Gloves Off

The Next Family

By: Julie Gamberg

You know those people who are super serious about every little thing? Who can’t seem to crack a smile? Who think they know everything about everything and act like the fate of the world is at stake in everything they do? I’m turning into one of those people!

I found myself at playgroup the other day going on and on about sunscreen, and in particular another mom’s sunscreen. This sunscreen is really popular with health-conscious, informed, concerned parents. It’s on the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) list of best sunscreens. In fact, it is in the top five. Yet many in the alternative health world believe that some of the ingredients are questionable – mainly titanium dioxide, as well as micronized minerals, or nanoparticles, and, I said, the truly best sunscreens use only zinc oxide as an active ingredient and then non-nano blah blah blah. This is me going on and on about what is basically, more or less, good sunscreen. You can imagine how popular I am in playgroup.

Childrearing is a serious business. Yet no one likes a know-it-all and no one likes being told how to raise their kid, even if it is just about sunscreen. It’s amazing what we parents can get into spats about, or in my case, start randomly lecturing about. These spats are sometimes called The Parent Wars, although more often they are called, honestly, The Mommy Wars. There is something slightly Stepford Wives Remake with Nicole Kidman about the concept of The Mommy Wars. Most of the new moms I meet who are at home with their little ones, full or part-time, have a successful background before mommying. They come to motherhood with a strong professional skill set, interested and capable of reading, digesting, synthesizing and analyzing information, and making informed and complex decisions for their families. And then sometimes making the terrible faux pas of talking about these decisions with other moms. This talking about our decisions is one part of what gets called The Mommy Wars which turns my picture of smart, thoughtful mamas sitting around enthusiastically sharing ideas, resources, tips, advice, opinions and yes, even debating, into an image of moms in camouflage with rubber-soled boots and a practical ponytail ducking behind slides and scurrying across jungle gyms to crouch, duck, cover, and shoot.

I don’t think the problem is that we have a diversity of opinions and passion. And I hell-to-the-don’t think the solution is trying to be even more polite, avoiding The Mommy Wars by nodding sweetly and murmuring generic neutrality.

I have a friend who parents in some very non-traditional, progressive ways, but she really doesn’t talk about it too much. She would never, ever comment on the nanoparticles in your sunscreen, even if she had just taken a class in sunscreen nano-chemistry. She would just be like, “Oh, I like the bottle; it’s got a cute picture!”

There is something to this approach of respect and, really, butting out, which is very kind and very appealing. If we don’t talk about how we’re parenting with other parents, we are more likely to all get along and be able to give one another very simple and direct support – having a cup of coffee while our kids play, passing on clothes or toys we no longer need, lending out an item we have. Yet I’m not sure this Code of Silence is the ideal work-around to The Mommy Wars. I deeply appreciate the gesture of all parents who don’t want to be placed in polarized opposition to other parents. But I’m wondering if we can be both not at war, and also talk to one another? Or, to put it simply, is Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell really the only solution to avoiding conflict over discussion of our diverse parenting styles?

The thing is, if we came to parenting accustomed to being in dialogue in our communities, to talking about differences and sharing our ideas, and, dare I say it, if we have even been accustomed to working and agitating for social change before becoming parents, do we really want to suddenly stop — to not speak within a community about our thoughts, our experiences, and even about our alternative ways of doing things?

I realize that parenting is highly personal. But so too is marriage, abortion, state-sponsored murder, rape, citizen ID checks. In other words, if we are invested in social justice issues, we are used to thinking and talking about the highly personal in terms of its larger implications. I think it’s better that we try and fumble, better we let the conversation get a little messy, than to slide into mannered indifference.

I’ve already fessed up to my tendency to be a bit, uhm, pedantic. And I’m working on that. Because there is a lightheartedness, a playfulness in some of the most inspiring parenting I see and that is more important than whether or not your goop is micronized. And I know there is a lot of room between the two extremes of feigned indifference or pushy remonstration. So barring pedantic know-it-all-ness, is it unrealistic to think that we can share parenting ideas and resources beyond the safest and most superficial?

If you’ve found a way to be in real dialogue with parents you encounter – those you already know well and those you are just meeting – how do you do it? Do you feel like you can avoid the feeling of stepping into a boxing ring, yet still talk about (and disagree about) hot button issues such as sleeping and healthcare choices? Do you share information and ideas which are not mainstream with parents who are?

I look forward to starting a dialogue about parenting dialogues with you.

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