Motherhood

08.29.13

How the Attachment-Parenting Debate Ignores Women of Color

Discussions about breast-feeding and baby wearing as the latest fads ignore that these practices are the norm for women of color worldwide, says Hope Wabuke.

Recently The New York Times posted an article about a seven-year scientific study that found that breast-feeding is best for baby. “Our results support policies that allow women to continue breast-feeding through a year of their child’s life to optimize brain development,” the study’s lead author told the Times. “On the individual mom level, it can be a really difficult decision, especially as they go back to work. Now we see how much extra they gain with each additional month they continue to breast-feed by pumping at work.”

The short piece elicited 107 heated comments on the Times site alone, with conversations occurring across Facebook and Twitter and growing more intense as the day went on. It didn’t matter whether people preferred formula feeding or the breast-feeding practices supported by the article's research—one thing was clear: a belief that whatever feeding choice one had made was right and that everyone who had done the other was wrong. What was missing in the debate was that this article was not an attack on anyone's individual personal life choices, but a scientific study undertaken to educate society so parents can be informed and make the best possible decisions for themselves and their families, empowered and without regret.

Perhaps this uproar is because this Times article was treading not so softly on the raw open wound of Time magazine’s infamous Oedipus-laden May 2012 cover story featuring a white, blonde, modelesque mom and her 4-year-old boy feeding at her breast, with the title blaring red: “ARE YOU MOM ENOUGH?” That came on the heels of French feminist Elisabeth Badinter’s equally famous rejection of “attachment parenting” in her book The Conflict and a series of essays in the Times titled “Motherhood vs. Feminism,” which claimed as starting point that “attachment parenting” is a “trend” symptomatic of “women’s obsession with being the perfect mother.” These were all quickly followed by Tracie Egan Morrissey’s Jezebel essay calling breast-feeding freakish and anti-feminist.

And earlier this month, the Feminist Wire entered into the conversation to play referee, stating:

“Too many of the voices in this debate fall into the catfight trap, offending other mothers or defending themselves while failing to engage key feminist questions about parenting practices. Those of us who care about feminism need to make personal parenting decisions political without attacking within our ranks ... We need to acknowledge the elephants in the nursery: class status, gender inequality, and the role of the state in maintaining the status quo.”

Which were the most encouraging words I have read about the whole thing so far. But even this raised questions for me, namely because so many other key “elephants” in the “nursery” were left out, the first being race—and how, in this conversation about ancient child-care practices that women of color still practice today in every part of the world, our voice has been co-opted and whitewashed by all-white speakers, as have our voices throughout most of Western feminism.

And the second "elephant in the nursery" is how race affects that other "wage gap"—not between white men and white women, but between black mothers like me (and other women of color who work) and our white female counterparts, who make much, much more money than us. That "wage gap." Are we not women too? Sojourner Truth asked about this a little over 100 years ago, and now I ask, are we not mothers too?

In this conversation about child-care practices that women of color still practice today in every part of the world, our voice has been co-opted and whitewashed by all-white speakers, as have our voices throughout most of Western feminism.

Because the third "elephant in the nursery" is how we black women have never had a choice about whether to work inside or outside the home or opt out of work completely and not work at all—we were brought here to the United States to work as slave labor. And that is what we did during the years of American slavery from 1619 to 1865 and the 100 years of apartheid following until 1965’s civil-rights-era now quick-eroding victories, and what most still have done in these 48 years of institutionalized racism since.

Recently, when speaking of her role in her new film The Butler, Oprah Winfrey spoke of how both she and Viola Davis, who played another black domestic in The Help, have been criticized by other black people for playing domestics. "They ask, ‘Why do you have to tell that story? Why do we have to keep being maids?’ Because it happened, and none of us would be here were it not for them. My mother was a maid. My grandmother was a maid. Her mother was a maid.” This is the fourth "elephant" in the nursery—that the jobs historically allowed women of color are the service jobs like child care and house cleaning, where one cannot take advantage of flex time or telecommuting, because these service jobs necessitate that the worker work on site. These are the jobs we were allowed when white women were ladies of leisure (slavery) and in the 1950s and 1960s, when white women went to work and we women of color went into their white houses to work—the racial caste system trumping the gender sisterhood every time. For the reality is, black women never stopped working inside white people’s homes—even in apartheid America post-slavery and before the civil-rights and feminist movements of the ’60s. For even if the white woman stayed at home, there was still too much work for just one woman to handle home and family, and most white women needed to hire a "girl" in. And now other women of color, mostly Latina, mostly newer immigrants, have joined us in this housework as well—they, too, leaving their children to work in other people’s homes.

This color caste system is America's real class system, the "fifth elephant" also unmentioned in any of these articles on motherhood, breast-feeding, and attachment parenting. This is the space from which we women of color enter this conversation.

