Common Ground in the Culture Wars

Because we’re addicted to silly arguments and trumped up controversies, and because the most sophisticated move we seem able to make as a culture is forcing every issue into two, and no more than two, warring camps, lately we’ve been having a fake fight about attachment parenting, set off by Time Magazine’s controversial cover photo. Is attachment parenting good or bad for children? For mothers? Is it feminist or anti-feminist? Is it crazy liberal or crazy conservative? That last one is the only question that seems to matter about any issue anymore, and those the only two available options.

But attachment parenting and what Peggy O’Mara calls “natural family living,” encompassing  practices such as homebirth, exclusive breastfeeding of infants, nursing past toddlerhood, babywearing, co-sleeping, eating organic food, homeschooling, preferring natural remedies over pharmaceuticals, and reducing or eliminating media from young children’s lives, to name a few, defy our Procrustean categories. You might imagine parents raising their kids this way to be hippies, but what are their politics? Can you guess their religious beliefs? You really can’t.

For me, attachment parenting was an extension of my romantic, lefty leanings: preferring the natural to the artificial, trusting my instincts over the conventional wisdom, believing that methods women had developed over millennia were superior to those dictated by the demands of industrial capitalism. I viewed the typical baby shower as a marketing scam whose purpose was to place the maximum number of expensive objects between new parents and their babies, and to indoctrinate the unborn into the cult of consumerism. But many conservatives are attachment parents, too. Dr. Bill and Martha Sears were evangelicals when they were raising their children and have a large fan base in that community, and I knew many Orthodox Jews practicing attachment parenting when my children were little, too. You don’t need to read Rod Dreher’s 2006 book Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, Gun-Loving Organic Gardeners, Evangelical Free-Range Farmers, Hip Homeschooling Mamas, Right-Wing Nature Lovers, and Their Diverse Tribe of Countercultural Conservatives Plan to Save America (Or At Least The Republican Party);  the title is surprising enough (if it disturbs you, I understand. I can’t assimilate the image of a Burkean in Birkenstocks, either). If the personal is political, these intimate choices about family life can spring from surprisingly diverse philosophies.

When I became a mother, I joined La Leche League, where I met several other women who, like me, were working from the Dr. Sears and Mothering Magazine playbook. We got to know each other at infant massage class, at Music Together, and at the distribution house for the organic co-op to which we all belonged. We became friends, taking our babies to parks and playgrounds together, watching them crawl and toddle around each other’s homes. We helped each other with childcare when needed, brought food when someone was sick, washed each other’s dishes and talked endlessly about the children: their sleeping, their eating, their digestion, their illnesses, their moods, their little accomplishments and naughtiness and obvious brilliance. As long as the children remained the sole topic of conversation, we agreed on everything.

One day, though, someone made a casual remark about her strong pro-life position that presumed we all shared her views. I exchanged an uncomfortable look with another feminist in the room. Should we let it go? Silently, we agreed to opt for honesty, then told her that we were both pro-choice feminists. Her distress was so painful and genuine that I was sorry I’d told her. We’d seen the pro-life stickers on her car and knew that she taught Natural Family Planning, but hadn’t known that she was opposed to all forms of birth control except for NFP (and how could we know? The other member of our group who loved NFP was a Pagan). She found it hard to accept that women who were so much like her, who mothered our children in such similar ways, who loved our own babies and other people’s, too, could condone what she believed was the murder of children. Her confusion and ours were understandable: why wouldn’t people who share such specific counter-cultural practices have similar politics?

The more we talked, the more differences we discovered. We all wanted to homeschool for different reasons, it turned out. I believed that homeschooling was more academically rigorous than any school could be, and that the vaunted socialization that occurs in schools was more harmful than helpful (I’ve since changed my mind). Another future homeschooler wanted to give her children a creative, hands-on education, free of the demands of schedules and standardized tests. Our pro-life friend wanted a Catholic education for her children, but believed the teachers and curriculum at parochial schools to be insufficiently orthodox. The only way she could be sure her children were learning the pure, rigorous Catholicism in which she believed, and nothing else, was to teach them herself.

