The Mother of All Battles: How to End the Mommy Wars

As I mentioned below, my post on sleep training netted some deeply anguished and angry responses, most of which I didn’t post because while I’m happy to permit critical comments, I tend not to publish comments I think you’ll regret when you calm down.

One commenter welcomed me, tongue-in-cheek,  to the Mommy Wars.  Of course, I’ve reluctantly been on the front lines of the Mommy Wars for over a decade now, since Parenting with Grace (the first and only book to apply the theology of the body to family life and parenting) came out.

Since we’re talking about anger today on More2Life, I thought I’d reflect a bit on the mommy wars and what’s behind the anger that drives them. I want to say, up front, that although I am very publicly alligned with certain factions in the battle, I have never intentionally tried to antagonize or shame any parent for the way they parent and, at any rate, everything I’m about to say applies equally to every combatant in the mommy wars no matter what side you find yourself on.  If you have ever felt caught in the mommy war crossfire or ever borne a banner in battle, this post is for you.

MOMMY WARS:  MISSING THE POINT

The more I read about these parenting battles the more I’ve come to see that they entirely miss the point.

You see, parenting is supposed to be about children. Period.  We wouldn’t be parents without them , therefore it makes sense it should be about them.  Regardless of the approach you take, the parenting style we choose should reflect our belief that this the best approach to take, not in general, but with this particular child.  God gives us the children we need.  We accept that gift by responding to the unique needs that child brings to the family and responding generously to those needs.  If we do this, we create a “community of love” wherein we grow into more loving, responsible, people, and our children are challenged to be more loving and responsible people–first by our example, and later by the requirements we place on them through good discipline.

Unfortunately, for many parents, and especially those parents who are most vocal in the parenting wars, parenting is not about childrenIt is about them. It is too tempting to choose a parenting style that is going to make me feel good about me.  To pick on my own crowd for a moment, I know too many parents who choose attachment parenting not out of a real desire to get to know their child better but because they have friends who do it at church and they want to fit in.  Or because they feel like if they don’t do it they’ll be “bad moms” or bad Catholics.  I also know plenty of moms (and dads) who choose Guarendi, or Dobson, or Ezzo, or Brazelton, or whomever for the same reason.   The wars between the people who think this way about parenting are so intense because their parenting choices do not reflect a desire to be present to their children as much as they reflect a desire to find validation through their children.

MOMMY WARS:  WHY SO INTENSE?

Look, everyone is insecure about their parenting choices.  I get that.  That’s normal.  Everyone wants to do right by our kids and we’re all afraid, deep down, that we’re going to screw them up.  Again, that’s normal.   But people who exhibit this normal degree of parenting insecurity can look at other parents who are doing things differently, engage those parents in respectful discussions, and learn from each other.  They evaluate what other parents are doing by how responsive those parents seem to be to their children and how they imagine behaving similarly might make them more responsive to their own children.

By contrast, parents looking to find validation through their children tend to act as if kids are secondary to other goals.   They tend to ask questions like, “How can I parent in a way that allows me to have the life I want?”  Or, “How can I parent in a way that allows me to have the family I imagine I’d like to have  (as opposed to dealing with the family I actually have)?”  Now, there’s nothing wrong with parents getting their own needs and wishes met…too, but these parents tend to buy into the idea that “as long as I’m happy the kids will be too” and they parent that way–whether its good for their kids or not.  And if it’s not good for their kids, then its their kids’ fault for not getting with the program.

And then, they get online and fight with each other, because, “How dare you tell me that what I want for my life is wrong.”    The Mommy Wars are so vicious because there is a subtext that no one is willing to admit.  The Mommy Wars are really not fighting over the best way to take care of kids or being a good parent.  The Mommy Wars are really about fighting over  best way to get what parents really want (e.g., validation, a sense of accomplishment, psychological healing,  etc.) while they also take care of their kids.

THE SOLUTION:  SEEK FIRST THE KINGDOM

I would like to make a respectful suggestion.   I fully acknowledge that parents have needs and, furthermore, that parents have a right to have those needs met.  But we can only find true happiness when the means we employ to meet our needs are respectful of the people we are in community with, including our children. When we try to do something else, inevitably it all falls apart.  Whatever parenting style you choose should respect the best interests of your unique and unrepeatable child first.  Then pray about the rest of the desires of your heart.  Scripture tells us that if we seek first the Kingdom of God then the other things we desire will be given to us (Matt 6:33).  Scripture likewise tells us that we seek the Kingdom of God in our lives by fully attending to the least (our children) first (Matt 25:40).  When we do that, if we have other desires remaining (and most of us will) then we can bring them to God and let him teach us how to meet those desires in a manner that is respectful of our call to be fully present to the least first.  And if we do that, the Mommy (and Daddy) Wars will cease because we will all stop trying to seek fulfillment through our kids, or in spite of our kids, and find fulfillment in meeting our needs while being present to our kids.

—Dr. Gregory Popcak is the founder of the Pastoral Solutions Institute which provides Catholic tele-counseling services for couples, families and individuals around the world.  Call 740-266-6461 to make an appointment with a professional, Catholic counselor.

