As a young mother and a bit of an introvert, I was taken aback when I first became pregnant by the amount of over-the-top, passionate-verging-on-fanaticism, unsolicited advice and directives I was suddenly receiving, even from complete strangers. (As an aside, I have a lot of friends who also warned me of this phenomenon and were extremely conscientious about not bombarding me with opinions, and I’m grateful that they let me seek them out when I needed or wanted their input. Thanks, y’all.)
I fall in very easily with the crunchy, granola, tree-huggery types, and it was a natural leap for me to want to birth naturally, sans medications, even to desire a homebirth. Similarly, I wanted to breastfeed. A confirmed nerd and bookworm, as soon as we discovered I was pregnant, I hit the books. Therein came my first taste. Some of the articles I read on natural childbirth and breastfeeding were so vehement about their way being the “right way,” that even as someone inclined to agree, I found myself getting a bit defensive.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think there is anything wrong with passion or conviction, and I think it is hugely important that women be informed about their options. What rankles me is when not all—but some—women assume that a well-educated woman must, therefore, make the same decision as they. If a woman chooses differently, the foregone conclusion seems to be that she must not have been educated well enough.
Here’s what I’ll throw out there to all the authors, the fellow mamas, the politicians, and anyone who’s disagreed with anyone else ever. If a person does not make the same choice as you, they are not less intelligent, nor are they necessarily less informed. They simply arrived at a different decision for their own reasons, and that decision/choice/belief is just as valid as yours.
Take it one step farther. I very much desired to have a natural childbirth but ended up having a scheduled cesarean birth. This does not mean I didn’t do enough, didn’t learn enough, didn’t try hard enough, or in any other way failed – but I received that sort of message. A friend of mine who is an advocate of breastfeeding was unable to breastfeed and felt similarly defensive against the assumption that she didn’t try hard enough or for long enough, didn’t take the right supplements, gave up too easily, etc.
Regardless of a person’s story, reasons, choices, situation: their end result is theirs—it doesn’t belong to anyone else, nor is it anyone else’s place to criticize or judge them. I know there are plenty of women out there who may have read all the same material as I, and yet they chose not to breastfeed; that doesn’t make them less intelligent, nor do I think that they love their children less than I. They are good mothers. They are good women. They just expressed their freedom to make their own choices.
When you become a mother, you enter a sort of sisterhood that, at least for me, you may not have been privy to ever before. I suddenly can have these intense two-minute conversations with a fellow mama, even a complete stranger, where we both just get it—it’s brilliant and I’m not even going to try to explain it; if you’re a mama, I know you get it already. The flip side of it is that this passion for motherhood and for our children and our families can sometimes spill over into the realm of judgment, projection, and even criticism – often well-meaning, but hurtful nonetheless. I wonder if every mama has, at some time or other, felt this? I’m sorry to say I’ve been the offender, as well, more than once, presuming either agreement or ignorance in the other person.
I recently shared a wonderful video about activism surrounding breastfeeding in public (which I will be posting about in the near future) with some friends, and one of them responded almost apologetically, saying she had really tried to breastfeed her son but just physically couldn’t make it work. This evolved into a longer conversation in which we both shared our defensiveness about different aspects of mothering—for her, not being able to breastfeed; for me, having a cesarean birth. It felt so good to have someone else get it.
As my friend Jenn wrote to me recently, “We all have opinions about what others do. Does sharing our [unsolicited] opinion help? Usually not. Does the fact that I had a natural birth trump your C-section, of course not! Does your breastfeeding mean you’re a better mother than me? No. You raise your kid the way that suits your life, and we do the same. Parenting is so intensely personal that we want to share our enthusiasm for it with others and may forget that they are equally passionate about it.”
So mamas (and politicians and activists and all the rest of us imperfect humans), let us all remember to be gentle with one another. Be passionate, yes. Share ideas, educate, collaborate, certainly, but please, let’s all try to remember not to invalidate others’ choices and/or experiences out of hand. We have got to stick together. Being a mother is not about what kind of birth you have or what you feed your baby, whether you practice babywearing or where your baby sleeps, whether your child wears a hat or uses a pacifier or sucks his thumb. It’s about giving life, and loving and nurturing that life. It takes a lot of work and sweet, sweet heartache, and we need each other. Hugs all around.