August 21, 2012

An Aside on Unintentional Shaming

Zen baby
I'd like to talk, if I may, about something very important.

Not shaming other parents.

You see, parenting is hard.  Very, very hard.  And we have a tendency to take it very personally.

After all, whatever you're doing- you've probably been pretty sure that you're doing it wrong at some point.  And that's normal.  We all go into parenting completely blind- we all go in with this sense of heightened importance, we all go in with this crazy idea that we are somehow going to be perfect parents.

We'll do everything that our parents did right.  We won't do anything that our parents did wrong.  We will feed our kids properly, we will train our kids properly, we will love our kids properly.

And that- that right there- is where the shit starts to hit the fan.

You see, from the moment we first see our babies, from the very first second, everything you do, you do to show them that you love them.

If course that ends.  You start doing things because they need to be done, because you need a few moments to yourself, or because you just forgot and acted like a jerk because you are still a human being.

But you get started based on love.

You feed the baby, with breast or bottle, because somewhere inside of you... you know you love it and you want it to thrive.

You hold the baby, because although you've never met before, you love it and want to show it that you care.

Or you don't hold the baby, because you're afraid that it will sense that you don't know what the hell you're doing, and you don't want it to know that you went into parenting totally blind.

Every parent starts making choices for their child the moment they come into the world.

And we take those choices personally.  Because, based on their failures or successes, they seem to equal the total of our love.

"If I make all the best choices, my child will know that I really, really love her."

"If I make wrong choices, it must mean that I don't love my child enough to make the right ones."

These are the nagging voices in the backs of our own minds.  These aren't the reality- we're not being judged.

Until, suddenly, we are.

Somewhere, some mom says to herself that she is making the right choice, and it is her duty to tell other mothers who are doing it wrong that they are doing it wrong.  Not because she actually knows, but because if they're doing it right, then SHE must be doing it wrong, and she can't live with that kind of doubt.

And if everyone does it right, it's quantifiable.  It's simplified.  There's a right way and a wrong way, and she's doing it the right way.

But what is right for one mother is simply not right for all mothers.  What is right for one baby simply isn't right for all babies.

I saw this picture posted on facebook today.  It's allegedly the nutritional content of breast milk.

Now, I nurse RH.  Almost exclusively.  She gets an occasional bottle of formula, and I feel the need to justify that.  Not because there is anyone policing breastfeeding mothers to tell them whether or not they're doing it right, not because the occasional bottle of formula is in any way hurting my child, but because other mothers might click their tongues at me for leaving my baby at home at two months old with her grandparents and the instruction to give her a bottle if I'm not back in time to feed her.

And I get back, and yeah, I feel guilty if she had a bottle.

I feel guilty if she cried, and I didn't comfort her.

I feel guilty, and nobody did that to me but myself.

But I project.  If I feel guilty, then I must be being judged.  By other mothers.

And, if I am not careful, I judge those other mothers to protect myself.  Those attachment parents who would never leave their babies with a sitter to go to a movie, or the store.  If I am not careful, I tell myself that this is they who are the bad parents, because they don't take any time for themselves to stay sane.

*I* need time to myself to stay sane, who knows about anybody else?

*I* breastfeed my baby, but not entirely exclusively, because sometimes she's hungry and I'm not there, and I just don't have time to pump all the time.

So maybe I don't go around and shame other moms for making different choices, and instead I publicly pat myself on the back for my own choices.  "Good job, me!" I say outloud, where everyone can hear.  "You made the right choice."

And that... that is the unintentional shaming.

That picture of the breast milk nutritional contents...

When I publicly declare that I did the right thing, and I did a good job, I am also saying that you, a real person, made the wrong choice if you did something different.

Yes, it's less malicious.  But no less hurtful.

My mother only nursed her children for a number of weeks.  Her letdowns were so painful that she was unable to function through them.  She was a wonderful mother, and I do not think I was in any way harmed by being a formula baby.

I have a friend, a La Leche Leaguer, who's daughter was "failure to thrive" until she started supplementing breast milk.  Her breast milk genuinely wasn't providing everything her baby needed.

I have many friends with babies and children.  Some nursed their children, some didn't, some still do.

All of their kids are, frankly, great.

But things like that picture... those things can genuinely hurt.

We, human beings, live in a constant state of doubt.  I think it's one of the things that separates us from other animals.

We doubt, and we wonder.

And that is why we have religion.  And science.  And literature.  And art.  Because we must express our doubt somehow, and we must answer those questions.

And most of the great questions left to us have no right or wrong answer.

And for those great questions, questions like, "Am I a good person?  Am I a good parent?" a muddled, shades-of-grey answer just doesn't cut it.  We want to hear a resounding, "yes."

We want to stop doubting, and know that we love our children enough.  That we are doing the things that they need.

There are women who cannot breastfeed their children.  That doesn't make them bad parents.  There are women who choose not to breastfeed.  That doesn't make them bad parents.

What matters is that we care.  We want to protect our children.  We want them to thrive, both in love and in health.

The bad parents are the ones who don't feed their children at all, because they do not care if their child lives or dies.  That is bad parenting.

And sometimes?  That isn't the parent's fault either.  Sometimes, a parent needs almost as much help as a baby.

And shaming those parents by strutting around and saying, "look at me, I'm doing everything right." that isn't helping anybody but yourself.

Am I proud of breastfeeding my baby?  Yes.  Very.  Not because I think formula is bad, or that bottle feeding is wrong.  I am proud because it was really effing hard to get good at it, and I did it anyway.  I feel more like a breastfeeding survivor than a lactivist.  Showing off my chubby baby is like rolling up my sleeve and showing the scars on my arm and saying, "You see that?  That really hurt, and that was a hard time in my life, but things are better now.  Things get easier."  Except that instead of talking about depression, I'm talking about parenthood.

So to all the parents who have ever felt judged by my pats on my own back, I am sorry.  I am not here to judge you for your choices, for the realities of your lives.

And to all the parents out there, insecure about their roles and their decisions and looking for some validation...

You're not going to find it from other moms.  You're not going to find it through judging other moms.  You're not even going to find it by announcing that you don't need it because you know you're awesome.

Me and M and our children
You'll find it by looking at your kids.

Look at them.

Listen to them.

Watch them.

Are they happy?  Do they know you love them?  Do they trust you to do what you can to ensure their safety and their health?

Then you are an awesome parent.

The validation of your success is that you have succeeded.  And nobody can give that to you but yourself.

Good job, moms and dads.  You have loved your children, and you couldn't stop if you tried.

You are successful parents.

Let that be the final word on the matter.

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  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. The problem is that raising kids is a long term project. The real validation comes 2 or 3 decades down the road -- if you're lucky.

  3. For the record, I was terrible at breastfeeding; but I still gave it my all. ;) I think you look at it beautifully. It's not a knock on other women who don't (by choice or fate) but you can be proud because you were able to. The "survivor" outlook is right on. I remember how hard it was for Gina, and she fought like a pugalist to make it work. Not because formula is evil or breast milk would make our kids future Senators, but because in her mind it was a challenge that she wanted to succeed at. And she did. And when she reached her goal (HER goal) of 1 year she was so happy to be done. It's like a marathon. Not everyone can run one and not everyone wants to, but for those that do, displaying their medals on the fire place mantle is a well earned right. Those that didn't shouldn't take insult from such action because it's not about them, it's about the competitor. The survivor, as you put it. The same scenario plays out for the actual birth. Gina really wanted to have a vaginal delivery. Genevieve flipped; it wasn't an option. But for those women who could, who did, their pride in that action can't be an insult to Gina, because it wasn't about Gina. It was about them. Their goal. Their success.



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