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Rejecting the "Mommy" Wars
We don't have to buy into this polarized bullsh*t...
Let me just get right off my chest that the term “mommy wars” is infantilizing, misogynistic, and generally gross. It’s a powerful way to shame women and diminish their voices while also marginalizing the importance of the issues they’re debating. I hate it and even typing it out made me sort of angry this morning.
With that out of the way, the other thing I hate about the Mommy Wars framing is how often women fall for it, hook, line and sinker.
In my 10 years as a mother, I’ve spent a lot of time on various kinds of parenting boards - mostly populated by women - and the immoderation and false binaries that affect the rest of our culture are in full force in these spaces. (I’m ashamed to say that in my pre-radically moderate days, I contributed just a bit to the polarization of those spaces. My penance is that anytime I’m tempted to type “well, actually”, I have to do 10 burpees.)
If I had to take an educated guess about why parenting forums in general get polarized quickly without heavy moderation, I’m guessing it’s some combination of:
the deeply personal nature of parenting,
the biological changes that happen when people nurture other people (which tend to trigger protectiveness and defensiveness), and
the nature of internet forums to turn everyone into anonymous enemies.
I’m usually pretty good at not taking stuff said on these boards personally, but sometimes it hits pretty close to home. A recent discussion of ADHD and medication on a local mom’s group resulted in the usual polarization between “crunchy” moms and whatever other kinds of moms are (I don’t know… soft? chewy? It’s still unclear). It got me thinking a lot about why conversations around parenting are so often polarized and what we might do about it.
The conversation predictably devolved into people saying unhelpful things like “no drugs!” as though parents of children with ADHD are just haphazardly shooting their kids up with a combination of heroin, PCP and Tylenol just to see what works, with the other side providing anecdotal stories about how much meds helped their kids. It definitely wasn’t as bad as it would have been on other forums, which I attribute to the fact that many of these women know each other, work together or have kids who go to school together, and the group is generally fairly scientifically literate.
But it was still hard to read. And it was still frustrating to see such a huge gap between well-meaning women who obviously all love and care about their kids and want to do the right thing for them.
Parenting and Patterned Variation
Apart from the above causes, what contributes most to the polarization around parenting is that there are no easy answers, but it seems like there should be. Parenting exhibits lots of what I’ll call patterned variation. While we know really broadly what kids need - food, shelter, attachment to stable adult caregivers, opportunities for play - how those needs manifest for any given kid is really variable. Kids, like adults, have different preferences, personalities, goals, and needs. My three kids are wildly different from one another and while my husband and I have through-lines for how we parent, we do end up adapting to the specific kid quite a lot more than I expected to.
If I had to guess, it’s partly this patterned variability that makes parenting polarization so intense. What’s true for you could actually be completely wrong for me and my kid and that’s not because either of us are bad people or because we hate freedom or don’t care about health. It could actually just be the case that our situations are different and our kids are different and what works for your family doesn’t work for ours.
But when we see that variation, particularly on anonymous internet boards where people have minimal background context, often what we experience is disagreement or even rejection of our way of doing things. That rejection stimulates the tribal part of our brain and gets us defensive. Once we’re in defensive tribal mode, it’s not about recognizing complexity and supporting other parents, it’s about being right. And once a conversation is about being “right” or “wrong” it’s usually not a conversation anymore. It’s a dialectic war.
A Lot of Things Can Be True At the Same Time
Unfortunately, the terms “right” or “wrong” don’t really apply to parenting, other than on the margins. Obvious examples of abuse and neglect aside, for most people clustered in the middle of the parenting normal curve, there are probably ways to do things a bit better or a bit worse, but there’s no optimal objective “right” way to parent because kids and parents differ so dramatically.
To pull a few concrete examples from this internet thread again, none of the comments anyone made was flat-out wrong:
A few people mentioned that ADHD is over-diagnosed, particularly in boys, in part because we force kids into schooling environments where they have to sit all day. This is undoubtedly true.
Others pointed out that the number of screens and the sheer amount of stimulation our kids are exposed to every day contributes to ADHD-like symptoms in that kids are having a harder and harder time focusing as they move from one dopamine hit to another. This is also probably true for everyone.
There are also lots of behavioral interventions that can help all kids train their brains to focus better. That’s true too.
But while these things are true, their truth does not mean that ADHD doesn’t exist. It does.
It also doesn’t challenge the fact that medicine can help the brains of people with ADHD learn to focus by creating neurological pathways. It does.
Nor does it undermine the fact that there are real harms to *not* treating kids with serious ADHD, not least of which is that kids with ADHD can experience a constant sense of failure that undermines their self-confidence, leading to self-and-other destructive behaviors. These are well-documented.