Digging a little deeper over time, we discovered that while we all preferred whatever we considered “natural,” for her, “natural” meant “godly,” closer to the world as God intended it to be. The beliefs are different, but the practices are identical. Imagine two cars; one with a bumper sticker that says: “Breastmilk: Nature’s Perfect Baby Food;” the other with one that says “Breastmilk: God’s Perfect Baby Food.” Are they really so different? Can the owners of those two cars peacefully coexist in a playgroup?

I think they can, and that this little island of countercultural parenting reveals something worth knowing about the culture wars. Many thoughtful, intelligent people with all kinds of spiritual leanings and belief systems, all kinds of opinions about federalism and tax policy and the Constitution,  look at our popular culture, our political culture, our food, our lifestyles, the way we use and waste our resources of time, money, and attention, and conclude that something is seriously awry. They want to turn off the noise of what is out there and tune into the music of relationship, of family, of community. They think it might be wiser to create than to consume all the time, to do more with less, to eschew the temptation to entertain ourselves and our kids to death. Whether they start out motivated by environmentalism, religion, Burkeanism, socialism, logic, or just a longing for closeness and connection, many arrive at the same conclusion.

You don’t have to be a cultural conservative to despise the coarseness of popular culture. You don’t have to be an intellectual elitist to be nauseated by the stupidity of what passes for public discourse. You don’t have to be a liberal to worry about the corrosive effect of consumerism on children and everyone else. You don’t have to be a feminist to fear that girls’ self-worth is threatened by the pornification of women’s images in the media. You don’t have to be a Christian to suspect that the whole country, if not all of civilization, is going to hell.

It’s fascinating that people with such radically opposed points of view, who may have been taught to think of people on the other side of the political or religious fence as stupid, evil, or both, may be raising their young children in nearly identical ways. Can we do anything useful with that common ground? The barriers we’ve built around red and blue, as if these categories were absolute and eternal, prevent sincere dialogue. I emailed Rod Dreher when his first “Crunchy Cons” article came out in 2003 and had an interesting exchange about common ground between crunchy libs and crunchy cons. The crunchies, we realized, agree about many of the problems, but would probably never agree about solutions. He was gracious and smart, and absolutely committed to his very conservative religious beliefs. I wish the political atmosphere had not grown so toxic, because without dialogue between people who disagree, we’re all just engaged in narcissistic celebrations of our own correctness that lead nowhere.

The debate sparked by the Time cover (which was, of course, designed to provoke exactly the reaction it did) reflects unease with the particulars of attachment parenting, but the mockery and disgust also mask hurt pride about the rejection of mainstream parenting. What’s wrong with Elmo and McDonald’s and formula and baby bouncers and keeping children inside where they won’t get dirty? It’s good enough for my kids. It’s easier to paint millions of parents who reject the whole package as freaks than to risk looking at the critique attachment parenting offers to the mainstream. Even when attachment parents don’t say a word, the implication of all their choices is that everyone else is doing it wrong. Their willingness to sacrifice so much to carry it out (those who can afford to, that is) shows that these choices matter. Their political, religious, and geographical diversity means that the critique is broad-based, and maybe, not so easy to dismiss.

It also means that they may be onto something.

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About Julie Goldberg

Julie Goldberg has lived a life entirely too entangled with books. She is a school librarian, former English teacher, compulsive reader, occasional jazz singer and the author of Lily in the Light of Halfmoon. You can email her at perfectwhole@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter @juliegoldberg.
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22 Responses to Common Ground in the Culture Wars

  1. fransiweinstein says:

    I think you bring up a very interesting point. I am a film buff and attend the Toronto International Film Festival every year. I am hard core, seeing the maximum number — 50 films over 10 days. Over the years I’ve become ‘line buddies’ with many, many other fanatics like me. Some of them I see throughout the year. It’s amazing how alike we are when it comes to movies — not just about whether we liked a film or not — but about the techniques, the directors, the stories, the business. We really get into it. But when we do venture off this topic we are very, very different about our lifestyle choices, political choices, and beliefs. We are also very different demographically. I find it fascinating. Of course you are talking about something quite different; but I was just struck by the observation you made about how surprising it was to discover that a group of women who agreed about so many important ‘life’ choices could be so far apart on other, equally important ‘life’ choices. My stance? I’m pro choice in every sense of the word.

