Erica Jong’s “Mother Madness”–Is Green Living Imprisoning Mothers?

Erica Jong’s Mother Madness, published in The Wall Street Journal a couple days ago, enraged a big chunk of the mommy blogosphere by declaring that the last twenty years or so of “motherphilia” has served to both idealize mothers and imprison them in those unrealistic pressures to be perfect parents. And attachment parenting, the wear-your-baby-everywhere-and-breastfeed philosophy touted by Dr. William Sears, is to blame.

A symbol of our oppression: The humble pocket diaper

Now, normally I do not engage in these online mommy wars, but as Jong lambastes the green movement alongside Dr. Sears, I thought I’d step in with a response from the Green Baby Guide. First of all, I’ve got to say that Erica Jong had some good points. Both Joy and I have some upcoming posts about the downsides of breastfeeding—a point of view that often gets swept into a corner for fear of scaring new mothers off from the practice altogether. If you don’t have a story about how beautiful and transcendent nursing is, you may as well just keep it to yourself for fear that the Earth Mother police will confiscate your secret collection of glass bottles and organic formula.

Jong, too, hates this need to elevate and glamorize every act of motherhood.  In addition to the tenets of attachment parenting is the pressure to save the planet at the same time: “homemade baby food, cloth diapers, a cocoon of clockless, unscheduled time—and you have our new ideal,” she says. “Anything else is bad for baby. Parents be damned.” Okay, so I had some negative thoughts about breastfeeding. But I did enjoy making baby food and I was downright obsessed with cloth diapers. (Enough to co-write the Eco-nomical Baby Guide in their honor!)

Was I blind to my own imprisonment, shackled to the washing machine? Jong thinks so:

Attachment parenting, especially when combined with environmental correctness, has encouraged female victimization. Women feel not only that they must be ever-present for their children but also that they must breast-feed, make their own baby food and eschew disposable diapers. It’s a prison for mothers, and it represents as much of a backlash against women’s freedom as the right-to-life movement.

So if breastfeeding, homemade baby food, and cloth diapers are a “prison for mothers,” is bottle feeding, jarred food, and disposable diapers the path to freedom? Here on the Green Baby Guide, we’ve tried not to be judgmental about other parents’ choices. No need to martyr yourself on the altar of holy greenness for us! But the thing is, for us and many of our readers, cloth diapers and homemade baby food aren’t much of a hardship. Where Jong sees us slaving over a pot of slimy gruel or slapping diapers on rocks down at the river, we’re having fun experimenting with a new type of cooking and oohing and aahing over the latest all-in-one pocket diaper styles.

Homemade baby food enslaves us!

And really—how prevalent is attachment parenting or green parenting? Jong makes it sound like a scourge overtaking the nation instead of the fringe movement it really is. Not even ten percent of the U.S. population uses cloth diapers; when I talk about this website or our book, many are surprised to hear that cloth diapers still exist, as if they were artifacts of past generations. While Jong mocks the parents who fill their kids’ lunchboxes with organic produce, the true problem is that the vast majority of kids are eating junk food—or worse—not eating enough at all.

Jong concludes her article by saying, “We need to be released from guilt about our children, not further bound by it. We need someone to say: Do the best you can. There are no rules.” I couldn’t agree more. We, the eco-conscious mothers, will proceed without guilt, unbound—waving our cloth diapers in the air. Or a gDiaper. Or a chlorine-free disposable diaper. There are no rules, only our good intentions.

What do you think? Has attachment parenting got you down? Green living cramping your style? Let us know!


  1. OMG. Jong has produced nothing more than a rant! Where are the facts backing up her sweeping statements such as “Women feel not only that they must be ever-present for their children but also that they must breast-feed, make their own baby food and eschew disposable diapers.”

    Where are these women? I haven’t met them. The mothers I know look at the available options, make the choices that are right for their families, and perhaps may feel some guilt that they can’t do more, but certainly don’t feel that they MUST buy into attachment parenting or green living whole hog!

    I think every generation of mothers feels some twinges of guilt about what they can’t or don’t do for their children, but I certainly don’t believe that Dr. Sears or Green Baby Guide has made me feel that I *must* do green or attachment parenting in order to be a good mother, nor have they provided me with extra measures of guilt. Instead, I feel reading these publications has shown me what options exist, how I might fit some of these things into my life, and enabled me to make informed choices.

