Embracing Your Inner Mommy Warrior

A Milk White Flag

A Milk White Flag (Photo credit: Vintaga Posters)

No one likes the so-called “Mommy Wars.” At the BlogHer 2012 conference last weekend, the speakers I heard were unanimously opposed to them, calling on all of us to move past these bloody battlefields to someplace more productive – a greener pasture of peace, tranquility and mutual appreciation. Where, I presume, we get to have tea together under a white flag and our children serve it to us with ceremonial perfection and crisp, clean napkins draped over their small forearms.

Which certainly sounds good to me. No one’s been more disdainful than I have about the media’s over-simplification of these issues. But then I got to thinking about how characterizing disagreements as disagreeable can be its own kind of social censure, and about all the playground conversational tangos and tangles that general impulse may be creating, even as it attempts a truce.

If what we mean by “Mommy Wars” is a tedious mud-wrestling match in which we hurl well-worn clichés at each other about stay-at-home moms versus working moms, I’m all for moving on. It’s a yawner, to begin with.

On the other hand, though, call me crazy, but I do have opinions on things. I maintain these developing viewpoints on all things mommy because, first, I have to make decisions for me and my family that impact how my daughter is raised, and second, with apologies to Kahlil Gibran, I’m not merely a vessel through which my daughter arrived into this dubious and sometimes wonderful place.

In this battle, I’m a frontline trench warfare expert, and I came by my stripes honestly. I’m not about to abandon my albeit modest rank of Captain-of-One-Child readily. As anyone can read here, I do not lack my own nutty perspective on a host of questions concerning how I’d like to be a parent to my kid and what impacts her health and experiences.

And it sometimes feels like the call to halt the “Mommy Wars” is about never, ever passing judgment, about anything. As though we must subscribe to an indifferent laissez faire attitude as a prerequisite for holding onto whatever shredded tatters remain of our coolness, post-child.

I do live in fear of being labeled – that horror of horrors – a “Sancti-mommy,” and have no doubt that I’ve crossed that line, at least in my heart. But given that moms are called upon to – and do – make 85 percent of the household purchase decisions, and that we, er, have brains and the concomitant opinions those brains freely generate, how do we tiptoe across these Mommy War minefields?

For example, when my sister, whom I dearly love, offered my not-yet-two-year old daughter a “princess pancake” a few weeks back, was I remiss in recoiling in horror and saying, with my typical grace, that “Maya will be happy with the obesity-shaped one.” Ok, I’ll admit the appalled look on my face was likely unnecessary, and that Cinderella may in fact one day eat my daughter, but in the meantime, durnit, Maya doesn’t yet know what a princess is and I hope to keep it that way for as long as possible.

Or yesterday, at a concert, was I wrong to be annoyed when another mom asked me to get out of the way of her 2-year-olds’ view of the show? First, the kid was catatonic and not even really paying attention, and second, IMHO, kids should be moved around adults and not the other way ‘round. Anything else just teaches the inmates that they are in charge, and dangerously sacrifices what little power we grown-ups may retain.

But clearly that’s just me. It’s also just me on the playground when I don’t want Maya grazing opportunistically from some other kid’s plastic bag o’ Cheez-its and have to find a semi-gracious way to say why I’m declining their generous offer to share. (“So sorry, we don’t eat sodium-packed, processed junk at our house” seems a tad ungrateful somehow.)

And when I happen to mention that Maya’s a little big for her tender age, I’m not being a Competi-mommy, I swear. I’m merely trying to cover for her lack of social grace. She looks like a 3-year-old, and so people are often puzzled when she won’t take turns – like, unless I beg her – without a dramatic amount of squealing and/or physical violence.

And even along the critical fault line of the SAHM vs. working mother, there are important things to say about how hard it is in ways it shouldn’t be, and about everyone’s ambivalence concerning the choices they’ve made. None of it is easy, as I’ve noted. And I’ve also been gratified to see “Grass: Greener” posts from far more gifted self-observers.

In short, moms have to navigate this world, trying to preserve their own peculiar take on parenting and choices for their kids. There will be judgment involved in this. There will also be provisional decisions pending more data, and lots of agony. Certainly, so long as we otherwise “click” as people, we can be friends and support each other regardless of these somewhat petty distinctions.

But some eye-rolling is also likely to be involved, particularly if we don’t know each other personally. We’re human, after all. We bring our discernment and pre-formed views with us wherever we go. And I, for one, get a lot out of reading even contentious comments on particular hot-button mommy topics, as they help inform where I come out on critical issues like whether investing in a Petunia Pickle Bottom diaper bag is cute or been-there-done-that. (My vote is the former, but I’m always behind on what’s hip by a decade or two.)

Even as we call for tranquility and tea, let’s be careful not to think that whenever a Mom – or Dad – expresses an opinion of any kind, that’s verboten under peacetime, post-Mommy War conditions. And let’s create an environment that allows us to compare notes on parenting without fear that any act of comparison at all is an odious attempt at competition.

