Australian feminist and author Clementine Ford this week published a column in Fairfax headed “Why nobody is more judgmental than middle class mothers”. In her article Ford, who is mother to a young son, writes against the subjection of mothers to “the unwelcome judgment of others”, particularly online.
Ford shares a story about how, in a previous column, she mentioned the fact that she and her partner used sleep training methods with their baby. In response, Ford writes, she was “chastised heavily” on social media and email by other mothers “not just for my choice but for even mentioning it at all”. Ford goes on to list breastfeeding, birth, introducing solid foods, and child care as other hot button topics “up for judgment in the online Mommy Wars”, and calls for women to just stop already.
Ford is being somewhat disingenuous here. First, the ‘judgment’ she received was not exactly a mothers group argument or strangers on the street. Ford has a national print and online column in which she commented about her use of sleep training. When women contacted her about their concerns about her apparent advocacy for sleep training, Ford then used her platform to publicly smack down these women, who from their quotes appear to have been polite and measured, especially compared to the vile misogynist trolling Ford frequently receives.
These women and women like them, according to Ford, are unbelievably condescending, “flexing some Mother Superior muscles in the direction of someone who’s just trying to make it through another day”. Ford dismisses the possibility that these women might have something of value to share in favour of a caricature of mothering discourse as a nasty white middle class hobby which we would all be better off without.
But birth, breastfeeding, and infant sleep are not just matters of opinion, you do your thing and I’ll do mine, choice choice support support Sisterhood of Motherhood. Rather, these are issues of fundamental relevance to the health and wellbeing of mothers and children, and the choices we make (or can’t access) matter.
We could riff back and forth all day about evidence and risks and benefits, but that would distract us from the main game here. Which is that in our culture, new mothers are cast adrift in a sea of conflicting advice and crappy choices, and other women shutting up and keeping their knowledge and opinion to themselves is not what support looks like. Women are socialised to defer to ‘experts’ instead of considering ourselves and each other as a valuable source of wisdom and information. When a doctor dispenses baby care tips they must know what they are talking about; when another mother says the exact same thing she is a bitch, especially if nobody asked her opinion first. We lament the loss of the village in the same breath as dismissing our would-be villagers as rude snipes who should keep it to themselves. But if mothers don’t talk to each other about mothering, who on earth will?
And therein lies the real rub of the ‘don’t judge, laydeez’ message that Ford is pushing. Telling women to play nice and not make others feel bad is a sexist tactic of silencing and control as old as patriarchy itself. If men exercise their judgment or share information based on their experience or knowledge, they are rarely if ever accused of being out of line (although when it comes to health, men are often silenced in other ways). But when mothers do it, suddenly it’s ‘mummy wars’ and ‘competitive mothering tactics’. Unless, of course, you’re judging other mothers for their own so-called judginess. That type of judgmentalism is perfectly fine. Keep fighting with each other, girls, we’ll just be over here oppressing you unchallenged.
Ford’s argument depends on the false claim that “you are totally free to make the (legal) choices you think are best for you and your family, and you don’t deserve to be judged for them either.” This is staggeringly short sighted. Because one thing motherhood makes abundantly clear for most women is how little power we have to make some of the choices which matter most to us and our children. Not all choices are equal, and not every woman has equal access to all choices. And typically, the mothers who are most vulnerable to the differences between ‘parenting choices’ are those who are the least empowered to exercise the choices which might make the biggest difference for them.
Ford’s failure to acknowledge the structural inequalities and barriers to choice, in favour of focusing the spotlight on women as the problem, is individualistic anti-mother nonsense at its most toxic. Instead of attacking women who question the impacts of sleep training, we must asking why biologically normal mother-baby interactions are being disrupted to the point where mums feel they have to choose between their baby and their mental health. Instead of “it is really NONE of your business whether someone sleep trains or breastfeeds” we should be marching side by side in fury because it is ALL of our business and we are ALL being failed.
Women who speak the truth about sleep training and formula and childbirth deserve better than to be characterised as “major assholes” in a national paper. But if doing so makes me an asshole, then maybe we need more assholes. Because this shit has been around for way too long, and it’s about time we let go of it.