Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Politics of Parenting


This latest post has been a long time coming. I've been pretty busy with school and the part-time job I have resumed, BUT I assure you, I have been doing my research for this latest topic.

The methods by which I complete my school work are extremely effective and studious. I start by going on Facebook, then Twitter, then I check my gmail, before rounding the whole thing off with five minutes of reading Yeats or an article on post-colonial criticism. At this point I will reward myself with a snack or fresh cup of coffee and then begin the process all over again. See? SMART.

During my mind numbing perusing of random Twitter pages, I came across what I consider to be one of the more prominent subcultures of parenting. I don't exactly know what to call them; I guess they refer to themselves as "crunchy", which some little part of my brain, the part that was supposed to remember the endings to all the movies I somehow forget, THAT part tells me that maybe this has something to do with granola? Because hippies eat granola, and granola is crunchy? I don't know, but now I've lost my train of thought, and I want some granola.

Anyway, so this group of mothers send thousands of tweets to one another all day regarding the benefits of breastfeeding, co-sleeping, babywearing, and cloth diapers. They rally around one another when one of them is having latching issues or problems with their organic cotton diapers not fitting properly. And, I think this is great. The internet has become a veritable haven for parents (first time or seasoned), to vent, seek information, and make friends with one another.

The problem lies in the human tendency to put ourselves into groups, decide that our group is the best group, the only group that knows anything about the world, and that every other group is wrong, wrong, wrong. You know, like you decide you're a Democrat, and then all of a sudden, everything Republicans do is stupid. And evil. And wrong. And it works both ways.

This is why, in life, as well as in politics, I choose not to associate myself with any one group. I'm not a Democrat. I'm not a Republican. And, I'm not a "crunchy" mom. I'm a mom who breastfeeds, but sees nothing wrong with supplementing with formula. I'm a mom who tried co-sleeping, but didn't like getting smacked in the face all night so taught her daughter to sleep in her crib. I'm a mom who occasionally wears her baby in a front carrier, but usually opts for the stroller because, hello? A BabyBjorn does not have a cup holder for my latte! I'm also the mother who wrote about her tendency to judge other parents and her dedication to knocking that shit off because she knows how it feels to be unfairly judged.

So, I tend to gravitate toward people who share my enthusiasm for the middle ground. It's nice here! Make yourself at home. Would you care for some nonchalant tea and an unimpassioned cookie or two?

Still, I have respect for anyone who is devoted to a cause, and I am fascinated by subcultures, so I was spending a lot of time being a creepy voyeur and reading the conversations these moms were having with one another. I was even identifying with some of the causes they were so up-in-arms about. I loved reading about their empowering views on nursing in public. One of the reasons I think I was so stressed out about nursing and was subsequently unable to enjoy it as much as I had hoped, was my fear of getting dirty looks when I needed to feed Charlotte while we were out. And when she started rejecting the cover, rather than simply nursing her without a cover, I panicked, tried to force feed her bottles, and stopped going out as much. These women were telling me that it was okay to feed my daughter anywhere I wanted. Anywhere that it was acceptable to feed a baby a bottle, it was kosher to breastfeed. It makes so much sense. Maybe I CAN relate to these mothers. It was so uplifting!

Until they pulled a 3 A.M. Charlotte maneuver and smacked me in the face. Turns out they would sing my praises for pulling my boob out in the Olive Garden, but I was "inhumane" for letting my baby cry herself to sleep. I was "cruel" for kicking her out of my bed and teaching her to get the sleep that she wasn't getting cradled in my arms. It also turns out that the formula I gave her for her jaundice was the fourth in line of suitable options for infant food. If I really loved her, I would have forked over some serious bucks for another woman's breastmilk. Only then would I not be poisoning her.

Call me crazy, but some of these accusations really hurt my feelings. Here I thought I was doing a good job raising my daughter. But what do I know? I'm just an evil, bottle-wielding, stroller pushing, meanie who makes babies cry. I suddenly realized that what was an awesome support system for fellow crunchies, was a toxic environment for anyone not drinking their Kool-Aid.

Now, to be fair, I'm sure that they get their fair share of mockery and name-calling. I recently watched Sam Mendes's "Away We Go" and laughed heartily at the representation of the new agey mom portrayed by Maggie Gyllenhall, who breastfeeds her school-age child in tandem with her baby, scoffs at strollers, and alludes to lovemaking in the family bed so as not to "hide (her) sexuality from (her) children". I'm sure attachment parenting advocates around the world did not appreciate the joke. And I know they must receive just as many unenlightened and hateful comments as they dole out. But that doesn't make it right.

Last time I wrote about the Cry it Out issue, I said it wasn't for us. And, at the time, it wasn't. But I also said parents should do what is best for their families. I never looked down on anyone who used this method of sleep training. And when the time was right for us, we tried it. And it worked beautifully. With minimal crying, we got her sleeping (mostly) through the night. But, that doesn't mean it's for everyone. I'm not going to pretend that I am without my prejudices. For instance, I've always been uncomfortable with the idea of extended nursing. I have to admit that I cringe a little when I see or hear about a two-year-old who still nurses. But, that's an urge I need to fight. Who am I to say that a woman who kindly will heave her breasts in and out of her shirt for YEARS to satisfy her child, is not doing what's best for her family? Maybe she just has a dedication I don't have. Maybe she has a relationship with her child that is simply different than the one I have with Charlotte. Either way, I support her, even if what she does, isn't for me.

