The Other Moms: Beyond Black/White Feminism and Mommy Wars

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That Time Magazine Cover with the BlogHer writer who posed for it breastfeeding her three-year old son. I don't even have to link to it. You know what I mean.

What is it about this picture that has incited so many responses – everything from disgust, approval, and confusion? When I first saw it this was my immediate response: “It's basically an agenda-driven, biased caricature of what is supposed to be natural.” It felt a bit sensationalistic, and the title, “Are You Mom Enough?” was a loaded phrase – one that seemed intent on fueling the latest so-called Mommy Wars. It irked me for three very different reasons:

1) It made breastfeeding for this long look deviant. I don’t think I will breastfeed the twins for quite so long, but if I do, who cares?

2) On the other hand, it made it seem like those who don’t follow attachment parenting, or specifically support breastfeeding wouldn’t be good enough mothers/parents.

3) It felt like another expression of motherhood limited only to a narrow group of women – white, privileged, and beautiful.

Somehow it seemed to represent all those annoying issues in the Mommy Wars – everything from parenting philosophies to economic disparities. But, I realized: Something is missing, which is why I appreciated Grace Hwang Lynch’s discussion on the Mommy Wars in the context of race and culture a few weeks ago:

“The untold story of the Mommy Wars is that for many women of color, the ‘choices’ are already limited. The decision is not as simple as whether to opt out of the workplace and raise children with a husband whose income comfortably supports all the family expenses and more or to pursue a professional career with paid time off, medical benefits, and salary enough to cover quality childcare.” 

When another BlogHer writer also talked about the limitations of white feminism, and the problematic assumption that Black women are a part of that movement, I found myself nodding in agreement. The Time Magazine cover might as well as have said, “Are You [White] Mom Enough?” There’s a necessary difference between black and white feminism because their experiences are different:

 “The glaring contrasts between the historical experiences of black and white women are often overlooked when discussions of feminism arise. And, since black women have been conditioned to work and “overcome,” repressed bitterness is much of the reason they jump on board with white feminists—when, in reality, the very social constructs white women fought against, many black women view as almost unattainable luxuries.”

After musing about this question - how black and white is feminism? - I began to reflect on some of the overlap with the discussions on various feminist theologies from an old seminary class. All these theologies sought to address the inequities and injustices found in the patriarchal structures of not only religious institutions, but in the ways they perpetuated them in larger society. There was much reading centered around usual feminist and womanist theologies, as well as mujerista and queer theology. But, I found little from the Asian American feminist context, although there is certainly more now. I wondered, again, in a comment on LaShaun’s post, and on Twitter, “Is this only a black and white issue?” 

In other words, is the current black/white paradigm in mainstream culture simply perpetuating these divisions and conflicts by limiting our dialogue surrounding motherhood? Why is it always black versus white? Where do Asian Americans and Latinas, and other women fit into this conversation?

So, I “polled” friends who are Asian American, recent/first-time moms, and all who happen to profess a Christian faith. I wanted to know what they thought about the Mommy Wars, the Time Magazine cover (and the differences in parenting), and how being Asian American and religious fit into their perspectives.

One mother responds:

"My mom was a second generation daughter of three (she had two brothers). Her mother tried to instill in her the traditional female roles of cooking, cleaning, etc. etc. So my mom spent the majority of her time resisting that role. She went to college, grad school, and studied for her PhD only to stop at the point of writing her thesis because it wouldn't have benefitted her by increasing her pay to do so. When she had my sister and I, she took 6 weeks off and then headed right back to work.When she retired, they had to pay her for over 200 sick and vacation days in her career because she never took them.

All this to say, I think when I decided to be a stay at home mom, I was worried about her response. Would she be disappointed that I couldn't hack it? How would I deal with being disappointed in myself for failing at having a job and being a mother where my mom so easily juggled it all. In the end, she was and is supportive. She knows that it's best for me and for us as a family. But I still battle lingering feelings like I am failing: That the sacrifices that my parents took for me (my dad came here when he was 11 from mainland China) are all for naught because I am not working. I'm throwing away my graduate school education and not working. I can't stop the tiny voice in my head that says the American dream was mine for the taking and I've given all of that opportunity up.