For us, feminism means the right to look after ourselves and our families, the right to take care of our children. The right to not be raped, which was an accepted and mandated practice by white men to create more slaves during slavery, beginning in 1619 and especially after the Atlantic slave trade was outlawed in 1808 to as late as 1965 and beyond. That, as Janelle Monáe says, “we are no one’s slave, no one’s victim.” This, as feminists of color, is our first victory.

Western, white feminists have a different historical marker. Their "housework is work and women should be paid for it and/or allowed to work at other things elsewhere" was their first victory. Which was all well and good, but it ignored the color caste system that stated that people of color were to be paid less than their white counterparts and could only do certain jobs allowed by their white counterparts—could only go certain places and want certain things—and as women of color, that rule would still apply to us.

This is the first century in 500 years, the first time in American history, that black women do not have to go out to work, that we can, like white women have been able to do for the past 500 years, stay home and raise our children if we so would like. That we can, like the current first lady, be the mom in chief and put on hold a lucrative legal career in its own right, secure in the supportive earning power of the male member of Team Family ... because it is the first century, too, that our black brother has been able to be more than the cleaner of white people’s buildings, their butler and other modern field laborer. And we Africans have a different understanding of time, the rhythm of a woman’s life cycle. Our culture naturally makes space for women to “opt out,” as the terminology is, when they become mothers; to “opt back in” when their children are older. There is no defensiveness or struggle. This is the naturally accepted ebb and flow of our culture, and returning mothers have a place of respect in the culture as elders because of the very nature of their unique wisdom.

The "sixth elephant" is the cultural bias of Western, specifically British and now American white, supremacy that spread its values as it attempted to colonize the world during the past 600 years. Because for mothers like me, mothers who are not white or Western or even American, but who are from other countries—or our parents are from other countries, and we are the first generation of Americans—we never opted in to the the male medical model of Western child rearing, so we are not “bucking” anything. This is not a “trend” for us that is “symptomatic of anything.” We are simply living. We are simply raising our children the way our mothers raised us, the way children are still being raised in the countries where we are from.

Let me make sure to say at this point that no two women, or women of color, are alike. And each woman wants different things. So do mothers. What this article is for is to discuss what breast-feeding and other aspects of what the West has termed “attachment parenting” means for those of us women of color who have a different relationship to “attachment parenting” —indeed a strong affinity for this type of child care—due to our non-Western cultural upbringing or having been historically restrained by Western culture from staying home to look after our children how we would like. We are the ones who have been left out of this conversation about how we have raised—and still today raise—our children, our child-care cultures co-opted and misunderstood and now vilified and debated without our voice in the same way that Western culture has treated its “discovery” of yoga, our healing and spiritual growth system that predates the oldest written languages and religion. I would like to take some time to discuss why we choose to raise our children this way even though we now live in America—but without judgment, in celebration of mothers and each mother’s choice—from the perspective of mothers of color like me who are so often left out of this conversation.

We never opted in to the male medical model of Western child rearing, so we are not “bucking” anything.

As a woman of color, I have found that too often, here in the West, it is a fight to raise my child how I would like. I am still considered “revolutionary” for breast-feeding and baby wearing—still had to fight off pressure from others to formula feed or put my baby in a stroller; still had to defend myself to do the things that seem normal to me as a mother because of the culture and country I am from. I still remember how sad and uncomfortable I felt when the American hospital staff would not give me my placenta to take home and eat, as is done by all females who give birth to most quickly restore hormonal balance, and how intensely I have felt the effects of this imbalance physically and psychologically this past year since giving birth. How I gave in to the pressure to induce, the epidural, even though I had originally wanted a water birth at home. How I wanted more than three days to spend home recovering with my baby and understanding how to be a mother, which is normal in my country and those others that also practice what America calls "attachment parenting.” How I still wish I had fought harder to do what I knew was right for me.

Like me, other women of color want the right to have our children raised in a safe and healthy environment if we choose or need to go to work, something we have never had. This is why, for us American black women, child care and healthy food are priorities in a way that abortion rights, a fundamental priority for white feminists that has become the face of the American white feminist movement, are not. This is why from the beginning of the first lady’s tenure, her feminism, as a black woman, has been defined by focus on family, whether it be veterans or children, specifically in obesity and the healthy eating of Let’s Move and growing organic. This is the "seventh elephant in the nursery": the division and disconnect between white feminists (the voice of the movement) and feminists of color, marginalized and silenced ... as given voice in last week’s #Solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag.

