Can we really still be here? Fighting amongst ourselves to determine The Right Way to be a mother?
Sure we can. Because we still live in a culture that struggles to afford women the right to make our own decisions in our highly individualized pursuit of whatever a fulfilling quality of life means to each of us.
Constrictions in the way mothers are viewed act as a collective filter down to our constriction of ourselves and each other. This breeds competitiveness and a general mood of snarkiness.
Earlier this month on "The View," South Carolina's Republican governor Nikki Haley belittled women by declaring they "don't care about contraception" while on CNN, Democratic consultant Hilary Rosen belittled Anne Romney saying she had "never worked a day in her life." At the same time, hospitals found themselves caught between breastfeeding and bottle-feeding advocates in the continued controversy over how mothers come to decide which form of nourishment will best fit them and the needs of their infant. Even though that argument is complicated by concern about the corporate marketing of formula, it still belittles a mother's ability to weigh for herself which option feels right.
These examples, played out in the public arena, are, of course, influenced by political posturing and corporate maneuvering. But they strike a nerve in us on a personal level because they're attached to intimate experiences in our own lives. As I see in my clinical practice as well as with my friends who are mothers, we regularly face the tension between what's right and what's wrong in our approach to mothering.
When this dilemma of what's right or wrong for us is based solely on our own reading of our own moral compass (in so far as that's possible, since we're all influenced by societal beliefs regarding morality) that's healthy. It means we're merely trying to figure out where our priorities and preferences lie so we can act in accordance with them. The problem occurs when we try to determine what's right or wrong based on our fear of how we might be judged by others. This is problematic because it leaves our unique natures out of the equation.
Take the following woman from my practice. As a mother, she's made the decision to stay at home and raise her three young children. She values the ability to spend this time with them and feels fortunate that her family has the financial means to be able to structure their lives this way. Yet she tells me there's a huge part of her that feels less than, especially around mothers who work out of the home, and she can get flooded with embarrassment because she worries maybe she's not doing enough with her life. When she compares herself to the women who go off to work, she doesn't feel well rounded or accomplished. However, when we explore these feelings in session, it becomes clear that, for her, staying home with her kids is the most important thing she could ever do with her life. It's a quality of life choice she's made having taken into consideration what feels right to her. She questions her self worth and accomplishments only when she anticipates that another woman will examine her from a different perspective -- one in which the value is placed differently -- one of judgment. Then, out of a sense of defensiveness, my client will judge the other woman for looking down on her.
If my client focuses more on the fact that she's being true to herself and trusting her instincts, she'll be more content and less concerned with the comparisons and competition that are part and parcel of judgment.
We're only human. Sometimes we judge each other. Women who work outside the home often judge women who work in the home, and it's a fair fight because it also happens in the reverse. Women who breastfeed often judge those who don't, just as those who bottle feed judge nursing mothers. And women who believe they'd never have an abortion often judge women who would, just as those who support abortion rights judge those who don't.
Here's one of the psychological reasons we pit ourselves against each other in these ways: We want to feel we're doing "it" the right way because we want to feel safe. If we're above reproach, we can't be judged as wrong.
No matter what the "it" is -- nursing or bottle feeding, being a stay-at-home mom or working outside the home, vaginal delivery or Caesarean -- if we believe there's one right way, we can feel safe in the illusion we're above scrutiny.
None of us can fully escape our fear of judgment, or our inclinations to judge others. But we could be more generous with ourselves and each other and do it less often.
So, all that being said, let me tell you the right way to be a mother -- which includes deciding whether or not you're ready to become one: Follow your heart. Follow your mind. Trust your instincts.