inside

When I was in my first year of graduate school, two of my friends had a debate about the difference between being proud and being prideful. It was one of those pedantic arguments early (and sometimes seasoned) scholars have, but it comes in handy as a frame for me from time to time. These last couple of weeks, I’ve used it in thinking about the relationship between motherhood and judgement. I say motherhood not because I think there’s something uniquely primary about parenthood in the feminine, but because there does seem to be something about motherhood that draws out insecurity and judgment. And lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how sad that is and how much we’re losing because of it.

A few months back, a close mom friend posted something to Facebook about the judgement working moms face from stay at home moms. And I remember wondering if I had contributed to this friend feeling judged. And the truth, awful as it is, is that I probably have. Because I am proud of being home with my kids. And so I am vocal. But am I proud or am I prideful? Because there is a difference, right? I hear the difference as this:

I could be proud of something I make sacrifices for and work hard to accomplish or I could pridefully use the fact of that something to feel better about myself.

In the case of being home, it’s mostly the former. But sometimes, sometimes, I know it’s the latter. Which is awful. And which is true. And which, this feels important to say, is a product of all the ways in which I feel not better but less than.

That particular mom gave birth to both of her gorgeous babies at home. She nursed her oldest until she self-weaned, and will no doubt do the same with her youngest. She is a mama-force. Those things make me insecure because my body failed at making babies. And because though I am fiercely devoted to my boys being breastfed, I will never be the one to breastfeed them. But those are points of pride for my friend. And they should be. They are markers of her strength. She is fierce and brave and maternal and beautiful and she should be proud. And – though this isn’t always easy to remember – none of that has anything to do with me.

Another friend and I were talking yesterday about the idea that in being an advocate for breastfeeding, one runs the risk of shaming women who didn’t or don’t. But how, my friend asked, can we avoid shaming while still criticizing the formula industry for convincing women in developing nations that formula is best even when their water supply is unsafe? How might we educate women – work against the decades.old.but.still.prevalent belief that formula is best or just as good – without shaming them for choosing against the breast (or for using formula when for circumstantial reasons the choice wasn’t available to them)? How can breastfeeding moms be proud without being prideful. And how can non-nursing moms hear that pride without feeling shame.

As parents and as people, we all have strengths and weaknesses. I am proud to be home with my babies (a privilege, I know, but also a sacrifice [of money, of a tenure-track career]). I’m proud that we co-sleep, and never yell or use physical discipline, and have never let our children cry it out. I’m proud that J does extended breastfeeding. I feel good about the fact that we eat the way we do, and don’t have a television, and are active. These things matter to me or I wouldn’t do them because they are all a lot of work.

But where I give my kids wonderful amounts of routine, I am not skilled at spontaneity. The spirited, wild, loud, messy, blast of a childhood that some kids have is not in the cards for these boys because neither J nor I would know how to foster it. Though I’m good at organized walks, Bram has to convince me to take him into the backyard because, well, it’s really outdoorsy out there. And frankly dirty. He’s already showing an interest in catching bugs and I am really, really, really not interested in doing that. I also show similar over-analyzing and over-explaining tendencies to Paul Isaacson from E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, and let’s just say that doesn’t turn out well for his kids.

These are only a few of my limitations as a person and a parent. But this is where I think the judgement&insecurity trope gets especially dangerous. Because I could learn to be outside. Maybe even to enjoy it if I had the right teacher. And what I can’t learn my children can get from other people. Because J and I are not enough for them. If I have any hope of not just seeing my own limitations reflected in them, I need and want a village. But a village can only thrive if our defenses are down. And those defenses run deep. So lately I’ve been wondering if it’s possible that the whole awful Mommy War crisis might really just be an inside job.

Here’s what I mean.

Let’s say I’m at my library’s storytime and I’m giving Louis a bottle (of pumped milk, of course, but no strangers who see us know this). And a mama who probably gave birth to her children in a yurt and nursed until they self-weaned at six comes in and gives me what I perceive as the old judgy eye for being such a failure as to give my kids formula. I take all of this in in a second: her long flowy skirt and her long flowy hair. The fact that her children have never had a haircut and probably only bathe one a week. All of these facts of her feel like implicit judgements of me. And I admire her. I sound mocking here, but the truth is: I’m jealous. She and her children are clearly one with the universe and my children and I are awkward and out of step. And so what I perceive as her judgement about my bottle feeding is loaded already. But the truth is, maybe she hasn’t even really looked at me. She does have all these free-range children tugging at her hemp skirt; she is busy with her own stuff. But I am judging me because not breastfeeding my own children is a source of shame for me. So I put that on her. Because even worst case scenario – even if she took note of my bottle and assumed it was formula and felt better about herself at my expense – her judgement is not about me. What it is about is all the stuff that got lost in my appraisal of her wild, earthy beauty. Which is to say: all the stuff that makes her feel like a failure. All the stuff she might even think I’m doing better. But all of that becomes invisible the second I take her personally. The second I use her glance as a chance to revisit my own shame.

