To Stop the Mom-Shaming, Look in the Mirror

To Stop the Mom-Shaming, Look in the Mirror

I’ve been seeing a lot of stuff lately about how breastfeeding advocates shame mothers, mothers shame mothers, businesses shame mothers, healthcare providers shame mothers. It’s frustrating. I see a lot of this:

“That doctor made me feel bad for formula-feeding.”

“The server gave me the dirtiest look when I started breastfeeding in the café; it made me feel I was doing something wrong.”

“That sancti-mommy lectured me about using formula. It made me feel horrible.”

“My sister (who breastfed) said I was weird for breastfeeding my 3-year-old; it made me feel terrible.”

“That chick said I’m not a real mom because I work outside the home; that made me feel like shit.”

“It made me feel so awful when that mom told me bed-sharing was dangerous.”

“My doctor made me feel like a terrible mother when I asked about taking antidepressants while pregnant.”

These are just a few of the infinite number of ways parents could be shamed. Basically any decision we make as parents is probably going to be questioned by someone. When someone objects to what you’re doing, or says you’re doing something wrong, it can often lead to feelings of shame. But it doesn’t have to.

Do you know what I see in the statements above? A whole lot of refusal to take responsibility for how you feel. A whole lot of letting someone else tell you what your success should look like. A whole lot of letting some jackass decide that you should be ashamed of what you’re doing.

Here’s a way to stop the mom-shaming. Instead of pointing the finger outward at that mom, that breastfeeding specialist, that doctor, that other person – how about pointing the finger inward at yourself? In other words:

STOP GIVING OTHERS THE POWER OVER HOW YOU FEEL.

Photo by Flickr user Sansbury
Photo by Flickr user Sansbury

If you own your decisions, know they were the best for you and your family, and have the confidence to stand by them, nobody can make you feel ashamed. Nobody can make you feel anything – you get to choose how the actions of others affect you.

I’m not saying to never feel anything, or just to brush that dirt off your shoulder like it’s nothing. That’s not going to happen. Shit happens; we react. What I am saying is that when you start to feel ashamed of a parenting decision, take a step back and analyze it. Did I make this decision because it was what was best for ME, or MY family, or MY baby? If the answer is yes, then you have absolutely no reason to feel ashamed. Example time!!

Was switching to formula the best decision for you and your family? Then the next time someone says you’re harming your baby, tell them to fuck off – your family, your decision, and no need to justify it.

Does seeing the research on breastfeeding make you feel like a bad mom because you didn’t breastfeed? Don’t let it. Increasing risk of something does not equal harm. Infant feeding decisions are not made in a vacuum. There are so many variables to consider; risk reduction is just one of them and not necessarily the deciding factor for everyone.

Do you enjoy full-term breastfeeding? Then the next time someone says it’s tantamount to child abuse, tell them to fuck off – your family, your decision, and no need to justify it.

Do you feel pressured by medical professionals to wean because [insert reason here]? Tell them you are the child’s mother and you know what’s best for your family.

Does safe bed-sharing allow everyone in your family to get more sleep? Then the next time someone declares you’re going to kill your baby, tell them to fuck off – your family, your decision, and no need to justify it.

See a pattern here? Own your decisions. If someone questions it, tell them to back off in whatever manner you choose (I’ve illustrated a more direct approach; some of you may prefer a more nuanced, less foul-mouthed response).

If I sound harsh, it’s because I’m so frustrated and saddened. I see so many beautiful, strong, amazing women question themselves because of the words of others. I see what amazing mothers they are; I just wish they did, too.

Who cares what other people think about how you care for your family! The only “right” answer in parenting is the one that works for your family.

Don’t let the actions you take as a parent, define you as a parent. You are not a breastfeeding or formula-feeding or bed-sharing or cloth-diapering or [insert label here] mom – you are a mom who loves her children and makes the best decisions she can, based on the information she has at the time.

Taking back power over how you feel isn’t easy. It’s taken me years to recognize that I didn’t have to let anyone make me feel bad and put that into practice. It’s something I struggle with almost every day.

Also, it will be different when the power balance is off. For example, it’s easier to shrug off a stranger’s disdain than it is to speak up against negative comments by someone in a position of “authority” – like a doctor.

If it’s someone you know and care about (such as a family member or close friend), it may be even harder because of the fear of hurting the relationship. But think about this: you can speak your truth gently and with respect; if the person you love reacts negatively, that’s their issue – not yours.

The following are some tips for taking back your power. It’s things I’ve learned through mothering, working as an IBCLC, going through the 12 Steps as an alcoholic, and just life in general.

