Motherhood Madness: Erica Jong, Thanks But Where's the Science?

Jong's 1973 Fear of Flying. Photo from Wikipedia
Parenting just got a bit saner this weekend but unfortunately not exactly thanks to scientific evidence.

Breastfeeding round the clock, washing cloth diapers, making baby food, sleeping with baby, wearing baby, nurturing non-stop - such is "the prison" of modern motherhood according to famed feminist and writer Erica Jong in Mother Madness a piece in yesterday's Wall Street Journal. 

From The Baby Book, Dr. Sears' best-selling bible of attachment parenting to the just published  Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives, the book sure to scare the bejesus of out any parent.  From cloth diapering to fulfilling extracurricular rosters. Celebrity parents never photographed with their nannies.   Green mommies who must also save the planet in addition to their progeny.  Jong lines up plenty of evidence that parenting has gotten out of hand. 

Well, everything but the scientific evidence.  

Would have loved a juicy study reference here or there, maybe about the benefits of breastfeeding.  I'm amazed she could write the article without so much as a nod to the lack of science supporting the extreme parenting. 

But Jong was on such a roll, I can almost forgive the empirical lapse.  Anyhow, the indictment played out in, of all places, the Wall Street Journal!  The irony, the irony! of a big name feminist taking a big swing at today's moms in the conservative press. 

Of course, Ms. Jong's critique of Modern Motherhood is newsworthy for a few other reasons. 

First and foremost, I can't help but think if Jong were a new mom right now she'd be one of the uber-sophisticated, educated, well-meaning mommies wandering around Park Slope with the baby sling picking out organic produce at the farmer's market while also picking out studies that support her parenting beliefs. 

Am I right? Although she admitted not being able to even imagine juggling the demands of single motherhood and a career (as she did) with today's neurotic parenting culture, I do have to wonder because it's some of our savviest moms who are the most ardent breastfeeding and attachment advocates.  And don't even get me started on vaccines, or rather, the whole autism-vaccine outcry. 

Second, Jong smacks mommies right where it hurts, aiming straight to the root of the madness: 
Aspiring to be perfect parents seems like a pathetic attempt to control what we can while ignoring problems that seem beyond our reach.
Control? What? Why'd we want to exert any control? Jong spells it loud and clear:
What is so troubling about these theories of that they seem like attempts to exert control in a world that is increasingly out of control. We can't get rid of the carcinogens in the environment, but we can make sure that our kids arrive at school each day with a reusable lunch bag full of produce from the farmers' market. We can't do anything about loose nukes falling into the hands of terrorists, but we can make sure that our progeny's every waking hour is tightly scheduled with edifying activities.
Okay, so the "loose nukes" shows her birth cohort but lady's got a point.  But she completely misses the science.  Doesn't even point out that unlike a couple decades ago, today we got a whole bunch of scientific evidence, some good, some bad, floating around the digital media environment 24/7.   It is in some sense a much scarier, uncertain, uncontrollable and larger world.  

When Jong was bouncing her baby girl she'd have to wait for an article or book on the benefits of breastfeeding to come out, one that sorted through a pile of evidence - that is if twenty-five plus years ago anyone even had bothered writing about it.  Now studies pop up on our homepage at least weekly if not more often.  Not so much empowering as overwhelming unless of course, you take each study with a grain of salt.  Or completely ignore them - and  rely on your gut instinct or the experts like Dr. Sears who can't help but tell us what's best for our babies without letting the science get in the way.

Ms. Jong's passionate though empirically-deficient plea for sanity will do more than me or probably anyone talking the science.  Then again, longitudinal study design is no match against Jong's infamous zipless f***.  Go figure. 

Bonus points for those of you who didn't have to Google that last term!  Anyone actually read Fear of Flying?


TherExtras said...

No bonus points for me this time. Does not bother me either.

A very entertaining empirically-deficient post on Jong's article, Polly. ;)

@mommy_doctor just posted something relevant to this.

I like her contrasts between saving the larger world and doing the local bit. Max Lucado's new book says the local bit makes a difference. So I'm told.


Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Hey Barbara! What, you never read Fear of Flying? I'm downloading it on my Kindle later. Anyhow, I'm going to check out mommy_doctor....

JoyMama said...

I'm not sure I want to claim those bonus points, but there we go. Heh. I read Fear of Flying long ago, before I had any collection of life-experience to make any sense of it. Now that I've got more life-experience... I'm not all that interested in going back & re-reading.

As far as non-empirical stuff -- how much of the supposedly neurotic parenting culture is universal, and how much of it is a narrow socioeconomic slice that happens to be the folks who are most likely to blog and/or read major newspapers? Forget the lack of evidence that would legitimize such a culture -- how much of such a culture IS there really?

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

How true, JoyMama, not sure I'm gonna have much patience with the book either.

And good point - I'd bet the neurosis is a somewhat small slice, the vocal/verbal slice. But the effects may be more far-flung, like the imperative to breastfeed which has trickled down the socio-economic ladder so to speak. How many families fully practice attachment parenting rather than idealizing it? Probably not many because it's nigh on impossible to do 24/7 unless you're leading a nomadic existence, an artist, or fabulously rich. That is if it's even fashionable among the ultra-wealthy.

TherExtras said...

Yea, I know, seems weird I did not ever make that book part of my almost non-existent) rebellion. Remember where I went to school? In retrospect, I grew up believing I could do anything and being female was not a barrier. I went to Europe the year the book was published - not even a legal adult.

What has come around to sink-teeth-into-me is that our Teen is now asking to go to Europe, too. Yikes!

Enough about me. JoyMama asks astute questions. No doubt any 'research' is based on survey techniques. (Read: gets no respect from me.)

I love it here. ;) I have another new blog-friend - Scientific Chick. Meet her here:


Liz Ditz said...

I know I read Fear of Flying but I remember almost nothing about it.

I'm in the grandmother biz now -- happily my daughters-in-law are not "
Breastfeeding round the clock, washing cloth diapers, making baby food, sleeping with baby, wearing baby, nurturing non-stop" moms -- although they both report that some of their peers are of that ilk.

I'm getting more interested in how anti-vaccination ideas are spread among young mothers or mothers-to-be, after I realized that two school districts near me have wildly varying rates of Personal Belief Exemptions from vaccines. See this post:

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Hi Liz! Thanks for the article, it will be interesting to see if the vaccination rates go back up in the next couple years. Personal Beliefs encompasses just about everything, no?