    • I wonder if this kind of thing was always surprising, or if it has gotten to be surprising as politics has become more polarized. If people are really divided into two opposite camps, then it seems odd that they would share common opinions and interests about anything, but as Ceil points out in her comment, that’s not really the way we live. It’s just how the way we live is reflected back to us in the media.

      • fransiweinstein says:

        I have no way if knowing for sure, but instinctively I think it’s more surprising because politics have become far more polarizing; and much less effective as a result, in my humble opinion. And also because with social media, we are making our opinions much more known. What we used to keep to ourselves is now out there for the world to see — find fault with and disagree — also very publicly. We’re all living in a reality show of our own making; but I fear that we are losing sight of how high the stakes are. We’ve become voyeurs and we’re so addicted to it we can’t see the forest for the trees.

      • Phonie says:

        This claim is not backed up in anyway and is just personal reflection and self-observation but I think in reality it should not be surprising but it is because what we let ourselves believe we must be more similar than we really are. I think unconsciously we all want to have some kind of tribe we can belong to where we can feel safe or feel like there won’t be as much disagreements. Or some group that affirms that your thoughts, choices or preferences are not crazy.

        So, when we find people who share common interests, beliefs or practices we feel like we must be soul mates and have similar opinions and make similar choices when everything is in fact like a van diagram and we are just meeting where the circles overlap.

        When we make choices or go to places we would think others were attracted by the same feature that attracted you but it could be something else. One person might want to become an actor because he would love to act as a powerful action hero while another person wants to become an actor that he can be in a Shakespearean play but they both might cross path in an acting school and feel dumbfounded when they see that their views on what is a great acting couldn’t be anymore different.

      • “…personal reflection and self-observation.” Yup. It’s that kind of blog.

  2. Ceil Kessler says:

    I have been thinking about this a lot lately. I seem to remember a time, not so long ago, that having a political preference was about as important to any given relationship as your ice cream preference. It was something to talk about, but it wasn’t everything.

    Today, so deeply have the battle lines been drawn, that it does seem to mean everything. And that is a failure of the political process, I think. It has come to the point that, in some quarters, it’s more important to determine if the person you’re speaking with is conservative or liberal, than it is to realize that we’re all American. As usual, when there is a trumped up dichotomy, usually fueled by the media to feed the sensationalist news cycle, we forget that there is more that unites us than divides us.

    And there is too much money in politics. There is too much benefit to either side when they paint one side as raving religious fascists who would trample the poor and infirm, and the other side as a frothing mass of godless marxists who would force people to give up their freedoms to serve government masters.

    In between lies the actual society in which we live, shop, dine, entertain, go to soccer practice, plant flowers, do pilates, resist or embrace technology, volunteer, and if so inclined, pray. This is where the actual living takes place, but people who have too much money have convinced us that everything else matters more. They couldn’t be more wrong, and we really have to stop and look at our neighbors and realize that they’re selling us a bill of goods we don’t even want.

    By the way, I’m a big Dr. Sears fan, had no idea that he’s evangelical, and if that’s what works for him, then I’m glad he’s happy. I’m happy to take his and Mrs. Sears’ advice regarding attachment parenting, and I’m glad I found them in my prenatal days. Kudos to the officers who were breastfeeding, and for those that disagree…that’s their right to do so. While it was interesting that the Time cover provoked a national response, we have to remember that the media benefits financially from exploiting our most extreme differences. So when we read about the discussion, we’re not seeing the many people who think, “Eh. I really don’t care.”

  3. I agree with everything you said, Ceil. A journalist I’m very fond of, Brian Lehrer of WNYC radio, has said on a number of occasions that he doesn’t think the media have either a liberal or a conservative bias, much as conservatives and liberals, respectively, believe that they do. He believes the media have a *conflict* bias, that reporters will report any story in way that emphasizes conflict and drama, and choose to highlight stories with the greatest conflict, rather than the greatest news value.

