Bionic Mamas

you're not losing a vagina, you're gaining a son

A Clarification and An Elephant


Hello again.  I love all the comments on the last post!  I should rant more often….

I do, however, want to clarify what I did and did not mean by that rant.  (Dr. Jenny has pretty much already written my clarification for me, but even so.)

  1. I did mean that I think sleep training is not damaging or cruel per se.  (Insert boilerplate about at a reasonable age, yadda yadda.)
  2. I did mean that sleep is important for human life and health and general pleasantness, and that pretending otherwise is unhelpful.
  3. I did mean that crying isn’t necessarily an indication that what is going on is bad for the baby.
  4. I did mean that Dr. Sears is an ass, likely a hypocritical one.  Weissbluth, too, lest you think I only pick on the Attachment Goons.  They both have some useful things to say and some unhelpful garbage and a whole heapin’ helpin’ of erasure of mothers as people, in my always humble etc.
  5. I emphatically did NOT mean that everyone ought to sleep train, that not sleep training is somehow bad for or cruel to babies, that cosleeping, nursing all night, or whatever it is that works for you and your baby is somehow wrong, even if it’s not what works for me and Sugar and our baby.

This is not to say that I’m never a judgmental busybody about Other People’s Parenting, just that I have my limited spheres of true conviction.  I divide OPP into two rough categories, as follows:

  1. Things With Objectively Right Answers (most of the time).
    This category includes carseats, smoking, real neglect, and the Parenting Topic Who Must Not Be Named, Lord Vaccimort.
  2. Things Without Objectively Right Answers.
    This category includes practically everything else, from where babies sleep to what they eat and what containers they eat it from (well, soda out of baby bottles is Cat. 1, but I certainly don’t think there’s an objective right answer about breastmilk vs. formula, which is what folks fight about) to what kind of diapers they poop in, whether their giant robots transport them in carriers or strollers, what is or isn’t done to the ends of their penises, if penises they have, what solid food they eat and when, and even, though this one is teetering on the edge of being Cat. 1, whether their parents see fit to put sex-identifying lacy garters around their newborn heads.

I don’t mean to say that I don’t have opinions on Cat. 2 items, just that I’m unwilling to say that my opinions about them are the opinions everyone should hold or — and this is important! — that those opinions are so fact-based that I would think the same thing even if we were in a different situation or had a different baby.  Breastfeeding was important to me and I’m grateful that Big Pharma has made it possible for me to do it without agony, but if that weren’t the case, I am certain it would have been better for the Bean to be exclusively formula fed (instead of the mixed baby he is, like his Mama) than for him to live with my being in angry pain all the time.  He isn’t circumcised, but if Sugar or I had had what my father calls a contract with God about that, he would have been.  I was dead-certain BFF was cruel to let her baby cry at nap time until the universe sent me a baby who couldn’t nap without a good cry.

I think sleep is important, but I don’t think sleep training is important in its own right.  Pom, you are off the hook.  You, too, Frankiesoup, even though I think your metaphor is flawed.  (Here’s why.)  The fact that you’re even making metaphors suggests to me that you are functioning better without sleep training than I ever did, so keep on keeping on. Nor do I believe sleep training confers any long-term sleep advantage: I think it may (when it works) lead to more more sleep in the near-term, but I believe adult sleep patterns have nothing to do with babyhood ones, except inasmuch as both are affected by genetics and disposition and the benevolence or not of what gods may be.  That’s a belief, not a certainty, but as I’ve yet to see any evidence from those who believe the opposite, I’m sticking with it.

Not off the hook with me are those people who feel it’s their ever-lovin’ duty to not just give real advice, offer reassurances, or personal examples but to tell other parents what they “ought,” “must,” or “should” do, in particular those who follow up with “for the sake of the baby!”  There are plenty of things we should do for the sake of our babies — not maintain meth labs in the basement, for instance, or bungee their carseats to the Harley for anything beyond a quick trip to the OTB — so perhaps we could all save the bossier modal verbs for moments of real need.

The thing I find most grating about Dr. Sears’s “adjust your attitude” remark is how it echos the petty tyranny of the most condescending middle school teachers, those little Umbrages I remember taunting nasally, “you need to adjust your attitude, missy.”  I’ve spent a fair bit of time with students that age.  They can be pretty annoying, but what they “need” to adjust, in my opinion, is usually behavior.  Their attitudes belong to them, and to suggest otherwise is a belittling attempt to shame them, which is about power, not about teaching.

Shame is the elephant of the post title.  Like an elephant, shame can be useful in limited amounts: elephants built the ancient temples of India, and shame at lying to my father about how that piece of tile got broken taught me there are worse things than the fear of punishment.  But like an elephant, shame makes a lousy roommate.  Both can be impressively destructive and tend to fill the place with shit.

I don’t know about you all, but I’m finding motherhood plenty full of opportunities to feel shame without additional help.  Some of that shame is the useful kind (say, how I feel about losing my temper at lunch today), but the overwhelming majority is not (say, most of the blathering about birth I’ve subjected you to).  I manufacture shame prolifically, and yet some people in the world nevertheless seem to think I need more of it.  Shame in its noun form may be an inevitable companion to motherhood in my case, but its verb form has no place here.

