Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Mommy Wars - this father's perspective on what drives some mothers to compete, and to hurt

Julie is part of a facebook group hosted by her local baby store in Ottawa. It's one of her favourite stores to shop for baby supplies because it carries items that are more difficult to find elsewhere. By joining the group, Julie figured she'd be kept up-to-date on new products and events in the community. She also hoped to gain a little general support and information from the store's owners and other mothers in the group. What she didn't bargain for was a direct link to some of the useless, self-righteous and audacious chatter that constitutes the Mommy Wars, and she really didn't expect to find that the owner of the store herself is responsible for sparking most of the chatter.

The owner of the store has the habit of posting links to anything and everything that supports her notions of good parenting, regardless of its credibility. In the past, this has frustrated Julie, and she's added comments to the effect that we, as parents, need to refrain from generalized assumptions and judgments when it comes to the "right" way to parent a young child. But she has remained in the conversation, until now.

Last week, she opened a message from the owner of her favourite baby store that read: "This article explains how crying-it-out leads to sleep in infants -- it's not because it 'teaches' them to sleep!" The article, entitled, Why I no longer believe babies should cry themselves to sleep is, at best, uninformed drivel and at worst a set of arrogant assumptions that, when read by new mothers, can greatly heighten anxiety and make their decisions more difficult. I'll let you read it for yourself, but it essentially argues, with no reference to supporting evidence, that "the implicit message an infant receives from having her cries ignored is that the world -- as represented by her caregivers -- is indifferent to her feelings." He also writes that when parents allow their children to cry themselves to sleep, "the short-term goal of the exhausted parents has been achieved, but at the price of harming the child's long-term emotional vulnerability."

I won't pretend for a moment that Julie and I don't have a vested interest in and a particular sensitivity to this topic. We were left with no choice with Chloe but to let her cry herself to sleep. She had wicked colic, and it was the only way to allow her and us to sleep and regain our sanity. Before sleep training, the girl looked like a wasted heroin addict (think Trainspotting). After sleep training, her mood improved dramatically and she started to smile regularly. She was happier because we had managed to get her some sleep. As for co-sleeping? great if it's working for you. It didn't for us.  One thing I'm confident of with both girls (and as a nail-biting, nervous father, believe me I looked for it), is that they very rarely cried because they felt abandoned or they needed us in any real sense. A mother and father get to know their child's cries the longer they know their child, and although there were a few times we wish we had gone in sooner because we detected distress in a cry, most nights our children only cried in frustration at trying to fall asleep or out of frustration at being told they had to go back to sleep.  When I go in at night to tell Emily she must go back to sleep, she protests in anger. She knows what I'm asking, and she'd rather not. Yet every morning, Emily wakes up smiling and cooing. She is the happiest baby on the block.

Do I have any concrete evidence to back up my sense that my kids don't feel abandoned when I let them cry? No, of course not. But fact isn't apparently what counts in these battles. They are battles of "you think, I think.' And, let's face it, they are really battles of who thinks who's a better mother.

The editors at the Globe and Mail must have been enamored with the 'MD' following the author's name at the end of the article. Otherwise, I can't fathom why a respectable newspaper would publish such rubbish. As the good doctor has demonstrated, a man of science need not feel compelled to back his assumptions with evidence before sharing them with the world. Other doctors who, for example, argued that schizophrenia is the result of "refrigerator mothers" also come to mind.

I won't dwell on this article, as it's not the point of my entry. People may write whatever they choose, and newspapers will continue to publish all sorts of silliness. But the danger this type of speculation poses can be very real when it is passed to new and sometimes vulnerable moms as something akin to gospel. Julie opened the article, not just to stick her tongue in a sore tooth (which is unfortunately an all too human temptation), but to see if there was some new research that might make us take pause when it comes to our approach to sleep. What she got instead was a link to baseless opinion, cloaked in supposed medical expertise. And the babyshop owner / mother who shared it? What was her motive? I can only guess some sort of self-gratifying vindication of her own mothering approach.

For our own mental health and confidence as parents, we've done everything we can to steer clear of the so called Mommy Wars. Our friends don't judge, at least not publicly (I suppose we all chastise ourselves for judging privately). We've made it pretty clear to all of our family that we methodically research most of the big decisions we make and that we're not really that open to advice - and they've been wonderful in respecting that. In short, we've done everything we can to minimize the doubt we feel as parents on a daily basis. Right or wrong, decisions must be made each and every day, and swaying this way and that on the winds of a plethora of advice doesn't make the decisions easier.

So why is it that some mothers feel the need to share their unsolicited opinions on parenting so openly and vehemently? (I've been harangued myself on the street and in parks by mothers too willing to tell me what I'm doing wrong). Really, parenting is as sensitive a topic as politics or religion, except that we don't talk about politics and religion in polite conversation.  I propose, and I invite comment on this, that mothers who tell other mothers how to parent do so out of a deep insecurity about their own parenting abilities - a sort of, see, I'm doing it right because you're doing it wrong. I suspect I'm not the first person to suggest this, but I'd like to suggest it, strongly, as a father, to mothers out there because I feel that it has led to a very unfortunate and detrimental environment for many mothers.

