So I wrote this post on why I combination feed my son, and while I knew it was an emotive topic, I was amazed at the ensuing bun-fight. While the comments were well-meaning, and very welcome, discussions by several mums on the benefits of breastfeeding were perceived by some other mums (most of whom had had to resort to formula) as being unfair and judgmental, even though I am sure, in the most part, the comments weren’t intended to be. The responses I got on twitter were even stronger.
As for me, I felt guilty. I thought maybe I was putting my relaxing evening over cluster feeding. Was I increasing my baby’s risk of allergic conditions? Was I being selfish? Well, turns out after a few evenings of trying extended cluster feeding, it was clear that it didn’t work for my baby either, and we’re back to a top-up bottle of formula a night. But what remained was my surprise at how guilty I’d felt and how vehemently women had reacted to the pro-breastfeeding comments.
And it wasn’t long before I caught another social media bun-fight, this time in relation to Bounty (Mumsnet and this petition are calling for Bounty salespeople to be kept out of post-natal wards). My personal feeling is that the Bounty bags are great, but allowing commercial salespeople into maternity wards where vulnerable, knackered, emotional mums are often alone and shocked, only a few hours after birth, is a violation of privacy and the protective bubble you need around you at that time. I had tears running down my cheeks, struggling to recall my address, while I was pestered for my postcode, just so they could send me marketing emails. Kingston won’t allow siblings to enter wards for fear of the norovirus, but salespeople are OK? I’m against it, but the angry taunts on twitter from both sides were incredible. Some women suggested those against Bounty bags were stuck-up poshos who sneered at freebies. Others said you should call to get the salesperson in question sacked. Mums judging other mums just for having a difference of opinion.
And I’m guilty of judging too. The woman I shared a maternity ward with fed her child formula from the get-go and then had to be woken by the midwife to change her baby’s nappy. What sort of mother is that I thought, unable to sleep a wink, jumping out of bed every time my baby made a sound. But, now, I think I judged her unfairly too – what do I know of her situation, of why she’s made the decisions she did? What did I know of how exhausted she could be?
Even the Daisy Waugh school of “guilt-free motherhood“, can actually be guilt-inducing. Her description of pain-free inductions to fit in with schedules, and why stair-gates are a waste of time, suggest that any mother who has actually tried natural birth or invested in fripperies like changing matts are high-maintenance control freaks who probably aren’t much fun at dinner parties. Like other parenting philosophies, hers is extreme and judgmental too. So much for guilt free mothering…
Anger, blame, recriminations, guilt. Changing bags at dawn.
It might be because us mums are thrown together – the NCT, nursery and school all make shaky alliances of women who don’t know each other well enough to laugh off competitive jibes or support those who have chosen a different path. It reminds me of being 14 again, at an all girls’ school where, until we were old enough to know better, we befriended those who were the same as us, and ridiculed anyone who dared to be different. We had to have the best school bag, the flashiest pencil case, the shortest skirt. We fancied the same boys and liked the same bands. It was our way, or the highway – a very lonely highway in a deserted lunch room, a girl sent to Coventry, tray wobbling as she scanned the crowd for someone to sit next to. I rejected all that when I matured, of course, but here I am, 20 years later, with that same feeling that I have to fit in, that we’re all competing again.
It doesn’t help that a lot of these parenting philosophies (are you a Gina Ford-er or a Baby Whisperer or a French Children Don’t Throw Food-er?) are rather one-sided and not very pragmatic, and we tend to swallow them whole rather than picking and choosing from them according to what works for us and what doesn’t. We also tend to get a bit blinkered that what works for our child works for ALL children, even though every child is an individual person with their own characteristics, and often changing day by day, week to week. So it’s hard for us to accept that other mums might have found a method of parenting which might suit their child perfectly well, but might not work for us. But rather than accept that, we seem to feel the need to defend our own stance, or feel guilt that we’re trying something else. For example:
- My saying my son sleeps through the night might make someone who is up every 2 hours feel like they are doing something wrong. They aren’t and it’s not because I’m doing anything right either – it’s just the way he is and it might all change tomorrow anyway
- Your saying that your 14 week old is going to monkey music, baby sensory, and swimming lessons, makes me feel lazy for only taking my boy to the park or chilling in the house all day because I’m a bit knackered. But in my heart I know he could stare happily at his toy chicken for hours and it blows his tiny mind, whereas other babies need much more stimulation
- Your saying you let your baby sleep and eat on demand makes me feel a bit strict in Gina Ford-ing mine, but as long as we’re all happy then that’s what matters
- Your telling me you have enough milk for your child makes me feel inadequate that I don’t have enough for mine. But I don’t have to worry about milk seeping through my clothes, I don’t even need breast pads. But I’d take all that and more if I could feed him all day like you
- Your enjoyment of co-sleeping and carrying your baby around on a sling makes me feel guilty I shipped my baby off to his own room at 3 weeks and prefer to leave him kicking on his play matt. But when I think about it I know he’s an independent little squirt who loves being left to kick around on his own, with a big cuddle and a play every so often
- Your claiming that the weight just “dropped off” because you breastfed makes me feel crap that my arse has actually GROWN during the process. I’m actually quite depressed about it. But my body is obviously conserving calories for some reason and I love it all the same
So what is the answer?
Firstly, us women need to give each other the benefit of the doubt. I don’t know any mother who isn’t trying to do the best for her child, and dealing with a crying or unhappy baby is stressful and upsetting for us all. Let’s just accept we are responsible, intelligent adults who would do anything for our children, and let’s also accept that all babies are individuals and what works for one might not work for another, or might not even work a few weeks down the line. Let’s stop competing, and start supporting. And if that doesn’t work, let’s share a bottle of wine and talk about something else for a change.
Secondly, let’s remember no-one is handing out a prize for who is the best mother (unless you’re Foxy Bingo and think Katie Price is a paragon of parenting). All that counts is that you, your partner and your little one are happy, and that you aren’t making anyone else unhappy in the process.
And sometimes you will fuck up, and that’s OK. We’re not perfect, that’s what makes us human. One day we can teach our children that it’s OK to mess up sometimes too. And with a lot of love, and perhaps a bit of Calpol, everything will be alright.