In my own family, when it became clear that our oldest had pretty serious ADHD - which runs in our family - we started with behavioral changes but quickly found that those behavioral changes weren’t working because my daughter literally couldn’t focus long enough for the behavioral tweaks to have any effect. After much hand-wringing (because I’m pretty medically conservative about most things) we finally decided on medication and it has been a huge help.
Has it been a panacea? Of course not. ADHD requires a lot of different tools in the toolkit. But medication was the right thing for one of our daughters and it wouldn’t be the right thing for my other two (most obviously because they don’t have ADHD).
With all that being said, what practical things can we do to defang the parenting polarization that influences everything from decisions about vaccination to decisions about schooling? As you might expect, I have some thoughts…
Radically Moderate Ways to Discuss Parenting:
Bring some humility to table. If you don’t have a kid with a specific issue or other direct experience with whatever is being discussed, maybe just hold off before providing an opinion. Reading a news article three years ago doesn’t make you an expert on this person’s life. If you do need to say something, see #3.
Remember that variation isn’t rejection. I will admit to falling into this trap in the past and it’s a hard one to avoid sometimes. If your best friend or your sister doesn’t take your advice it can feel like your experience or expertise is being dismissed. But chances are good there’s just some variable you’re not aware of that makes their choices different from yours. And even if it is sheer cussedness, that’s ok too. No one has to listen to you or anyone else. That’s a fact of life we all should have learned on the playground.
Ask curious questions. As a trained academic, I will admit that I slide right into pontificating mode much more easily than is good for me (or my companions). But my experience on most parenting boards is that everyone else seems pretty tempted to do this too. Unfortunately, people shouting from their soapboxes is usually the last thing a parent in need wants or needs. A much more helpful approach is to ask some genuinely curious questions: is this person just venting? Are they even asking for advice in the first place? What are their parenting values that might be affecting the way they think about this issue? Are there variables like scarcity of time, energy, money, or attention that might make it hard for them to do whatever they need to do? What tangible action items do they want, if any?
Think about tradeoffs. As with anything, parenting decisions require tradeoffs. We could have had our kids in gymnastics from age 3, but that would have required sacrifices in other areas we weren’t willing to make. We pull our kids from school for special family vacations knowing there’s a tradeoff in terms of academic continuity, but we feel pretty sure that tradeoff is worth it. Name your parenting decision: it comes with tradeoffs. And that’s just as true for other parents as it is for you. And because you can’t understand all the different variables in someone else’s life, it’s best to assume they’re juggling these tradeoffs as best as they can, even if it might not look like that from afar.
Tolerate variation. This one is actually crucial, because there’s an alarming trend of people calling the cops on parents for behaviors that are well within the range of normal. Most parenting differences are not crises. But even more than the effects on kids, calling the cops on people whose parenting differs from yours can have catastrophic effects on lower-income parents and parents of color. Unless a kid is in immediate danger or you expect abuse or serious neglect, you’re better off talking to the parents, seeing if you can lend a helping hand, or pointing them to some community resources that can.
Radically Moderate Parenting Reads
I’ll end with some of my favorite Radically Moderate Reads on Parenting. This is a somewhat eclectic mix, but all of these authors, I think, strike a pretty solid balance on a range of complicated issues:
Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s book Mother Nature is hands down the most influential book on my parenting. I read it as a college student a decade before I became a mother and then read all 700 pages again when I was on maternity leave with my first daughter. As a primatologist and evolutionary biologist, she debunks many of the myths and binaries around motherhood and provides a science-based assessment of the many tradeoffs primate mothers make as they juggle survival and reproduction. I just can’t say enough about this book. It’s a masterpiece that very few people know about. Whoever you are, buy it. It’s great. She also has some other great books on allomothering and radically moderate feminism, which I also recommend.
Emily Oster has positioned herself as the data-based parenting expert for good reason. Her work is measured, thoughtful, and excellently researched. Her blog Parent Data is good too, though I’m not a regular reader (sorry!).
I really like Peter Gray’s work on play, which he summarizes in his book Free to Learn. He also blogs at Psychology Today. In particular, he has an interesting radically moderate take on video games, which is worth reading.
Lenore Skenazy’s one-woman crusade to provide kids more autonomy in our risk-averse world was really influential on my early parenting practices and even more so now that my kids are older and more mobile. She’s moved on from the Free Range Kids focus of her earlier work and now does a lot of interesting work directly with her organization Let Grow, which has programs for schools, policymakers, and parents.
Neuroscientist Andrew Huberman has a great podcast episode on ADHD and despite being somewhat of a skeptic of medication himself, he was clearly swayed by the research. It’s a balanced and interesting episode. His other episodes are always great, though he doesn’t do a ton on parenting generally.
As always, I’d love to hear what you think! Leave a comment, subscribe, and share if you like this! Sharing means the world to me, since it’s the main way people find the blog. But do all three!