Implied Judgement is Still Mom Judgement

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Image courtesy of mjrphreak.

There will always be judgey moms who call you a “bad mom” – oftentimes even in your own social circle. I have been judged harshly by some for “choosing” not to breastfeed for medical reasons. I had friends think it was cruel for me to put my child in her own room to sleep in her own crib the night we came home from the hospital. The most frustrating of these judgements came when I wasn’t sad at all about putting my kiddo in daycare. These sanctimommies are the easiest to ignore because you can just write it off as intolerant and never look back.

But what about those judgements that fly under the radar? I have many more friends who claim to “support” my choices by saying “you do you”. That’s great or at least it seems great until you actually discuss any of these “dicey” topics at length. Then, the “I could never” or “I have tried so hard to do it ‘right'” comments came out

A recent conversation with a friend illustrates this. Let’s call her Sophia. She’s been exclusively breastfeeding for 15 months:

Sophia: I wish I could stop breastfeeding. I am just so drained. I want to drink a beer without feeling guilty.  I want to sleep. It’s been so long.  I’m not happy.
Me: So… stop?
Sophia: Well, the WHO says you should breastfeed until 2 years.
Me: That’s a global recommendation mainly due to the scarcity of safe water in the developing world.  We don’t have to worry about that. You’ve given her 15 months. If you aren’t enjoying it, it will not hurt her.  But if you’re resenting her, that could hurt her.
Sophia: Yeah, but I just don’t want to make her sick. I’ve tried so hard to do the right thing.

Sophia didn’t try to offend. She didn’t say formula was poison. She didn’t even say I was “doing it wrong”. But the implication was I was in the wrong. In these conversations, the mom judging will never admonish what I’m doing directly but will imply it is wrong and that’s okay. Normally, I just tell myself “well, she thinks I am wrong but who cares?” That’s not completely fair, though. I think I’m finally at the point where I feel the need to push back a bit.  This time, I did.

Me: So, am I doing the wrong thing?
Sophia: Uh… why would you say that?”
Me: Because my baby hasn’t had a drop of breastmilk in her life. You’re saying it’s bad.
Sophia: Oh, I’d never say that! I didn’t say that.
Me: Sure, but you implied it. You said you tried so hard to do the “right” thing. When you say things like that, you may not think it hurts my feelings but it does. Even though you omit that judgement, it’s still a judgement. I hate hearing it. I know I’m always supposed to rag on formula while doing all I can to advocate for my breastfeeding friends but it’s not fair. I’ve supported every one of you girls but you don’t give me the same support.
Sophia: I just don’t see it that way. I think it’s obvious what I meant. Breastfeeding is hard.

I dropped it. It seemed pointless and it made me feel bad to continue. But, dang it, it’s time to say something! These omissions of judgement that are actually judgements are screwed up. By saying “I can’t let my kid cry it out because she’s going to end up damaged”, you are implying that moms who sleep train are damaging their kids. By saying “I could never put my kid in daycare and miss out on all their firsts” you are implying that I’m a bad mom who doesn’t care about her kid and their firsts because my kid is in daycare full-time.

When moms do this, it is still offensive even if intent isn’t to be vicious. Instead, I think the goal of moms doing this is to beat themselves up and raise moral support. We feel bad about something because we have these huge expectations that are impossible to meet day in and day out and we can’t let it go. As moms, though, we need to realize that our choices are own and another choice is not “bad” unless it leads to our child being neglected or harmed. If your kid is fed, has clothing to wear no matter how mismatched and stained, and has a roof over their head, you’re doing a good job. Insinuating that your friends are doing the “wrong” thing by reinforcing that you are suffering to do the “right” thing is reductionist.

Let it go.

Breastfeeding, Shaming and Solutions that Help

I’m sick of the shaming.

Many years ago when our mothers were first becoming moms, they were shamed for breastfeeding.  If we had been moms in the 90s, most of my friend group would have been so confused as to HOW to breastfeed.  Now, it seems like the only way is breast.  The problem is that while this is the common conception of post-2010 motherhood, it isn’t all that realistic for a number of women.

I’ve talked about the way we romanticize breastfeeding, cosleeping, and a number of “crunchy” options but I want to talk now about active shaming of moms who can’t or won’t breastfeed.

On facebook this week, a friend of mine posted this meme:

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The person posting this is an ARDENT supporter of breastfeeding.  She’s a SAHM, a feminist, and pumped for MONTHS while her kiddo was sick in the NICU.  For her, breastfeeding was a bonding experience and a labor of love.  I want to start this by saying I admire her love for her child and commend her on her effort.

