Back Off Mommy Mafia
“You all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it ok for guys to call you sluts and whores.” — Tina Fey, Mean Girls
Mean Girls is one of my favorite movies not just because of the excellent writing, directing, cinematography, and acting, not to mention original score, but also because it imparts so many life lessons. In this case, moms need to stop shaming other moms and piling up pressure on each other, because it just makes it ok for everyone else to do the same. There is plenty of fear and uncertainty inherent in becoming a new parent without all of the bogus data and expectations set upon parents by others.
There is no shortage of support groups for new parents. There are groups for local moms, moms of multiples, breastfeeding groups, career focussed groups, and even exercise groups. 99% of these are great and helping new parents. However, some are actually harmful to new parents. Anytime an opinion or belief is put forth as fact or the objectively “correct” way to do something, this can be hugely dangerous and damaging to unsuspecting or vulnerable parents. Parents are sleep deprived, scared they are going to screw up their children’ health, success, or perhaps even turn them into serial killers if they don’t do enough bonding time, or perhaps if they do too much. These groups, although well-intending, can prey on these insecurities and make parents question even the beliefs they thought they had figured out.
With twins, and particularly because one spent a day in the NICU and both struggled with weight loss in their first few days, my wife struggled with breastfeeding. Partly physically, and mostly mentally, she was feeling low about the whole experience and kept bouncing back and forth about doing it. On the pro-breastfeeding side was the sheer amount of material and information about the benefits from blogs, other moms, and even the hospital. On the anti-breastfeeding side was the worry that she wasn’t producing enough to feed them and that they would lose weight and suffer health problems as a result. Her frustration began to boil over when the boys began getting frustrated by trying to feed and would throw tantrums until they got a bottle. In desperation, she found one of these groups and attended a meeting.
The good news was that it made making a decision about feeding much easier. The bad news was it was incredibly damaging to her and could have really depressed her. With an estimated ⅓ of new mothers facing some symptoms of postpartum depression, making a new mom feel inadequate is a crime. Not only did they make her feel like a bad mother for not being able to breastfeed, but they also made her feel guilty for having a c-section, choosing a “non-baby-friendly” hospital, for joking about having a glass of wine at some point, and worst, for trying to be a working mom and find a balance between self and the boys. We actually put a ton of research into the hospital and found the staff there incredible. If it weren’t for them, the short stay in the NICU would have been unbearable. All of these criticisms are all totally ludicrous and thankfully we realized how absurd this was on the way home, but I can only imagine how upsetting this must have been. If I hadn’t been there, this could have utterly destroyed her psyche about her fitness as a parent. Again, criminal.
I fully recognize their right to have this group, these opinions, and follow their own hashtag lifestyle, but pushing it on others and making them feel unfit while masquerading as a support group for help is totally uncool. What new parents need is support for their own way of doing things, and advice on options and what worked for them, but never pushing their own agenda as “fact”. Instead, these should be presented more as lifestyle choices. It’s this black and white, right and wrong categorization of choices that leads to polarization and fundamentalism. This is actually the same mentality that leads to voting for the Brexit to kick out immigrants, or supporting a candidate who wants to build a wall literally across a continent to keep people who are different away. They are all components of what has recently been coined as the anti-expert mentality. Individuals no longer trust governments, medical experts, financial experts, and other thought leaders, albeit for many fair reasons, and this felt like an extension of this to me, particularly the attitude that they were objectively right and doctors were objectively wrong.
This group was presented as a group that could help with the technical aspects of breastfeeding, but they bundled this so closely with so many other aspects that to me are totally separate, it made it very confusing and overwhelming. Co-sleeping, on-demand feeding, sling wearing, baby massage, and herbal remedies were all presented as equal parts of parenting that must be followed in order to be a successful mother. Breastfeeding and taking a child to a massage therapist are in no way related in my mind and to present them as equally beneficial and as fact is dangerous and irresponsible, let alone opportunistic. They actually had her believing that she was having problems feeding because the boys had too much stress and needed massages. Each of these is to me a menu item, or an a la carte option for parents. Some or all may work great for some parents, but they are not a full prix-fixe meal that has to be ordered together.
As two career focussed individuals, we want to find a strong balance between work and family. Laying in bed with them all day or having them attached at all hours may work fine for some parents, and the more power to them for being able to do this, but it won’t work for us. My issue is that there was no room presented for any sort of compromise or middle-ground-finding as part of this group. Because we couldn’t do all of the pieces they felt were critical, we were bad parents. This is part of the problem with inequality in the workplace. Mothers are indoctrinated to believe they are failures if they can’t devote 100% of their time to their children like this. They sacrifice at work or give up their careers as a result. This mentality also propagates to peers and male co-workers and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Paired with the lack of paternity leave and all of these expectations being heaped solely on the mother, the gap widens. With all the fear and uncertainty of being a new parent, no wonder groups that seem to present actual answers do so well. We need to fix this if we ever want to find balance in the workplace.
Again, I’m not arguing with any of these practices or lifestyle choices for parents who they work for. I think it is great if parents can co-sleep, feed entirely from the breast, and spend absolutely as much time together as possible. But there needs to be some recognition that one-size fits all is not accurate. These are absolutely choices and all parents and their families are individuals, so need individual approaches.
Instead, the best advice parents can get is to find what works for them. Parents should be empowered with knowledge and all of the options available to them, without the pressure of having to choose an entire lifestyle to follow. Without this flexibility, parents will continue to feel that balancing work, parenting, family, and marriage is impossible. Of course it’s a strain on one or more of the above when parents can’t tailor a solution that is compatible with their beliefs and values. I propose that what is needed are groups, meetups, classes, literature, and consultants who preach that there is no one size fits all solution for parents. One of the best joys I’ve discovered so far is that screwing up and learning from mistakes can be very rewarding. In the blogger culture (pot meet kettle) of experts, it can be very easy to be led to believe that there is a perfect solution and it’s just a matter of reading enough to get there. However, I can find just as many blogs that tell you too much cuddle time will lead to raising the unabomber as ones that proclaim too little will. Instead, forget the blogs (except this one!) and just do what works for you. Trust your instincts. The amazing thing is, they are almost certainly correct. And even if not, there’s time to learn and adjust.
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What are the craziest or best pieces of advice you’ve received as a parent or soon to be parent? Leave a note in the comments.
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