About Dr. Greg

Dr. Gregory Popcak directs the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to marriage, family, and personal problems. Together with his wife, Lisa, he hosts More2Life Radio. He is the author of over a dozen books integrating psychological insights with our Catholic faith. For more info about books, tele-counseling and other resources, visit www.CatholicCounselors.com.

  • http://www.parafool.com victor

    It is interesting that you don’t really hear about “Daddy Wars”. Maybe that’s because we dads tend not to “parent” one way or the other. As a general rule, we just do what we can do for our kids and they either turn out okay or they don’t. The last thing any Dad wants to do is overthink things or give their particular parenting style a label.

  • Jayne

    “But we can only find true happiness when the means we employ to meet our needs are respectful of the people we are in community with, including our children. When we try to do something else, inevitably it all falls apart. Whatever parenting style you choose should respect the best interests of your unique and unrepeatable child first. Then pray about the rest of the desires of your heart.”

    Brilliant. We looked around for years–and no one was in our situation (turns out we have special needs kids, not with physical are even conventional neurological issues). When we finally focused inward and tuned it all out to do what we thought would help them the most, everything began to get better. Of course it’s not easy–is parenting easy? But we’re not conflicted over some societal facade of what parenting is supposed to be according to the mythical Jones.

    I lean my hear on my Lord’s heart–and look to Him for guidance for *our* family. Both my husband and I do this–and the rest be hanged. If someone else does it differently, I’m not so insecure (anymore) to think I ought to throw it all out. I can certainly learn from others–but it’s not contest, and it’s not a club.

    Thanks for your post.

  • Guest

    “The Mommy Wars are really about fighting over best way to get what parents really want (e.g., validation, a sense of accomplishment, psychological healing, etc.) while they also take care of their kids.”

    While I’m sure there is plenty of what you describe above, there is a much more deeply hurtful side to this too. There really isn’t any way that a person could describe and recomend attachment parenting – and those who do are generally pretty passionate about it – that doesn’t say to a mom that has to go back to work 3-4 weeks after birth to keep her job that she pretty much sucks as a parent and she’s harming her child, however unintentional. That is a whole lot of shame and guilt to heap on a mom who may have even made a courageous (for her) decision not to abort her child in the first place.

    Not sure how to avoid this given the hugely disparate ‘theories’ and situations families find themselves in. I guess I would just say try to assume the best intentions in people who raise their children very differently than you and don’t get defensive about the differences. And if you have the ability to be a stay-at-home mom get down on your knees and thank God for it and pray for those women and their children who don’t.

    • http://www.catholiccounselors.com Dr. Greg

      Thank you for your comment. Here is the thing. If you have to go back to work, that’s not your fault and you have nothing to feel guilty about.

      We all give the best we can to our kids, but the truth is, in a broken world, the best we can give isn’t always the best that could be given if absolutely everything in our life was different. It isn’t different. It is what it is. And as long as you are doing the best you can and always striving to do a little better, you have nothing to feel guilty about.

      We need to stop being afraid of saying that some things are objectively better than other things because we might “make some people feel guilty.” Some things ARE better than other things, and not everybody is in a place to do what is absolutely best, but that’s nothing to feel guilty about and nothing to be ashamed of. We must do the best our circumstances allow and trust the rest to God. But we also can’t pretend there aren’t absolutes to strive for and hope in. Having ideals should be what gets us up in the morning–not what makes us feel guilty.

      • Guest

        You’re absolutely right. And a very psychologically secure and healthy woman would understand and be satisfied to do the best she could. A new mom suffering separation from her infant, sleep deprived, enduring the post-natal physical / hormonal changes, and the additional burden of work outside the home – probably not so much.

        Just saying that words and ideas can crush and people should never forget that.

        • http://www.catholiccounselors.com Dr. Greg

          You’re right, of course. People, generally speaking aren’t great at sensitivity. I hope that, recognizing this, we can all realize that doing our best is all we can do and even feel proud of ourselves for what we can accomplish instead of all we haven’t. I really appreciate your comments and I hope you’ll visit regularly. God Bless, Dr.Greg

  • http://www.sarahrosessupposes.blogspot.com Sarah Rose

    I am fortunate enough to have only seen a glimpse of the “mommy wars.” I was talking to a friend who’s a stay at home, homeschooling mom about deciding if we would homeschool, send our son to Catholic school, a charter school etc. So much of those important decisions is up in the air as our family is in a transitional stage and we don’t yet know where we will be living and working in the near future. I am blessed enough to have a wonderful friend who simply told me to pray about it and to do whatever is right for our family, as well as send me some info on the local homeschool co-op so I could see what is was all about.

    My glimpse of the “mommy wars” came from somebody online who I never met. She was commenting on an article about the cost of raising a child that we both agreed was ridiculous, but went on to say “NO MOTHER, should EVER work outside the home.” As much as I greatly respect, admire, and would like to be a stay at home mom, I was simply taken aback by this sweeping, judgmental statement. I am so blessed that the women in my life are loving, respectful, and understanding, like the friend I mentioned above.

