WHAT IS “PROGRESSIVE PARENTING?”

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Nico and Ross, Monday.

For a while, I’ve hesitated to write this blog post. Partially because I didn’t have the vocabulary yet to describe the way I was feeling, and partially because I was afraid of pissing people off. I believe I’ve got the former figured out now. The latter remains to be seen!

Anyway, the question I’ve been circling around and around as a rookie parent is: what does it mean to be a progressive parent?

As an Austinite, and left-leaning person in general, my knee-jerk response is:

*organic food

*cloth diapers

*breastfeeding, but if we have to do formula, we’ll make it ourselves out of goat’s milk

*baby wearing

*A charter / private-ish school for Nico when the time comes

*Either no vaccines, just some vaccines, or hand-wringing and fear if we do in fact vaccinate (note: we have).

These are all things that we do with Nico, and I love them. We probably won’t stop.

But they are also big, flashing markers of social class. And that is what I’m conflicted about: not about having the resources to do special things like private school or organic food, but because I have this sneaking suspicion that by diverting these resources to Nico and Nico alone, I’m taking away resources from larger systems that could make things better for EVERYBODY’S kid.

Allow me to explain.

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So that whole set-up sounds pretty damn self-important, right? Yeah. It does. It also sounds like Ross and I are kinda rich. We’re not, but we’ve admittedly got a lot of great things going for us lifestyle-wise: we both work from home, we live in a city where access to organic food and alternative education is easy, we have parents who bought us a monthly subscription to a local cloth diaper service (I love you Mom and Dad).

As I say, I looooove all these things. Love ‘em! Baby wearing shouldn’t be a political choice, but let’s face it: it is. I feel more crunchy or natural or just “better,” for some vague and not well-thought out reason, when I put Nico in a sling and carry her around that way. (I also like kissing her fuzzy baby head.)

But lately, I’m beginning to feel like my draw to crunchy/natural/Dr. Sears-esque stuff may not in fact be “progressive,” if by that term, we mean “progress for all.” I guess what I’m getting at is: opting out of more traditional, mainstream, and government-involved systems of childrearing has become synonymous with “caring.” Because I care, I won’t vaccinate. Because I care, I won’t enroll Nico in public school. Because I care, I won’t make a fuss out of the fact that no soy-free formulas exist in the U.S. formula market (more on that in a minute); I’ll go out and buy pricey ingredients for a goat’s milk (soy-free!) version and call it a day.

I’m troubled by the fact that it’s that way.

There’s a book out there by Emily Matchar called “Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity.” It’s pretty fascinating, and while I don’t necessarily agree with the whole thing, there’s a pretty bracing paragraph at the end of her chapter titled “DIY Parenting,” which I read while I was pregnant, and read again the other day:

“In the twenty-first century, parents with resources and education feel they can best protect their child by “opting out” of the system. If the government isn’t doing a good job at regulating the food supply, then parents with money and education can buy organic, local food from the farmers’ market. If the schools aren’t good, parents can homeschool or choose a charter or private school – weathy parents are “abandoning public education,” Golden says. If parents worry about chemicals in household products, then those with the time, money, and inclination can make their own cleaning products or buy pricey VOC-free rugs and paints. Which is all well and good, but these options are not so freely available to working-class parents with less time and money. They’re the ones who will be left behind if we collectively abandon the effort to push for better social and governmental solutions.”

A-ha, there it is: “they’re the ones who will be left behind.” That is what’s giving me pause, now that I’m a parent.

Matchar is basically saying (I think) that in our move to privatize parenting, we’re creating a competitive market for those who can enter it, and generate demand for better food/school/etc. And trust me, looking at Nico each day, I want to sing to her sweet little face: “only the BEST for you, baby! Corn syrup solids shall never pass these lips!”

But again, back to my central question: is that really progress?

I don’t think this is a simple question with a simple answer, so I’m putting this post out there mostly as a way to start a conversation. I am genuinely curious to know how parents who think of themselves as “progressive” define that for themselves, and I apologize right now for the abundance of scare quotes in this post, which is making the whole thing sound more sarcastic than I want it to. But by using those quotes, what I’m really trying to signal is the fact that I’m not convinced by current definitions, and am ready for other interpretations.

Now, full disclosure: this post has also been written by a card-carrying Democrat, so in theory, I’m a fan of social systems. But in practice, am I really supporting them as a parent? Not really. Am I agitating for free, quality child care? No, I’m pre-registering Nico at a neighborhood Montessori. This isn’t anything I feel guilty about when it comes to my own child – I can’t wait to see her carrying home her special little books! And singing her special little Montessori songs! It’s going to be so freakin’ cute and I think about it all the time.

