Mothers Secretly Want to Stay Home

The 1980s: a time in which women donned shoulder pads that made them resemble linebackers and stormed the gates of the corporate world. A time in which major feminist texts were published (Intercourse by Andrea Dworkin, Backlash by Susan Faludi), but, more importantly, the feminist message seemed to work its way into the popular consciousness, through movies like 9 to 5 and through college activism like Take Back the Night marches.

And, perhaps not coincidentally, it was also a time in which the term “attachment parenting” was coined. Attachment parenting refers to the idea that the natural bond between mother and child should be preserved. The baby should ride in a carrier, snuggled against mom’s heart, instead of sitting in a stroller a foot away from her; the baby should sleep in the parental bed rather than the nursery; baby should gain all its nutrition from the mother’s warm breast instead of a bottle.

The great secret of attachment parenting is that it’s not exactly compatible with second-wave feminism. After all, breastfeeding ensures that the mother is the baby’s only food source and thus makes it significantly harder for, say, a father, grandparent, or daycare worker to step in. Co-sleeping and babywearing diminish the boundaries of her bodily autonomy. Taken as a whole, the demands of attachment parenting mean that less time is available for work or for hobbies apart from the family.

Despite the fact that attachment parenting bears a rather uneasy relationship to feminism, women themselves–not just male parenting gurus like Dr. Sears–have eagerly seized upon it as the best way to raise a child. Breastfeeding advocates, nearly all of whom are female, have crossed the line into bullying and name-calling the formula-feeding mothers. Mothers who opt to sleep-train instead of co-sleep suffer an even worse reception than those who formula-feed.

In addition to attachment parenting, a number of the other womanly arts have gained popularity in recent years. Canning, knitting, cloth diapering, baby-food-making, and cooking from scratch have all become chic.

Why have women adopted the kinds of pursuits once seen as oppressive?

One argument might be that concern for the environment is driving the trend. After all, breastfeeding is better for the environment (no bottles to wash, or formula canisters to dispose of!), and so is making your own clothing instead of shipping it from sweatshops in Cambodia, or eating canned fruit from your own backyard. But I don’t think that’s the whole story. There are plenty of lifestyle choices that are bad for the environment, yet never come under scrutiny. Living alone, for instance, consumes more resources than communal living–yet the post-college years are widely viewed as a time to leave family and old friends and migrate to a studio apartment in a big city. Likewise, air travel is disastrous for the environment, but backpacking around Europe or Asia is practically viewed as a rite of passage in certain social circles. In other words, the rhetoric of environmentalism is only deployed to attack choices that educated, urban-dwelling liberals don’t like, such as having lots of kids or driving a minivan–and is never deployed to criticize the things they do like, like traveling, living alone during their early 20s, smoking pot, using computers and iPhones incessantly, or driving vintage Vespas.

So if college-educated women are suddenly obsessed with browsing the farmers’ markets for organic kabocha squash to mash into baby food, it’s because they want to do so, not because they’ve reluctantly decided to give up their own preferences for “the environment.” So why do they want to?

Many third-wave feminists would shrug at this question, responding that as long as women are really choosing this parenting style outside of a context of coercion, then who cares? But I’m interested in why women are choosing it, especially when most men seem so indifferent. (I’ve never heard of a man accosting a bottle-feeding mother in public and informing her that “breast is best!,” nor have I ever heard a man agonizing over whether to use a stroller or an organic Ergo carrier to take the baby to the grocery store).

And my own theory is that, after second-wave feminists like Betty Friedan argued that housework was silly and unimportant, educated women felt pressured to leave their children and work outside the home–which many found unfulfilling. (After all, people who work outside the home don’t all march off to fun, exciting, socially significant jobs like politician or journalist.) So they wanted to justify their desires to spend more time with their children, or perhaps even quit their jobs entirely. Enter the concept of “attachment parenting,” with its scientific-sounding name, and suddenly they had discovered the solution. Homemakers were no longer just sitting around eating bonbons and waiting to fix their husbands a martini (which had become the stereotype of homemaking)–no, they were boosting their children’s IQ, preventing childhood obesity, and even saving the environment to boot.

In other words, lots of mothers really want to stay home and support their families, and so they feel compelled to defend the continued importance of this role. I think it’s sad that we’re now forced to rationalize and defend nurturing just because it’s not a masculine trait (and is therefore seen as worthless).


3 thoughts on “Mothers Secretly Want to Stay Home

  1. It is a bit odd. Maybe it is coming back to the home “under my own terms” that is so appealing to stay at home mothers who identify as feminist. I once heard an alternative explanation for the phenomenon you describe here. According to this alternative view, feminist return to the homelife because it secretly satisfies some suppressed sexual urge to be oppressed. Apperantly, this is why so many Feminist enjoy watching mad men. I definitely like your interpretation better.

  2. As a man, I would also love being a stay-at-home dad (I love kids and the rat race is overrated), but no woman has accepted my offer.

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