    Thank you Green Baby Guide, for your support in raising my children as green as *I* choose to be!

  2. I think that breastfeeding, once established, is easier than bottle feeding. I have watched my friend’s baby scream while she hurriedly prepared a bottle of formula whereas I can just whip out a breast and my daughter is happy. And all the measuring and figuring out how much to give? Forget it. This is easier for me.

    I haven’t started her on solids yet but it doesn’t seem that bad. I make dinner for myself so why wouldn’t I make it for her, too? My husband eats sweet potatoes 3 times a week so I don’t see preparing food as a hardship.

    Also, both of these choices are much, much cheaper than formula and jarred food. That is an important consideration.

  3. Lori, I agree–where are these women? That’s partly the point I was trying to make about Jong turning attachment parenting/green parenting into some sort of insidious trend sweeping the nation when it is actually a small percentage of parents. I don’t identify as an attachment parent, yet I carried my baby around in a sling, made my own baby food, and used cloth diapers. It’s insulting the way Jong paints us (the parents who make these informed choices) as victims of female oppression.

    Sarah makes a good point–cloth diapers, homemade baby food, etc. are all much cheaper than the alternatives, something Jong didn’t need to worry about. Jong describes the people she hired to care for her child as she traveled. The majority of mothers in the workforce cannot afford top-quality care for their children.

    She presents a bit of a false dichotomy, with the enlightened, wealth working mothers on one side and the downtrodden, diaper-washing mothers on the other. It is really much more complicated than that!

  4. I cloth diaper, breastfed, and make my babies food bc I want to and I have the FREEDOM to do those things. I would not feel guilty if I didn’t and I do not feel trapped bc I do.

    It is funny bc these comments were published somewhere and I think that means that this woman is getting paid for her opinions. How do I get that gig!

    I would not classify myself as attachment parent fully. But I do what I can and I am proud of how my boys are growing. I guess with every “movement” there has to be people opposing adn I really just do not think that anyone should get so emotional on how someone else raises there children (unless there is abuse or neglect of course).

  5. I think it partly comes down to stay-at-home mothers vs. mothers who work outside the home. When my son was born, I read a bunch of parenting advice in various places and then used what worked for me–which was breastfeeding, chlorine-free disposable diapers, and organic jarred baby food–except for dead-simple things like mashed banana or sweet potato, which seemed silly to buy in a jar. (I myself usually eat meals that come at least in part from the Trader Joe’s freezer section–I get home at 6pm so I don’t have time to cook a completely from scratch dinner for me all the time, let alone my child.) If I were at home all day I might have made different choices, but mine is the sole income for our family, and time is a more precious commodity to me than money. I’d rather spend it playing or reading with my child than saving a few bucks by making food.

    What I have noticed about all the various parenting publications out there is a difference in tone. I didn’t find Dr. Sears too strident; I liked The Baby Book and found it helpful. I find the community here generally pretty open and helpful. But there was one magazine I read while pregnant–I think it’s called Mothering–that is so strident in tone, it made it sound like any mother who didn’t breastfeed, didn’t use cloth diapers, who circumcised her son, and in any other way didn’t follow the magazine’s way of doing things was dooming her child to the most awful life imaginable. It made me feel guilty before I’d even started parenting! Unlike Erica Jong, however, I don’t feel that way about most of the parenting stuff I read.

  6. Larisa, you’re right, it does come down to stay-at-home moms vs. working moms. Wasn’t Jong trying to say (or did she overtly state?) that staying at home and not making any money was part of this imprisonment? It seemed like a pretty pro-working mom article. The Feminine Mystique made many of the same arguments: that women staying at home were forced to fill their time with needless tasks and were left unfulfilled and aimless without a paying job.

    The counter-argument, of course, is that these female roles/tasks are undervalued by society and that a pay-for-work model isn’t the path to equality and fulfillment all around. And most of us here on the Green Baby Guide aren’t making our diapering/feeding/etc. decisions because we need activities to fill the voids in our lives; we’re trying to be conscious consumers and be a part of a movement (in my case, the green movement) we believe will lead to positive change.

    I think you’re right about Mothering magazine. It doesn’t have the nickname of “Smothering” for nothing!

