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Is motherhood really a prison?

If motherhood is a prison, can we get time off for good behavior?Erica Jong’s essay in the Wall Street Journal last weekend, decrying modern motherhood as a prison enforced by unattainable ideals of self-sacrifice, has prompted many thoughtful responses – most of them disagreeing with her.Several writers have taken Jong to task for her straw-man bashing of attachment and “green” parenting
Erica Jong
Erica JongGetty Images file / Today

If motherhood is a prison, can we get time off for good behavior?

Erica Jong’s essay in the Wall Street Journal last weekend, decrying modern motherhood as a prison enforced by unattainable ideals of self-sacrifice, has prompted many thoughtful responses – most of them disagreeing with her.

Several writers have taken Jong to task for her straw-man bashing of attachment and “green” parenting – the supposed mandate that mothers wear their babies, breast-feed, co-sleep, make their own baby food, use cloth diapers, and basically be the all-nurturing Earth Mother. Others take issue with Jong directing her venom at mothers themselves – instead of, say, attacking systemic problems like maternity leave and affordable day care (or the lack thereof).

What I wondered while reading her piece was: Who is this “we”? According to Jong, “we” run ourselves ragged trying to achieve an impossible attachment parenting ideal, believing we must subsume our identities in our children’s lives – “We dare not question these assumptions,” she writes.

Really? Daren’t we?

I live in Manhattan, which by all rights should be the epicenter of hyper-competitive, politically correct parenting. And yet I’ve never felt this overwhelming pressure that Jong describes to parent the “right” way. Among the mothers I’ve met and befriended in the first year of my son’s life, some work and some stay home. Some breast-feed and some use formula. Some co-sleep and some let their babies cry it out in a crib. Some use cloth diapers and home-made organic baby food, others are all about the ‘sposies and Gerber jars.

And you know what? No one looks down on anyone else’s choices. We quickly learned that as soon as you get one baby behavior figured out, they change on you, so smugness doesn't work real well. We’re all way too busy trying to figure out what the heck we're doing to judge or police our fellow moms.

Perhaps I’m oblivious, but Jong’s bleak version of modern motherhood didn’t ring true for me at all. Read the essay, and share your thoughts. Do you feel judged for your parenting choices, or held to some impossible standard? Is motherhood a prison?