The thing I feel guilty about, though, is that it took me this long to even stop and consider that this lovely, early school experience isn’t normal, and perhaps it should be.

Here are two more examples of parental privilege from my own life, the way they got complicated, and the way I now see those complications as good things:

1. BREASTFEEDING VS FORMULA: When I was pregnant, I reflexively thought I would breastfeed Nico exclusively. We still do breastfeed, but she wasn’t gaining weight quickly enough, so her pediatrician asked us to supplement with formula. I cried about this for about a day, feeling like a failure. And then, I got over it.

Now forgive me, non-parents, if I lose you here: this next part might be pretty boring. But (whips the chair around backwards), we’re gonna talk about milk supply! PARTY!

Long story short, my supply was low, and at first I projected all kinds of evil thoughts on Nico’s pediatrician for telling me this. Typical mainstream, Western doctor, I thought. Only going by the weight percentile chart. When was that thing created, anyway? The ’70s?

But once I got over myself and we gave Nico some formula, she was, in general, a happier little baby. Exclusive breastfeeders might argue it’s because formula takes longer to digest, resulting in short-term satisfaction and long-term obesity. Maybe they’re right. But if there’s anything I’ve learned about being a parent, it’s that you can find scientific studies to back up basically any point of view, and just as many scientific experts who can point out why the studies that oppose your point of view are flawed in their methodology. So…I’ve let it go.

Anyway, because this post is about class more than anything, we should point out that exclusive breastfeeding is definitely a privilege of mothers who can afford to live this way, i.e., nurse their babies every few hours. This is not to say it’s wrong, it’s just to point out that in the crusade to exclusively breastfeed, we should be real about the class of people that is even able to do this. (The other way you can make exclusive breast milk happen as a working mother is to pump a LOT at your job, which may or may not be possible in one’s particular work setting. So bottom line: a lot of people have to do formula because it’s the only practical way they can also go to work and earn money.)

So what was I really lamenting in giving Nico formula? Health-for-baby guilt, or class guilt? Probably a bit of both. In fact, definitely a bit of both, because as I mentioned earlier, we’re totally doing the DIY goat milk formula thing which pacifies both my class reflex to pay for better (“better”) solutions, and also my genuine befuddlement that formula, even the organic kind, has about 80 ingredients and that seems weird.

2. VACCINES VS. NO VACCINES: The lion’s den of parental ideology! Here we go.

So we ended up saying OK to Nico’s first round of vaccines, except for one which was against an STD that neither Ross nor I possessed. By now, you’re all probably familiar with the debate surrounding vaccines: there was that study linking vaccines and autism which was later dismissed, but anecdotes linking the two are still out there scaring people (including me).

I know parents who don’t vaccinate, and they aren’t refusing because they scare-quote “care,” but because they care! Genuinely! They don’t want to give their kids autism, and I completely, 100%, totally get that. Oh man, I get that so hard.

The second half of this debate is now starting to emerge, though, and it’s the resurgence of diseases like whooping cough, and that scares me too. There are basically no good solutions here, because you feel like an asshole parent either way.

We went with the vaccines, though, in a collectivist spirit. Am I still a little bit terrified of mercury in vaccines? Yes! Holy shit, yes! But do I also think that the issue has gotten politicized, and that maybe it’s time to not be so reflexive in our immediate dismissal of vaccines, or to think of those who decline them as more “progressive?” As more “caring?” As more left-leaning and therefore more embracing of natural things?

Yes.

I want to think of myself as progressive, caring, left-leaning, and embracing of all things natural. Parenting yields a whole host of egoic concerns, and these are mine, the labels I want to stick on myself.

But I also want to (cue violins) live in a world where the collective, social solution is actually one that we can trust, ‘we’ meaning families of all classes. And I guess I want to shift the locus of what it means to be a progressive parent to a more activist, populist approach, rather than creating my own sparkly baby bubble that Nico alone benefits from. I’m not sure what that approach looks like, yet…voting for people who support child care initiatives?

Signing petitions that ask for corn/soy/whatever ingredient to be taken out of formula?

Actively seeking out good public school options for Nico, rather than just assuming they’re “lesser” and thereby diverting both my child, and taxes, away from what could be a really neat experience?

Being part of the social media conversation that asks doctors to keep on educating us about vaccines?