But, lest you think that there are no safe havens for mothers who don't fit neatly in a little package, check out this site: http://fearlessformulafeeder.blogspot.com. I stumbled on the blog of a woman who stands up for women who choose to formula feed their babies when breastfeeding fails or because formula makes the most sense for their family. She provides support for women who are mourning the loss of this supposed "natural gift" that all women are told they can and should be able to do. If you are a mom who has been made to feel ashamed for the way you chose to feed your baby, or if you are a person who celebrates open-mindedness, check out her site. It helped renew my confidence in the idea of mothers lifting one another out of the mire, not shoving each other's faces into it.

Hopefully, we can all take that message and practice it on a much larger scale. It's hard enough being a mom. Let's give each other a break, shall we?

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Am I Still a Good Mother if No One's There to See?

I've been thinking a lot about images, the way we perceive one another. I am incredibly lucky to have a husband who will listen to me go on and on for hours as I talk through all the neuroses and nonsense floating around my head until I sort it all out. It was during one of these decidedly one-sided conversations that I discovered something sort of unsettling about myself. I care way too much about how others view me. It wasn't exactly a brand-new revelation, far from it. My need to be liked and accepted has been the root of many problems from adolescence and on. It's why I have always been a teacher's pet, why I didn't have any friends, and why I was constantly unhappy as a teenager. I didn't know how to be myself and like what I liked, because I was so busy pretending to like what everyone else did. I know I've just described over half the teenage population. I'm not saying this was a unique problem. And mercifully, most of us grow out of this phase and learn to just be ourselves, opinions of others be damned!

Or do we? Sure, I've come a long way from the girl who begged for an advance on her allowance to buy some hideous Looney Tunes t-shirt that she didn't even like, just so she wouldn't be the only one not wearing one at school. I no longer have to hide my all-consuming love for Emma Thompson and period British frock flicks from my middle school compatriots. But do I live my life only for me, or do I go out of my way to preserve some kind of image?

I think the truth is that I still have not learned to live my life like nobody is watching. One of my biggest concerns over this past year has been my identity as a mother. What kind of mother do I want to be? How do I want to be seen? Not as the overprotective and paranoid new mother, surely not. I want to be the relaxed, confident mom, ever-prepared, the one lending diapers to the frazzled, hand-wringing mom who forgot to pack extras. I want to be the wise mom whom others come to for advice.

And I don't think I'm alone. I think for every time we gracefully smile and nod at the clich├ęd words of wisdom spoken by more experienced mothers, we secretly scan the room looking for someone less experienced than we. Someone to fall victim to OUR "See what you have to look forward to?" and "Oh, that's nothing. Wait until she starts walking!" comments. No matter how together you think you are as a mom, there is always going to be someone with older kids or more kids to put you in your place. I even did it when I was pregnant. If you were less pregnant than me, I'd assault you with a, "You think you're big now? Just wait!". Or I'd come at you with a "Oh, back when I was ONLY four months pregnant, I thought I knew it all. But, now that I'm six months along, I really know what it's all about". I think it's some sort of weird, innate human desire to educate and maybe even help others. Maybe we need to feel needed, or maybe it strengthens our confidence as parents.

Or maybe we're all just fucking annoying.

It's harmless, really. Unless you are like me, and you take it too far. See, about a month ago, I was having a really rough time. I wrote once about how Charlotte stopped sleeping through the night and how she was coming to bed with me, but that I didn't mind. And it's true that I didn't mind her sleeping in bed with us. But the operative word there is sleep. Once she started waking up in the middle of the night and hitting us, talking to us, sitting up in bed, STANDING up in bed, we were done. None of us were getting any sleep. Chris and I started bickering about who got more sleep, who needed more sleep, who got smacked in the face less by the baby. You name it. But the worst part was that Charlotte was being a brat. I've joked about her being bad in the past, but this was out of this world. She had a meltdown every time anything-ever-happened-somewhere-in-the-world. She was always crying and throwing things and whining. I was totally at the end of my rope. Even though intellectually I knew she was acting that way due to a lack of sleep, I couldn't help but feel like A) My baby hated me. B)I didn't really like her either. And C)I was a horrible mother for both those reasons.

It was a time I needed some advice, some reassurance that I wasn't alone, some friends. But because I was ashamed of how out of control I felt, ashamed of not having it all figured out, ashamed of not being the Zen mom I wanted to be, I didn't say anything for a while. I figured I was just being a baby, not appreciating this wonderful gift I had waited so long for. I reasoned I could fix the problem in my head so I didn't have to expose myself as the aforementioned frazzled mom.

Luckily, I have some really awesome friends and family and a totally amazing husband who all make me feel secure enough to be honest. So, eventually I came out of the bad mommy closet and opened up. Now, with the support of those around me and the miracle that is "sleeping through the night", I am in a much better place.

And I learned a valuable lesson. We are none of us perfect. We all have weak moments and flaws. I admire my friends who can be upfront with me about the trials and pitfalls of parenthood. If we were all that way, we could offer one another support and reassurance. And from now on, I will be taking a page from your book so I never feel so lonely again.