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I’m an unnatural mother.

I almost wrote the title of this post as, “I’m an unnatural parent,” but then I remembered it’s my sex that’s contributing most to my feeling that I need to write about this. So mother it is.

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll surely have noticed that I’ve been reading a book called Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity, by Emily Matchar. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? It’s been making its way around the crafts blogosphere. And I’ve been tweeting about it a lot.

I’ve always been on the fringes of the DIY movement. I work in crafts, but I’ve never been hardcore about making all our stuff of a certain sort, and I’ve never sold the stuff I make, nor have I wanted to. I’ve always worked as an editor and writer in this realm – I’m most interested in the ideas. I make stuff, but I’ve never considered retreating from the mainstream world. And this book has convinced me that we DIYers have done a great job of staring so long at our collective navel that we’ve lost sight of our individual role in the greater world/movement/society.

It’s the parts of the book that are about parenting that get me the most riled up, so I’m going to focus on that for a bit here. [ETA: I wasn’t clear about something. It’s not the author who espouses incendiary things, it’s the people she quotes. In my opinion, the author manages to convey these opinions in a pretty responsible way, with appropriate sarcasm when unavoidable.]

I am an unnatural mother. The parenting aspects of the new domesticity are so utterly, overwhelmingly offensive to me that I feel I must tell you about exactly how unnatural I am. I say unnatural because someone, somewhere, decided at some point that there are some ways of parenting that should be considered natural. And if only some ways of parenting are natural, then all the other ways aren’t. Which means I’m an unnatural parent (and one with a giant bone to pick with people who label their decisions in ways that imply that other decisions are worse.)

I did not give birth to our son at home.

I did not, in fact, give birth to our son at all.

I did not breastfeed our son.

Yesterday, this son of ours, who’s two-and-a-half, pulled down the front of my shirt and told me he wanted some milk. And so I explained to him that though his baby cousin eats breast milk, he, as a baby, did not. He ate formula from a bottle, and I wasn’t the only one who fed him – his father fed him just as frequently.

We co-slept with Owen for  a month or two. It was very sweet and easy to reach over and pat his little tummy when he got fussy in the night. Then he got too loud and into a bassinet he went. When he outgrew it, into his crib he went. When it became time for all of us to sleep through the god-damned night already, we eliminated his overnight feeding and started letting him cry at bedtime for as long as twenty minutes at a time, at the extreme. It took about six nights and zero trauma for us all to get a solid night’s sleep.

We did make almost all of Owen’s baby food. It’s not very involved nor time-consuming to do, and he started pureed food during farmer’s market season so it was a no-brainer. But his graduation to chewable food was the end of our slow-food parenting.

I am uninterested in cooking and always have been. I’ve always had better things to do with an hour of my time than spend it in the kitchen. My husband, on the other hand, is an outstanding cook who enjoys doing it. We flout sex-based trends to a dramatic extent in this regard. We don’t even share cooking – he does the overwhelming majority of it. Our son asks his father what’s for dinner.

We have vaccinated Owen according to the normal schedule. We did this without question nor hesitation, because vaccination is extremely important to the functioning of our society. Also, it’s scientifically proven to be so. We love science over here, even when it involves chemicals.

(That said, I clean house almost exclusively with some combination or another of vinegar and baking soda. Chemicals don’t always make things better, and these two wonder-ingredients do it all. And they’re cheap! I also have a grey streak in my hair almost exactly like the woman illustrated on the cover of the book. And I wear cat’s eye glasses. And I’m going to learn to sew my own clothes. But this post is about how I’m a dirty unnatural parent. So back to that.)

We send our son to daycare, and think it’s the greatest god-damned thing since sliced bread (store-bought). I want my kid to be influenced by people wholly unlike me. I’ll assert our family values when needed, but I want him to eat all sorts of different things and see how other people dress and behave, I want him to sing songs I’ve never heard and play games I’ve never heard of.

Speaking of, we have no desire to even consider homeschooling him. No, participating in our greater society, as individuals and as a family, is extremely important to us. Also, neither of us wants to spend the entirety of our time influencing Owen.

I work. It’s important to me to work, and to have a life that’s independent from any particular role I inhabit. Also, if I didn’t have time and space to pursue my own interests and to contribute to the world outside my mind and my home, I’d go stark-raving insane. That would really suck for me and for my family.

