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Mom on Mom

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MOMS FIGHTING
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About a year ago, Dan Savage started an awesome project called It Gets Better. If you don't know about it, you should -- people upload YouTube videos telling young gay folks that, once they get through high school, they'll be away from homophobic peers and teachers; as adults it will get better. It's meant to encourage the many teenagers who are bullied for being gay or perceived-as-gay, and who feel trapped by the viciousness around them, to hang in there.

Every time I think about It Gets Better there is something else I love about it. These days I'm thinking about how it uses the internet for love and support, not for hatred and bullying.

New mothers, and bloggers who write about motherhood, should take note.

Because, like kids and teenagers, new mothers sometimes snark hatefully at each other with the intent to cause pain. You know what I'm talking about -- it starts with some article about breastfeeding, epidural, c-section, co-sleeping, whatever, and devolves rapidly. Some people call this Mommy Wars. I call this cyber-bullying.

I am a lawyer by training and by nature. I absolutely believe that people who disagree can engage in reasoned argument, and that reasoned argument can lead to increased understanding. But that is not what happens in the cyber-bullying-mommy-war. Too often, it's not an impassioned exchange about issues, but attacks that vilify mothers themselves.

(Sometimes it's less intentional but no less hurtful: moms write of their own experiences in a way that, if not intentionally calculated to cause pain, is so insensitive of audience that the only possible outcome is hurt feelings.)

The current blogospheric-mommy-war is about promotional formula samples in hospital maternity wards (see here and here and here and all over these bloggers' Twitter feeds). Here is the issue: historically, hospitals have accepted "freebie" promotional samples of infant formula, and passed them on to new moms. Obviously, formula companies do this as advertisement; no one claims otherwise.

The World Health Organization has encouraged hospitals to make formula available the same way it provides other items as needed for patients: by buying it and stocking it, instead of accepting "freebies." The WHO's concern is that in-house advertising affects breastfeeding outcomes, and creates a conflict of interest for nurses and doctors who receive the samples.

No one denies that formula is and should be available to new mothers in hospitals as needed; this is just about the promotional samples.

Got it? With that background here's what happened: In England, recently, one hospital stopped accepting "freebie" promotional samples from formula makers. (Formula is still available at that hospital, of course.)

The blogosphere erupted.

Not in a debate about the marketing practices of formula companies, or the incentives of hospital employees. The real furor is whether, if hospitals don't participate in this kind of product placement, formula-feeding moms will feel shamed.

But actually that's not even it, because that could be debated.

The "discussion" is not debate, but an online shit-storm with some writers complaining that Breastfeeding Moms are so strident and shaming that they make everyone else feel inadequate, and other writers complaining that Formula Feeding Moms are so strident and shaming that breast-feeders practically have to recite "I Support Others' Use Of Formula" every time they latch their baby.

We need to stop talking about what "Breastfeeding Moms" or "Formula Feeding Moms" do. Mothers aren't generic. There are millions of individual mothers, each making decisions about the care of herself and her baby, based on her own values, circumstances and a whole life of context. Mothers are people, not categories. When we forget this, we risk becoming a lynch mob.

I've been working with new moms for nearly ten years and in that time, I have met some moms who acted like breastfeeding is an exercise in self-righteous martyrdom. And I have met some moms who acted like if your baby got a drop of formula it's because you were lazy. Sometimes when I hear these extremist opinions, I think the person voicing them must be very shallow. More often, though, it's glaringly obvious that the person speaking is tired and not thinking about what she's saying, not thinking about all the obvious exceptions to what she's saying, and would not say it if she heard what she sounded like. I'm not excusing this, but it's so important to know that in real life, even people who say this stuff don't always mean it.

It's trickier online, where it's hard for everyone to remember that on the other end of the computer are real people. Online is where bullying becomes rampant, especially in some blogs' comment sections, and on Twitter.

Lately, though, when I encounter online meanness, I think of Dan Savage. Not because the way that new moms torment each other is just like the bullying that gay teens face, but because similarly, for new moms, it hurts badly and then, in time it gets better.

For almost everyone, once your kid is using the toilet, this mommy-wars thing is over. You'll walk down the street with your seven- and five-year-olds and no one will talk to you about breast and bottle or ask about their births, and everyone will assume that your kids sleep all night in their own bed. Really, it gets better.