Maybe it looks like all of those things. And, maybe it looks like things I haven’t thought of yet. But let me know – please let me know! – if you have ideas.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go dress Nico in a yoga onesie.

  • Lela

    Hoo boy, Tolly–you’ve hit the nail on the head. I’ve had similar thoughts recently. The only answer I really have on all this is I just follow my instincts and do what I can do for my family and my baby. If it feels right, then I do it. Sometimes that has me on the “progressive parenting” scale but sometimes not. We breastfeed (I pump so many times a day at work and sacrifice a lunch hour to meet up with M to get a nursing session in. I love breastfeeding but I tell you, when I can go a whole day without pumping, I’m breaking out the bubbly!), we cloth diaper (luuuuurve them), babywear, eat as much organic locally grown food as we can. However, we vaccinate–because I don’t want to see a mass explosion of preventable diseases erupt once again. And because we’re a bit low on the economic scale, we will most likely have to put M in public school or a charter school. And, yes, I’ll really be analyzing the area schools to make sure she goes to a “good” school and I foresee myself being one of those helicopter mothers that bugs her child’s teacher with passive aggressive emails. I also feel that the need to privatize parenting stems from the erosion of funding going towards social services in Texas, and what’s left is really not all that great, so if parents can, they look for something better. A self perpetuating cycle, perhaps. I’ll be following this blog post with avid interest!

    • http://www.austineavesdropper.com Tolly Moseley

      SUCH a good point, here, Lela: “I also feel that the need to privatize parenting stems from the erosion of funding going towards social services in Texas, and what’s left is really not all that great, so if parents can, they look for something better.”

      Also, love this: “I foresee myself being one of those helicopter mothers that bugs her child’s teacher with passive aggressive emails.” – That is exactly what public schools need. Involved parents like you!

  • Lindsay

    Vaccinate! oh, please vaccinate. When we were looking at pediatricians, ARC had general “meet and greets” at their offices, and several people asked about vaccines and autism. I thought the doctors were very clear. In a non-judgmental tone, they said that the studies linking vaccines with autism have been long discredited, but there is most definitely a link between a drop in vaccinations and a rise in outbreaks of once-eradicated diseases that vaccines protect against. And this has been seen for many years.

    This article makes a powerful comparison: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/09/wealthy-la-schools-vaccination-rates-are-as-low-as-south-sudans/380252/

    But I absolutely agree with your overall point and sympathize. Home-made baby food maker, cloth diaperer, Montessori fan, Ergo-raver here. It is really hard to know which pieces of advice that you can trust, what’s really “best” and what’s in line with your ideals. You can get a huge range of opinions on every single thing your child does from the moment she wakes up in the morning. My method of parenting so far is to hold fast to my two resolutions:

    1. Never allow myself to feel guilty or inadequate as a mother.
    2. Always try to enjoy my time with my son.

    I’m sure these will get tested as he grows up, but for now I’m having a great time as a parent.

    • http://www.austineavesdropper.com Tolly Moseley

      Yeah. See, the things you listed (food maker, cloth diapers, etc.) Lindsay are things I genuinely enjoy, and not to signal my class membership, but because I find them pleasurable. (Never thought I’d use the word “diaper” and “pleasure” together in the same sentence…)

      But I’m starting to become more aware of the class conditions prompting my choices, and aware of the fact that not everybody has these choices, and that maybe a more useful dialogue than should we/shouldn’t we regarding these practices might be: what are the societal mechanisms that prevent some parents from even having access to those choices?

      • Lindsay

        Well, we are living in Texas, which is consistently on the bottom of the list for funding social services. Case and point: Rick Perry refused federal funding (free money!!) that would have expanded health services for lower class Texans. Next case and point: Restriction on abortions primarily affect lower class women. And for me personally, it’s the curriculum controlled by ignoramuses and state mandated testing that makes me want to keep my son out of public school until he’s old enough to know better. So I would say go out and vote in all elections. I’m not sure what else we can do if the social programs barely exist.

  • Toney

    I’m so happy that you vaccinate. I realize there are sources out there proclaiming one of the safety and the danger in vaccinating, but not in equal proportion. The “vaccines are safe” literature is much more comprehensive, scientifically-founded, and time-tested. The “vaccines are dangerous” literature is (as you mention) anecdotal, non-scientific (blogs by “concerned parents”), confirmation-biased (cherry picking some data from an occasional scientific source but ignoring the rest), or retracted (the vaccination->autism study you cited wasn’t just withdrawn for scientific shortcomings, but was fully retracted for data fraud). The problem is that the common non-scientific parent isn’t adequately trained to identify which set of literature accurately reflects reality, and is particularly susceptible to the side that makes consequences sound scarier. Then confirmation bias sets in. (Side note: there has never, ever, ever been an unretracted scientific study linking autism to vaccines).

