by: posted Thursday, April 26, 2012
Category: Everything Else
Nothing can sink a friendship like differences over parenting. Sometimes the areas of disagreement are stark and dramatic, leading to blowups and out-and-out breaks. Most of the time they’re subtle and unstated, a matter of dark looks and long-simmering resentments, that erode, rather than rupture, formerly close relationships. Often they arise from a vague sense of betrayal, a friend’s having changed once he or she has had children, breaking unspoken assumptions about shared values and goals, how to live and who to be.
It’s the sort of relationship-fraying challenge portrayed with much humor in the film “Friends With Kids.” And it’s one that a Washington mother of three found herself forced to confront when a close friend became pregnant, revealing an entirely new side of her personality. “She immediately stopped her temp work because the Xerox machine might be bad for the baby,” said the mother, who, like several others interviewed for this article, requested anonymity so as to not compromise her relationship with the friend. “She changed all her shampoos. We pretty much had to detox the environment whenever we saw her from then on.”
The tensions deepened, she recalled, once the baby was born: “She practiced total attachment parenting. She never let anyone watch her baby. To go to a movie, she and her husband would go one after the other. If it was cold out, she’d bring the car seat into the house and warm it with a blow dryer” before bringing it back to the car. When the child was older, she said, “you weren’t allowed to say no to him. You weren’t allowed to set boundaries. We were at our wits’ end.”
No matter the cause, no matter how well-managed the reaction, the disagreements arising over parenting practices can hit hard and cut deep. Because what’s at stake is much more than different ideas about Ferber versus Sears, or organic versus conventional, or the use of timeouts, or the limits to be put on TV time. What is often triggered, in the divide between what mothers and fathers do or don’t do — whether or not those differences escalate into out-and-out confrontations — are convictions that push all the most basic parent-buttons.
“It’s the judgment: ‘You want to be popular with your kids, you don’t want to say no to your kids,’ ” said Rosalind Wiseman, author of the parenting advice book “Queen Bees and Wannabes,” who described herself as a less stringent parent than many of her peers. “The tone of voice conveys: ‘I am a better mother than you. I have control, you don’t.’ We all to a certain extent respond to it.”
In 1975, the psychoanalyst Selma Fraiberg proposed a theory as to why certain areas of parenting — “feeding, sleep, toilet training or discipline,” she wrote in a greatly influential article for The Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry — were such emotional flashpoints for parents. There were “ghosts in the nursery,” she argued, residues of the “vulnerabilities of the parental past.”
For the current generation of parents, who tend to ascribe quasi-magical properties to the choices they make in their children’s early years, Dr. Fraiberg’s formulation couldn’t be more resonant.
Breast versus bottle, whole-grain versus white, cloth versus paper diapers — for many mothers now in particular, these decisions take on the weight of “political, moral and ethical stances,” as Claire Dederer put it, describing her cohort of right-thinking, left-leaning, semi-working, highly educated and deeply angst-filled mothers in her 2011 book, “Poser.”
Ms. Dederer believed that many of her generation’s parenting practices stemmed from the fact that they were nursing psychic wounds from the family disruption and disengagement that had swept through their own homes in the 1970s.
Juliet Cuming, a Vermont mother of two who had her babies at home, carried or “wore” them constantly, breast-fed them to age 5, slept with them in the “family bed” and home-schooled them as part of a collective, said she is fully conscious of how the past weighs into current choices. “My husband and I both had the experience of having a parent who’s so checked out and not there for you,” Ms. Cuming said recently. “Attachment parenting was very healing for me, and home schooling was an extension of all the attachment parenting I did."
What is often triggered, in the divide between what moms and dads do or don’t do, said Tamara Razi, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Washington, is a matter of clashing world views and deep, lifelong issues of selfhood and identity. “The way we parent is a reflection of our vision of reality,” she said. “How we see what we do with our children stems directly from that vision.”
In some cases, that clash of visions can be explosive. One woman, a professor from New York, remembers clearly when she reached the breaking point with close friends. The trouble had started when the friends instituted a 6 p.m. bedtime for their preschool-age son. Then there was the banishing of all creativity-squashing, bright-colored plastic toys. Then there was the diet — raw parsnips, duck eggs, sunflower butter — all ordered up by a naturopathic doctor, who had diagnosed multiple food intolerances in the boy.
“This beautiful, chubby boy, who loved to eat, became emaciated,” the professor said recently. “I remember him crying because dinner one night was scallions in water.”
In the end, it was a birthday cake that did her in. The dad baked it — “some kind of spelt hoecake,” she recalled. As a memory formed of the little boy, once joyfully eating chocolate cake and ice cream, she lost it. “I said: ‘This is insane. This is bordering on abuse. I can’t take it anymore! I love him, and I think he deserves a birthday cake!’ ”
Her relationship with the family, not surprisingly, was never quite the same.
Suniya S. Luthar, a psychologist at Teachers College, Columbia, who has been surveying thousands of mothers about their emotional lives for years now online, believes the toxic frictions that arise over parenting differences point to the fact that women deeply need connection — harmonious connection — to maintain their own sense of solidity. “Sometimes we get into fights because there is this uncomfortable distance,” she said.
For Joanna Smith Rakoff, a novelist in New York, keeping two very close pre-motherhood friendships alive post-childbirth has resulted in a toxic double bind. One of her old friends, she recently said, practices “continuum parenting” — essentially, attachment parenting on steroids. The other is a cry-it-out, clean-your-plate, schedule-bound traditionalist.
Both have happy, well-adjusted children, Ms. Smith Rakoff said. Her problem with how they go about motherhood isn’t about what they’re doing to their kids; it’s about what their mothering is doing to her.
“I’m feeling inadequate with her ‘I-do-everything-for-my-children’ example,” she said of the first friend, who has curtailed her own creative, prestigious career because she’s rarely able to find a baby sitter who meets her high standards. “I have these pangs of ‘maybe she’s doing everything right and I’m doing things all wrong.’ ” As for the second: Around her, Ms. Smith Rakoff feels like an undisciplined slacker. “I almost can’t see her because she makes me feel too bad about myself.”
When world views collide, the result can sometimes be so combustible that even innocent bystanders get burned. That’s what happened a few weeks ago, when a New York artist and mother of a seventh-grade boy blew a fuse after she offered an exciting and expensive day trip, go-kart racing, as a birthday gift to one of her son’s friends and his mother kept putting up roadblocks to the plan.
“The first time, she wouldn’t let us go because it was going to be dark when we drove back,” the artist fumed about the other mother, an anxious single mom on a very limited budget who tends to keep her son on a very short leash.
“The second time she made the kid so neurotic that he woke up and decided he couldn’t go without her,” the artist said. “The easiest thing was to tell her she could come, too. But everything about this venture was meant to take her out of the picture. So I said no. I was so furious. It was a lot of expense. We were all so excited about it. In my mind and in my husband’s mind we’d fashioned the whole thing to give him an experience that was more like what other kids his age have. He was saying he wasn’t interested in having an experience that his mother couldn’t witness.”
The artist called off the birthday outing. (“I would have said ‘fine,’ ” said her husband, who was supposed to spend the day with the two boys. “I could have made it work if she’d wanted to do it another time. I think my wife felt like we were being taken advantage of. I just felt it was sad.”)
In the end, the two boys have remained friends.
And the mothers, after a period of silence, have started speaking again.
Judith Warner is the author, most recently, of “We’ve Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication.”
FULL SOURCE: www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/fashion/differences-over-parenting-can-break-often-just-erode-friendships.html