    There is no one magic way to raise the perfect child. I know wonderful, intelligent, holy people who were homeschooled and I know wonderful, intelligent, holy people who went to public school, including three studying to be priests! I know people of strong faith who went to Catholic school, I know people who have fallen away who also went to Catholic school. On my blog I occasionally mention that I work, because I know that most other blogs of that kind (Catholic recipes and crafts for kids) are done by homeschooling moms. Wonderful, intelligent, holy, homeschooling moms. I use their sites frequently, I love them! But I hope that by mentioning that I do work, moms can see that there is more than one way to be a good, holy, mother.

    • Beccolina

      The mommy wars are worst on-line. It’s so easy to get one’s dander up, make a stand, and be a jerk. I’ve been a working mom, a working mom as sole supporter of the family, a stay-at-home-mom, and a homeschool mom, and I’m a stepmom. Nothing works for everybody, nor every child.

  • http://www.catholicpsych.com Dr. Gregory Bottaro

    I am grateful for the way you brought this topic around to what really matters. I’ve been following along with a slight sense of anger growing over the fact that parents can be so self-centered. Shouldn’t selfless surrender to the child’s best interest be at the heart of whatever parenting “style” is adopted? And yet, I’d say that well over half of the patients I see are dealing with issues that stem from insecure attachment patterns and family enmeshment. I think there’s a point where the parenting books can complicate matters. Especially when they are based on fads instead of science (or worse, blindly alleviating parents’ discomfort). The child is the source of what the child needs. Pay attention to your child, provide what’s needed. It’s really quite simple. (Yeah right.)

    I say this with the disclaimer that I do not have any children yet. My wife and I are expecting our first in August, and so this topic is rapidly transitioning from professional to personal for me. For the present, however, I am offering my perspective purely from the compensated side of the therapist’s couch. Parents- if you want to increase your child’s chances of ending up in one of our offices, lock onto some idea of what your child should or shouldn’t do, ignore what your child is trying to tell you, and carry on as if you know best. If you want to give your child the best chance at mental health, I agree wholeheartedly – “Seek first the kingdom of God.”

  • http://Anamericanhousewifeintexas.com Leslie Loftis

    Excellent points. One quibble:
    “Look, everyone is insecure about their parenting choices. I get that. That’s normal. Everyone wants to do right by our kids and we’re all afraid, deep down, that we’re going to screw them up. Again, that’s normal.”
    It’s relatively normal, yes, but we are more insecure about parenting these days because most of us have so little experience with children. We grow up in smaller families, where olders aren’t often expected to care for youngers. No self respecting teenager spends much time babysitting. They have social, sport, and academic pursuits to fill their ore college resume. In college, we train to become professionals, doctors and lawyers and such. On the whole, we don’t think about children until we are pregnant–and then, as you note our thinking of ourselves, a significant part of our worry is our own bodies. In the end, when our first child won’t sleep or throws her first tantrum, we have little perspective to figure out if this is a typical tantrum or something of deeper significance. So we fret and are susceptible to every expert theory. We have to figure everything out from scratch.

    • http://www.catholiccounselors.com Dr. Greg

      Good points. That’s why you need to keep two things in mind.

      1. Every Catholic family is obliged, first and foremost, to bear witness to the Catholic vision of love.

      2. Every parenting expert, whether they admit it or not, teaches you to parent toward particular values or a particular worldview. Your job is to make sure the values behind the parenting “expert’s” methods actually serve your mission to bear witness to the Catholic vision of love. In Parenting with Grace, our first chapter is entirely about how we believe our methods serve that Catholic vision of love. Parents don’t have to agree with our conclusions, but at least you know where we’re coming from and why. Most parenting authors aren’t so honest.

  • Pingback: The Mission of the Catholic Parent: Just Do Your Best?

  • Paula CASILLAS

    Omg you r so right I have 4 grown children . My oldest son gave me my first grandchild 2 years ago, and the first thing I told him is it will no longer be about u anymore, it’s all about your son from now on. The child doesn’t know when your tired, when your sick, when you’ve had a bad day at work, all they know is to be loved and cared for. The first people the child loves are his or her parents. They give u unconditional love.

  • Anonymous

    Dear Dr. Greg,
    We are big fans of your work. Married, almost 19 years and pregnant with our 5th child. Your article has brought me to reconsider our own sleep training in the family. Our cry it out method seemed to work well for 3, but bombed for the 4th child…who, at age two, still struggles with sleep. It has been extremely humbling. I welcome new ideas and perspectives and now recognize that every child is truly unique in their needs and as parents we must give each what they need rather than what we are comfortable giving. In my vocation I’m realizing that the more of myself I give away to my family, the happier I am and the more peace I have in my heart. I pray that all parents can become humble in their journey and not feel threatened by ideas that are different an their own. We will all serve our families better for it. I used to think I had it all figured out, baby #4 taught me that I still have much to learn. Pray for us! :-). God Bless your family!


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