  1. Grieve your losses. If you wanted to breastfeed more than anything, but formula ended up being a better option for your family, it’s ok to be upset. Grieve the loss of breastfeeding. If you got no support, or really shitty breastfeeding support (like someone saying the latch looks fine even though you’re in pain) – be angry! Do something to work through that anger, though – don’t bottle it up (no pun intended). Take however long you need to grieve, but try to work through it in healthy ways.
  2. Find a mantra. I personally like saying, “Well, that’s just their opinion” if someone says something negative about me. It’s true – it is that person’s opinion – but I don’t have to accept their opinion as my own. Find something that will help you put emotionally charged situations into perspective.
  3. Be confident. This can be really hard. I don’t think I became confident as a mommy until my first son was 3 and I was pregnant with my second. Even so, I still question my abilities. But if I can honestly say that yes, I am doing the best I can, then that is enough for me. If it’s enough for me, it’s damn well enough for the rest of the world.
  4. Be the change. If you catch yourself judging another mom, stop and think. It can be hard to see people doing things differently – after all, I picked my way because I thought it was best. But what’s best for me, may not be best for another mother/family. And that’s OK. Next time you feel yourself start to be a Judgy McJudgyPants, stop and say, “You know, I’ll bet that mom is doing the best she can. It’s different than what I would do, but I’ll bet it works for her.” Change how you think.
  5. Toughen up. You’re going to encounter Assholes – the ones who deliberately try to make people feel bad because it makes them feel better about themselves. Often, you can’t reason with an Asshole. At that point, pull a Jay-Z and brush your shoulders off. Assholes aren’t worth your time or your emotions. BUT…
  6. Don’t assume everyone is an Asshole. Maybe I’m being too Pollyanna, but I really think that most people say stuff out of a desire to help, not to be a jerk. Perhaps they say it the wrong way, with the wrong tone, at the wrong time, or they shouldn’t have said anything at all. Assume that people come from a place of love or concern for welfare, and you might be surprised at the positivity that comes your way.

Apology to my first son

Awhile ago, I saw a HuffPo piece called “An Apology Letter to My Second Child.” My second child was about a month old, so I was like, ok, I’ll bite. It was one of those funny/cutesy posts where the writer apologizes for all the awful things that happened (brother peed on you, didn’t do your baby book, etc.) but then declares she won’t apologize for loving you less. Slightly Hallmark cliche, but sweet nonetheless. It got me thinking, though…

…and I need to apologize to my first son. So, here goes:

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Colt, 6 weeks

I’m sorry I don’t remember much about your first few months.
Jack will do something adorable, like “shout” at us or make a funny face. I’ll remark, “I don’t remember Colt doing that; did he do that?” And my husband will inevitably reply, “Yes,” with only a hint of an exasperated sigh. I was in such a fog of exhaustion and untreated postpartum depression that I honestly don’t remember most details of his first 3 months. I took a crap ton of photos, so it’s not like it’s a complete blank. But those random moments of looking into his eyes, smiling at his coos, nuzzling my nose into his hair and breathing in his wonderful baby smell? No memory. Makes my heart ache a little.

I’m sorry I was afraid.
I was afraid to bedshare, because I was certain I’d kill him. I was afraid to babywear, because I read one random story about a baby suffocating in a Moby wrap. I was actually afraid to be alone with him at times, because I didn’t know what to do with him! I wish I’d educated myself more. Bedsharing has been a lifesaver with Jack; I get so much more sleep and I know I won’t kill him because I do it safely. I wear him in a wrap often – sometimes, it’s the only thing that calms him down! Again, I educated myself on the safest ways to wear an infant. I can’t help but wonder a bit that if I’d bed-shared (gotten more sleep) and baby-wore (less crying/stress), I might have more memories of Colt’s first few months.

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There was happiness…

I’m sorry I was so stressed and cried a lot.
Most of what I do remember about the first few months is how panicked I felt – especially while home alone. Bryce went back to work 10 days after he was born, he worked 12+ hours a day, I didn’t have a car, and I didn’t have any friends that lived nearby. Basically, I was too isolated while learning this crazy new job of mother. Plus, there was the untreated postpartum depression. I’d gone off my depression meds before trying to get pregnant. During Colt’s pregnancy, I had no symptoms of depression, so I didn’t think after pregnancy would be all that bad. HA. I had several risk factors for PPD, but ignored the signs when they showed up or lied to health care providers. I mentioned to Bryce once or twice that I thought I needed help, but did it kind of casually and never followed up. I should have told him I’d had fleeting thoughts of what life would be like if I was gone (how would Bryce raise a child alone?) and that I was afraid I could possibly hurt the baby.