Ultimately, we’re tougher than that. If we can deal with a red-faced two-year-old’s tantrums over absolutely nothing, we can also weather a little judgment concerning things that might actually matter. Making these decisions about our lives and families, is, after all, our prerogative as parents. We should be strong enough to debate the issues on the merits and indifferent enough to do what we decide is best. And, for the most part, to be friends (or sisters) after the disagreement, just as we were before.

Cinderella (Disney character)

Cinderella (Disney character) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Waiting for Supermom: The FDA’s Failure on BPA

Credit: Darren Higgins

Cross-posted from the Natural Resources Defense Council blog, On Earth, 4/18/2012.

When the New York Times ran a snarky story under a picture of my daughter, Maya, a few weeks ago describing my efforts to rid my home of toxic chemicals, you can bet the comments from readers were merciless. Readers accused me of trying to keep my child in a bubble and mocked me as yet another privileged, neurotic helicopter mom.

Truth be told, instead of a posh housewife, for years I was a cash-strapped public interest lawyer who roamed the halls of Congress with brokenhearted families after some federal agency had failed to protect them. I worked on the Ford-Firestone rollover tragedy and the discovery of lead in children’s toys from China, among other disasters for public health. So when I had my own child, it seemed important to think through the risks to her health for myself.

Still, the pointed comments got me thinking: are moms, and parents generally, bad or good at predicting risks to children? I’ve decided that while parents might not be perfect, we’re a good sight better than the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Contrary to stereotype, moms (and dads) are actually expert risk assessors. In fact, it’s no overstatement to say that risk assessment is a major part of the job. Parents constantly measure both the benefits and risks to their child, of say, crossing the street, eating that suspect ball-park hot dog, going to summer camp, or even, as at my house, playing on our splinter-filled back deck (allowed, but shoes required).

On the other hand, we have the FDA. Eleven states, and at least eight countries, including Canada, China, and the European Union, have already banned Bisphenol-A — a dangerous chemical added to plastic food containers and can linings — in some or all products. Hoping to head off more comprehensive rules, the chemical industry in the U.S. even asked regulators last September for a ban on BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups.

Nonetheless, the FDA recently decided to keep exposing all of us to BPA, which shows up in the urine of 93 percent of Americans. This was a big step backward from the agency’s public position in 2010, which said that BPA was of “some concern” with regard to health impacts like early puberty and prostate cancer. That statement was based on a 2008 report from the National Toxicology Program, which concluded that there is “some concern for effects on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and children at current human exposures to bisphenol A.”

Four long years later (a period which included the birth of my daughter in 2010), the FDA’s disappointing decision to punt left in its wake a dizzying array of contradictory messages for the public on the safety of BPA. While FDA said that its recent decision was not a final determination and that it would continue to study the issue, the chemical industry’s flacks said the decision meant that BPA “is safe for use in food-contact materials.”

The Department of Health and Human Services, meanwhile, states that “[i]t is clear that the government… need[s] more research to better understand the potential human health effects of exposure to BPA, especially when it comes to the impact of BPA exposure on young children.” HHS also provides recommendations to parents about “minimizing BPA exposure,” including helpful information on BPA levels in various types of containers for infant formula and the advantages of breastfeeding. This is in marked contrast to the cursory, lame non-guidance from the FDA, which states “FDA is not recommending that families change the use of infant formula or foods.”

Really? No changes? It’s shocking that in the face of health concerns that even the government has acknowledged, FDA won’t provide a shred of guidance for pregnant women and parents about how to minimize exposure for their baby. How about the obvious: families should avoid baby bottles with BPA in them, ready-to-use formulas and baby foods with BPA in the lining of lids, and canned foods with a BPA lining. Or that pregnant women, like the one working the cash register at my local café last week, should avoid handling receipts and money, which have been shown to be covered in unbound BPA?

In the face of such indifference to the risks, I’ll just point out the clear superiority of parents as deciders. In fact, parents generally make balanced — and protective — choices, weighing both benefits and risks. Kids can’t and shouldn’t live in a bubble, sure, so parents do the best they can with the information that they have. But when they think about the downsides, they also make a very precise accounting, a moral and ethical accounting, you might say, that reflects the place in their heart occupied by their own child.

Parents everywhere take note: this kind of protective approach should also be the yardstick used by government when it assesses the risks to its citizens. When I worked on the Ford-Firestone rollover disaster, accompanying the mother of a dead 18-year-old boy to her senator’s office to argue for more protective auto safety rules, what she expressed most poignantly, besides the devastating impact of her loss, was her profound, tragic heartbreak that she “didn’t know” about this risk — that she “didn’t know” that the government would allow things to be sold that were unsafe — that she assumed, in fact, that government would view the life and health of her child in the same loving, protective way she did.

If only it were so. When the FDA and White House play politics with our health and lives, when regulators admit a chemical in our food supply is unsafe yet refuse to even offer adequate guidelines for parents to protect their babies and children, and when a potential threat to our health is so impossible to avoid, we need a new, and far better, ethic for assessing risks and the safety of families.

We should enact laws that require products to be proven to be safe before our children and families can be exposed. And in the case of FDA, we shouldn’t tolerate these ridiculous waiting games. The agency should meet its legal obligation to protect the public from chemicals that can reach our food supply and have not been proven to be safe. That would be a government that only a mother could love.