Category Archives: parenting

The Unsubtle Sexism of Advertising to Mothers

Advertising to mothers is a trend that goes back, I suspect, to the dawn of advertising. It’s first-class manipulation, tapping into our deepest biology: the parental urge to put our kids’ needs first, to always want what’s best for them. “Choosy mothers choose…” etc.

It’s also deeply sexist and dehumanizing. Constantly addressing women as “mothers” denies that they have any other identity or role than to bring up children (and buy things for them). In the world of ads, they’re not even women any more, let alone individuals. Their lives have meaning only in the context of their relationships to others: their children.

(What percentage of ads speak to “parents” or even “dads”? There’s probably a study out there somewhere that can tell us, but I’m sure that percentage is small.)

Advertising matters: it reflects and amplifies the culture that it comes from and is aimed at. It shows us what we “should” aspire to. And it is blasted at us constantly, in all media and locations, at almost every moment of our lives. Much as we would like to believe otherwise, advertising affects our thinking. That’s what it’s designed to do, and by now it’s a science that does it very, very well. The goal of advertisers is, of course, to sell products. But, as a very strong side-effect, ads shape culture.

So think about all those ads aimed at “moms”. Not women. Not people. Moms. Busy moms, happy moms, beautiful moms, perfect moms. Moms who might also have jobs, but who always put their families first.

Think about how that constant barrage affects you and your attitudes towards women, how it has affected you all your life.

Start saying no. Women, insist on being an individual first, and being addressed as such. Because that’s what you want to be, and what you want your children to grow up to be. But you have to fight for it, consciously resisting every insidious force that tries to make you define yourself first in relation to others.

As for advertisers: you can and should do better. What you put out into the world has effects. Bad ones. Rethink your role in modern society, and try to be a force for good. Not just for selling. You’re people, too, and you have obligations to your fellow human beings.

Raising a Non-Believer

A reader has just written to me:

“One was on an essay about Religion as a Cause of Strife in the World – you can bet she went to town on that!”

this is a comment you wrote on Ross’ India Diary and i have always wanted to ask you why you believe that Ross has arrived at an independent opinion/thought/decision regarding religion when it is the exact same opinion/insight you and your husband have. maybe mistakenly, but i’ve gotten this impression that you are very prideful that her belief is identical to yours and see it as a sign of her independent, intelligent thought. how much of a stretch is that really? how different is that to the child who grows up with the gospel every week at church and every day at home? how “independent” can that child’s outlook ever be due to that home conditioning?

It’s very true and completely unsurprising that Rossella, like most kids, shares her parents’ beliefs (or lack of). The more interesting question is: did how she arrive at those beliefs?

One of Richard Dawkins’ most provocative theses is that schools and even parents should not be allowed to proselytize children into religion at young ages. He points to lifelong traumas (both physical and mental) inflicted upon people (and cultures) from infancy, in the name of religion.

One might reasonably ask (many have) how Dawkins’ desire to promote atheism is any different from a religious person’s desire to promote religion. The logic here seems to be: “Atheism is just another belief. Why is it okay for you to preach what you believe, but not for religious people to do so?”

Here’s the “fundamental” difference: most religions teach their adherents – and particularly children – to accept certain strictures, norms, behaviors, etc. because someone in “authority” said so. Believers may be allowed to question up to a point, but sooner or later every religion comes down to “faith” – a necessarily blind (because unprovable) belief that there is some “higher power” out there which has an opinion about how you should think and act.

This is emphatically NOT how we raised our daughter.

My husband is a professional mathematician. This means that he thinks long and hard to come up with new hypotheses about how things behave in his particular realm of mathematics. When he can support his ideas with mathematical proofs, and those ideas are new, and important enough to be brought to the attention of his colleagues, he submits them (in the form of articles) to professional mathematical journals. There his ideas are judged by his peers for their truth and interestingness and worthiness of publication. If he gets something wrong, either he or one of his colleagues will figure that out. He thanks the people who point out his errors, and goes back to the drawing board.

The same thing happens in every scientific field. Ideas are developed, tested, and submitted to a jury of one’s peers. Sometimes an idea is proven wrong immediately, sometimes later, as more research is carried out. A few hypotheses survive the judgement of the scientific community and the test of time to become theories: which is to say, scientifically-proven facts.

All of this is done in a spirit of cooperative enquiry and (more or less) humility. No one can claim to know more than anyone else on the basis of some externally-granted “authority” – a scientist must be able to back his or her hypotheses with solid, provable facts.

I’m not a scientist, but I use the classic scientific method in my job every day: Does this work? If not, why not? What went wrong? Test one variable at a time til you find out where the problem is, then fix it. It’s a simple logic which can be usefully applied in many areas of life.