With Jack, it’s been 180 degrees different. Bryce took a month off before going back to his laidback, 9-hour-a-day job. I have a car and an older son who loves to go do things. I’ve got several local friends I see regularly. I started taking my depression meds at 36 weeks, so it would have time to build up in my system before delivery. No sadness, anxiety, or unworthy feelings (unless I forget to take my meds for a few days!). I feel so much more relaxed. I’m sure part of it is just the fact that I’ve done this before. However, I think a large part of it is different circumstances (Bryce’s job situation) and that I worked hard to reduce my risk of PPD this time around. If things get bad this time, I will ask for help. If you have any of the symptoms of postpartum depression, please don’t be afraid to ask for help!!!

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Much more relaxed now

I’m sorry I went back to work because I thought being a SAHM wasn’t enough.
I took a full-time job when Colt was 4 months old. Part of the reason was financial; we were barely scraping by on just Bryce’s salary (damn student loans). Another part was me wanting to use my newly earned Master degree. But there was a part of me that felt being “just a mom” wasn’t enough; that I wasn’t fulfilled as a person. In reality, my disease was rearing up. I used to only find my worth in my work and felt like I wasn’t complete without validation from outside sources. This was my disease talking. I’ve since worked through that and I no longer need someone/something to tell me I’m worthy; I’m enough. I’ll be going back to school when Jack is about 5 months, but not because being home with the boys isn’t good enough.

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The moment Colt stole my heart

I suppose this is the part where the touching “I’m not sorry I…” comes in. I’m reluctant to add it – mostly because of the Hallmark cheese factor – but also because I don’t want to devalue what I just wrote. I loved Colt then, as I do now. There’s no doubt about that. He made me a mother. I am grateful that I learned from my early motherhood experiences, so that I could make different choices later. Colt is a bright, independent firecracker who tells me he loves me about ten times a day, so I know I didn’t ruin him in those early dark days. I just wish those early days weren’t quite so dark.

A Little Less Lost and Alone

I attended a conference called Project Mom today. It was a day for moms to get out sans kids, get some swag and hear speakers on relevant topics. You know, typical conference stuff. I skipped the breakout sessions, but caught the beginning and ending keynote speakers. The message I got from them was “you are the perfect mom for your child” and “get connected so you don’t feel so alone.”

The first one is good, because I do need the reminder that I’m not royally screwing up my kid. There is a reason he, with all his endearing-yet-maddening personality traits, was given to me. I’m not a perfect parent, but I am the perfect parent for him. Helps keep the suicidal thoughts away (only joking here, right?).

The second message brought into sharp focus just how alone I feel. I’ve never been good at connecting with people. I forced myself to learn how to do it superficially (alcohol helped; relearning it in sobriety was even harder), but really letting people IN has always been hard. I lost some close friendships in the past year, which has made it even harder. Though I know the loss was partly my fault, and we’re mending the friendships slowly, the pain of losing women I considered sisters makes me not want to get close to anyone else. I don’t want to get hurt again.

So, I’ve lost my two closest friends. I’m in a new town and don’t know many people. Family and other friends are far away. When I’m in those low moments that seem to happen all-too-often with this pregnancy, I feel completely and utterly alone. I laid on my bed sobbing last week, wanting to reach out to someone but not coming up with any names. And it’s frightening. I guess I just haven’t figured out what is more frightening – opening up and telling someone I need help, or continuing on with these overwhelming feelings on my own.

Luckily, I went to Project Mom with a friend. She’s in a similar situation, and I feel like our friendship deepened a little with our shared experience today. I don’t feel quite so lost and alone, knowing there’s at least one other mom out there who shares my fears.

It’s ok to hate motherhood

It’s kind of funny that my last post was about angry music and in it, I asked my hormonal bitchiness to go away. The day after I wrote it, I had probably the worst day of my pregnancy, hormone-wise.

Yesterday (Tuesday) was the perfect storm of crazy. I was tired, sore from my Sunday run, short-tempered and low on patience. My son was whiny, tired and not really willing to listen to me. Everything came to a head when he refused to nap. I laid with him for a little bit and, of course, fell asleep just long enough to wake up groggy, tired and more irritable than before. I left him lying there awake and told him to sleep. About 15 minutes later, I hear a knocking on his door (his usual way of letting me know he’s up). I ignored it, until I heard him hit the door with what sounded like a hard toy.

I kind of exploded. It wasn’t pretty. I yelled about not hitting the door and he started crying. In a fit of rage, I showed him how his beloved Lego Marvel superheroes video game was going into the closet for the foreseeable future because he wouldn’t nap. All the while, he’s standing there with tears in his eyes, probably confused as to why I was freaking out so much.