    In writing fiction, you almost always want to raise the stakes and heighten the drama, because that makes for good storytelling. But it’s turned news into entertainment and affected the way people actually interact. A lot of people haven’t gotten the Lehrer memo, and have begun to behave in ways that reflect the way the media portray them. I think that’s how we arrived at this crazy point in our history, and I don’t see how we can ever dial it back. Maybe through a combination of prayer, Pilates, and ice cream.

    • Ceil Kessler says:

      I was actually holding out hope for last year’s Rally to Restore Sanity. But I think perhaps, like people eventually got tired of “Fear Factor”, “24”, “Lost”, and “The Biggest Loser”, people will eventually get tired of conflict news. News directors everywhere will scratch their heads and puzzle over how to create even MORE conflict in current events, further alienating viewers, and talking heads will proclaim that the American public is uninformed because they are xenophobic and apathetic towards current events.

      If only people just showed the actual news, they would realize how intriguing it is all by itself.

      • Most news requires background information to understand, and that’s hard and boring. I show my students Times Topics on the New York Times website, and explain that when people first start realizing that they live in a big world and that it’s part of their responsibility to understand current events, it’s difficult to understand today’s news without understanding what came before. Times Topics gives the deep background on any story to help people catch up. (http://www.nytimes.com/pages/topics/index.html)

        Looking around the classroom, I can see a few kids’ faces alive with interest, and a lot more who are only refraining from rolling their eyes because they’re too polite. If the polite non-eye rollers are ever going to be interested in news, it will be because some enterprising journalist made Congress sound like an MMA tournament, which, now that I think of it…

      • Ceil Kessler says:

        Right, background information. Now I remember how old I am! My first experience in willingly tackling the history of a current news topic was Tiananmen Square. I was not quite 19 when that all went down, and it was not quite as hard getting the background as I thought it would be. But yes, getting the whole story from the beginning is often daunting and intimidating. I suppose that’s why they make Wikipedia! (Just kidding. Sort of.)

  4. Shelley says:

    I LOVE this article. Like you I practiced attachment parenting, was part of La leche League, lived for my Mothering Magazine, home birthed, and home schooled long before it was more normal. In other words, I was a freak 20 years ago when doing all this. Now there are more and more young women latching on to these principals. For them, I am a pioneer and they look at my adult children with hope for how their kids will turn out…my children no longer co-sleep or nurse, are potty trained, and are fully independent funtional people with good values and strong character. Like me, these young women get told things like, “If you don’t force the baby to sleep alone, he will never learn how to sooth himself.” Unlike me, they can look to adult children raised using attachment parenting methods and observe that this is simply not true.

    And in the midst of all these shared values regarding children and family living, we did have widely divergent views on political issues. We still do! My best friend since those early mothering day is still my best friend. We still disagree on political issues, like the birth control issue between the Catholic Church and HHS. And our adult children disagree too. But we LOVE eachother and we have learned through all the shared parenting that one does not DISENGAGE relationally because of disagreement and conflict of opinion. It seems as though attachment parenting methods have given us a way and could build a way for a culture full of varience to stay cohesive.

    But alas, the Times article says we are less than 20% of the populace. Still, 20% is a whole lot more than it was 20 years ago. There is hope!

    • Yes! My attachment-parented children, now 12 and 15, sleep through the night so skillfully that it is difficult to wake them up in the morning!

      We eventually chose Waldorf education instead of homeschooling (which is pretty crunchy, anyway). In my next essay, I’ll write about our experience as a Waldorf family.

      It will be interesting to see how the next generation of AP kids parents their own children, what they keep, what they discard, how they innovate. We didn’t raise our kids the way we were raised, and maybe they won’t either.

  5. bekigray says:

    .I sometimes blame the entire media machine both left and right for polarizing our society and scaring everyone. It makes better news and the shock value gains attention, but it is not good for us humans….dialogue can make all our lives richer. As my dad said years ago,”If everyone agrees, no one is thinking!”

  6. Larry says:

    You wrote: “the implication of all their choices is that everyone else is doing it wrong.” That’s a big part of the polarization problem right there! Some people think that if I do something different, it means that I’m attacking or criticizing people who didn’t make the same choice as me. The flip side of that: if they make a choice, everyone else must make the same choice or their position is not validated.