However, I still think it’s incredibly underhanded to post memes like this.  When I called her on it, she defended it saying it was all about “encouragement” and not shamey.  The meme cites no actual EVIDENCE of the claims it makes.  And it insinuates that formula fed babies will end up sick.  That’s screwed up because no study on earth insinuates that formula fed babies will end up on death’s door.  I won’t get into citations here because it will take a ton of time.  But if you are interested, some good journalism has already occurred on this topic.  Basically, kids regress to the mean around age 3.  Most breastfeeding benefits are short-lived, and the confounding factor in most studies which assert the power of breastfeeding don’t properly account for socioeconomic factors.  Rich women have healthier and happier babies – who’da thunk it?!

Shaming mothers does not help.  IT DOES NOT HELP.  New moms don’t need more shame.  We have enough of it.  We reap the benefits of “you don’t know how you are already ruining your child’s life” in spades just going to the grocery.  Yesterday, my anatomy scan was “textbook perfect”.  Today, I was picking up a drink with my normal two shots of espresso which are condoned by my OB and got a 10 minute lecture on how I was “killing my baby”.  Someone needs to read more.  But regardless, shaming women doesn’t help. I drank my entire beverage.  It didn’t stop me.  It just pissed me off at 7 AM. Ideas like that cited above are not encouraging women.  They don’t make women more successful at breastfeeding, either.

All of my friends who have had babies in the past 10 years have attempted breastfeeding.  Few have been successful at feeding for more than 6 months.  The few that did are stay at home moms.  The rest saw a marked decline around the time they went back to work and either had to supplement with formula or had to give it up.  I know working women CAN be successful at breastfeeding but the success rate is not great.  And when you have little leave, it makes sense.

It is so true that few women get the necessary support to make breastfeeding a success for the year required for true “benefits” to show.  After all, studies don’t focus on EBF for 6 months.  They focus on a year, 18 months, two years, etc.  For feeling strongly about this, I commend my friend who is a member of LLL.  She does truly believe women can do better with support.  I don’t doubt this is true. However, she also doesn’t face the barriers many of us face because she stays at home and is available to her child all day – for better or worse.  Working moms struggle because real life is not kind with a 9 to 5 and a pumping routine.

Things that can help women do exist.  Namely, good family leave.  The women who are most able to access breastfeeding are already able to give their babies the “best” regardless of their breast capabilities because they are wealthy, can meet regularly with lactation resources, and either don’t return to the workforce until their child is in school or already have generous leave.

I get 6 weeks of leave with this baby.  6 weeks.  And that’s what most women get.  I consider it lucky that I have “saved up” 6 weeks of paid leave.  As the breadwinner and the carrier of our insurance, I need to go back to work as soon as I can.  While my reasons for formula feeding are largely rooted in a need for medications that aren’t breastfeeding-safe, maybe I would have attempted it if I could have had more time at home.  Without time to develop a good routine, I would likely hit the same barriers most of my friends do.

Another person on her thread defended the shaming and saying we need to “do better” to get women to “stick with it”.  I commend this because I know benefits really do take about a long time.  But breastfeeding is not easy and in our country, where maternity leave is a true luxury, it is a privilege many women can’t afford.  Shaming women on top of that won’t “cure” this ill.

Pushing for better family leave is a good place to start but not one anyone seems to want to discuss.

The lactivists I know are SAHM’s. There seems to be some cognitive dissonance surrounding what a typical work week looks like when a woman returns at work and begins to pump. I don’t think these women are bad-intentioned in their demands for breastfeeding.  I think they do what they need to do.  I don’t begin to contemplate how hard their jobs are as SAHM’s.  But I do think we need greater compassion for the actual problems we face.  Judgement doesn’t work.  And if feminists are supposed to support choice, we are doing a terrible job at that right now.

Birth is not a contest I need to “win”

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Image courtesy of DAVID Swift of Flickr.com.

For as long as I can basically remember, I’ve had a health problem that caused stress or pain.  As a child, I was in and out of doctor’s offices and hospitals due to life-threatening asthma.  And by the time I hit puberty around age 10, I was dealing with the very real and clear pain of endometriosis.  I’ve had pain akin to early labor for days each menstrual cycle of my life, basically.  I got a kidney stone from a treatment that saved my life from complex migraines (the type that make it seem like you’re having a stroke).  I rode probably 100 miles on my roadbike in a week’s time before the stone was detected in my ureter.  My mom, in contrast, had one still in her kidney and it was so painful she is not sure how I was walking let alone riding and working.  I once broke and severely dislocated a finger and went around for 2 days before I was persuaded to see a doctor.

So, when it comes to labor, I’m pretty sure I can take the pain.  I know it will suck but I also know it will end.  The thing is, if I don’t have to have pain, I don’t need it.  I know labor pain is thoroughly unique but a this point, I’m fairly sure my body is equipped for it. I worry more about coming out the other side so tired, hungry, and dehydrated I have to recover over weeks not days from it.  So I will be opting for pain management.  I know I can “trust birth” because I am damned determined to get this thing out alive so I can hold it over my head and sing songs from the Lion King but trusting that my body can handle and suffering unnecessarily (to me) are two different things.