And the second I do that I make it impossible for her to be a part of my village. My children will never get filthy beyond my comfort zone playing with the goats outside her yurt, which is my loss, and theirs. And her children will never benefit from whatever strength I might have that they lack. Judgement kills the village. But in this case, the judgements were all mine. I will never even know what she really thought when she saw me.

So this is what I’m thinking lately. That it’s maybe sort of kind of possible to end the Mommy Wars just that simply. That it’s an entirely inside job. Because whatever her judgements are or aren’t, I get to decide whether or not to take them personally. And whether to listen past the look or the words that feel judgmental to hear what insecurities she might be propping up in herself. And whether to respond with openness to what she might be getting right, or to shut it down because I’m threatened. Whether to take her strengths as implicit judgements of my weaknesses or as invitations to grow and investigate and rely on others.

I love women. I trust women and I love them. This feeling of competition amongst women has always confused me. But as a mother, it feels especially dangerous. It’s an impossible utopia, I know, but isn’t it nice to dream of a community where kindness – to ourselves and to each other – takes over the spaces where we’ve let insecurity grow? I would like to think of the power I see in other women as interesting and admirable – and maybe even as an invitation – instead of as a threat to my own.

This photo was taken by another mom friend at a party last weekend. There are probably plenty of things that the mom who took this perceives as personal failures, but I am in awe of her. And when she looks at my family, this is what she sees. She doesn’t see all of my limitations, she sees this. Do you see what I mean?

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14 thoughts on “inside

  1. Ah. There is no way to win this one. I am ok with the way my birth stories turned out, but a friend on Facebook had her baby yesterday nd her husband said she birthed like a warrior and I did not and likely will not and I only care when I see that other people do and then feel bad about myself. But I think there is some appreciation there, too, of things we can’t do. I couldn’t stay home with the kids, couldn’t give them the sustained attention you do. And I’m glad to know that about myself so they don’t suffer through my trying, but I also am impressed when I see you and others doing it and flourishing. Meanwhile, never let your judgements get in the way of a yurt date!

  2. I often wonder why my own mother didn’t seem to have the level of angst we have now in her relationships with other mothers. She was a hippie and a career woman, and she raised me well outside many of the norms of the 1970s, but she had close friendships with women who were much further into the counterculture than she was, and also friendship with women who were very mainstream. She didn’t approve of people who beat their children, but otherwise many of the parenting choices that seem so important to many of us in the 2010s were irrelevant to her friendships. I don’t know if it was because she was roiling through the feminist revolution, and all that ideology and politics took up that space where we put parenting today.

    In any case, I think you are right that our negative feelings about ourselves, our shame and regret are the major source of outward judgement.

  3. Hi. I just spent an entire 30 minutes span catching up on your blog posts that I have missed. The days seem busier now that Millie is on-the-go-all-the-time and I missed more than I thought I would. Anyway, I just wanted to stop by to say that I missed hearing of your family and of your thoughts. And, as I often do, I wish wish wish that you could see yourself the way others do. Because, my heavens, would you be blown away. I know you wrote this post, not because you were feeling bad about yourself, but rather because you wish we could be kinder to each other and to ourselves. But it just made me think about how impressed you would be if you saw the mother that you are and the family that you are as we all do. Seriously. You would be blown away. So that is all. Thank you, as always, for moving me with your words.

    Jess

    • First of all, Gods in Heaven do I hear you on the busier front. That is all. But as always you’re kinder than I deserve but oh so welcome. Because I treasure kindness. And because you’re so good at it. It’s just all so hard to sort, you know? Because there used to be time for understanding ourselves. And now there’s all this chasing. I think of you three often. We really have to plan a meet-up soon. Much love. R.

      • We just so happen to be spending a week at a house in Union Pier, MI with some friends. Does that happen to be anywhere near you four (ahhh! I almost wrote three)?

      • Only about an hour and a half away!! BUT our boys are seventeen layers of overstimulated from a difficult trip and we’re still trying to recover. How long will you be there?!?

      • How far are y’all there from Benton Harbor?! I would love a daytrip. But geez, really. Overstimulated kids. I am daunted.

  4. So much in this post resonated with me, down to the bottle in the library, which , as a newly minted ngp is something I find myself struggling with. I am so amazed, not only at how you patent but how you also have the time to think (and write) such insightful posts.

    • I always wonder if J will have a harder time if she has to give a bottle to kids we bring into our family via the foster system (and thus get the judgy looks from stranger) because she’s used to nursing. Or if I’m just more sensitive to it because I’m just more sensitive. Anyway, it’s tough. I always want to find some way to out it as breastmilk, but I try to resist the temptation because it’s not my job to justify myself as a parent. But oh the urge. Anyway, thank you for this generous comment. And welcome to NGPhood, which gets more and more incredible, of course.

  5. Very well said, much better than I could have said for sure. I wish it were easier. IPersonally, I feel like I can’t talk about breastfeeding or cloth diapering or bed sharing with some friends because they will think I am judging them for not making the same choices.Then, I also feel like I have to explain my whole birth story to others so that they know I didn’t want a c-section and that I was really planning a home birth because I think they might judge me. How liberating it would be if we could all just reframe things for ourselves and not assume we are being judged by others who make different choices and have different priortiies. Maybe one day.

