Gloves Off

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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Comments

  1. Barb says

    I have found that the only parents I can have these discussions with are those women who were already my friends before we became parents, women who I have a history of talking through conflict with. I too sometimes struggle with sharing my opinion about things related to mothering because I do think it IS a sensitive thing and since so many new mothers are insecure about it, even the simplest discussions can become emotional and defensive. I have close friends who are moms that were close friends before we became moms and we are able to say “Here’s what I do and here’s why” and get along through it all even if we disagree. But it does seem much more challenging to do this with friends I’ve made because we became mothers at the same time. Every child is different. Every mother is different. Every family is different. And we all really just want to be good mothers and feel like we’re doing the best for our children. Sometimes someone’s suggestion that they’re doing it differently makes us question ourselves in a way that is unsettling and scary. But it does get easier the more we do it. AND sometimes we have to smile and nod and say how cute the picture on the bottle is.

  2. Madge Woods says

    Julie,

    I am 61 so parenting is a far away memory but I do remember that I had different groups for different things and different friends for different discussions. The politically savvy are usually preaching to the choir. People seem to hang out with people who think like them. That way they can discuss the most important issues with people who see like them and agree with them. It is easier than trying to either put out new information or trying to convert someone to see your ways. I have learned to just put my ideas out there and try to enlighten people about for instance the environmental working groups website. I know Ken Cook personally and have he and his wife in my house with their young son. I asked before they came if they had to have everything organic or totally recyclable eating utensils. They laughed and said we are just like you-do what you can and forget the rest. We ate on paper plates from Whole Foods, real silverware and a mixture of organic and not and dessert just fat and filled with sugar. We drank non organic wine and had a great dinner-nothing homemade. Whatever works is my model now. I will give information and when it is totally ignored so be it. My kids have kids and I have worked very hard with my grand kids to recycle and shop for organic and use the “good sunscreen, shampoo and conditioner” and sometimes it works and others not. I did tell them all about BPA and I sent them emails relentlessly. Some of the time they change and others they don’t. I know I have done my best to have them “see the way” but they have their ways just as I did. Find friends that work and don’t try too hard. Life is too short to worry about so many things. Just do what is best for your child and yourself and let the others find their way with your information or now. I feel your frustration and I hope it lessens.

  3. Julie says

    Thanks Barb and Madge! That’s funny, Madge about your paper plates/silverware dinner. That’s great that you can have fun with it and not take yourself (or your guests) so seriously.

  4. Tashia says

    I think *how* you say what you say is equally, if not more, important than *what* you say, particularly if you are trying to share information you think is important or are trying to persuade someone to your point of view. If the discussion/advice is in a carefree, lighthearted manner, without coming across as lecturing or judgmental or in a “know-it-all” way, your point is likely to get across much better. I think a huge factor in disagreements/arguments/fights is the tone of voice (or writing, when communicating online, which is even harder to discern), which often comes across in a different way than intended or in a subconscious/unconscious way. And facial expressions/body language play a big part too.

    Most of us get defensive rather easily, and that defensiveness shows up in our voices and our expressions/body language quite well, even if we are not fully cognizant that we are doing so. I know this is a problem that I have sometimes (being overly defensive), and even though I’m aware of it, it still happens. But it’s important to realize that this can be a contributing factor to misunderstandings and how someone reacts to what you are saying, if it is not something they entirely agree with. Defensiveness begets defensiveness, and it can be a vicious circle.

    I tend to be one of those people who shrinks from conflict/disagreement, partially due to personality (conflict stresses me out too much), and partially due to the fact that in my experience, if you are talking to someone who disagrees with you strongly and emotionally about something, it is very unlikely that you are going to change their minds or even get them to think differently for a minute. I occasionally do speak my mind when I feel like it would be wrong not to, but mostly I keep my opinions to myself when I’m not with people who think like I do (except with my parents, I tell them exactly how I feel!). To me it’s not worth the headache when no one is going to win in a situation like that. Both parties will end up still believing what they originally believed, and may even be upset to boot. It’s the people who are on the fence about a topic who are most likely to listen with an open mind.

    There’s nothing wrong with voicing your opinion or sharing your experience with others, and I think that in most cases this can be done without any problems as long as everyone is respectful of differences in opinion. But any hot-button topic, like parenting, or politics, or religion, is going to be taken personally and seriously if the person thinks their own values are being judged in any way.

    Just my .02…

  5. Dana says

    I agree that it’s sometimes difficult to decide how much to say about . . . sunscreen, television-time, potty training, and whatever else. And I agree that I, like you, try to “spread the word” about parenting in certain ways: offering more outdoor time, offering less scheduled time, demanding less homework, not talking on the cell phone when you are with your children…you name it, I have a strong opinion on it, and I’d like everyone else to run their lives according to my luddite-ish opinion, too. BUT what I’d really like is to talk about SOMETHING ELSE–maybe those social justice issues, maybe an election, maybe climate change or a good book one of us has read recently. Almost all the women I know work outside the home, and yet when we are together (at our lunch hours from work, sometimes) we compare schools and our ideas on our motherness. I can rarely get around this. One friend, who I’ve known 4 years, is an incredible scholar and health-care expert, and yet we always seem to talk about how inadequate she feels as a mother, how she can’t decide what to do about [lying, potty training, eating, biting, whatever], or how much she loves her kids. Why can’t I change the subject?

  6. Allison says

    Julie,

    I was just having this conversation with my sister. I was outside with my 14 month old son and my new neighbor came out to say hi. He’s 29, in the military – and super serious and know-it-all-ish. My son picked up a rock and threw it 1 foot in front of him, and was very impressed that he could throw (we’ve been working on playing “catch”). My childless neighbor says, “I would not let him get into the habit of throwing things. It could be very dangerous, and if he hit someone or something, you could both get into trouble.” Ummm… is he the sidewalk police (which also makes me think about your backyard post – we need more space I suppose!) and is he judging my parenting? It was so annoying I grabbed Bay and we went inside. He just learned how to throw the rock, so neighbor better leave us alone or I’m going to teach Bay how to throw the rock at HIM (kidding… kind of)!!!

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