It’s a lot easier to put baby’s needs first when you’ve got the money to do it.
When we discovered we were pregnant, like so many other parents, we turned childrearing into a graduate-level research project. I spent hours studying breastfeeding, cosleeping, and attachment parenting. I read studies—I choose to believe some experts (Dr. Sears) and ignore others (Dr. Ferber). Then, having uncovered the Only Perfect Formula For Well-Adjusted Children—attachment parenting—I began to judge everyone else. Those poor cry-it-out mommies and formula-feeders had to know how wrong they were. After all, I was only trying to save children from their misguided parents. And those misguided parents are trying to save my children in turn.
The echo chamber of the Internet has dubbed this the Mommy Wars. And the white flag of this bloody battle is emblazoned with the word Choice.
“Choice” has become a convenient byword for underhanded sanctimommies. We all make choices, and all those choices are valid, even if some are more valid than others.
Except some things aren’t choices at all. The word “choice” presumes an alternative—a viable, workable alternative. For most parents in America, those choices aren’t choices at all. They’re necessities.
Attachment parenting advocates need to own up: It’s a lot easier to put baby’s needs first when you’ve got the money to do it. And all that lovely stuff that seems to come along in the package of crunchy: the baby-led-weaning, no-plastic, all-organic, no-junk-food, no-media, cloth-diapers-only stuff? Those are luxuries that most people can’t afford.
Take breastfeeding. I was fortunate enough to have plenty of time to stay home, establish nursing, and avoid supplementation. It’s no surprise that lower socioeconomic status correlates with lower breastfeeding rates. Lower economic status marches hand-in-hand with the most obvious thing of all: the poorer you are, the more you need to work. Maternity leave in our great country is notoriously short and mostly unpaid. Working class? You might dash back to work as soon as your stitches heal (and likely before).
Breastfeeding can be really hard. And even if nursing goes smoothly, nursing and working means working and pumping. Pumping requires access to a decent breastpump (which many insurance companies still don’t cover, even under the Affordable Care Act), and can cost over $200.
You also need pumping breaks—and not only are some businesses exempt from providing them, salaried workers don’t qualify at all. Pumping and nursing have their own hidden costs: bottles, plastic bags, flanges, lanolin, and nipples, not to mention unpaid breaks.
We all know that working mothers face economic pressure to formula feed. What about other attachment parenting choices, like co-sleeping? Dr. James McKenna, the world’s leading researcher in mother-baby sleep study, recommends bedsharing only when baby is fully breastfed. So mothers who formula feed shouldn’t share a sleeping surface with their child. Say baby’s awake for the fifth time and you have to work in three hours. Imagine two weeks of that severe sleep deprivation. Cry-it-out looks a whole lot less like choice and a whole lot more like preserving your sanity. Letting your kid cry so you can function enough to keep your job? That’s not a choice.
Yes, you know someone who parented their child to sleep over and over and over despite a full-time job. You also know someone who escaped grinding poverty to become a Harvard professor. But we’re talking about the vast majority of people, not the few exceptions. I know a woman whose marriage has suffered severely because she’s dedicated to responding to her baby every single night, every single time. I don’t know what I would do in her situation. But I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t feel like I was making a choice.
The constellation of things we associate with hippie parenting, natural parenting, and attachment parenting, is even more limited by economics. The Internet likes to wail about how poor families are forced to reuse disposable diapers, and if they just had access to cloth, they’d save money and keep babies healthier.
I use cloth, and always have. Our intitial newborn stash cost about $200 and has gone through seven babies now (not my own). The regular, rotating stash has been in use for over five years; I spend an average of $100-200 a year on diapers and covers to replace the ones that have degraded. I’ve tried the cheapie plastic pants and T-shirt route. It’s not very effective.
And even the cheapest option—flats made of T-shirts—necessitates a washing machine. I’m glad the Flats and Handwashing Challenge exists. But privileged women handwashing flat diapers for a week, implying that if poor families were just willing to get their hands dirty, they too could better the environment? That’s ickier than poo water in your sink.
Forget about subbing wooden toys for plastic if you’re poor. We all know the dollar store doesn’t sell Melissa and Doug, or even their made-in-China-with-slave-labor equivalent. Tupperware’s cheaper than Pyrex; conventional costs less than organic; and rice pasta’s triple the cost of wheat.
Staying at home is a choice many mothers don’t have. Work means daycare, or at least surrendering the care of your children to some other person for eight hours a day. Try to keep your kids away from food dye when you’re dependent on caregivers. Don’t want them watching Cars, or trying to avoid the Disney Princess debacle? That means finding carers willing and able to adhere to your wishes. Most childcare centers won’t. My best friend caved on food dye when she had to put her son in (a top-tier, university-affiliated) daycare. She no longer had a choice.
This isn’t to say that all attachment parents, crunchy parents, hippies, or whatever you call them spend their time judging different parenting styles. Not all of us are naptime warriors, fighting the Internet just to prove we’re still here. But we need to admit: Money can force a parent’s hand.
We can’t pretend people make choices when the world only gives them one option.
People parent differently. There are many ways to raise kids. Don’t pretend we all have the luxury of choice. I did, but most moms don’t.
Elizabeth got pregnant at a very convenient time to quit her Ph.D. program, where she taught writing to college students. Now she stays home with her three boys to procreate, messily tie-dye, and make fun of Pinterest while secretly scouring it for art ideas. Elizabeth’s internet home is www.manicpixiedreammama.com, and you can find her writing on The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, xoJane, Mamapedia, Today Show Parents, and Time Magazine. She writes a regular column for ADDitude magazine. Follow: Twitter, Facebook