night, specifically nighttime mothering. This has implications for both work and mothering, neither of which benefits the mother (or the person doing “mothering” as it not always the mother)
a) The argument put for by Ms. Apfel and other liberal feminists is that mothers they need to be “fully functional” for work; heck, most people will tell you the same. The difference lies in how we value this need to be “fully functional” and the need to care for the weakest members in our society. The Industrial era brought about an increased push for this type of daytime productivity that led to massive wealth, and therefore the devaluation of anything that didn’t produce this type of wealth. Despite new studies showing us that money doesn’t make us happier (I can cite the work of my friend Dr. Lara Aknin at SFU for this), we live and work and raise our children on the patriarchal playground in which the only game available is Monopoly. Our culture is obsessed with money because we can view it as the measure of the work we’re putting in to our society. How well we’re playing in the system.
Liberal feminism hasn’t disavowed us of this notion, instead it has decided to roll with it. Instead of arguing against the notion that monetary output is the be-all and end-all of society, of the family, of success, it simply has said, “Us women can enter that game and win at it too.” The value for mothering – at all times – is still low which is why I’m sure every one of us who is a mother and has identified herself as such has been asked, “When are you returning to work?” or “But what do you do to contribute?” or “You’re not just a mother are you?” or some variant. When someone asks you what you do, if you have not ever answered “I’m a mother”, I suggest you try it – it’s eye-opening.
b) This second implication of the assumption regarding the valuation of daytime productivity is specifically on mothering or mothering. Often you’ll hear parents say they need the nighttime to be “better” parents during the day. If the focus is still on mothering, how can this be a detriment to mothering? Shouldn’t we want to be better parents?
I want to quickly unpack this idea of abandoning nighttime mothering or mothering to be a “better” parent during the day. The first issue is that, like the workforce, we are somehow gauging our productivity – our daytime productivity – as parents or mothers. We have “good productivity” and “bad productivity” and we only reward the times that fit within our cultural norm despite the fact that our infants and children could care less what time of day it is when they need us.
The second is that we are now putting arbitrary value on how we mother. We are turning mothering into the contest that leads to the ideal of the “perfect” mother which can only exist if we aren’t mothering half the time. It’s the continuation of the fallacy of quality time over quantity time.
Finally, it shifts the focus of mothering away from mothering our children’s needs when they arise to mothering only when it is culturally acceptable which then bleeds out into other areas of mothering mothering, as we see with backlash against nursing in public, handling of tantrums, babies crying in public spaces, and so on.
So this assumption that daytime “work” – whether it is work or mothering – is more valuable than what happens at night is the first step in detaching women from their role as mother.
2) The second assumption, related to the first, is that nighttime mothering isn’t “necessary”. Not only should we value daytime work and mothering more what happens at night, but the idea behind leaving a child to cry is that nighttime mothering has no value to the child or the mother-child dyad.
I have heard the argument that the value of extinction sleep methods is really in self-care for mom, but to pull a quote from one of my favourite mothering experts, Pinky McKay, “Why did you want a baby if you want to sleep 12 hours?” Self-care means saying “me too” not “me first”. But of course, our patriarchal playground is structured such that “me first” is the name of the game.
An even larger problem with this assumption is that once it is established, it is very easy to make the leap from “nighttime mothering isn’t necessary” to “mothering isn’t necessary”. If you think that leap is insane, think about the rise of prominence of daycare, the wages that we pay daycare workers, and even more so, the idea that children who don’t attend daycare will somehow be worse off; that it’s “necessary” for their development. Think about that: Mothers aren’t necessary, daycare is.
How little value do we put on mothering if we’re saying that poorly paid strangers are better off raising our children than we are? Yet this is the idea that runs rampant on our playground. Patriarchy relegated women to “mothers only” because it doesn’t value the role of mother – and even includes a male overseeing his wife in this role because she can’t be trusted to it. Liberal feminism hasn’t fully changed this mindset, instead continuing to devalue mothering as something to be passed off to others as women reach their masculine potential in the work force. But if they don’t pass it off, they’d better prove their worth by being the perfect mother – one without flaws, whose children conform to what our cultural ideal is of children (no matter how far from their biology it is), and who will compete as mothers just as we compete in the workforce. If you aren’t being productive, at least you can pretend you are.
