It’s no secret that some homemaking activities–gardening, cooking and preserving food, building things from recycled materials, for example–are good for the planet. Households with at least one homemaker (or two part-time workers) are generally less resource-intensive, often requiring fewer vehicles and less driving time. A less harried lifestyle usually means more food cooked from scratch (which tends to have a lower carbon footprint), and local food projects such as backyard chickens are much more manageable with more time at home.
But when children enter the picture we suddenly treat it like a daunting task. While I don’t mean to downplay the challenges of parenthood (I’ve had infants!), I do wonder to what extent our cultural expectations are driving parents back to the workplace. Last week a store clerk gave me the usual, “stay-at-home parenting is the hardest job in the world” speech and I had to laugh. That morning I’d made pancakes with the children and we’d stayed in our pajamas until 10 am, playing video games…it seemed like one of the easiest jobs in the world.
As Douglas and Michaels noted in their 2004 book, The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and how it has Undermined all Women, “81 per cent of women in a recent poll said it’s harder to be a mother now than twenty or thirty years ago, and 56 per cent said mothers were doing a worse job today than mothers back then.” Parents these days are probably the most over-achieving parents of all time, and yet many are not feeling up to the task. Since my indoctrination into “mom culture” several years ago, I’ve noticed three big trends that may be contributing to the problem.
1. Paranoid Parenting/ An Overemphasis on Safety
I was introduced to this trend a few years ago in the playground when a mother suddenly shouted at her 5-year old son (who had veered away from the man-made play structure), “The park is not for playing with sticks!” What? I’d always assumed that the park was the perfect place to play with things like sticks (or leaves or pine cones). Was I being negligent by allowing my children to so?
An obsession with safety is a point of pride these days among parents, and we are often are encouraged to eschew common sense in favour of following the “rules”. For example, when my older daughter started walking our immediate inclination was to install a baby gate at the top of the stairs. When I worked out the logistics of it, however, I realized that the gate itself was much more of a hazard to our non-adventurous toddler than an open staircase. Giantly pregnant, balancing a 16-month old on my hip and trying to negotiate a child-proof spring lock at the top of the stairs simply didn’t make sense. But I sure did feel pressured.
As kids get older and have more opportunities for independence (such as playing alone outside) these issues intensify, as James Peron notes in his article, Paranoid Parents are a Bigger Threat to Kids. I would argue that they’re also a threat to themselves: no one likes working in a culture of hyper-vigilance and fear. It’s no wonder websites and books that counter this trend–like Free Range Kids–are becoming very popular.
2. The Ideology of Intensive Mothering
“Natural,” child-led and attachment parenting (AP) are among the latest buzz-words these days, especially in social media circles. For some parents, things like co-sleeping, baby-wearing and unscheduled sleep times work quite well. The problem lies with the philosophies behind some of these techniques, and the implications for parents who do not follow them. AP experts like Dr. Sears have made a number of unsubstantiated claims about the pitfalls of mainstream parenting, essentially insinuating that non-attachment-parents are harming their children. Many bloggers and AP-promoters have taken these concepts even further, implying that sleep-training, for instance, is abusive, neglectful or causes brain damage. (A recent wall post circulating on Facebook claimed that when babies who slept alone cried, they were “screaming for their life”.)
Hard scientific evidence to back up these theories is scant; instead they often rely on emotional appeals and comparisons to parenting practices in “traditional cultures” (which are held up arbitrarily as the gold standard). A 5-year study published this fall in the journal Pediatrics in fact showed no difference in outcomes for children who were “sleep-trained” versus those whose parents used AP sleep techniques. Furthermore, a study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies found that “attachment parenting can lead to moms reporting more stress and lower levels of happiness.”
As a former Dr. Sears devotee, it took me two months to realize that AP was not for me. The difficult part was then embracing my crib, stroller and baby-scheduling books without guilt after I’d been thoroughly convinced that these things would damage my child. This process involved abandoning what sociologist Sharon Hays describes as the “ideology of intensive mothering”. I suspect this ideology is at the heart of the current peer-pressure to use AP techniques, and the cavalier rhetoric that often accompanies it. With the perceived threat of negative consequences upon failure, many parents are being placed in a very difficult position.
3. Paid Work as the Only Valid Form of Mental Stimulation
I’ve played a lot of Fisher Price Farm on the floor with preschoolers…I get it: it’s boring. But nothing saddens me more than when a parent returns to work not for financial reasons or because they love their job, but merely to seek mental stimulation. Paid work makes things easier in some ways: it’s neat and tidy, you have a purpose. However, there are countless ways to achieve the same goal at home–it simply requires more imagination. Volunteer opportunities, online interaction, political activism, community organizing, art projects, DIY projects, creative writing, distance education…these are just a few of the activities homemakers can dabble in (once the exhaustion phase is over, of course!). And right now our society needs more people doing these unpaid things, especially environmental and political work. In an extractive economy, we’re taught from a young age to place a premium on activities that involve either earning or spending money. Leaving this outdated notion behind is critical if we want to improve our relationship with the planet, our communities, and ourselves.