    In a marketplace of ideas, trying something new would be, at most, an invitation to others to try it as well, not a demand or a threat. And someone choosing to not change wouldn’t feel threatened by those who do. In a healthy culture there is an important place for both those who try new things and those who stick to old ways. And results would be judged by how well the alternatives work for those who choose them, granting that sometimes it takes a long time to figure that out.

    Finally, while it is true that all news tends to be conflict-driven (and tends to have other bad tendencies) that is NOT mean that all news is equally culpable for the polarization of political discourse. One side, far more than the other, has embraced the art of whipping up fear and division in order to gain power, whether political power, ratings, or wealth. But I’ve already wandered too far from the point of this fascinating article.

    • I think the perception of criticism springs from two sources: 1) Some AP people really are judging others. 2) these are anxious times about child-raising (maybe all times are?). If everyone felt completely comfortable with their own choices, someone else’s wouldn’t produce defensiveness or anger. But so many things are in flux with education, family life, media, our understanding of the developing child, and the economy (to name a few), that parents’ anxiety is raised to the boiling point.

  7. Ruth Hansen says:

    Amen, sister!

    There are good, thoughtful people all over the political spectrum (yes, I mean it).
    There are jerks all over the political spectrum (yes, I mean it).
    Therefore, some really good people will disagree with you, and you with them, on certain things.
    And some jerks will agree with you.

    With whom would you rather spend your time?

    I highly value the friendships I have with people who respect me enough to disagree with me on an idea, and allow my disagreement with them, and talk about it candidly knowing there may not be any agreement other than that we respect each other.

  8. OGRe says:

    I couldn’t agree more on not dividing things up, or at least if we do divide we should know that not every dimension is correlated in the way we expect it to be. I must add a disagreeable note to your call for peace, however. It makes sense to me that hippie crunchy moms end up in the same place as the retro Republicans. Both groups cling to a purist philosophy in an impure world.

    For you maybe it was about trusting your instincts. However, ‘instincts’ can be confusing and contradictory. We have an instinct to attach, but then our kids drive us crazy and we have an instinct to throw them out the window. Taken together, we find some balance. But many of the attachment parents forgot the other side. Adhering to simple attachment without the just-as-natural selfishness leads many mothers to depend on morality to keep themselves in line. I am not the only mother who has felt scorned by attached parents. I didn’t read the article you refer to, but I read many others when I was making “Martyred Moms,” and I am sure that there could be hurt pride behind the “mockery and disgust.” I’m neither mainstream nor attachment, and I’ll try not to mock either side, but I do feel hurt when my mothering is criticized.

    I used to say we should just stop judging each other, and I wish I could leave it at that. But that puts me in the same place I just criticized, reaching for the impossibly pure. Of course we judge. We parent the way that we do because, honestly, we think it’s better. Wrapping our minds around the certainty that another perspective is truly worthy of respect is nearly impossible. Nearly, but I’m trying.

    Hey, and the same goes for conflict. Of course we are attracted to conflict. We’re wired that way. So, we have to acknowledge how hard it is to go for depth and history over flames. And then maybe go watch a horror movie.

  9. So, what was your parenting philosophy when yours was a baby? How did you balance your different instincts?

    • OGRe says:

      My daughter was and still is very sensitive. I wasn’t intentionally balancing so much as trying to comfort, and failing. Yes, I did have to put her down to cry because holding her was making us both feel worse at times. Yes, I did have to take time for myself in order to find perspective. If I had been more even-tempered myself, maybe I could have helped her more. But I wish that we had a culture in which babies could attach to the community instead of to one lone woman (or man) who has to either give up a career or be superhuman.

      • I was lucky and had lots of help. My parents and my sister lived only a few miles away. My inlaws came up once a week. Martin taught, but was home relatively early in the evenings. I had a close-knit group of La Leche friends (including Heather!). Even the neighborhood was helpful, in a way. It was an old neighborhood of very close together and close to the street houses. As soon as we stepped out of the house, we had company. I absolutely do not think I could have done it this way all on my own.

  10. Pingback: Adventures in Bothmind | Perfect Whole

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