There’s been so much talk about women opting out and leaning in recently, but Homeward Bound has really highlighted to me that it’s not just about the workforce, this phenomenon of opting out. “Natural parenting”, and in fact much of the DIY lifestyle Matchar describes, seems to be about opting out of society. It’s about removing oneself and one’s family from school, commerce, vaccination, exposure to un-likeminded people.

Used to be, we DIYers would stick it to the man by organizing our own, indie institutions like craft fairs and workshops and clothing swaps. Banding together for the collective betterment of our communities was an important, motivating ideal. But the way Matchar paints it, and I don’t think she’s wrong, it seems there’s an intense focus on one’s own family going on here. It’s individualism at its most extreme, and I’m very uncomfortable about that. I think the world outside one’s home is very important, and that we as citizens of that world should be engaged in it.

This is squarely a feminist issue, too. I don’t think feminism is wholly about a woman’s freedom to make choices for herself. I think it’s also about creating an environment in which all women and men have equal opportunities to succeed (in equal ways). And the way to work toward that is by participating, not by retreating.

So yeah. This formula-feeding adoptive parent who works (without guilt!) and sends her kid to daycare and makes stuff and shops at the farmer’s market and loves “nachos” from Taco Bell and also gardens with her kid has discovered that I’m not really a third-wave feminist despite the accident of my birth smack in the middle of Generations X and Y toward the end of Generation X (thanks to Greg for correcting me on this). No, I’m actually a second-wave feminist stuck in the wrong time. And I’m a lefty progressive who believes I not only have a responsibility to my family, but to my local community and the world at large. The way to change the world for the better is to do it as a participant, not by focusing entirely on home life.

Ok. I’m not sure if this conveys what I’m really thinking. I’m thinking so darn much, reading this book. It’s a start, though. If I really made you mad, I hope you’ll say so. And if you agree with me, I hope you’ll tell me why. Twitter is too short to think out loud about such big ideas. Have you read the book? What was your experience of it?

(Oh, but for real about the “natural” parenting label. It’s really fucking offensive.)

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Aaron

Kim, I have probably not said this to you nearly as much as I think it, but YOU ROCK! Thank you for this. I have been struggling too with some of the pressures and expectations of the urban homesteader/DIY/yoga/make your own jam/co-sleep and home school/breastfeed for five years attachment parenting etc. etc. culture that we seem to be in. Lots of those things are great, but not all are for everyone and not all are for every family.

We formula as well as breast fed, and though I also made quite a bit of Felix’s early foods, some jarred organic big box store stuff did the trick too. We also love daycare and sleep training saved our asses and helped Felix sleep like a champ. He’s not traumatized and has perfectly healthy attachments, thankyouverymuch to the hard-core attachment folks. He’s watching tv right now, and I am okay with that too.

I have not read the book, but am intrigued!

Nancy Cavillones

When I read this, I feel like you are on the defensive, and for no reason. I haven’t read this book (and I probably won’t) but I wonder if the author would really look you in the eye and call you an unnatural parent because you’re an adoptive, formula-feeding, etc mother. In fact, I’m willing to bet that in describing natural parenting, she is not thinking about mothers in your situation. She sounds like she has her head up her ass.
In any case, I don’t think it’s worth yours (or anybody’s energy) to rail against this book. I feel like these books are written to help the authors justify their own decisions and choices and assuage their own insecurity. So, really, screw her. And I say this as one of the mothers she was probably thinking of when she wrote this book (though, between you, me and the lamppost, I do keep an emergency stash of formula in the house…what a shanda, right?)

Nancy Cavillones

Ah, I misunderstood. But still, all the same, to hell with those people…

Sandra

OMG, I’m a second wave feminist too!

Love this. There is SUCH a dogmatic stance out there around the “right” way to do it – and the “right” way is like you note, to disengage.

I wonder if there is a relationship between this and economics. In other words, if you can’t “compete” financially (especially in a city as expensive as Vancouver), then you’ll “compete” on being who is the most “eco” or who is the most “natural”. A non-financial one-upmanship, but one-upmanship still the same.

It just gets all to tiring – too much monitoring of the “right” way to do it. I’d rather just trust that you over there and you beside them and everyone is just doing the best that they can. And if I walked in their shoes, was in their situation, with their specific kids, I may make the same choices too.