Given our professional and personal biases (and our penchant for arguing about EVERYTHING), Enrico and I have raised our daughter to prize inquiry, and not to grant authority blindly. We would be hypocrites if we had not encouraged Ross to think for herself and ask questions – to which we always gave grown-up answers.

This isn’t a totally easy way to raise a teenager: “Why do I have to be home at midnight?” In a family like ours, “Because I’m the mom and I said so!” doesn’t cut it. In Ross’ most exhausting, argumentative moments, I have gritted my teeth and consoled myself that: “At least I know she’s not going to do something stupid just because her friends are doing it.”

And, mostly, she hasn’t. We raised her to think for herself, and she does think – and, most of the time, she comes to very sensible conclusions.

If Ross called herself an atheist simply in imitation of me and her father, I’d have no reason to boast of her independence of mind. Perhaps at 18 she hasn’t put as much thought into her beliefs as we have, but I don’t think she’s merely parroting us. She knows that she is welcome – encouraged! – to explore what others believe (Woodstock is an excellent venue for that), and decide for herself what she thinks of it all. Her father and I remain open to discussion. Ross is no fool, and very likely someday she’ll persuade me to something I hadn’t previously agreed with. It wouldn’t be the first time.

She’s Leaving Home

What with all the preparations, end of the school year, and various family medical traumas, I have barely had time to dwell on the fact that our daughter is about to leave home.

It’s just as well that I haven’t had that time.

Ross will be away for a full ten months (yes, I will visit). During winter vacation, the SAGE (exchange) program kids go on a one-month tour all over India, and, although it’s optional, Ross won’t want to pass that up. She will finish up at Woodstock next May 30th, presumably with enough course credits to graduate with a Woodstock diploma (equivalent to a US high school diploma).

She could theoretically then return to Italy for her fifth and final year of liceo, do the maturità (Italian school leaving exam), and go on to university in Italy – which has the advantage that it’s essentially free (we have paid for it already through our taxes). However, for reasons that I don’t feel like going into right now (because I’m so angry with the Italian school system), that is looking unlikely at present. So there’s a good chance that Ross will go straight on to college in the US, with only a vacation stopover back home in Lecco. Enrico and I are staring into the abyss of an empty nest.

Not that we thought she’d live with her parents til age 30, as so many Italian young people do – the girls do tend to get away earlier, and Ross just isn’t the type to stay home. There’s a big, wide world out there, and she can’t wait to go see it all.

Ross is also turning 18, just a few days after her school year at Woodstock begins. The 18th birthday is a big deal in Italy: it’s the voting age, the age of legal adulthood, and the age at which you can drive a car (drinking age? that was a while ago). Many kids, at least in Ross’ circles, celebrate 18 in a big way. Ross didn’t quite get her act together for a big party, but had a dinner out with a gang of friends. And we’re going to see a show in London, and will be having a few other treats along the way. Anything to keep me distracted from that moment when I have to wave goodbye to her at the airport.

Comments and shoulders to cry on welcome!

Raising a Confident Daughter

One of my newsletter readers asked for child-raising advice. Well, that’s putting it a bit strongly, but, apropos of my own daughter, she asked: “…what do you think contributed to her self-confidence and caring for others?” …and I felt an article coming on.

Not that I have definitive answers, or simple ones. I have wondered myself how Ross got to be who she is. Leaving aside occasional bouts of teenage angst, at 17 Ross has all of the self-confidence that I have at 44 (and then some). By the time she’s 30, she’ll be terrifying! There are doubtless many factors: the genetics of her parents and the way we are raising her, but also the culture(s) she’s growing up in.

No one really knows why kids turn out the way they do (though there are lots of theories), nor how much influence parents really have, nor how much of that influence is genetic, and how much is environmental.

We had an object lesson in nature vs. nurture during our wedding – the first time since my brother’s babyhood that many people had seen him and my dad together. (Quick history: My parents divorced when I was 9 and my brother was 1; Ian remained in Thailand with my mom, who remarried; I went to the US with my dad. I then did not see my mom for eight years, Ian did not see Dad for even longer.)

Everyone was astonished at how much Dad and Ian resembled each other. Not just in the obviously genetic stuff like height, build, face, etc., but also in things you wouldn’t think are genetic: voice and manner of speaking, yes, but even use of idiom! It seemed clear that sheer genes have a lot to do with how kids turn out, in both large and subtle behaviors, regardless of how and by whom they are raised.

A few months later, Rossella was born.

During the last months of my pregnancy, I once dreamt that I was working in a lab where I was supposed to take care of white mice. In the course of moving a dozen of these mice from one cage to another, I managed to kill them all: one fell on the floor and I stepped on it, one drowned in its water dish, etc. I woke, sweating, and thought: “I have some anxieties about becoming a mother.”

I hadn’t been around kids or babies much since the separation from my brother. I was de facto an only child (again) after that, and in boarding school you spend most of your time with your peers, seeing relatively little of people in other age groups, and you don’t have opportunities to babysit. I had never taken care of an infant, changed a diaper, or any of that, nor did I have a mother I could turn to for advice. So I thought I had reason to be anxious about my mothering skills.

