Sunday, May 27, 2012

Gifts, Not Wars

So I am way late in writing about the now-infamous Time cover story "Are You Mom Enough?"

I’ve read lots of responses to it, including this thoughtful Boston.com blog post, but every time I tried to compose a post, life (work, infection, moving,) and, well, mothering, pulled me away. So here it is, 3:30 am, and I just finished up some work and can begin drafting my thoughts.

More than anything else, my initial reaction after reading the article on Dr. Sears and attachment parenting (and the extreme some parents can take it to) was to ask, who cares? I’m not being glib here. I am too busy getting through the day and doing the best I can for my kid and for everyone and everything else in my life to care what other mothers and families are doing. Formula or breast milk? None of my business. Pacifiers or thumb sucking? Again, not my call. What’s it to me if you co-sleep or Ferberize or Baby Whisper your way through the night? I’ve got my own sleep to worry about. I have my preferences and my data and evidence for my own decisions, and a pediatrician I trust to discuss things with, but my choices don’t need to be yours.

Before my daughter was born, I read Dr. Sears’s Baby Book. And I read What To Expect the First Year, and the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Caring For Your Child, Birth-5 Years. I read books on breastfeeding and sleep habits and baby-food making. I bought a baby carrier and pacifiers and washed the sheets for the hand-me-down bassinet.

And you know what? Then I had my daughter, and I quickly realized the best information about raising her came from her, that if we paid attention to her cues and adapted as her needs changes and listened to our instincts, we’d figure it all out.

Turns out she hardly used the bassinet because her reflux and other health problems meant she needed to be upright. Turns out she loved napping with her head on my chest and her legs tucked up under her, and that the old adage I'd read was true: Babies don't keep, so hold them as often as you can. Focus on the moment.

Turns out she loved her pacifiers but gave them up without much fuss. Turns out she didn’t really need that 4am feed and just wanted to hang out, and that sleeping through the night came naturally for her when she wasn’t waking up to socialize. Turns out she didn’t use that baby carrier nearly as much as she did in my pregnancy daydreams because even as a tiny infant, she always wanted to be upright and on the move. Turns out my husband was right, a baby food maker is unnecessary if you have a couple of pots, a blender, and the desire.

Turns out the world didn’t end and I didn’t feel any less bonded when I had to stop breastfeeding at six months (this, after eliminating dairy, soy, and eggs; after lactation consults and digital scales and hospital grade pumps; after mastitis and supply issues and multiple supplements every day and Oh My God I am spending far too much time pumping for so few ounces when I could be spending time with my baby!) Plenty of other mothers nurse much longer, and some never do, and we’re all doing the best we can with the variables we have. The learning curve of motherhood is steep enough.

So why does this idea of “mommy wars” persist? Jenn at What The Blog?, wrote, “Mommy wars aren’t created by magazine covers. They’re created by moms who doubt their own choices then attack others who are different just because they’re threatened by self doubt. Mommy wars aren’t against each other. They’re against ourselves, and that’s why no one ever wins.”

To an extent, I agree with this. With some time and distance to move past my immediate reactions to this dialogue, and as I watch my daughter grow into more of an independent little person every day, it occurs to me that parenting is an opportunity not to be better than, but simply to bebetter: better versions of ourselves, because our children notice everything we do, because just as we take cues from them, they take so many cues from us.

If we want our children to be compassionate, to be open-minded, to be the ones who stand up for the misfit on the playground or speak respectfully to elders, that starts with how they see us treating others, speaking to and about others, and speaking to and treatingthem. If we want them to have confidence in themselves and in their ability to make decisions and act independently, then we need to model that confidence in our choices—our parenting choices, our work choices, our lifestyle choices.

Maggie May at Flux Capacitor writes, “We are given this gift in our children, the gift to be stewards of the making of their brains and souls and bodies. We are watching a supernova be born, we are watching something as breathtaking and fragile and combustible and miraculous and beautiful as a star being born in the few first years of our children's lives.”

I am not a patient person, not naturally inclined to be carefree or completely engaged in the present. When I am with my daughter, those things come much more easily. That is a gift she gives me.

In some ways, I am in a little mothering bubble—not quite a SAHM but with an unconventional schedule that allows me lots of time with my daughter, and despite a full course load and teaching overload plus a writing career, not a traditional working mother, either. It’s hard to find a real sense of community when you straddle different worlds (a longer post on this is coming), but it also insulates me a bit from whatever competition or judging might go on (mostly).

But what I’ve taken from the newborn classes and infant music sessions and the playgrounds and library storytimes is this:

Look for the mothers who, despite the blowout diapers and missed naps and toddler meltdowns, despite the lack of sleep or downtime and the stress of the daily grind that motherhood entails, have joy. Joy in their children, joy in the visceral, physical act of parenting. I’ve seen them, I’ve witnessed their ease and confidence and comfort in their own mothering skin, and I’ve learned from them. Whatever Mommy Wars might be going on don’t seem to touch them. That is a gift they give to their children.

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