  7. My gripe with the article is that Jong suggests that trying to give your child what you feel the best start in life is is a prison in and of itself. That giving of ourselves to our children is a hassle and entrapment that the “modern mommy movement” has forced on us and only serves to weigh us down with guilt when we don’t always measure up. I don’t think anyone anywhere says that being a mother, regardless of how you do it, is an easy job. But to suggest that mothers who decide to go the attachment parenting route are falling into some kind of trap is to suggest that they’re not intelligent, informed individuals who have made a CHOICE (which is what she did when she chose not to go the attachment parenting route) as to what they feel is best for their children.

    Honestly, there are many ways to be imprisoned and it’s just as easy to feel that way washing cloth diapers and making baby food as it is to be stuck in a dead-end job with no hope of being able to do something else which is where many women, moms or otherwise, are stuck these days. Having some kind of traditional job doesn’t imply a lack of imprisonment.

    I don’t think there has to be any guilt when it comes to any type of parenting advice, which is what the Sears offer (advice vs. rules). She wants mothers to just be able to do the best that they can with no rules and for many mothers, the attachment form of parenting is what they feel is the best that they can do.

  8. It also struck me at 3am last night, that feminism is about being able to make our own choices. It really saddens me when feminists look down on women who do choose to stay at home. I worked the first three years of my baby’s life because I had to, but felt incredibly imprisoned by not being able to be home. I made the choice to take a leave of absence to stay with my kids this year but it feels so much more like a vacation than a prison.

    I also really resent how she shoves us all into one box that includes green parenting, attachment parenting, open schedules, and staying at home. In our own families most of us are creating our own rules for working, parenthood, and sustainable living.

    Also, many of the husbands in this group are an incredibly supportive group who are sometimes staying at home like my husband did last year. Are they sadly missing out on their potential, or getting the chance to enjoy the fleeting and intriguing first years of their children’s lives? The more I ponder Jong’s article, the more irritated I become!

  9. Joy, while I agree that women should not look down on each other’s choices, I am hesitant to say that “feminism is about being able to make our own choices.” Analogy: we have won the right to vote. Exercising that right is an important way for women to maintain equality. If I choose not to vote, that does not make it a feminist act just because I, as a woman, chose it.

    I would rather see the argument that staying at home can be a feminist act just as well as work outside the home. Staying at home, caring for children, and managing a household aren’t the frivolous wastes of time Jong makes them out to be–it is good work, “woman’s work.” As Tara said, a dead-end job can be just as imprisoning as anything else.

    It’s disingenuous for Jong to suggest that working outside the home = enlightenment and equality. (And staying at home washing diapers = imprisonment.) Is working two minimum wage jobs and struggling to find people to care for your child really that fulfilling? That is the reality for most women in the United States.

    Okay, I think I got a little off track there. . . .

  10. “Feminism is about being able to make our own choices.” This is partly the point Jong’s daughter (a stay-at-home mother of three) makes in her companion piece–that her mother worked hard to ensure that her daughter would be able to choose whether to work or stay at home. If you choose to stay at home (which, financially, is often a luxury these days)–in fact, if you choose to have children–then I don’t see how that’s a prison.

  11. Larisa, I read Jong’s daughter’s article and found it very interesting. I wondered if Jong had her own daughter in mind when she wrote her article. Her daughter seems to be living the very life Erica likens to a prison.

  12. I wrote my own response to Erica’s article tonight – and I’m really quite taken aback by the attitudes I’m finding about it. For starters, is attachment parenting really such an unknown way to go?

    Odd. Then again, as a home educator, I guess I’m moving in some pretty radical circles!

  13. Very interesting. I’m becoming more and more convinced that it’s impossible to be the mothers we’ve convinced ourselves we have to be. All the mothers I know are tired and stressed out and doing way too much. Personally, I blame Oprah.

  14. This made me laugh. My life (mostly as a stay at home mom, with about two hours a day of working for our business) seems so much easier and less stressful than most of my friends who have to be up at the crack of dawn rushing kids to daycare, heading to work, then back home to try to fit in all the housework before they collapse from exhaustion.
    I adore our cloth diapers, and I loved making them. I didn’t make baby food, but I also never bought baby food… I just had a little $8 food mill and used it to grind up whatever we were eating so that our son could have some too. That only lasted for a few months until he was able to chew, and since then he’s just eaten the same food we do.
    I loved breastfeeding him (yes, it hurt for the first two weeks, but then I had two years of awesome times with my son – definitely worth it), and it was so much easier than having to make bottles, especially in the middle of the night. And I especially loved wearing him in a sling – much easier than trying to drag a stroller everywhere we went, and it was great to be snuggled up with him. None of the stuff I’ve done has felt like a sacrifice or a prison.

