I have come to realize that the contemporary world of Mommying with a Capital M appears full of boundless choices but is, in fact, a tight Spanx-like regulatory regime that strangles any possibility of creative parenting or, for that matter, thinking for yourself. I am still resentful when I think back to all the times I heard that this things or that thing was "not recommended" because, as I mentioned before, I thought that "not recommended" meant that my baby would die and I would be forever to blame in that deep, dark place where mothers who make mistakes go to die of shame and self-hatred.
I am currently reading a book - THAT EVERY MOMMY MUST READ - called Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety (2005) by Judith Warner. This book speaks to me on a number of levels, mostly because I literally "went mad" after pushing a baby past my pelvis, but also because Mommy Madness is a real thing, I think, for every mother. We drive ourselves mad with worry, anxiety, choice, guilt, and shame and are so busy doing so that we rarely have time to reflect on the fact that there is a way out of the madness but it seems no completely counterintuitive, so "not recommended," that it isn't really an option. Or is it?
Let me back up. Warner writes,
I found the pressure to breastfeed for at least a year, to endure natural childbirth, and to tolerate the boundary breakdowns of "attachment parenting" - baby-wearing, co-sleeping, long-term breastfeeding and the rest of it - cruelly insensitive to mothers' needs as adult women. And I was amazed that the women around me didn't seem to find their lives strange. It seemed normal to them that motherhood should be fraught with anxiety and guilt and exhaustion. It didn't seem to dawn on anyone that there could be another way. I was shocked by the degree to which everyone - feminist or not - seemed willing to accept the "choices" given to them, even to accept the idea that the narrow paths they'd been forced into living were choices."
Whoa. Let's all just take a moment to bow at the profound beauty and truth of that last statement: even to accept the idea that the narrow paths they'd been forced into living were choices. I had this intense feeling as a new mother that I was both bombarded with choices that I seemed incapable of making - and so many of them coming at me constantly - and bombarded with only one recommended option. The cultural narrative of "good mothering" and "best for your child" completely and wholly overtook any sense of my own gut feelings or instincts. I was lost in a sea of completely constrained choices that I could not find my way out except with intensive counselling, some meds, and a dash of wine (maybe more than a dash) for good measure. I was lost. And lost is not where you want to be when you are new mum and there is this little tiny fragile life weighing on your mind, body, and soul with the force of nothing you have ever felt before.
I read somewhere (prolly on the internets) that the only new mothers that trust their instincts anymore are teen moms who have little education yet rely on what their instincts about mommying tell them about how to parent. The author of this piece was using a disdainful approach and some serious tongue clicking about how this "high risk" group should be the last people on earth to think that their gut is anything to follow when raising a child. I can't remember if they provided any stats on the outcomes for these kids versus the so-called "traditional" nuclear family model (like teen moms are anything new or invented by MTV or something) - or any information on how vast discrepancies in income and support that these two groups can experience - but in any case, it pissed me off. Girls can't do anything right, can they? First these girls have the audacity TO GET PREGNANT and then they think that they know what they are doing! HOW DARE THEY?!?!?!?!?! I found myself thinking: I wish I had the gonads of those girls. I wish I stood up and fought for the choices I wanted to make amidst the flurry of bullshit that I was getting at all angles from both biomedical and alternative medical supports, parenting books, advice from everywhere, and internalized notions of what it means to be a good mother.
I'm not talking about ignoring what is recommended and I'm not talking about not making informed choices and doing your research and keeping your baby safe by not winging it and leaving them at home for a couple of days post birth with a little bowl of colostrum and some kitty litter in their crib. I guess what I am trying to say is, aren't you also a little jealous of those young women who have the courage (the author of the article would say lack of awareness, or even ignorance) to make their own choices that are not constrained by both internal and external measures of Mommy Perfection that are disempowering, crazymaking, and madness-inducing?
One of the best things my counsellor who helped me through my postpartum depression and anxiety said to me was that the advice in all these parenting books just keeps recycling no matter how much they tout the "new science" of parenting. Swaddle/don't swaddle. Breastfeed/formula feed (although I have a feeling that this one won't be cycling back for a while), pick your kid up when they cry/leave them or they'll get spoiled, sleep train them/sleep training doesn't work. It's exhausting. But what was once old is new again and what's new is already passe. The other thing that was totally rad that she told me was that a young woman she once counselled told her that kids weren't hard because they basically raise themselves. This was kind of a funny story at the time because I was obsessing so much about raising Aya that the idea that she would ever do anything independent of me making it happen seemed ludicrous. But then Aya got a bit older and then a bit older and I realized, well shit howdy, look at her doing stuff on her own that I didn't turn myself inside out to ensure happened! Of course we don't want kids to raise themselves, but once we trust the process, we see the magic that is child development. And, if we're not completely neurotic by the time they are two, we might even enjoy it a little.
So the secret is maybe that, as Warner suggests, choice is a HUGE myth that only blinds us to our actual lack of choices and the lack of trust that we have in ourselves and that is actively not fostered by all that fuels contemporary Mommy Madness from the contradictory information, the shaming of mothers who don't conform to Proper Mommying practices, and the internalization of this notion that we can never be enough, will never be enough, for our children.
Motherhood completely transformed for me when I learned to trust myself and my choices while being adaptable to the influences of good advice, practical wisdom, and practices that keep Aya safe while allowing her to adventurous and amazing. The counterintuitive thing to do sadly, is to trust yourself. Know that you know best. Because you do.
Let's live like those young women who haven't a care in the world because they know that they are doing the best with what they have; not because they are ignorant or limited, but maybe because they accept that they have limits, and know that they are wise from experiencing childbirth and all that that bestows on a woman, and that one way or another, this kid is going to grow up and that that process doesn't have to be filled with self-doubt and admonishment. Instead, it can be filled with love and presence and, simply, doing one's best.
And for fuck's sake, give girls and young women who have babies a break and let's just all do the best we can with what we have in front of us.