    • This. You’ve captured exactly the beast of it. The when.talking.with.this.group.one.thing and when.talking.with.another.something.else of it. Because why on earth should you ever have to apologize for having had a difficult and no doubt frightening surgery to bring your baby safely into the world? Or have to hold back on something that’s important to you for fear of someone else making it about them? I mean, really. But of course you do. I believe it’s because we know how important this work of parenting is and we’re trying to give it the weight it deserves. Just, we’re going about it so strangely on this front. Anyway, congratulations on your gorgeous little one!

  6. I don’t think I’ve ever commented before (though I’ve read for a while and so love your writing and story you both tell here) but this was a really beautifully honest piece. The truth is so simple but so hard: judgements are usually all about ourselves. When we judge someone, it’s because we feel badly about some opposite choice we might have made or because we don’t understand and when we feel judged, it is usually the same. I DO think in the inherent effort to “educate” women about the benefits of “XYZ” parenting thing (usually breastfeeding because that is such the dominant topic of debate in mom circles), there is a bit of judgement built into that education. What I mean is, I understand the good intentions in wanting to spread the good word about the benefits of breastfeeding. Of the research that shows it is the best source of nutrition. But here’s the thing: many women know that and for WHATEVER reason, choose formula. I breastfed for six months and then fed formula for six months. Whenever I tell people this, I feel the need to give excuses about why I made those choices but the truth is, they are mine (and my wife’s) choices and no one else’s. And why should anyone care? Even when we say “don’t judge women who formula feed because they weren’t able or didn’t make enough or medically couldn’t, etc, etc)” we are inherently saying that they needed a reason or an excuse not to. Because just making the CHOICE not to, is bad. I guess my point is – as mamas, we need to embrace the insecurities that make us prone to judge others and accept that all choices that loving parents make for their kids – even ones we don’t understand – are OK.

  7. I think one of the things that makes being a part of the stroller-pushing (or baby wearing or toddler chasing) crowd so difficult is that so many of our parenting choices and philosophies are on display for everyone else to see and judge. We can see cloth or disposable diapers sticking out of puffy pants, amber teething necklaces, nursing tank top straps, bottles peeking out of diaper bags, organic fruit pouches, phones in the hands of toddlers, phones in the hands of parents who seem to be ignoring their kids, pacifiers in the mouths of preschoolers, etc. When we see these things, we think we know something about the parents and the kids, but we really don’t. We don’t know their story, just as they don’t know ours. We pass judgment based on our own values and priorities and we judge others for not living their lives they way we think they should, and we can’t accept other values and priorities as legitimate because we have worked so hard to figure out the right ones. And because we judge, we know we are being judged. As the kids have gotten older, our philosophies become less evident and less open to judgment. I am not sad to have left that world behind. I feel like I can do my own thing (an my kids can too) without it being on display and during conversations with other parents at the library or playground when differences do become apparent, I can be thoughtful about what I share.

    But that is not to say it is all over — just this morning, I saw a woman pushing a cart in the grocery store with two kids the same ages as mine, and both were totally absorbed in games or videos. I admit that I looked a bit askance — I love grocery shopping with my kids. They like to find items, search out new vegetables, we talk about which foods are best for you and which are less healthy, we read nutrition labels, we compare prices and values, and consider our menu options for the week. I feel like this whole family is missing out and they, too, could have all sorts of fun if they put away the devices. I assume that if they are using them at the store, they are using them all the time and that the kids are unimaginative and uncreative and that my kids are so much better because they don’t even have devices and even if they did, I would never allow them in the grocery store. But on the other hand, maybe the kids never get to play them except when they are at the store. Maybe the mom hates grocery shopping and it is bearable for her when she has some quiet to focus and concentrate, maybe the kids have to earn their screen time and they chose to use it at the store. Perhaps the mom loves grocery shopping and likes to take time to browse all of the options very carefully, but the kids don’t, so this is their compromise. Maybe they are unimaginative lumps, but so what? It doesn’t affect me, and if being technologically engaged is what the family values, it is not my place to say they are wrong. In any case, I bet she didn’t forget anything on her list, and I left without several important things. It has taken me a while to come to this, but I find imagining possible stories much more productive and fulfilling than just judging.

  8. This post really resonated with me. After Willa was born, I found myself actively avoiding friendships with other mothers, as I felt far, far to fragile and insecure to bear the judgment. And much of that WAS an inside job, but some of it wasn’t. And both of those truths are sad. I feel much more resilient to parental judgement now, but I’ve still somewhat limited my “mom friend” circle to two other mothers who are just very good at understanding that we all parent the way we need to parent our specific children. I love these two mothers, but I wish I had a wider circle, and I am still afraid to branch out. I think much of this stems from making some different choices than I thought I would as a childless person, because our kids sometimes push us to be the parents they need. I hope we can all learn to have less judgement for others and for ourselves.

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