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
Before I talk about the effects on mothering and how these views lead to maternal detachment, I want to talk a bit about how we got here. After all, most women are mothers. How did we end up in a situation where we are so devalued? How did we end up with a feminism that has not only ignored us, but turned on us as well?
This is where our cultural norms come into play. If you’ve spent your entire life playing on the playground we have, being told how meaningless the work you do is, it’s impossible not to internalize that. So of course when you go to fight for change, it’s probably going to be to try and show that you too can do what is of value instead of trying to tell them that they’re missing the value in something else.
I liken it to some of the fights we see parents and children battle in the classroom: If a child isn’t doing well, rarely do the parents go in to say, “Hey, this system you have isn’t working and doesn’t reflect my child’s abilities or worth”, but rather they try to shape the child to the system. Liberal Feminists have done the same thing: They are focusing on how women and mothers can have value on the patriarchal playground instead of saying, “Hey, this playground doesn’t work for those of us who are mothers and we need a new one”. So all of us continue to be bombarded with the idea that we are less-than if we are not contributing in the way our society prefers. Whereas early feminism fought for women to be able to walk onto the patriarchal playground, liberal feminists have fought for the ability of us women to climb just as high as the men can.
Being the one who is home mothering (whether man or woman) on this playground is like being the kid who is sitting alone on the teeter-totter waiting for someone to come play while everyone else is busy climbing. At some point you’re probably getting off the teeter-totter and joining the rest because they can’t all be wrong, can they? When you’re friends tell you that you have to climb like the rest of them because we’ve been fighting to be able to climb and that’s what matters, you’re likely going to believe them.
So we have this culture that is built upon a patriarchal ideal of valuing the masculine while devaluing the feminine and a liberal feminism that has upheld this ideal. What effect has this had on our mothering? I argue it’s led to the “detached mother” – seems pretty harsh, doesn’t it? Let us first examine what this means.
THE PILLARS OF DETACHMENT
When talking about “the detached mother”, there are four pillars of detachment that I want to discuss. These pillars are intricately linked to the cultural mothering practices many mothers and fathers engage in and are based on – you guessed it – patriarchy and liberal feminism.
These practices include formula use over breastfeeding, scheduled feeds over feeding a baby on demand, babies sleeping in cribs instead of next to or on their mother or another carer, the use of extinction sleep training so baby fits the parental world instead of us fitting into the baby world, unnecessary medicated birth and numerous birth interventions, the use of toys and gadgets to entertain baby instead of human contact, strollers instead of wraps or carriers, and daycares over the village. It’s important to note that these are not all “bad” – some can be downright great – but they have their roots in the joining of patriarchy and liberal feminism and as a whole, these practices work to detach mothers.
a) The first pillar of detachment that stems from these practices is the act of physically detachment of the child from the mother – keeping the physical distance that enables others to care for the child, freeing mom up to pursue the masculine ideal of work outside the home.
Traditionally – and I mean looking at human history, not the last few generations – the child’s biological need for touch was respected and mothering respected this. Children were physically attached to a mother (again, including male and female) and expected to be for an extended period of time. Dr. Barry Hewlett has covered research on infant touch in his book Diverse Contexts of Human Infancy and whereas in traditional societies babies are held or touched approximately 98-99% of the time, that number falls dramatically to between 12-20% in our own North American culture. This is for young children in the first few months of life and shouldn’t be too surprising when we think back to what our culturally-normative practices include.
b) This physical detachment can’t help but lead to the second pillar of detachment: emotional detachment. This is because of the immense importance of touch to our emotional well-being. One just needs to look at the work of Dr. Tiffany Field to see the negative repercussions in our society that exist because of a lack of or reduction in touch on a larger scale. For our infants, touch helps regulate them physiologically and if they do not receive enough, especially not in stressful situations, this results in a physiological stress response which influences later neurological development.
Notably, in research, we know that separation from a caregiver is one of the surefire ways to elicit stress in any mammalian infant. Yet the continued push to separate ourselves physically means our children experience more stress than they should and is likely one reason why we have seen a dramatic decline in empathy in our society over the last 40 years.
