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.