Friday, November 13, 2009

Give a Mother a Break

Circumstances conspired to make me think a lot about our judgmental culture today. First, at the very end of AskMoxie's post on how to shift from a work mind set to a mommy mind set, someone posting as millay wrote a nice comment saying how encouraged she was to read all the other comments from mothers who liked their jobs enough to need tricks for switching off their work brains at the end of the day. She's been feeling guilty for enjoying her work now that she has a baby.

I, of course, had to pipe in with the fact that I am a happy working mom, and the fact that I think there are a lot of us happy working moms out here. As I said in my comment at Moxie's, I think there are many different types of good mother. Some good moms like to work outside the home. Some good moms don't like to work outside but have to in order to provide important things for their children, so do it anyway. Some good moms want to stay at home with their kids. All types of moms can be good moms, and no one should make anyone feel guilty for her choices in this regard.

Then, I went to the breastfeeding support group run by the hospital where I gave birth. This support group pretty much saved my sanity when Pumpkin was born, so I've been going since Petunia was born. I am less likely to be falling to pieces this time (although I still have questions and concerns), but I remember how helpful it was to have moms in that group who had made it through those first difficult weeks and could demonstrate that indeed, it did get easier. So I go even when I don't have questions or concerns, to tell some other mother what I needed to hear in my early days as a mother: It is really hard now, but it gets easier. You're doing a great job. It is worth it. Yes, you will figure out how to feel like a well-rounded person again. Etc., etc.

Today, there was a mom there who was having a really hard time. It is not my story to tell, so I will just say that her baby has reflux (now being treated), and is growing slowly, and is probably high needs as well. She was in tears telling us how her friends keep trying to get her to meet for lunch or coffee, but how she didn't want to go out because she was afraid her baby would meltdown and when that happens people look at her and ask her what's wrong with your baby? and she feels so judged.

Oh, how I remember that feeling. I was afraid to go places with Pumpkin for the same reason. She could go from happy to screaming in 0.5 seconds, and sometimes it seemed that nothing I did could stop the screaming. And I would feel people's eyes on me, and feel so judged. (In retrospect, probably only a small minority of onlookers were actually judging me. But in those early days of motherhood I had little confidence in my mothering ability and was prone to feeling very judged.)

I am much less worried about that this time around, although Petunia is also capable of throwing a good meltdown now and then, and sometimes the only way I can calm her is to sing loudly into her ear while doing a bouncing, swaying motion that would no doubt look like the geekiest dance on the planet. (Well, maybe not as geeky as Matt's dance....) I just am less likely to feel judged this time.

Then this poor mom told us about her sister-in-law, who has a much easier baby, and who tells her that she just needs to get over it and go out. And again I recognized a common problem of parents who have fussy babies- even other parents may not really get it. Until you've had a child who is "high needs", it is easy to think that the reason your child is not so fussy/sleeps well/eats well/cured cancer is that you are an excellent parent. Now, these parents may in fact be excellent parents. They probably are. But so are the parents of the fussy, reluctant to sleep and eat kids. Some kids are just harder to parent than others. Being the parent of a child who is not a great sleeper has taught me a great deal of parenting humility. I try very hard not judge how other parents are dealing with their own parenting challenges.

It is not that I think the rest of us should just butt out and ignore the parenting going on in our midst. That would be very isolating for parents, and would deprive new parents of the chance to get ideas and support from the other parents around them. But surely we can strive to be supportive, and not judgmental? It seems that we are all a little too quick to cluck our tongues and shake our heads at the actions mothers take, and a little too slow to offer encouragement and actual help to mothers- particularly new mothers- who might need it.

So, to all those of you out there who take the time to tell a struggling mom "you're doing a great job" or "it gets easier": thank you. I always appreciate hearing that, even now that I know from personal experience that it gets easier.

To those of you who think you know how to solve whatever parenting problem I'm dealing with in public: maybe you do and maybe you don't. But I guarantee, I don't want to hear about it from some random stranger in a parking lot. And I can't think of anyone outside my family whose opinion on whether or not I work matters at all.


  1. I sometimes wonder if our attitude towards advice is part of the problem. I mean, obviously there's assvice, which just sucks. But sometimes I will see someone having trouble, and I know what worked for *me*, and I have no idea if they've heard of my suggestion or not. And my motivation in wanting to give advice is not to be a know-it-all, but if I can give them one tiny piece of information that could make their life easier, or better...except that coming from a strange we hear criticism, not compassion. When someone says to you, "hey, your baby isn't sleeping, have you tried X?" I think it stems from a deep desire to help that most people have. Or that imagine they have. And yet I totally get where you're coming from. I know precisely how frustrating it is explaining to someone, yet again, that I've tried every single sleep solution and they just don't work.

  2. @Today Wendy- I think you're right. I know that in my case, at least some of the judgment I felt during those early days of motherhood was primarily in my head, not in the head of the person giving me advice! I think some new moms are just really sensitive to any perceived criticism, because we feel like we aren't doing a good job. I wonder if this correlates with having a particularly fussy baby, or a baby who behaves differently from how we think babies are "supposed" to behave (for instance, sleeping less than the books say babies sleep...)?

    However, even in those early days, I never minded respectfully given advice from people I actually knew. In fact, some of my Mom's advice was really, really helpful. (It still is!)

    It is the probably well-meaning strangers telling me that my baby was crying because she was hot/cold/hungry/tired that weren't very helpful, and were in fact hurtful, because they only deepened my insecurities as a new mom.

  3. Amen, amen and amen!

    Thank goodness that I am confident in my parenting abilities and in understand my particular spirited child, as well as starting to learn the differences with the baby. I'm sure I would have had a complete breakdown if I wasn't... oh wait, I did have a bit of a breakdown with PPD.

    Anywho... I usually don't mind getting advice, but I can do with the judgment from people who have no idea what it is like to parent a kid like mine. You know this came up recently, and I just don't get it. Parenting most kids is hard in a lot of different ways. I just don't get why we all aren't simply supportive of and helpful with each other!

  4. Wow. I want to comment on ALL OF THIS.

    First, I love working my job. I LOVE being a professor. I'm so gald to be able to do this and to be a mother, too. Loving one doesn't mean I don't love the other.

    Second, fussy babies. The second part of your post made me tear up. Munchkin was a very fussy baby, andI never left the house and I cried a lot when she cried a lot. She was hard to parent. You know what I needed instead of people telling me to get over myself, or telling me how their babies never acted like that? I needed them to offer to take over for 20 minutes, five minutes, anything.

    So that's what I do now: you got a fussy baby? Hand her over, go for a coffee. She's rotten, but I can handle it. Go!


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