Until then, some tips. Don't engage. Hold your head high. I know I sound like your mother, but really, people who are mean and vitriolic are not good friend material. Start by shutting off the computer. Look elsewhere for friends; you will find many in real life.

But It Gets Better is more than just reassurance for victims. It's a teaching project, that recognizes: we need to do more than tell people it gets better someday. We also to teach everyone how to behave now.

It Gets Better dovetails with in-school anti-bullying programs. My fifth grader complains every year that he has to learn, again, about cyber bullying. I get it, already, he says, eye-rollingly, you're not supposed to be mean to people on line. What kind of person sits at their computer sending hateful stuff out anyway?

It sounds so simple. Who among us doesn't feel compassion for the kid tormented by malicious peers during puberty's maelstrom of hormonal and physical changes?

Who disagrees that bullying is craven?

But. How can you teach your children not to be mean and hateful, but turn around and diss, name-call, or hatefully criticize mothers you don't even know online?

Don't do that!

Instead, strive to understand others' decisions and predicaments, even where you can't agree with them. It's okay to be angry, but even then, try to use balanced, thoughtful language.

Try to comport yourself as a model, even when you disagree. Try to be your most honorable self.

Stop snarking at each other.

Meanwhile, are there pro-breast-feeding folks whose comments are intended to make formula feeding mothers feel "shamed"? Yes.

So:

Dear People Who Do That,

STOP! If someone has already weaned, do you think you're going to insult her into relactation? I have never understood that. When you have an opportunity to educate others about lactation, stop and listen to yourself, your tone, your timing. Ask yourself, am I trying to effect change or shame this woman? If it's the latter, stop; it's dishonorable.

And if you're being attacked for saying something accurate and positive about breastfeeding, breathe, and consider your ultimate goal. Being insistent with an unreceptive audience can do more harm than good sometimes. Sometimes your message needs to wait for a better moment. Don't resort to attacking.

On the other hand,

Dear People Who Feel Disparaged For Using Formula Whenever Someone Discusses Breastfeeding:

First, be open to the possibility that the person is not talking about you at all, but about herself, and is not disparaging you. There is nothing wrong with discussing how wonderful breastfeeding is if she keeps it to "in my experience."

If she is talking about you, remember that most advice is given with the intention of helping you, not insulting you, but not everyone is gifted at knowing precisely what would help.

If you feel shame, ask yourself where the shame comes from. All too often, the new moms I work with toil under a load of self-imposed doubt, guilt and shame - on lots of issues - more weighty than anyone else would lay on them. When you're under all that guilt, it can be hard to tell whether someone is actually criticizing you.

But Dear Everyone:

When someone is obviously trying to shame you -- for not breastfeeding or for saying breastfeeding is good (or for having epidural or for not having one, for "sleep training" or for family-bedding or for working or for staying home) take a moment and breathe, and tell her, "that's hurtful, and not productive." Don't attack back, call her names, or insult her personally.

Stay in the game without being hateful. It's fine to say you disagree. It's fine to say that an opposing view is, in your opinion, wrong. But cut out the hateful tone and the personal attack, and watch your language. And a few other basics:

  • If you are responding to someone's blog post, Facebook status or Tweet, and you feel "hot," pause before you click "send."
  • If, online, you need to comment anonymously, it's a red flag. If you won't own up to this remark, should you make it?
  • If you write of your own experiences, try not to generalize about mothers as a group - your perspective is limited.
  • If you are using words that conjure atrocities of racism and genocide, pause. The words 'Nazi' and 'Supremacist' are particularly loaded, hateful speech. They are so provocative that they rarely communicate. You can find something more articulate.
  • And if you are inclined to be provocative online because you get paid only if you create a Scandal-Click-Bonanza, who's really being played?

Try to recognize yourself in every new mother you meet, and, when her path is different from yours, to consider how her choices and decisions led her there. You don't have to think everyone's choices and values are equally good; they aren't. If you have a mind at all, it will evaluate and make judgments. That's what your mind is for. But don't forget, also, your heart. You do not have to agree with her to be compassionate.

I asked my kid what he learned in the cyber-bullying workshops. He said, "generally just don't do things you wouldn't like people to do to you over the internet or, basically, in general."

It's a good rule, I think.