I’d rather just get together and have a meal and some good conversation and a few laughs. It all goes by too quickly to be trying to live up to some “correct” way to do it, whatever “it” is.

Maryse

So I haven’t read the book. And I’m not a parent. But as a post baby boomer pre-gen X er I rail sometimes against young women who have taken the feminist movement for granted. They seem to not understand how hard their grandmothers worked to give them the choices that they have today. And some choose to live their lives as if their freedom of choice would never be taken away. Which we know is not the case. Women who want to exclude the outside world from their families could find themselves financially unprepared for the death of a partner or divorce. What happens to those children then? This is kind of rambling I know and probably off topic but I’ve been thinking a lot about this.

Jessica

I agree with you so much here “And I’m a lefty progressive who believes I not only have a responsibility to my family, but to my local community and the world at large. The way to change the world for the better is to do it as a participant, not by focusing entirely on home life.” I think there are a lot more of us out there. For what it’s worth, I’m also very very tail end Gen X.

plainsight

For some reason, I just got a flash of Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian,” where Brian is speaking to the assembled masses and says, “You’re all different!” and the masses shout back to him (en masse), “We’re all different!” :-) The part of your post that really resonated with me, Kim is the part about individuality. I agree that the withdrawal from society that is worrisome about some folks touting the “New Domesticity.” I find community and society to be terribly important as much as I’m at lefty, tree-hugging, once hippie-style water-birth once hospital with wires and monitors-birth, once cloth once disposable diaper-using, once co-sleeping once sleep-training, sometimes make everything from scratch, often throw a frozen pizza in the oven never say never because it will come back to bite you in the ass-style mom. “We’re all different!”

iHanna

I agree with you

btw: In Sweden, were we don’t have home schooling at all, to me it sound like the worst thing you could do to a kid… Horrible to be taught by a parent and not get to know friends in a school!

Tara Swiger

Yes! Although I don’t have kids, in the rural area I live, my kids absolutely won’t experience diversity…no matter where they are! (I should clarify – there is racial diversity, but everyone is in a similar place on the socia-economic scale (poor to lower middle class)). But I think what matters more is the way you teach (and model) dealing with ANY differences – in religion, the way people eat, the way people act, etc…that can be applied to a more and more diverse population as they move through the world.
(I was raised in super-rural Ohio, so I know it can be done!)

Shalagh Hogan

Thanks to Sandra for her tweet, I find myself in a room with like minded women with integrity and a sense of humor! Why do we flipping care what others think? I’m breastfeeding my baby unlike the first and about to ween her butt with formula. She’ll never know her reality until/unless I tell her. And Kim, when we I’m able to make time to to read, I’ll endeavor to read this book. Thanks for being you.
Love,
Shalagh

Shalagh Hogan

I will letcha know when I start reading again. Baby juggler here. Except this book seems eerily apropos? Thanks Kim for the stimulation to my brain.
Love,
Shalagh

Kristen

I’m inherently suspicious of the word “natural” because it’s one of those weasel words that can mean anything the writer or speaker wants it to. A lot of what we point to as natural is either merely normalized, or it’s the norm for some other species, or it’s fewer steps from how it started than something else we contrast as unnatural. I’ve seen people point to folks in radically different circumstances than their own to say that a certain behavior is natural, or point to bonobos or chimps in order to claim the word natural. My guess, generally, is that if someone uses the word natural, they don’t have better words to describe the quality of goodness they are ascribing to a product or behavior. We can find in nature many varied examples of normal. That’s the beauty of nature, but it’s also why it’s silly for people to assume that any one way or thing is the only natural.

Kiba

This definitely goes on the list of things I want to read, although I want to (sort of ironically/sarcastically) dismissively wave my hand and assert that talking about the New Domesticity is soooooooo 2004 through 2008. Any time anybody starts telling everybody else the “right” way to do anything, including parenting or educating or crafting, I get a little grouchy. Tina Fey addresses this with respect to breastfeeding beautifully in Bossypants. I’m not a parent yet, but I’m thinking a lot about these issues as I hope to be one in the next [however long it takes me to do so by whatever means I end up doing it]. And I’ll probably try lots of possibilities. And then do the one that works for me. I love to cook, but I don’t have the energy to do it every night. I totally want to sew my own clothes, but I’ll never have time to sew all of them. And when I have a kid, I may or may not feed that kid pureed produce. It’ll depend on what I can manage, I think. But that’s only kind of what you’re talking about. When I first started reading about the DIY movement – and like you, I’m interested in the ideas more than the actual D-ing – it was clearly about community and making the world a better place. I have a bunch of back issues of CROQ, and I feel like they’re all about getting out in the world. The Maker Movement is social at its heart. So this isolating effect that you’re seeing, that scares and saddens me. I am actually between Gen X and Gen Y (I’ve read in multiple places that Gen X ends in 1980 and Gen Y ends in 1982), and I’ve often (though not… Read more »