I know plenty of moms who see me as a failure.  A good friend yesterday said, “Of course you’re doing natural birth, right?” as if that was a thing you just opted into.  She had a unicorn pregnancy – no morning sickness or reflux, no pain – and a unicorn birth – totally unmedicated, no tearing, and it was over in less than 12 hours from the start of early labor to finish.  Another friend who is pregnant reminded her “I plan to try but my baby may have other ideas.  We are playing it by ear.”  I flat out responded with, “I intend to take the drugs.  It’s a marathon not a sprint and I want to be as comfortable as possible.”  The question-asker looked completely perturbed.

It the got worse. She rattled on about how she would give me a sits bath because she was SURE I was going to tear horribly as that’s what everyone with an epidural experiences.  I know “natural” birth is what everyone wants these days and what everyone my mom’s age probably got unless they were high risk.  I think it’s great if a woman wants to experience the hell of childbirth in full, high-def color because it’s her choice. However, that’s not how I see it.

I experienced vomiting 3-5 times a day in full surround sound with smell-o-vision for the first 4+ months of this pregnancy.  It’s still going on.  Today I puked in an IHOP because my husband ordered a dish that smelled of rotting flesh to my pregnant nose.  My body has ran a marathon daily for weeks.  When this started, I was an endurance athlete.  Now, I’m a soft, weak, shell who is down 20 lbs and hasn’t gotten on her bike in months.  I was never a waif, so it’s not as though I am skin and bones but I still don’t have a noticeable bump and am nearing 20 weeks.  My friend who is 6 weeks ahead began to show much earlier.  I used to love eating out and cooking but I’m now not myself.  Even before this, I suffered a gruesome miscarriage and still have a stain on my bedroom carpet as a reminder of waking up bleeding out.  Motherhood, so far, has been hard, awful and thankless.  Which is what motherhood is for a lot of women.

To top it all off, I did all this while working full time, finishing a dissertation, and dealing with the drama inherent to building a blended family.  Hell, I got a promotion in the middle of this.  I have been kicking ass DESPITE hypermesis.

What I so badly wanted to say yesterday was, “Lady, if it was a competition, natural birth or no, I’ve already done three Ironmans and won.”  But I didn’t because it’s not a competition.  Each of us have different births and different bodies and different pregnancies.  One of the things I’ve LOVED about reading birth stories has been that no matter what, most of the time, it ends up okay and mom and baby come out fine.  Moms do what they need to to survive.  Babies come out somehow.  No matter what your playlist is or your aromatherapy choices were, you will get through it.

The competition thing, yeah, I refuse to play into it.   Some say God only gives you what you can handle.  Others say you are stronger than you ever imagine once you become a mother.  I believe both are probably true.  But I’m sure given the cards I’ve been dealt would all suffer through it.  Maybe birth is the hardest part of many pregnancies and that’s okay!  But maybe it’s not.

But devolving into “well you think that’s bad?  I can do you one better!” rhetoric just divides us.

I do think we should be careful talking about birth, though.  I have met amazing moms who did everything they could to avoid the thing they so dreaded – a c section – but ended up needing one because their baby was in deep distress.  They don’t actually feel bad about their birth because they brought their baby into the world one way or another but I’ve seen others chide them for not trying castor oil or hypnobirth or whatever snake oil supposedly worked for someone else.

Perhaps rather than being presumptive and saying something like:

“So you’re having a natural birth, right?” or

“You’re gonna ask for the drugs, right?”

We could instead say something like,

“So I know you’ve probably thought about what your birth would ideally look like but if you want some feedback about something I did, x worked for me…”

Because a woman isn’t an idiot and I don’t know one pregnant lady who hasn’t read a ton of birth stories by month 4 and isn’t sure what she wants, she will already have some really solid ideas of what will be her ideal birth.

Opening dialogue doesn’t have to be rife with judgement.

It’s a marathon not a sprint and we all have different pre-race strategies. One is not better than the other.  Many will need to change mid-race because we need to be flexible and adaptive as mothers.  As people experience the wonders of school-age kids (whichh really is the best, I think) or the stress of parenting kids in puberty, or toddlers who refuse to wear shoes, these skills will build.

The Romanticism of Third World Motherhood

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Image courtesy of David Leo Veksler of Flickr.com.

The recent Cry-it-Out arguments and “Breast is Best” competitions on my facebook have devolved into commentary about how “90% of the world doesn’t see it this way”. Possibly true.  But I especially love these comments from people who have never been to the developing world for more than a luxe holiday.  I get that many people don’t do it “our” way and see bedsharing and breastfeeding as the only “normal” option.  But  I also think the romanticized idea of women in the developing world having it all figured out to be patently offensive.  Why?  Let me explain.