    Sure there are some legitimate vaccination concerns (possible mercury, occasional allergy triggers, etc.), but dang, whooping cough kills people yo. And forsaking vaccinations compromises herd immunity, provides hosts for viral mutations that sidestep vaccinations, and increases exposure to babies too young to vaccinate.

    Although parents have the best intentions, sometimes they are not (contrary to conventional wisdom) in the best position to know whats best for their kid when it comes to complicated issues like sifting through scientific literature. As a parent-to-be, I hope and pray that all parents trust scientific consensus when it exists as broadly and thoroughly as it does in the issue of vaccines.

    • http://www.austineavesdropper.com Tolly Moseley

      To be honest, Toney, I hesitated to even go there in this blog post, because vaccines tend to drown out any other issues in an overall, more generalized conversation about parenting. BUT I’m also ready for thoughtful people (like you) to keep on speaking up about it.

      The thing is, I *get* the somewhat automatic distrust of Western doctors, because Western medicine (in my opinion) has a lot to be desired…especially in the way our doctors treat patients’ symptoms, rather than their overall systems. BUT, all that being said, while other health practices (folk remedies, TCM, etc.) are what lots of folks like me gravitate toward for non-emergency situations, there are times in everyone’s life when emergencies happen, and then it’s like – thank God for modern, Western medicine! Thank God we’ve got quick surgeries for appendicitis. Thank God we’ve got fast-acting medicine for drug overdoses. Thank God we can treat a heart attack. These are techniques and practices that save people’s lives, as is the case with vaccines.

      Another thing I think about all the time, too, is a man I worked with in grad school who contracted polio as a child. Couldn’t use his arms or legs. He would have been so grateful to have gotten that vaccine as a kid.

      • Toney

        Totes. I thought about not even commenting for fear of derailing your greater points, but since vaccinating was important enough to warrant one of two bullet points, I thought I’d jump on my soap box. Parenting seems tough enough as it is without doubting the collective wisdom of millions of trained scientists.

  • Michelle G

    I would like to add another point to your BF vs formula topic: if we were living in a country that valued the delicate and intense time of baby raising, then we would have maternity leave and then we would all, hopefully, have the time to feed our babies every 2 hours. This is something that we can change too! Probably not in our child-rearing lifetime, but I hope my daughters don’t have the tough choice of returning to work when they are still in a recovery state and worrying about their children getting the best they can.

    On another note, I am SO glad you were able to ‘let it go’ about formula. Sometimes we just need a little bit of help — however it looks like. Some of the latest studies show that babies of mothers who want to BF but can’t, often do just as well as babies who are exclusively BF. My biggest thing is happiness and health for the whole family and sometimes, that means some formula. Every drop of breastmilk counts. You are great parents to your little.

    • http://www.austineavesdropper.com Tolly Moseley

      Amen about maternity leave, Michelle! This is why we (you, me, all of us) need to support women in positions of government and leadership. Also, (and this next point is more than a little preachy), it’s also why we need to assess our relationship to taxes, and realize that taxes, blanket concept, aren’t a bad thing. It’s all about how they are diverted and allocated. Our country spends a looooootttt of money (tax dollars) on our military, for example, and I would happily vote for someone who ran on a platform of diverting some of that money to subsidized and/or free childcare.

      Political rant over!

    • Lela

      This! Absolutely! After having my baby, I went through this period of being SO angry at society for not allowing me the time to have that uninterrupted BF and bonding time while churning out all these articles saying “Breast is best!” or touting studies showing how kids thrive best with parents caring for them, because while it’s what I want to be able to do for my child, we really cannot afford it. Even the Kellymom website pissed me off because they’re so unabashedly “breastfeeding only!” at times. I’m in a better headspace now, but I’m really hoping that by the time my child grows up, she can have the same social support that Canada and Denmark give to their families.

  • Charlotte

    Sooo true!!! My sentiments exactly, as i am sadly and gratefully aware i benefit from several social class advantages that should be universally available to all – time at work to pump, availablity of fresh, healthy foods for baby, and one on one childcare – my thoughts are nice, but we need a revolution!!

    P.S., our girls need to meet!