My lingering concern: What if everything they gave up for me was wasted ON me?"

Another mother writes:

“I have a 6 yr old, 3 yr old, and one on the way. When I had my first child, my mother was very overbearing on the phone, and mainly pushed the Ferber style: Don't pick up the baby too much, let her cry it out, etc. From then on, I knew I had to keep her at an arms distance, but like I said she's across the country anyways. From my education on attachment parenting and reading, I knew I wanted to parent [attachment parenting] and followed Dr. Sears. And from my relationship with my parents and how I was treated as a kid, I knew I wanted something different for my children.

As a Christian, I think it's important to exemplify God's love to our kids, to give them a safe place emotionally and physically. I think it's important to be our kids’ emotional coaches, and have them be emotionally intelligent, let them have feelings, give them empathy. I think it's a challenge for most people, but for Asians definitely, because we are brought up not to cry or have much feelings in our homes. Thank God our brains are capable of healing and changing, so I am learning slowly as I teach my children. The focus of my parenting isn't obedience (I don't want them to be completely obedient as churches or Asians like to focus on). For me, it's about connection and trust - and I believe that what's in God's heart too.”

Finally, another mother offers a different perspective:

"I honestly don't think it's healthy for moms to use attachment parenting. I think it's more for the sake of the moms rather than the kids. I am all about helping my child to learn to be independent. Obviously he's too young to be independent from us but slowly... we want to teach him how to do things on his own. At church, I've seen moms who can't say goodbye to their toddlers. They stick around the nursery... they long for their kids' attention. So while the kid is doing well the mom should leave the toddler room. But the mom sticks around and says, "David, Mommy's leaving... David, David, David, etc." I think the mom is the one with attachment issues, and not the kid. So, I think we have to be careful of doing things for our sake rather than for our kids' sake. There is a fine line and I think the moms have to be careful.

I think more stay home moms tend to choose the Sears method, while working moms seem to lean towards the Ferber method. Because we just don't have to the time for it... and in order for the family to survive, we have to teach our kids to learn to sleep on their own. That's just my personal observation.”

From these snippets, and thinking about conversations with other Asian American moms, as well as my own experience, I observe there are similarities between the more general/stereotypical elements of Asian culture (hierarchy, stoicism, modesty) and Christianity (emphasis on sacrifice, obedience and perfection). In fact, they seem to reinforce each other. For Asian American mothers like myself, there is an inherent struggle to try to reconcile these elements with more progressive, albeit generally, feminist notions of vocation, parenting styles, and even identity. While economics may play a similar role as the black/white debate in terms of influencing the kind of parenting style, it seems culture (religion, ethnicity and race, geography, etc.) may have a large impact, too. 

Likewise, in my own experience, I struggle with integrating the cultural pieces, Asian and the surrounding dominant, mostly white elements, religious/faith elements, as well as my inclination towards more feminist (which I realize is a difficult term), progressive perspectives on career and identity. There are some pieces from remembering my childhood – consistency, presence (my mother always home), and encouragement that I appreciate in my parents now, but there are others that I’ve avoided completely (spanking, demanding, and non-emotionalism). 

Ultimately, what I’m realizing, as many have already observed that there is no one way, cultural or religious that informs my overal parenting identity – I fly by the seat of my pants most days, and basic survival is a high priority. Probably like many others, black, white, Asian. But, what I personally hold onto is my faith as the foundation for my own parenting, and those tenets that are universals in terms of wanting the babies to be happy, healthy, and surrounded by love. Maybe I’m not White Mom enough – whatever that means economically or vocationally - but that's fine by me. I'm not going to play into those wars and games, and those social constructs. And maybe this doesn’t mean much to the black/white conversation about feminism and motherhood, but I know that what is missing is dialogue about immigration, Asian patriarchy, racism based on Asian stereotypes (perpetual foreigner and model minority images), and for those who have hapa babies like me, hybridity and race are things to negotiate in our parenting world. So, this makes me think we certainly have a lot to add to what it means to be another kind of mom.

This is not based on anything scientific, and if anything I would hope to be a conversation starter.

Hallmark Moment, Credit: Fennec Cooper/flickr


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