A lack of choice – Women living in developing nations don’t have all of our luxuries.  They may very well live in a one room flat or hut with 5 or 6 kids.  When I was going out to villages to speak to women in Rwanda, many women appeared to sleep on a dirt floor with all of these children.  That was the way it was for their families because that was the only option.  Breastfeeding was definitely the preferred,if not really the only, way to feed in Rwanda but that was also due to a lack of safe water.  Formula feeding there would either be dangerous or prohibitively expensive.  Most of my friends would have a hard time understanding this.  In cases where women lost production due to illness or an aberrant inability to feed their kids, other women living in the same village or social circle would often help.  I know there are milk banks here, many of which do not screen milk, but this idea of community feels very different.  These women do what they need to for their kids to survive.  There is no other option.  Sure, there are also plenty of wealthy women in Rwanda who live differently as there are plenty of wealthy women everywhere but the average woman breastfed and bedshared due to a lack of space and a lack of funds.

A lack of economic power – The reason I was in Rwanda was to study post-genocidal recovery and to look into the status of women there.  As a white feminist who doesn’t want to make her experience the only acceptable experience, I have a hard time saying that more “traditional” setups can’t be a CHOICE for women.  However, when it comes to working outside the home, on average, Rwandan women had few options.  The main bit of field research I did required me to interact with women in somewhat precarious situations.  Many were abused by partners.  Leaving was not easy.  There is a “No Sugar Daddy” campaign by the government currently so girls will stay in school and go into the workforce rather than marry early and end up in a bad relationship.

Because women don’t often make their own money (especially typical middle and working class women), they don’t have the same problems with juggling breastfeeding and work or deciding who will take shifts.  There is just no question.  Most women stay home and provide almost all the domestic labor.  It’s not comparable to the experience that many Western women have.  Whether it is better or worse is immaterial.  It’s apples to oranges.

A totally different “role” as a woman applies – Patriarchy is a huge issue in the U.S. and abroad. My time in Rwanda made me realize that similar things were said to women, a similar rape culture dialogue existed, and women, in large part, were fighting similar battles to be seen as equal.  The women in Rwanda, however, were dealing with other basic necessities not being easily found and disparities in education beyond what is seen in the West.  So, we all face patriarchy but in different ways and different amounts.  While my working mom was a bit unique in my upper-middle-class suburb for working despite having a gainfully employed husband, she wasn’t seen as a pariah or completely unusual or unheard of.  Sometimes teachers did not “get” it but no one was downright offended by her choice of working over homemaking.  This is different in other places.  There was a choice in her role.  At one point, my father quit his job to stay home and raise us so my mom could go back to work.  She did not enjoy staying at home. This sort of choice would have been unheard of in Kigali.

Romanticizing the fact that women who don’t have a choice, don’t have their own economic ability to “choose” to work outside the home, and don’t have the ability for outside work to be seen as “normal” or even “acceptable” is disturbing to me.  These women aren’t choosing to stay home for the most part.  Many of them don’t see any other opportunities.  That’s the role of a woman in her society.

There is a weird need to explain bedsharing and breastfeeding as being “closer to nature” and, thus, preferable but we need to be especially careful when we romanticize women living in the developing world as “closer to nature” lest we veer towards describing them as “primitive”.  Nothing could be more offensive in my opinion!  It’s not “cute” for women to be stuck in a role without the choice or economic means to pick another way.  A lack of cry-it-out and formula feeding is out of necessity and different circumstances.  It’s not only unfair to women in the developing world to take this tack, it completely ignores the difference between a woman in a postmaterial society and than in society industrializing.  I’m not big on first-world feminism being the only argument and I’m a huge believer in intesectionality, so these dialogues just ignore huge, important concepts surrounding the rights of women around the world.

Instead, how do we avoid this?

First, know that it is okay to say you prefer to bedshare or breastfeed.  If you prefer it, that’s reason enough to do it.  It is your choice to do so.  If bedsharing means everyone sleeps, that’s fantastic.  If breastfeeding works for you, keep it up!  Second, we should acknowledge the difference between a choice and a given.  If you live in a place with non-potable water and a one room place, you don’t have a choice.  Realize that women around the world are not pictures or scenes, they are living breathing people just like us who have their own struggles which may differ from ours and that’s okay.  As long as we don’t try to speak FOR THEM directly, we should be okay.  Using them to support your argument against an entire swath of women (for the purposes of basically calling the other women bad moms) as if they are game pieces or tokens is never okay.

We can’t say their experiences are ours or are better or worse than ours but we can be sensitive in our conversations.  Neither CIO or bedsharing are the devil. Neither breastfeeding nor formula feeding will kill your kid.  It’s okay to have a preference and it’s okay to respect the preferences of others.   But, seriously, leave women in developing nations OUT of it!