I don’t recall actually talking about this to anyone, though I silently resented the idea that some sort of mystical “mothering instinct” was supposed to automatically kick in as soon as the baby was born – what if it didn’t? Would that make me a bad person? A failed mother?

Rossella was born, after 24 hours’ labor, around 5 pm on a rainy night in August. Enrico was a champion: he stood by my side throughout the labor, massaging my back and being encouraging even when I was yelling a lot, and he didn’t faint at all the blood (actually, I’m not sure he even noticed it, he was so deliriously happy to have his daughter in his arms).

But, the way most hospitals work, the father goes home after labor, and you, the brand new mother, find yourself alone with this stranger who just came out of your belly.

I had my “special” new mother hospital dinner (it was awful) while the nurses kept my baby in a bassinet in the nursery – I didn’t have a private room, so she had to be in the nursery, but I could go get her whenever I wanted.

I had slept unusually well (for me) during the last trimester of pregnancy. I have rarely slept so well since. That first night, in spite of being thoroughly wrung out by hard labor, I woke up at least once and went to the nursery to check on my daughter. And panicked: she wasn’t in her assigned bassinet. I was about to have a hysterical fit when the nurses explained that they had put her in an incubator to quieten her because she was fussy. They had also tried giving her a pacifier. She spit it out. Good girl.

I was irritated that they had even tried: I had told them I wanted to breastfeed, and, to ensure a smooth start (as recommended by the La Leche instructor), no bottles or pacifiers should be given. Ross preferred real breast right from the start, and would never take a pacifier even later on, when we half-wished she might.

As I emerged from the haze of post-natal exhaustion and began to take charge of my own child, I realized that dealing with a baby was primarily a communications problem: here was an individual who undoubtedly had needs and desires, but wasn’t very good at articulating them. But we were two intelligent, willing people: between us, we’d figure it out.

Of course I’d read books – good ol’ Dr. Spock, for starters – but I was doubtful about much of the advice I read. Try to make the baby sleep according to a schedule? Let it cry itself out if it doesn’t? That sounded like a recipe for no sleep for anybody (including our apartment neighbors). My dad had told me that, during my infancy, he was unable to bear my crying, so he was the one who would get up at 2 am to give me a bottle.

Enrico’s parents had come to stay with us two weeks before the birth, and left again two weeks afterwards. Their timing was perfect and their support wonderful – I didn’t have to cook or shop while I was coping with figuring out this new person in my life. Unlike many Italian in-laws (or so I’m told), they also maintained a strict policy of non-interference: neither ever tried to tell us how to do anything with our baby (unless we asked).

I suppose Dr. Spock would say we were overly permissive parents. We never really tried to force Ross onto a schedule. When she cried, we picked her up, and if she wanted to feed, she fed. If she didn’t, we did whatever we could to entertain her or try to get her back to sleep, til we were bleary-eyed ourselves. We wished someone woud invent a mechanism that would have the same effect as a moving car – which always put her right to sleep – so that we could sleep at the same time.

All the books say you’re not supposed to keep the baby in bed with you, in case you might roll over and smother it. This seemed over-fearful to me: I was so alert to Ross’ tiniest squeak that there was no chance I could sleep through smothering her. As often as not, we’d all fall asleep in the bed together after a night feeding. And Ross often woke up first.

Perhaps Ross’ self-confidence has less to do with anything particular we did for/to/with her than with what we didn’t do.

Mainly, we didn’t try to stop her doing anything she wanted to try. But we were always there, unobtrusively hovering, to make sure she didn’t get hurt.

Ross didn’t start walking til 15 months, so on her first birthday, which we spent at the beach with Enrico’s parents, she was still crawling. This didn’t slow her down much. She would crawl straight down the beach into the (very shallow) water, and keep going until the tiny waves lapped her face. And she would laugh, even as bystanders gasped in horror: “Signora! La bambina!” (“Lady! Your baby!”) – apparently they thought I was going to let her drown, though I was standing right over her and could scoop her up as soon as she got too deep.

Ross was never afraid of the water, even when she got completely dunked by a slightly more vigorous wave.

However, at that same beach, I saw a good illustration of what not to do. A mother accompanied her toddler into the water. The little girl strode fearlessly out, clearly enjoying the sensations, til she got to chin depth. Then a little wave broke in her face and she paused, shocked. Her face screwed up in that classic moment of childish indecision: “Is this a big deal? Should I be upset about it?”

Her mother made up her mind for her: she swooped down, scolding: “See! I told you what would happen!”

The child burst into tears and screams. She had gotten her mother’s message: she was supposed to be afraid. I wouldn’t be surprised if that girl stayed afraid of water for years afterwards.