As a child of the 80s, I grew up in a world of “mommy wars.” That lovely term dates back to Jan Jarboe Russell’s 1989 Texas Monthly article “The Mommy War,” published back when I was the eight-year-old daughter of a divorced working mother. This family structure was not exactly en vogue at my Catholic elementary school, where most of the other mommies stuck with being mommies. My mom and all these fieldtrip-chaperoning, classroom-assisting, recess-supervising mothers with large suburban homes never quite figured out how to talk to each other. Fast forward to 2014 … and I find myself parenting in a culture that still gleefully pits mothers against each other.
Personally, I’m a weird mashup of parenting categories. I have a PhD, and some semesters I teach full time or more. I have lived separately from my family for months at a time. Other semesters, I write from home and am practically never away from my toddler and seven-year-old. I’m a homeschooling, homebirthing, breastfeeding mother. I’m a highly-educated professional and a committed feminist. I live in a different region of the US from my family and most of my friends, and I hang out online sort of all the time. As a result, I end up chatting with people whose assumptions about parenting are very diverse indeed.
Even in less quirky circumstances, every parent interacts with well-meaning counterparts whose lives and, like, basic senses of reality are different from ours. How can we abandon the tired script of “the mommy wars” in order to interact more productively and kindly across the abyss of really, really different parenting choices?
They may not produce instant world peace, but these four strategies do a whole lot of good:
1) We can listen with interest and without making assumptions. A lot of nastiness is born from assuming that others are Just Like Us until proven otherwise. It helps to approach other parents in the spirit of curiosity. Furthermore, many of us really need to articulate our own experiences, to tell our stories: we can give a significant gift simply by letting others talk in a real way.
Open-ended questions—as long as they truly aren’t loaded—can help us acknowledge and learn from our differences instead of either blowing up over them or pretending they’re not there. For example, it is obnoxious to say “I could never stay home with children and set aside my identity like that” or to ask “That’s great for your kids, but aren’t you bored?” But it’s nice to ask “What’s it like for you right now, being with your children during the day?” Other obnoxious approaches include: “Don’t your kids miss you while they’re at daycare?,” “Why aren’t you breastfeeding?,” “When are you going to give Little Janey a baby sibling?,” and “It must be nice to sit at home all day instead of working!” This is not rocket science; “how’s life?,” “how are you holding up?,” and “whew, parenting’s weird, huh?” are all winners.
2) We can think in terms of intersectionality. Amongst big, fancy words, this is a particularly useful one. Basically, intersectionality is the idea that all our identity categories—our various positions of privilege and oppression—interact with each other in messy ways. Specific decisions and experiences (such as taking time away from paid work or working alongside parenting) mean different things in the context of different identity categories and life experiences.
When we see other parents or hear their stories, we need to realize that the threads of race, class, gender, sexuality, age, dis/ability, language, and so forth are wound up differently in all our lives.
3) We can avoid competition like it’s the freaking plague. The mommy wars are about creating and exploiting feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and superiority. Friendship and feminism are about helping each other live better lives, which really does not require us to compare our children’s development and abilities. After all, “Who’s the best mommy?” lurks pretty obviously under the surface of “Oh, your baby started crawling? How interesting: mine crawled two months earlier.”
More subtly, we need to be aware that, in some situations, implicit comparisons are inevitable around sensitive subjects. If my friend’s baby is not gaining enough weight because of problems with breastfeeding, she really does not need to hear my baby’s latest super-healthy growth stats and how easy breastfeeding is for us. She can see the chubby baby, and she would never wish hardship on us, but she just does not need to hear about it. She doesn’t need to feel required to smile and put aside her own anxieties for my joy.
It’s trickier with casual acquaintances, because we don’t know their histories and challenges. Who knows which issues might be sensitive for a relative stranger? In those cases, we can only rely on listening without assumptions and on plain old kindness to carry us through.
4) Finally, for all that is good and holy in the world, we can avoid handing out unsolicited advice. It’s so awful. You know that, because you hate it when other people do it to you, right? People with little kids are like unsolicited advice magnets. But sometimes it’s hard to resist, because we have such good advice to offer. As a general rule, people will let us know if they want to hear our opinion.
Nobody’s perfect. It’s easy for asshole comments and questions to slip out when you’ve been severely sleep-deprived for years on end and can hardly remember your children’s names. But a little empathy goes a long way, and hey, there’s always the good old-fashioned heartfelt apology! “I haven’t slept in three years: I’m sorry I said something crappy” can be an excellent first step to talking with other parents without sucking.
Molly Westerman is a writer, book nerd, literature PhD, and parent of two. Her current writing projects include a book for feminist parents and the blog First the Egg: A Feminist Resource for Pregnancy, Birth, and Parenting. Westerman’s writing on gender and parenting have also appeared at Bitch, The Broadside, Offbeat Family, and elsewhere.