As children are forced to detach, they lose the capacity to care for others, including their own parents. If we think about how our elders are being cared for – something that is often cited as a problem in our society – we can see they are cared for in ways similar to how we care for our children: Their basic needs are being met by strangers or “professionals” in an institutionalized setting, but lacking the emotional connectedness that would help them thrive.
c) The third pillar of detachment is the detachment from our role as mothers. Women’s identity as mothers is ignored or dismissed. It’s not a valid identity yet how can it not be? Whether a woman grows a child inside her for months or adopts a child with the choice to take on this vital role, or is a father taking on the role of mothering, the rest of society has decided that this identity is not “enough” and pushes – subtly and not-so-subtly – women and men towards other endeavors outside the home.
This isn’t to say that work outside the home is bad. Far from it. When we get into the “work versus raising kids” debate, we often forget that most traditional societies have women doing both and are able to do both somewhat simultaneously. They would forage, either leaving their children for a bit or sometimes bringing them. Their other contributions to the well-being of their tribe coexist with childrearing. Men mother in teaching children vital skills and nurturing when needed. Some men even allow babies to dry nurse on them while mom is away.
This idea that we must separate ourselves for work, that we cannot coexist as mothers and workers, coupled with the devaluation of mothering leads many to detach themselves from their mothering identity completely. And for those that don’t, we return to the issue of justifying the choice to mother. This means competition and judgment and a further move away from the proverbial village that is needed to really support families. If you decide to break free, you’d better show us that you’re doing something amazing with it.
d) The fourth and final pillar is one that subsumes all of the above: a detachment from biology. One of the great pushes from liberal feminism was and is to fight for women to be seen as separate from their biological role as mother in contrast to the patriarchal argument of keeping women out of the workforce – we weren’t biologically made for it (though again they also held a hand over us as mothers too). However, instead of it being a fight for women to be seen as “mothers and more” (thinking of the aforementioned identity crisis) it has come to be a means to simply deny biology with depressing results from a mothering perspective.
To deny biology for us means to also deny biology for our children and for the dyad of mother and child. Our children are biologically wired to expect certain behaviours when born – touch being one of the most prominent and one we are moving away from – and if we dismiss biology, assuming we can move beyond it, we fail to provide what our children need to thrive. This includes the physical touch, emotional connectedness, and round-the-clock care that research has, time and again, shown us matters. One of my favourite quotes of all time on this issue comes from Dr. Helen Ball at Durham University who has said:
“100 years of rapidly changing infant-care fashions cannot alter several million years of evolutionarily derived infant physiology.”
In short: We can change the way we parent to fit our cultural ideals – which we are doing – but that does not mean our children will adapt to this in the way we would expect or hope.
What we have ended up with here are several ways in which we are detached – how we have become “detached mothers” – thanks to the practices and cultural ideals that are encouraged and pushed by both the patriarchal society and the liberal feminist movement within it. I believe these practices are unsustainable and will result in a societal implosion as our empathy weans, mental illness rises, and we become more detached from one another on every level.
But we can change this but it means changing our entire concept of motherhood and what we value.
This new mindset can only come if we move playgrounds. We will never make the changes needed if we continue to play on the patriarchal playground – it is why liberal feminism has taken root, it’s the only type that could. We need a playground that respects both the feminine and the masculine and this begins with mothering. The more we can return to raising our children with a focus on attachment, love, compassion, respect – for them and their biology – the better the chance they will enter a world they feel connected to instead of detached from. A world they want to nurture and respect. This doesn’t mean any one practice over another, but rather an appreciation of what our children need and learning how we can provide it using ways that don’t dismiss them or ourselves as mothers.
We also need policy changes that flip the patriarchal and liberal feminist narrative on its head. Notably, we need policies that respect mothering as the valuable role that it is. Just a few ideas include:
• Parental leave options for up to 3 years as they have in places like Finland
• Paying parents who are at home taking the responsibility of their children instead of only to daycares
• Flexible work policies that allow women and men to work from home and work off-hours to blend work and family
• Programs for new parents that are based on peer-to-peer assistance (like LLL) instead of professionals stepping in
• Start educating our children in high school about infant biology and attachment, just as we teach them about accounting and Shakespeare
At the end of the day, when we make sure people realize the immense value of raising children and provide a framework in which this can happen, we all do well. It doesn’t mean saying work outside the home is meaningless – a fully matriarchal playground is just as unequal as a patriarchal one – but rather that we can find ways to value the ying and yang in our society so we can work together to thrive. This starts with our mothering and how we treat the most vulnerable members of our society.
Laurn Apfel was right – sleep training is a feminist issue – just not in the way she believed.