I wrote an op-ed for this week’s Time cover story—you’ve probably seen the cover image by now, a young mother confidently breastfeeding a boy who is, as one critic put it, old enough to make his own breakfast. It’s a provocative image (congratulations to TIME’s vaunted art department for that: a magazine should provoke conversations like this) and the cover story, written by Kate Pickert, is a nimble dissection of the myriad pressures facing mothers in the era of attachment parenting.
The ideas in my article won’t come as a surprise to those who know me or know this site: I argued for something I called, only half-jokingly, “detachment fathering”. That is, we should all just chill out, and fathers can lead the way. It’s simple: our instincts tell us that the kids are going to be just fine. We don’t need the fretting, the competing, the over-researching, the inflexibility and intolerance of hothouse attachment parenting (there are milder forms, I know, but in New York we see plenty of the bad kind).
This was controversial, as was anything related to that cover package. On Facebook, friends posted the piece and their friends trashed me. One of my closest friends had to write me an email because she didn’t want to be sparring with me or my thoughts in public. All expected, because the whole Mommy Wars thing implies, well, war.
Here’s what I didn’t get a chance to say in the published piece. I am against the mommy wars not only because my own children, who are three and six years old, have taught me that they are in command of their own happiness beyond the basics of food, love and shelter. I am also against the mommy wars also because of what Roads & Kingdoms, and my prior life as a foreign correspondent for TIME, taught me. That is, that in a huge range of countries, from the poorest to the richest, the most conservative to the most anarchic, kids are doing just fine. Poverty, hunger, fear of violence or lack of a stable home—those things hurt kids. But having parents who didn’t read parenting books, that doesn’t.
Kids are amazing, and amazingly resilient. I’ve seen toddlers playing after midnight in Tbilisi, I’ve eaten jungle rat with a kindergartner in the Amazon whose only toy was a decidedly uneducational hollowed-out turtle shell picked clean of meat. Everywhere I go, sometimes reporting on fairly dire things, children are being raised in every possible way imaginable and doing well. After the rat dinner, the Shipibo kid spent two hours doodling and writing the alphabet just like my kindergartner at home.
The more interesting question to me, as an American parent who spends plenty of time overseas, is why we in the States have the Mommy Wars at all. Roads & Kingdoms is in Denmark this week (I’m writing this from a hotel in Aalborg in north Jutland), and here I’ve gotten a glimpse of why back in the U.S. we have all the backbiting and anxiety, both from the pro-attachment camp and from their critics.
The answer: parenting in the States is hard. Incredibly hard. Not because any mother did something wrong, but because the men who make the laws of our country have completely left parents of young children out to dry. We have to work insane hours just to break even. We have to pay babysitters—strangers, mind you—to look after our kids from the youngest age because our jobs require us to return almost immediately. If you lose your job, not only don’t you have money, but you don’t have health insurance. Day care is costly, universal pre-school is just a pipe dream for most of us. It’s so completely stressful, and the tradeoffs so heavy, that I think it drives us, like lab mice in an experiment about anxiety, to attack each other, to attack ourselves. The choices everyone else makes about how they raise their kids grate and gall because we are frequently miserable with our own choices.
Save the Children just came out with its annual Best Countries to be a Mother list (the PDF is here). The United States is 25th, just after the blighted quasi-dictatorship of Belarus. Denmark, where I am now, is fifth.
A couple small things the Danish do: they have deeply generous maternity and paternity leave, which, by the way, encourages breastfeeding without dictating it. They have free health care, along with the rest of the full suite of European social democracy welfare programs. But they also really seem to care about how parents cope here. Example: in Copenhagen I met a guy named Jonas who works at a playspace specifically built for dads and their infants or toddlers. They come in to play together, to take classes, to do gymnastics or music and other activities, totally for free. Only for dads, not moms. And it’s in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Copenhagen. Maybe that doesn’t sound amazing to you. But I’ve spent a lot of the last six years as the only man bringing my child to the playground, and trying to figure out how to pay for day care, much less enrichment activities. I think it’s incredible.
So the Danes that I’ve spoken to since this article came out don’t really get worked up about parenting. Parenting is accomodated, encouraged. There are no mommy wars. There’s just mommy peace, and that’s a beautiful thing.