Tara Swiger

I couldn’t help but think, as I was reading this, of the same thing that’s happening in the Christian community. Jay and I are ALWAYS talking about the Christian families we see who are choosing to “opt out” of society to a bigger and bigger degree.
So yes, we talk a lot about how important it is to PARTICIPATE in society and be a part of it, no matter how much the “real world” might disagree with your personal decisions. (I don’t see any reason why being a vegan (and not participating in the factory farming system) necessitates opting out of participating in the rest of the world.)

All that to say, I’d never considered the DIY community in this light (perhaps because I’m occupying a different space in it than the women the author highlights?), but it’s got all the same problems – when you opt out, you turn everyone else into the “other” and their actions suddenly aren’t just “different” than yours, but “bad” (or unnatural!).
The most effective way to build a world that is more in line with your ethics (be they making-your-own-bread or knitting or forgiveness) is to live it in the world, and let it bounce up against all the other options.

Vanessa

So many feels right now! I haven’t read the book, but it’s moved to the top of my list. It’s attitudes like this that make me wonder what feminism(*) really means to me if I’m not fitting into this box of crunchy granola earth mommy. I don’t want to cloth diaper, I plan on vaccinating because it’s to protect *me* since I still have a compromised immune system and I refuse to home school.

As a Hispanic woman (I really hate starting sentences like this but…), I see this oftentimes being a very upper class and white attitude. I also can’t help but think that my parents left Cuba and its rigid social structure to give me the freedom to do what makes me happy. Not to be trapped in a life full of guilt inducing “if you were a good person, you would “.

I feel like there’s this air of snobbery and exclusion when I pipe up that I lean towards the right, I love Burger King a little too much than I should and I didn’t seek any alternative treatments for my cancer. Then again, do I want to be part of a movement that often times feels so hell bent on exclusion?
* I’m a total first wave feminist. Votes for women! Down with corsets! Up with miniskirts!

kate

Um, yes. I breastfed Charlie, but only because it worked. We also switched to supplementing with formula as soon as it wasn’t anymore, and she weaned herself at 12 months when I was away for work. We moved her out of our room at 2 weeks, I embraced the “cry it out” method wholeheartedly and we’ve *all* been sleeping through the night for over a year. We vaccinated the crap out of her. She’s been in full time daycare since she was 6 months old. I can’t wait for her to go to kindergarten. At a school. I hate cooking and I love my full time job. I’m also a kick ass mom.

{Are you living my life???}

madonnaearth

OMG, are you one of those people who actually goes outside? (lol)

I think all the breastfed babies, and nonbreastfed babies, survive just fine on either option. If I had had a child, I would have been using formula and Pampers like they were going out of style, formula feeding, and paying for daycare like nobody’s business. I’m not great with children until they are at least teenagers with their own lives and ability to feed themselves, and even then, there is this thing called limited access. 15 minutes or so, and I am outta there.

Hannahlily Smith

oh my gosh. I agree with this post so much! THANK YOU for saying this out loud. I have not yet read this book (Although I did put in a request that my local library add it to their collection so I can!) but am deeply interested in this whole movement and have read numerous other books on the subject. The parenting aspects are always what give me the most pause. I was homeschooled most of my life and I can say with certainty, that I will NEVER homeschool my children. As you say so beautifully, I want them to have influence other than my husband and I. I want them to hear different opinions and learn to be both discerning and tolerant AND a positive member of society. I think there are GREAT aspects of this whole New Domesticity-ness (OMG I want chickens in my backyard) but I sense a very strong judgmental attitude held by some (certainly not all!) toward those who don’t go far enough with their DIY life, particulary with how it relates to raising children.

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