Mothers like me do not have a name for “attachment parenting,” because it is what we have always done—where we are from, where are parents are from, or where we still live. This is the "eighth elephant in the nursery." For in parts of Africa, Asia, and South America—indigenous parts of North America, too—we have always cared for our children this way, except when Westerners made us stop through slavery or colonialism. And this is by no means to say that full and true “attachment parenting” could ever be applicable to the West. Full “attachment parenting,” says a Korean mother living in America and trying to find a balance of Korean and American parenting methods, "requires certain social conditions that are not available in modern American cities like they are back home.” A first-generation Ugandan mother living in the United States agrees that she does what she can, but she misses the “community that would have made it easier.” African rural villages are small, village- and community-oriented places where everyone works together—not large, industrial, and sprawling like American cities. For it takes a village to truly raise a child in the most strict "attachment parenting" style, which is why the style originated in the first place.

And, in a quick informal survey, mothers of color (whether born here and living in America or living in their home countries) agreed about prioritizing breast-feeding and baby wearing and/or co-sleeping, with most being surprised there was an actual name for this type of parenting in the West. In Japan, where co-sleeping is normal, the rate of SIDS is among the lowest in the world. And as one mother from Peru who exclusively breast-fed stated: "I do what most would consider attachment parenting. I honestly never thought what I do had a label—I just followed my instincts." This deep cultural memory is because "in Peru, children are still breast-fed, carried, and kept close. But like most countries, the city, and in my mother's case, moving to N.Y.C., changed that." New to America in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, immigrants were advised by their medical caregivers here in the West not co-sleep, baby-wear, or even breast-feed—back then formula was prescribed as being safer in the same way that breast-feeding is now being advanced as the next big thing. And as a result of following this advice and changing the way they knew to look after their children, rates of SIDS and other newborn diseases skyrocketed for these new immigrants.

In parts of Africa, Asia, and South America—indigenous parts of North America, too—we have always cared for our children this way, except when Westerners made us stop through slavery or colonialism.

Babies know in their bones what they need, how the line of life has been raised up in their body, their family, in line with another and the next. The women in my family in Uganda wear a busuuti, a type of dress similar to a kimono or a sari. When the baby is born, women wrap the baby around their bodies using pieces of the fabric of their dress that have been built in. They go about their regular daily lives wearing their babies, baby nursing when needed and being held slightly away from body to poop or pee-pee when needed. At night, the family lies down in bed together, cuddled together for warmth and love and safety and connection and growth. Sometimes, if there is something mother must do, or just for fun, the baby will go play with the circle of other babies in the village, watched by mother, older sibling, or another “auntie.” Because all are aunties and uncles, my aunt Jane says to me over the phone wistfully. “Back home, when lost, a child need not worry. He would simply ask anyone to direct him home safely, assured that they would do so and he would arrive unharmed.” But mostly, baby spends most of his or her time wrapped against mommy. Why? Because our culture has told us—and now American culture as well tells us—that this is best for baby and for mommy. Baby gets what baby wants—being near mommy—and mommy gets what she wants: to take care of herself, her baby, and any other chosen work that must be done. Is this not feminism?

Because in Uganda and other parts of Africa, children—the welfare of children, the connection between parents and children—are the most important thing. More than money, precious gems, gold, salt, number of wives, or status of husband, the well-being of children and whole family has always been—and hopefully will always be—the most important thing in our culture. And this is what every mother, no matter where she lives, understands that first second of the first day of motherhood when your baby emerges from your body—tiny, precious, brand new; you, but now outside you. And you wonder at how you can hold so much love inside you. You wonder how you will be able to keep you baby safe.

In my country, my grandmother and mother and aunts tell me, there is no life or meaning without children, without family. This is the center of the community and village—all people work together to look after the welfare of children together. This means both looking after the children (literally) but also creating a lifestyle that sustains children and their well-being. This has traditionally involved smaller community-based government; organic, sustainable farming practices; and living and creating in such a way that you add to rather than harm the earth. Renewable and recyclable resources are a staple. Indeed, family is so important in African cultures that many have made space for same-sex marriages to provide for the welfare of orphans and widowed spouses.

"Attachment parenting" is how babies are being cared for in Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Ghana, Sri Lanka, and India. In Mexico, Peru, Korea, and Japan—in many parts of the nonwhite, non-Western world. It is something white Westerners have recently discovered and analyzed and adopted. But it is not something that is a “trend” or a “reaction” or a “fad.” It is something as old as time, something that still lives on today. It is something, in my Africanness, I feel deep within my bones as the way I know to take care of my child too.

And so I ask: Can we in America provide a more supportive culture and environment for mothers and fathers? Can we create a space for “family rights”? Because it is very rewarding, but also very hard work, to be a continuously nurturing caregiver to life—to raise children and family up, to work for the good of society in this way. Because a nation is only as strong as how it treats and raises its young. And because it is unreasonable of Western society to expect so much from mothers and provide so little support, compassion, or understanding in return.

This is what I would like to help figure out, what so many of us would like to figure out. Because at the end of the day, we all want to be good moms, good parents, to our children. We want to be the best parents we can be and have our kids live in the healthiest, safest world and way they can. And we want the knowledge, support, and resources to make that happen.