I don’t mean to suggest that most of us mean to shame each other, only that it’s too easy to do and has a terrible domino effect.  When the Bean was 8 weeks old, the Other Lesbians from birth class asked us how we got him to sleep and then, when we told them what kind of soothing worked for us, said, “babies don’t like that,” and followed up with the unsolicited news that our very small baby was just manipulating us and absolutely did not need to eat at night.  (Which he absolutely did.  The child has the metabolism of a cocaine-addled hummingbird; even now, he’s below the 5th percentile for weight (CDC) despite nursing tons and eating five daily meals of solid food, and at that point he was still recovering from my early supply problems and his early latch issues.)  My anger at being told what to do by people with a whopping five days more experience than we had shielded me pretty effectively, but in hindsight, I wonder if what drove their pushy evangelism was shame, whether from people telling them they were fools if they didn’t sleep train, people saying they were cruel for doing it, or both.  I may be wrong about them, but I think I am right about the most abrasive woman I ever encountered at the mom’s group I quit, whose declarations and insistences on a whole range of topics made more sense when all the babies got hungry and she alone, in a crowd of crunchier-than-thou Park Slope moms (basically this, plus jobs in finance), pulled out a bottle of powdered formula.

Does this mean I think we shouldn’t have opinions or give advice?  Of course not!  What am I if not an opinionated, oar-sticking loudmouth?  I just think engaging in the Mommy Wars (gag me), even accidentally, is a distraction from better work we could be doing, or at least from enjoying our friends and our children.  I am cynical enough to believe that a whole lot of the external pot-stirring on issues like breastfeeding and sleep training is more or less designed to keep women where we have been told we belong: at home, and I mean that not in a literal way — the present economic structure all but requires two money-earning parents, so we ladies are welcome to our little jobs — but as a metaphor for out of the way of the big boys making decisions about our lives.

So I say let’s not do it.  Let’s by all means talk about our children and our desire for children, what works in our houses and what we’d like to try.  Let’s give each other advice and support and encouragement.  But let’s not take the bait and use inflammatory language to shame each other for the things we decide to do differently, eh?

Except for that head-garter thing.

12 thoughts on “A Clarification and An Elephant

  1. I don’t know why, but I felt compelled to really research and write about this whole sleep training thing. I guess it is the shame and judgement thing that has just consumed me, that moms are judged SO harshly for doing this thing that so many of us feel saves us and maybe our babies from shit or no sleep. When I found myself whispering about it with another mom at the library (and not cause we were at the library – we were in a room full of one-year-olds who didn’t know about library rules), I just started to feel crazy. Also, claims of scientific proof that letting your baby cry will kill neurons send me over the top. The honest truth is that while I am really happy that my baby sleeps well, thanks to sleep training, and for that reason I’d do it again (though maybe differently), I STILL feel guilty about it. And whenever I hit publish on a sleep post, I can’t help but imagine someone somewhere reading my words and thinking, “that selfish, heartless woman, abandoning her baby.” I agree with you, everything you said in this post. I think we have to talk about sleep and share what works for us, because it’s pretty much the toughest thing about this parenting business. I think we need to trash the judgement and offer advice only when asked. And then we need to move on, because our babies have moved on long ago.

  2. HOLLA. I think the category 1 and 2 distinction is really important (and oh did Vaccimort make me laugh!). And of COURSE we should resist voicing our judgements, if we can’t resist making them. (And I don’t know that I can resist the making. Judging other parents is an important source of within-family solidarity, bonding and entertainment. Provided we only do this behind closed doors and outwardly maintain an air of judgement-free support.)

    SIGH. It’s certainly true that no matter what we do or how carefully we think about a decision, someone will always be there to tell us we’re doing it wrong. My best defense against all that bullshit is to read as little as possible and remind myself that the only way to know the answer to category 2 items would be to take a huge sample of babies and randomly assign them to various conditions (e.g., sleep methods) and control every other aspect of their experiences, and while I AM currently conducting such research in my underground baby lab, I……. I’ve said too much.

    I have read exactly one thing about attachment parenting, despite practicing many of its tenets because they happen to make sense to me. You know, like breastfeeding. It was a two page segment in my Dr. Sears Portable Pediatrician, when I was looking up colds. (Someone gave it to me, it seemed like a good book to have around.) The segment said one thing that offended me deeply (on the subject of baby trainers: the only person who knows what a baby needs is the person who shared an umbilical cord with it. SO FUCK YOU, non-gestational parents.) and one that made perfect sense to me, on the subject of balance: the most important thing in baby’s life is a happy rested [caregiver]. So at some point some Sears at least gave a nod to the role of a primary caregiver taking care of it’s own needs…

    Anyway, I resolve to renew my efforts to only share my experiences and to not make others feel judged or shamed…except when they tell me I need to do baby sign.

    • I’ve never fully understood why it’s bad to be “two-faced.” I always thought being nice in person to the people you bitch about in private was called manners.

