“Don’t pump within the first 4 weeks, it will affect your supply!”. The bags under my eyes from the first weeks with a newborn felt as heavy as my heart and my brain did as I took in the words off the screen. It’s a line I’ve seen over and over again in a group for breastfeeding. Along with things like never allowing a single drop of formula to run across your baby’s lips, “exhaustion is just part of motherhood!,” co-sleeping is the only way you’ll ever get any sleep anymore, and allow for constant contact with your infant otherwise you’re damaging your bond with your baby.
The ironic thing is that the damage is being done to mothers with this “advice”. But advice it is not, they’re rules. A set of loudly spoken, sometimes unspoken, rules lay before a mother before she even conceives: supplements to take, toxins to remove, schedules for TTC, how she brings her baby into this world (adoption, c-section, natural birth, surrogacy). Before the cells have even begun to divide, a woman can already feel inept at being a mom. It’s as-if we are entered into a contest and left to duke it out for the title of “Good Mom.” One slight deviation will have us tumbling off Good Mother Mountain never to return.
Sounds dramatic doesn’t it? But it’s a reality within the mommy sphere. Seemingly perfect mamas are dispensing “truths” and debunking “misinformation” mostly about breastfeeding, sleep training, solids, and generally how to do it all so that your kid (read: you) is perfect or at least has a fighting chance.
It took me no more than a few weeks to figure out how messages that have an air of “you have to do it this way” are extremely damaging to new and seasoned mothers alike. My personal revelation came when I asked a group about how I could fall back asleep after my daughter woke up and ate during the night. An admin from the group told me, “Exhaustion is just part of motherhood!” Another said the only way to get enough sleep was to co-sleep and allow for all night long nursing stints. At this point, I was averaging 9 hours of sleep total within the first two months after my daughter was born, so exhaustion was not part of the plan and I don’t think it (or, on the contrary, having a great sleeper) needs to be a validation of your motherhood. I did get some great ideas on how to fall back asleep, so I don’t entirely regret asking the community. However, the lasting impression that was left on me was this… moms are holding one another in a self-imposed prison.
I don’t bring up the fact that my daughter was a great sleeper (the fourth month sleep regression is in full swing here) to brag. I have no control over her temperament and that’s my point. So much of motherhood is not within our control so why are we acting like it is? We are truly all just slinging mud at the walls and seeing what sticks. All we should be asked to do is what we can each day, not even to the best of our ability because that is just another way to keep us in said self-imposed prison. What I am mentally, physically, emotionally, and financially capable of doing is not what another mama is capable of and vice versa. I’m not an energetic or patient person, ask anyone close to me, but I know there is a mom out there killing it. She has a sparkling house and her daughter’s clothes and toys are put away each day. She is patient with the erratic nap schedule. I’m more of a “put it in a basket and get to it when I can” and “huff and puff under my breath when nap is not going well” type of person. And THAT IS FINE. Whatever your version of motherhood looks like is also perfectly fine. You are the perfect mother for your baby no matter if you appear perfect to others or even to yourself most days.
Where do we go from here? How do we support and help one another?
When a mama is looking for guidance, she’s often just looking for validation that what she is doing is right (trick question, there’s no “right” when it comes to motherhood) or she is looking for one or two small manageable steps to take to see some improvement. For example, I’m looking for ideas on how to go back to sleep after my daughter wakes up, eats, and is back in the bassinet. I have a great schedule going with her, she is sleeping independently in a separate sleep space, and getting a solid night’s sleep. The next step for me should not be to throw out my systems, pull my baby into bed with me, and change everything I have been doing just because it works for someone else or because they say it is what is best. And that’s just it, what works for one family then starts to become a hard and fast rule. The problem with hard and fast rules is that they undermine a mother’s own maternal instincts. Undermining women with set rules on motherhood is particularly ironic because movements such as “breast is best” are trying to get us back to a time where things just came naturally to a woman as a mother. Many people are upset with the lack of support for breastfeeding, in general, in the workplace, in public, or how long they choose to breastfeed. But some of those same mamas looking for validation of their choice to breastfeed in their own very personal ways have been forced to prove their way is best. In turn, these same moms are not willing to support the choices of other moms who are choosing something different for their child. Instead their advice is just an opportunity to tell you their opinion.
Just a few years ago I made the same mistakes with my friends, family, and coworkers. I was mistaking advice for support. Support should be listening to a mom first and then helping her reach her own goals within her own value system. Or sometimes support is just the first part, listening, no opinions shared just affirmations and a friendly face welcoming their friend to share some of their most vulnerable thoughts. Dogmatic rules and shaming of mothers makes everyone, including those who are doing the telling, miserable and unhappy. If one of the goals of motherhood is to raise happy, independent, and contributing adults then moms need to keep that in mind when trying to help a mom (whether online or in real life). Because happy, confident moms can go on to raise happy, confident adults.
I am not one to slap kindness on any and everything. However, with moms I believe kindness is truly what we are looking for when we share our hearts. We already question everything we are doing. We don’t need another mom questioning us too. Be kind, rewind those thoughts before you share them.