Once I forced myself to calm down a bit, I held him for awhile and apologized for yelling. We talked about how it was scary that I yelled and how he shouldn’t have hit his door and I shouldn’t have yelled. He was running around and playing as if nothing had happened about 15 minutes later, but I was still in a state.

Fast forward, my husband gets home and they go outside to play. I sit down outside to watch and soak up some Vitamin D, but within two minutes I have to go lay on my bed and bawl my frickin’ eyes out. While sitting out there, watching my son run around, I had this fleeting thought:

I wish he’d keep running and not come back.

That instantly triggered the mom guilt and reinforced my thoughts of inadequacy; hence the tears. As I lay there sobbing, I alternated between beating myself up for having such a horrible thought and being terrified at the thought of having two children when I can barely manage one.

Now, normally this is the point in a blog post like this where I’d tell you about that magical moment where I realized it’s all going to be okay. That my son did something heart-melting and I saw what a joy motherhood really was. Not going to happen this time. I didn’t have an a-ha moment like that this time.

My son and husband did come in and try to make me feel better. My husband rubbed my back and sat there in silence, knowing I would talk if I wanted to. My son jumped around the bed, asking if I was ok, telling his dad that I was sad and giving me little kisses and hugs. It did help my tears subside and my calm (sanity) return, but it didn’t make me love motherhood again.

And that’s FINE. It’s okay to have thoughts like mine. It’s normal not to love motherhood 100% of the time. It’s all right not to have that Hallmark moment where you realize everything is going to be hunky-dory. If it takes you a little longer to find your calm again, you are still a good mama.

Note: If you have these kind of feelings, acknowledge them. Don’t force them away because you are ashamed, or think good mamas don’t have those thoughts. Let them out in some constructive way: crying, talking to someone, screaming (into a pillow, preferably not at someone else), doing a therapeutic activity (art, yoga, whatever floats your boat). If you hold these types of feelings inside, they will fester and possibly grow into something worse. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you feel like you’re drowning. Asking for help is a sign of strength. My support team is my husband, my parents, a few close friends and my OB. After I give birth, I plan to go back on my antidepressants (I know there are some I could take during pregnancy, but I don’t feel my need outweighs the potential risks to the baby at this point). Just please, don’t hide these feelings away out of fear or shame. You are a good mama, and don’t ever forget that.

When “You are your mother’s son” is scary

“You are your mother’s son.”

My husband said this affectionately to our son last night as we left the restaurant. Colt had just told him, “I didn’t do it. Mama did it.” He was referring to how I had picked him up and put him in his seat because he was dawdling too much to do it on his own…30 minutes ago. That greatly upset my very independent boy, so he sat and stewed on it for the entire meal.

Yep, he’s my son. When I got butt-hurt about something, I used to hold onto it and roll it over in my mind for ages. I used to let small misunderstandings ruin my entire day, which would frustrate my husband to no end. I didn’t like doing it, but I couldn’t help it. I was upset, you know, so it was important to chew on it because eventually he would see I was right and he was wrong, right? Right??

Luckily, I’ve since learned the value of letting go of small annoyances and working through larger problems so they don’t get blown out of proportion. But the memory of my past behaviors is there when my son shows signs of my less-than-impressive qualities. And that’s what makes the phrase, “You are your mother’s son,” slightly chilling to me.

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What else is he going to inherit from me? Will he be a slave to compulsive behaviors, as I was? Will he feel anxious in social settings because he believes everyone there is better than him? Will he lie and manipulate because he can’t handle the emotions he’s feeling? Will he be an alcoholic or addict?

These fears aren’t new; I’ve had them since before I was pregnant. Of course I only want him to receive my good qualities and I want my bad qualities to be left behind in the gene pool. Truthfully, I want him to be more like my husband. I’d rather Colt had my husband’s cool, calm and collected sunny day rather than my up-and-down emotional thunderstorm. So far, it’s looking like he’s more of the thunderstorm type.

I know it’s not just nature that decides how our life goes. Nurture plays a big role as well. I’m able to calm my fears a little because of the changes I’ve made in my life. I’m no longer the slave to compulsive behaviors, the self-hating girl who lies and manipulates because she can’t handle the emotions of addiction. I can do my best to mitigate the less desirable genes I’ve given him, by nurturing him with love, encouragement, empathy and respect. I am the best person for the job of his mother.

And I’m going to do my best so that when someone tells Colt, “You are your mother’s son,” it’s something to be proud of.

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