  15. Thanks so much for this post. I had such mixed feelings about Jong’s article. After all, I am a cloth-diapering (sometimes), baby-food-making, sling-wearing, stay-at-home mom. I felt like she was demeaning my life choices. But at the same time, I do think that, as mothers, we need to stop judging each other. Her article inspired me to search around the web for other’s opinions and views and led me to your blog. It also inspired some much needed soul searching and journal writing for me this week.

  16. I like the idea of the communal kitchens and nurseries she mentions. I think it would be nice to have tighter knit communities where we entrust our children to more adults — some of us find that through church or other group. I agree that mommy guilt is a big problem. What we have now is so many parenting choices, and that can be a burden. But I think AP and green parenting are still the fringe frankly — maybe she’s basing her remarks on what celebrities are doing/trendiness? I do find her condescension a bit much. I made my family bed and I’m willing to lie in it. I do reserve the right to complain nonetheless, however.

    I am always interested in the working mother = liberated woman bit (a la Feminine Mystique). If I hire women to take care of my kids, take care of my elderly parents, clean my house and cook my food so that I can be a liberated professional worker, what does that make the women who have taken over my domestic duties (and probably left their kids in a non-ideal childcare situation)? Are they also liberated because they get a paycheck???

    If I am a SAHM but I use disposables, jarred food, crib, bouncy seat and a stroller, now am I liberated?

  17. Thank you for all the comments, everyone! This has been a really interesting discussion.

    Betsy–I know. I’m always a bit baffled by this upper-middle-class view of women’s roles.

  18. Heather Hansen says

    Community: Jong suggests that we are over involved in parenting our own children to make up for feeling powerless re: larger world issues. I think there may be some truth to this, but as the main consumer in the family (I choose the bulk of food, gifts, clothing etc.) I feel that I’ve made a difference by voting with my dollar. I’ve done as much as I can to make responsible choices and feel more connected to the larger community of the world now that I’ve been raising kids for 10 yrs than I ever did before. I’ve been imperfect but I don’t worry about that, I just do what I can and as far as I know my friends seem to feel much the same. I also feel that I’ve raised kids who feel connected to the world as we talk with them about why we do what we do.

    FAS and maternal rights: I am concerned about her suggestion that a mother sipping wine is not dooming her child to FAS, but in real life that child may or may not end up with FAS from one glass of wine. No one really knows what a safe amount is and FAS is lifelong and really tough, so is a mother’s short term desire for a glass of wine really more important than her desire not to chance raising a child with FAS? The impression that I got from the article was that she was only talking about a woman’s right to choose and not to alcoholism/addiction issues, which is a very different issue. We do all have to make our own choices, but I feel that for Jong to politicize that choice in her article is irresponsible and could set up a feeling for some pregnant women that they are being unreasonably cautious in avoiding alcohol, which makes it harder to say no when you want to.

  19. lynn reed says

    I loved being with my children so much that we went onto homeschool them. I learned how to cook nutritious food and taught my children how to create a home! A home that will then help them also nurture and care for their babies:) I am very proud of this. They both now have good college degrees and are working making good money.

    I was fortunate to have learned many of these things from other attached parents back in the 80’s at La Leche League meetings & park dates. I spent time with these families and saw their style and could tell that their children were happy and secure & it also nurtured me.

    I am sad to hear that Erica feels that she cannot be free unless she is able to leave her kids with other people. I know my children felt a sense of happiness knowing that they could nurse when they were hungry or just needed some mommy time. It felt natural and right.

    The statistics do point to the fact that it is healthiest for mama & baby, but I just did it cause it felt right! I never felt imposed upon or trapped…quite the opposite. I felt happy knowing I could meet my children’s needs as they grew up. THAT IS WHY I HAD KIDS!
    If I did not wish to be there for them I would have adopted a fish or a plant!!!

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