      Don’t get me started on the “only the lactating mother matters” branch of AP. That is bat-shit crazy, mean to NGPs, AND A TINY BIT BURDENSOME to the one with the milk boobs, no? Any time I hand the baby off and take a nap or god forbid a walk I am depriving him? Seriously? Not to mention the way that system requires stay at home moms. Yay, maternalism. Whee. Even one of the two get-pregnant guides for lesbians says that the non-nursing mother (who isn’t allowed to call herself a mother) should essentially not touch the baby. Yikes. Cannot imagine why the author’s relationship broke up.

      How I long for the day I can visit your baby lab and puppy-swaddling operation for myself. I can’t decide whether to formally reject baby sign so that we can be superior together or to throw myself headlong into it, so that we can have a nice, snide fight. Tough call.

      • Oh be still my heart. A good Ra.chel P. jab just makes my day. LOVE this post.

        On the ‘two-faced’ thing though, I do think what is said behind closed doors matters. I find it can solidify how I view other people and make me less open to understanding where they are coming from. I think sometimes those bad vibes are part of what we are picking up on out in the world when we are feeling judged by other parents. We know the mean and nasty things we say behind closed doors, so we wonder if they are thinking or saying the same things. I’m not perfect at it (as you well know), but I do try to be as above board with people as I can, especially if I count them as friends.

        • I agree to some extent, but I also think there’s a place for saying things that don’t need to be said publicly. For instance, I think it’s perfectly appropriate to say to a co-parent (or even a fellow parent with whom you are figuring out the ropes), “I think the way X handled baby X today was self-defeating and pointless,” without it rising to the level of something that requires addressing with X, even if you basically like X.

          Sugar had a friend in college (whom I was lucky to be loathed by — lucky because the loathing left no scars, unlike the friendship), who believed it was always right to tell “the truth” to people, but really just used that as an excuse to be mean. I know that’s not what you are talking about, but the experience colors my view of things.

  3. You know, I spent six and a half years in a Piranha Tank Lab, and one of the more lasting effects is that, whenever someone tells me something that either implies I am completely wrong or is a) patently false; b) ridiculous; c) illogical; or d) annoying and judgmental, my immediate response is “… and the horse you rode in on.”

    People who don’t vaccinate cause steam to come out of my ears. I become literally incoherent with rage (politeness renders me incapable of saying what I really think in those situations; it generally starts with the latest MMR numbers, and moves on from there).

    My favorite “and now I know better” example is, once I saw a toddler trying to stick his head under a metal fence (like this) and the dad was standing there saying “Yes! Ow!”. At the time I thought it was super extra mean, but now, I realize, it was a Life Lesson for both me and the kid. (He wasn’t going to get stuck, and was going to stop being in pain when he stopped trying to shove his head through the fence.)

    We actually did extensively sleep-train Bug, and we still do, and Moar Sleeeeep was lovely. We still let him scream at night. It just irritates me when anyone claims there’s a One True Path for… most anything. I think you shouldn’t keep doing something that’s driving you crazy for forever. At some point, it is reasonable to cycle through other possibilities until you find something tolerable for all parties, or at least most parties; toddlers have the good sense of a parsnip, and would survive on peanut butter and chocolate and juice, if allowed.

    (My mom’s friend once let her baby eat plain butter just to see how much she would eat. Answer: a whole stick. A WHOLE STICK. Poor baby.)

    Likewise, some people’s I Must Martyr Myself attitude really fricking annoys me. I was once at a LLL meeting where someone was complaining about how her two-year-old would nurse 20 times a day and how hard, inconvenient, and annoying it was. The rest of us all looked at each other and said ““Just say no! Tell the kid ‘not now, have a carrot!’ Set LIMITS, lady!”

    (Only because it was driving HER crazy.)

  4. Meth labs are really bad for babies. Phosphine gas. Sticks in the walls for a long time. Stinks. Measles is also really bad for babies. Working in Quebec this year, I have seen far more measles than I ever hoped or expected to see in my lifetime. It makes me feel kind of dirty, almost like civilization is crumbling and I am going to need to pick around the rubble soon. As I age, my category A items are more settled in their ways, and I am less open to convincing otherwise. There are a much smaller number of them than there used to be however…

    • When I think about measles, I think of a phrase I think I made up, pasted together and snipped at the edges from things I’ve heard from my father (a peds geneticist/”metabolite” who does a lot with autism) and from a very old doctor in rural Kentucky with whom I once discussed the matter.

      What I hear in my head is, “I don’t know what causes autism, but I do know what causes measles encephalitis.”

      • This is my new favorite vaccine comeback!!!! (I had been saying “autism makes you weird, diphtheria makes you dead”) I like this *much* better. I will add it to my script. (and to my list of cool stuff you have shared from your dad — like that business about the simian crease and soft signs which I have also not forgotten)

  5. i am sorry, but i cannot support this post until you remedy a glaring error. it is absolutely a non-negotiable that “sex-identifying lacy garters around their newborn heads” most definitely belong in category 1.

    also, can’t believe this got lost in my reader somehow. thanks for writing it.

  6. Amen sister. On my phone so can’t type much. Just thanks.

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