Or Why Satire is True Even When It's Not True
An Onion article, "New Study Finds Link Between Breastfeeding, Always Knowing What's Right For Everyone" ,has been making it's way around my Facebook circles this week, one that hits pretty close to home for me. Basically, it's an article skewering a particular set of young moms, those who are undyingly committed to breast feeding and as result make it their goal to tell every other parent they come across how they are doing parenting wrong.
These types of moms might be called "crunchy" and are typically those who practice "attachment parenting", co-sleeping, gentle discipline practices, and are perhaps even advocates for home births and other counter-cultural parenting perspectives on potty training and education (think home schooling and "un-schooling"). This set of moms also might be the type who believe cloth diapers, organic food, or even a completely vegan diet is the only way to go. This hits close to home because this is more or less exactly the type of parents my wife and I are.* A Korean-American friend of mine wondered if this phenomenon didn't apply mostly to educated middle class white women, but without knowing the motherhood paradigms of all the sub-cultures existent in the U.S., I'll leave that conclusion open-ended for now.
With typical Onion-esque snarkiness, the author, who I can only imagine had a bad experience the day before while bottle feeding her child on the subway heading home from work, expertly uses satirical writing to vivisect to the heart of a touchy matter: 1.) that parenting is so very very hard and we're all struggling with trying to raise our kids as best we can, 2.) that all parents essentially think they're raising their kids the "correct" way, and 3.) that some of us parents have made it our personal mission to tell others how our particular way is in fact the right one and their's is...well, lacking or down right harmful to their child (those of us in this camp often want to say to some parents, "You know, what you're doing right now has basically ruined your child's chances of any future success. Sorry, you should have read the right books...). For those of us who know this type of parent, the article is laugh out loud funny and biting in its critique.
The problem though is that it's basically not true, and on two accounts. For starters, most of the moms I know that would fit into the militant-breastfeeding camp, would never actually confront, deride, or hand out unsolicited advice to any perceived transgressing mothers they come across. Now, they might unleash an eye-roll, a knowing glance to a like-minded friend, or a scandalous conversation onto their husbands on the way home from a playdate, as in "Can you believe what that one mom did to her kids at the park!" (this is based on numerous personal experiences with my wife—I love you honeybun! [and I really do]). But unless a child is truly being endangered I have never seen my wife or her friends actual address someone else's parenting to someone they have never met before. My wife, who works in the healthcare industry and constantly instructs an unknowing populace on how to take care of their bodies, is particularly scrupulous in how she brings up these issues with other parents. So, the article isn't true not because there are no mothers out there who give out advice like this (I'm sure there are), but because I don't believe there are that many of them (and I know a lot of these types of moms).
The other reason the article isn't true is these kinds of moms are, in my experience, some of the most well educated women I know. They are self-taught and oftentimes formally taught and certainly not those who have gained "this remarkable knowledge at the very moment they began breastfeeding" as the article mentions. They are constantly reading up on these issues in the forms of books and articles and they are constantly asking each other for advice. Much like my friends and I enter into endless dialogues on theological, philosophical, Biblical, artistic, or cultural issues, my wife and her friends are in continual conversation with each other. And in asking for advice realize they each bring to the table the knowledge and wisdom they have gained from their own independent studies. It's a pretty informal and non-professional setting but they are experts nonetheless offering their own version of "peer review", even if only of their particular parenting point of view.
But here's the thing. I absolutely love this article and I love what satire in general is able to do to us. In fact, I'm of the opinion my wife, her friends, and all the other white, educated, middle class women like them should love this article too. I'm also of the opinion that if reading the article hurts or makes them irate, then that's a good thing. It means the article has done it's job. None of the moms I know would ever want to be the type of mom portrayed in the article. They never want to come across as pompously self-righteous and absolutely hate it when they are treated like that themselves. Even so, I would say—and I truly say this out of love—there in fact is a lot of pride in this particular mommy camp. These mommies are fighters who are always having to defend their mommy point of view to a general public who thinks they are freaks or who thinks they are the ones harming their children and not the other way around. So, these mommies, always on the defensive, can often come off a little abrasive or diminutively disproving.
What this article does though is give these moms a chance to step back a little and assess their approach and overall attitude to other moms who are doing it "wrong". Actually, the article does more than that, for who among us has not been prideful or overly self-righteous about our own passions, agendas, and ideologies? Who of us haven't deeply hurt others numerous times through ill-chosen, judgmental, and belittling words? I for one think it's quite possible I myself often come across as a pretentious prick in how I communicate to others about the way my church worships (we're liturgical!!!), the method of education my school follows (Classical and nothing else!), or the music, literature, and films I partake of (all of the highest quality, I assure you).
This article in particular and satire in general sobers us up by offending us, tearing a wound into that which we hold most dear so that we might see where we have allowed ourselves to accept a lie, to hurt others, or to become that dreaded word hypocrites. And it does so by forcing us to laugh at ourselves, revealing us as the clowns we all are. Sure, the things we believe in are often serious matters, but maybe if we lighten up a little and learn to approach others from a place of un-anxious service, we will actually bring to them understanding and help them to come around to our side. So, "New Study Finds Link Between Breastfeeding, Always Knowing What's Right For Everyone" may not exactly be "true," but it certainly opens our eyes to the truth. It teaches us that we shouldn't look away from or reject something simply because it's offensive to us or is propagating a twisted half-true perspective of one side of a complicated issue. For in the midst of painful laughter there is a deeper hurt worth feeling and a lesson begging to be learned. In a word, satire, at its most effective, leads us to repentance. It causes us to reject that which we hate and live our lives differently in return.
*I should make it clear that my wife and I are on the same page as far as our parenting decisions go. That is, it's not just her that is making these parenting decisions. While I don't particularly like the term "crunchy" (especially as it relates to hippies) I suppose I would fit into this category. Not that being this type of parent is easy. For instance, we co-sleep with our kids up to a certain age and even though I think it's best for their development it has certainly been one of the most difficult commitments of my life, one wrought with trial and error and much kicking against the goads on my part. But not every characteristic labeled above fits us. We don't do home schooling or unschooling for example.