Imagine if we paid attention to what really matters.
It starts innocently enough. We come home with our babies and we wonder, "Why did they let me leave with this baby? Don't they know that I don't know what I'm doing?!" And then the long lifetime of parental improvising begins. And here's what happens as well: We make decisions about parenting -- take breast feeding for example, or bottle feeding, or co-sleeping, or Ferberizing, or staying at home, or going back to work (any of these decisions will do) -- and before we've even made the decision and acted on it, the advice and criticism begin. If we're lucky, we have friends and family who are supportive of our decisions. They know that parenting is an experiment. They know that different parenting decisions are appropriate for different families, given that every family has different children, different needs, and different life experiences. These friends and family members are supportive, and trust us to make the right decisions for our families, and to adapt as we learn more. (Imagine that!) But for many of us, it doesn't go this way. For example, a mother may make a decision to sleep train her child because she knows that she doesn't do well with sleep deprivation, or because, as is true for so many parents, she needs to go back to work very quickly after the baby is born and well, you know... function. And then the criticism begins: "Why are you doing that?? Don't you know what that will do to your child??" Another mother makes the opposite decision, and decides to nurse on demand and co-sleep. Again, the comments and criticism begin. Or a mother feeds her baby in a public space (whichever way she does -- bottle or breast) and a stranger thinks that it is their prerogative to tell her why her approach to feeding her baby is incorrect, and inform her of the correct way. It happens all the time. The criticism, opinion, and commentary begins the second our bellies begin to show or our adoption papers come through and doesn't end until... well, I'm not sure it ever ends. But I do know that we are, in our most vulnerable parenting moments, extremely susceptible to it, and it just doesn't help.
I also know it's what we do best in the U.S. -- advice, criticism and the "I know better than you" mothering approach is our current REAL parenting philosophy as a nation. Every mother is fair game for criticism and attack, even celebrity moms. Why? Well, for one, because criticism sells, and we are first and foremost a consumer culture. Taking other mothers down and entering into the "mommy war" theme of the week sells books, newspapers, products, talk shows, even blogs. We talk about who did what right, or more excitedly, who did what wrong. We say, "How could she...?" "I'm not critical but did you see her...?" "I can't believe she..." And we have fun while we're doing it. It's distracting. And for a brief second, very brief, it lets us feel like maybe we know what we're doing as mothers. If they are wrong, then for a brief second I might be right. And let's face it, in a culture of open season on mothers, even a brief respite from being criticized is a blessed relief.
So, I get it. I know why we as a society indulge in tearing mothers down every chance we can. But I also understand the consequences of it--to us as mothers, to our children, and to the national conversation.
As mothers, we always know our day is coming. If I criticize her, goodness knows, I'm going to be criticized too. It makes us very defensive in our parenting, and keeps us from trusting our own best thinking. We become a nation of mothers who look to others instead of remembering that we know what's best for ourselves and our children. It's exhausting. It's depleting. It undermines all of us. And the truth is that each of us is exactly the right person to be our child's mother, to make the best decisions for them, to seek advice only when we want it, and to trust ourselves. Mothers are the first and foremost experts in their own parenting. That is a revolutionary statement! Imagine how the world would change if we all embraced this truth!
So it's time to call an end to the advice-giving and criticism culture of motherhood. It's time to stop the flagellation, self or otherwise, that we all get pulled into. Why? Because the "mommy wars" are a distraction. They prevent us from paying attention to what really matters, and what's really making all of our lives difficult as mothers. When we get beyond who's doing it right, or more importantly wrong, we can focus on why we're all having such a hard time of it anyway. We can focus on the fact that we are the only nation in the industrialized world that doesn't provide paid maternity/paternity leave, that treats parenting like a hobby instead of as the important work that it is of raising the next generation of workers and citizens, and maybe even unite our voices to insist that we pay attention to our needs as parents.
So this Mother's Day, we at MotherWoman are proclaiming Mother's Day Amnesty. Let's have NO more criticism, NO loud proclamations of any other mother's failures as a mother, NO blogs tearing other mothers down, NO internal thoughts of criticism directed at ourselves. Let's have a break where we can each remember that we are ALL winging it, every step of this parenting journey. That we have never before parented the children that are before us today, at this age and under these circumstances, that we (like every other parent) are doing our very best with the (limited) resources that we have. Then perhaps we can begin to pay attention to what will really make a difference for all of us -- making parenting a priority in this country with policies that support us.
Liz Friedman became a mother in 2002, and founded the Postpartum Support Initiative of MotherWoman in 2007. As Program Director of MotherWoman, Liz is a leading voice in advocating for fair policies for mothers, and with Annette Cycon, developed the MotherWoman Support Group Model, which provides a safe forum for mothers to speak their truths. Liz serves on the MA Postpartum Depression Commission, is a co-investigator on research pertaining to postpartum depression, and in 2013 published a chapbook entitled, "You are exactly the right mother." Liz says, ""I want for my daughter what I want for ALL of us. That she will be heard when she speaks her own truths as a woman and, if she chooses, as a mother." You can find Liz at firstname.lastname@example.org and at www.motherwoman.org.
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