Feminism: Being Free to Make Your Own Decisions

Marissa Harrington-Verb.

Today we welcome our first post from Marissa Harrington-Verb, one of our Rising Voices Fellows. Be sure to check the JWA blog each Tuesday for a new post from one of our fellows—and check out the great educational resources provided by our partner organization, Prozdor.

My mother, Elisa Harrington-Verb, loves feminism. But more importantly, my mother loves motherhood. She is the most devoted and loving mother that my little brother Sawyer and I could have wished for. When we were young, she stayed home with us all day. She slept next to us at night, and she breastfed us until we decided for ourselves it was time to wean. I love her more than anything, and if you had tried to tell me back then that she was raising me wrong, I would have looked at you like you were crazy.

I had no idea that my mother’s relationship with us was something she had to defend.

Everything that Mom did for us as babies and toddlers was in fact part of a movement called attachment parenting. It’s a parenting style based on creating a strong emotional bond between child and caregiver. Through breastfeeding, co-sleeping, and just being near the child in its early years, the parent becomes sensitive to the child’s needs so it can grow the way it needs to. This kind of nurturing shouldn’t be as controversial as it is, but something about being so close to one’s young child disgusts Western society.

The controversy over this parenting style has recently become more pronounced and public. Two years ago, Time magazine demonized extended breastfeeding on its cover, and attachment parenting got an easily targeted celebrity spokesperson when it was incorrectly blamed for the divorce of The Big Bang Theory star Mayim Bialik.

Today’s backlash against attachment parenting, however, comes mostly from the ignorant, sensationalist Internet culture that sees everything as sexual. But in my mother’s day, just as much as the criticism came from other women who hated what attachment parenting required her to be: a stay-at-home mother.

When Mom was in college, the idea of the strong working woman was the ideal in feminist circles. But then, as Mom got married and had kids, there came a wave of women who decided that they would rather be home for their children than work in an office. But that first group of working mothers was still around and it wasn’t long before everyone started judging each other. Stay-at-home mothers criticized women who put their children in daycare; working mothers huffed at women who chose to devote their lives to domesticity. My mother felt pressure from both sides when she was deciding how to raise me. When she was younger, she’d always thought that she would be an independent working woman, but as feminism split in half around her and her baby daughter, she knew what she really wanted to do.

It wasn’t the path you think of when you hear the word “feminism,” but the way she fought for her decision, it didn’t even matter.

Most of my and Sawyer’s pre-school playmates had mothers who also believed in attachment parenting. Mom was friends with those mothers through an organization called La Leche League. La Leche League is an informational support group about breastfeeding, although when I was little it was just some meeting that my mom took me to where grown-ups talked about food I liked. In retrospect, some of things that they did were pretty cool. What sticks out to me in particular about our time with La Leche League is the “nurse-in.” When a local woman was told she couldn’t breastfeed in a store at the mall, the League went to the mall and nursed. They just sat there with their babies and they nursed.

I barely remember the nurse-in (I couldn’t have been older than three), but I think I enjoyed it. I was playing with my mom and my brother and all of the other moms and babies, and it was exciting because it was at the mall. That was my first experience with activism, and you could say it left a good taste in my mouth.

The way my mother chose to raise her children was not popular, but she truly believed in it then and she still believes in it now. She certainly convinced me that attachment parenting is the best way. But she wouldn’t have been able to convince me, her shy and sensitive daughter, if she’d been pushy and preachy about her methods. Sure, she once boycotted Nestle products because the company sold formula, but I never heard her mention it outside of our house. She is respectful of other women’s decisions, and all that she asks in return is that they respect hers.

And that is what feminism is to me. It’s not necessarily about subverting anything, nor is it about bringing anyone down. First and foremost, it is about lifting people up – specifically, other women. There is no right way to raise your children, but it can still be wrong to judge the way others do it. If women judge each other, then we are hurting ourselves just as much as society as a whole can.

Mom says that feminism is about being free to make your own decisions. And if she decided to be my lifelong best friend, then how can I doubt her?

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

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Good job to the both of you.

I think what you wrote, especially the end, is what you will need to be successful in life. Not successful financially, but successful in the sense that you live every day with integrity, comfortable with your decisions, and even if things don't work out the way they should, you stayed true to yourself.

As a man, I don't get to say what I think about feminism, which is silly, because I was raised around women. What they were taught is what you've expressed; that feminism is about the freedom to choose. When women make one choice for their own life, and criticize women who don't make the same choice, they are hurting their own cause.

Berating a "housewife" or "stay at home mom" is self-defeating. If that was the choice of the woman, freely, without coercion or influence, then that's the point of what was being fought for years ago, not in the 60's but before that, when women wanted the right to vote.

The way you were raised isn't how my children were raised. There are aspects of Attachment Parenting I agree with and practice, and some that I don't. That's my choice, just as it was the choice of your mother and father.

Your mother is sensitive, but not weak. Intelligent, but not overbearing. Confident in herself, but still questioning if her choices are best for you and your brother. And that's not what a woman should be... it's what a PERSON should be. I only met you once or twice, but I'm happy to see that you are your own person, speaking out on what matters with a voice that echoes with the inspiration your mother provides for you.

I look forward to reading whatever else you decide to share.

I am one proud mama!

This is a powerful argument for attachment parenting and and even more powerful argument for keeping an open mind to different ways of being a woman and a mother.

Oh Marissa, if I can type with streaming tears I will. Bless you for writing this. I am sure your mother is more besotted with you than ever. I am somewhere in the range of your Mom's age I bet, and raised my kids in a similar fashion. They are teens now and proving themselves to be individuals I am proud to know. And making a choice, THE FREEDOM TO CHOOSE, is what each and every wave of feminism is about. There is so much in the news right now about what we don't have, even yet, but on the waves of Gloria Steinem's honor last week, I say, we are making strides, all of us. And as you say, we are here to praise and raise-kids, each other, and to celebrate. Thank you for this post. Stop in at my blog sometime to say hello. Best, Suzi

Beautiful!!! Love it!

A great tribute to your mother and her style of parenting. It's clear that she has taught you much about being a feminist and an activist. Very well written.

How to cite this page

Harrington-Verb, Marissa. "Feminism: Being Free to Make Your Own Decisions." 26 November 2013. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 30, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/feminism-being-free-to-make-your-own-decisions>.

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