    Lots of love,
    Charlotte

  • http://genieinablog.com. Leigh Ann

    I’m more progressive in my head than I am in practice. We vaccinated, but delayed some. I made most of the baby food for the twins, but when Zoe was born, I just didn’t have time. Or make time? I don’t know. Having 3 kids under 3 was overwhelming. Part of me WISHED I had one at a time so I could have focused on things I wanted to do more of instead of just…surviving. You know?

    My kids attend public school (1st grade). It’s fine, but there are things I don’t love. But private school is financially out of the question for us, and I’m not convinced at this time that charter schools are the answer. It’s all so effed up sometimes. My main concern is letting them be who they are, do what they want to do. I find myself relating more and more to my neighbor, who “unschools” her son. But then again, having my 3 kids home all the time would not be ideal. I’m a better mom when we all get a break from each other.

    And FWIW, the twins (31 week preemies) were never on the charts their whole first year of life. My youngest (NOT a preemie) was barely on, because she just didn’t like to eat. She’s 4 and still doesn’t. It’s hard to say what “enough” weight is. And it’s hard trying to trust someone like a pediatrician when there’s a degree of skepticism. Basically what I’m saying is, that THIS completely ordinary, vaccinating, public school supporting mom really relates to a lot of what you’re saying here.

  • http://xeric-front-yard.tumblr.com/ Tim Thomas

    Please take a tour of public schools in Austin before deciding. There are so many really cool and unique ones. And every parent is different. What one friend touts as a fantastic school may not work for you. But the reason that private schools are believed to work is the cohort effect. Kids who go to school with smart kid with involved parents do better. And that’s where we have the chance to be progressive. Sending our kids to a school where some parents are working three jobs and can’t attend PTA meetings helps the school overall. I feel supporting our public schools through sending or kids and getting involved is the number one progressive issues of our times. It is literally about shaping our future society.

    • http://www.austineavesdropper.com Tolly Moseley

      Tim! I love this. I grew up in the public school system also (and had a very positive experience), so in some ways you’re preaching to the choir.

      It’s interesting though, because some of my first jobs out of college were working/teaching in private, alternative school settings. And I’ve seen kids flourish there. We’ve got SO many options for school in Austin, which is wonderful, but you’re right about this: the “we’re all in this together” ethos of public school is what truly democratizes school for EVERYBODY. I think we’re just now beginning to bring into sharp focus the resegregation of schools along class and racial lines, and I hope the conversation continues in the media.

      Here is my problem: I personally feel the draw toward non-traditional education for my daughter: Waldorf, Montessori, etc. I love the guiding philosophies there on ample outdoor time, moving at your own pace, doing things with your hands, and having a pretty light touch on technology. But re: shaping our future society, I think my family would have a bigger impact at a public school, where we (as you say) could get involved and help make it a rich environment for everyone. I just wish public schools would stop cutting art / music / recess – you know? For me, that’s the rub.

      • Jennifer

        HI,
        Love your blog. How will you get a public school to increase art, music, or recess? In my experience as a parent in the public schools the PTA doesn’t have influence over those things. The decision makers are quite remote from the parents. The most involved parent can organize a great teacher breakfast. That’s the kind of improvement you are allowed to make.
        Don’t let people make you feel guilty about making decisions about your child’s upbringing. Who else will raise that child to be a responsible, compassionate person if not you? Systems don’t raise children as well as good parents.
        Things are changing in education. The environment is different. I heard a panel discussion with thoughtful school superintendents, and they were embracing the new climate of choices for parents. They acknowledged that charters, magnets, choice schools, and even homeschooling have enriched the public schools by forcing traditional schools to offer choices to parents and students. Choices are empowering because children learn differently, have different dreams and abilities, and are more invested when the families’ dignity is respected.

  • Meg Frampton

    I just wanted to say that I really enjoy reading your posts and thoughts as a new mother. It’s great to hear what you think about the topic, since I hope to be one someday. I think you are an intelligent, hip, Austin woman, so its great to hear your take from that perspective. Keep em’ coming!!!

    Meg

    • http://www.austineavesdropper.com Tolly Moseley

      What a kind thing to say, Meg! It’s wonderful to have you here!

  • Belle

    Tolly, I just love this honest, well-thought out post. Really, I love YOU! As a NICU nurse, I wholeheartedly support team-based decision making between healthcare providers and families, even if that means spacing/delaying/routine vaccination. We as providers have a mandate to back-up our expertise and educate! I’ve moved to Nashville, so as soon as you make it up here, I’m booking a private yoga sesh, just to hug you <3