As a father on leave now for most of a year, I can tell you that there is no job I have ever done or entertained doing that is as much work as parenting. It is exhausting, mind-numbing and totally disheartening - at times.  I have no idea how a mother can look after a toddler and a new baby, for instance, all day, 5 days a week. I'm not sure I could do it for long and I hate to admit that. This week, Julie's been laid up with a bad foot and I've had the care of both children, plus do the cleanup and cooking all week. It coincides with a challenging stage for Chloe, and I've snapped at her several times these past few days. I feel awful about it. I've wanted to ask Chloe, "could you please just let me breathe - just mentally breathe. My head hurts so much honey." I regain my energy, my equilibrium by being alone, and there is no way to be alone with a toddler and a baby.

I appeal to all mothers to stop competing. Stop saying to yourself, "oh Jenny has a 12 week old baby who sleeps through the whole night, what's wrong with mine, what's wrong with me?" Tell Jenny what a rough time you're having. She may share with you how last week her baby was up all night for no reason, or how she constantly has an ear infection. Or maybe Jenny's kid is just that good. Other kids aren't, I'm sure. And if you have a habit of sharing all of your ideas and opinions on parenting with anyone polite enough to listen, in the future try to refrain from blessing others with your pearls of wisdom unless you're asked. Don't spout off with cocky confidence what's good for a child and what isn't when you've pulled it out of your you-know-what. Stop, pause, ask yourself, are you really helping your fellow mothers or simply trying to confirm, publicly, your own worth as a mother.

Sure, I know, this is all easy for a father to say. Fathering doesn't have the years of baggage mothering comes with. I hear that, and I'm only stating what I see. Mothers have a tough job, and they need to start working together to talk about how difficult a job it is and what anxieties it provokes. Some mothers have a difficult time sharing their obstacles and their setbacks out of a fear of how others will see them as mothers. But they need to start sharing their fears and their failures, to laugh and cry at the tough times together and to rejoice together in their triumphs. No child is easy to raise, and we need to be able to count on the support of others to succeed.


  1. Well said/written, Sean! As a potential mother-to-be, I can only imagine how judgemental other mothers/women in general can be. It's a tough world out there and only made tougher by those that choose to compete instead of assist.

  2. Sean, I thoroughly appreciate this post! I am so happy for you and Julie that you've had this time to experience what a full time mother would experience with a toddler and a baby.

    I used to have feelings of inadequacies when tending to both children (one of which was an unidentified special needs child) during the day, trying to keep the house all clean, making all meals from scratch as well as growing our own food, and have the house in order by the time my spouse would walk through the door. Inadequate or was I crazy for imagining that most other families would have things "under control"? And then when meals were prepared, kids wouldn't eat it (do you ever get that?) or spouse would make a comment "this doesn't taste like anything." I'm not sure if this is called competing, but it sure made my life (and so also spreading this energy out to my family) difficult and heavy. Once I accepted myself (truly accepted myself) and didn't mentally compare myself to fictitious "perfect mothers", things started to run a lot more smoothly. Then I started bonding with other families to learn that we just all do the best that we can - we can certainly learn from each other without judgment.

    Thanks again for this thoughtful post.

  3. Thanks Kim. And yes, Chloe is an extremely picky eater. We're constantly worried that she's going to develop Scurvy. But all we can do is work on it one day at a time. We've recently found that she loves asparagus soup. So between asparagus, apples, oranges and berries, we hope she's getting enough nutrition for now.

    Kirsti, there are lots of wonderful people to count on for support. You just have to learn to filter out the noise.

  4. I was a crazy picky eater (supertasters unite!) and I survived just fine, and was healthy too. Hang in there, the kid won't be too bad off and eventually the diet will expand...

  5. I really, really like this post! We seem to be caught up in this parenting trap of what's best, right/wrong, etc. Reading this has made me take a step back and think about how I speak of parenting issues. I know the shop you're referring to... and I often feel tempted to jump in, but get frustrated at the same time, that everyone is so overly passionate about the topic of the day. Even if I agree, I become overwhelmed of the argument going on, consuming me! Sometimes I feel so sorry for new mums of the amount of information, products and controversy over many issues. They certainly consumed me for my first babe... this time, though, I've been able to take a deep breath and accept everything for what it is. - Lynsey

  6. Thank you Lynsey for sharing this. I think we are sometimes overly passionate about the questions for which we want to have the answers. When it comes to parenting, Julie and I are always asking ourselves whether we've made the right decision. When we share passionately our views on parenting technique, I think we're trying to convince ourselves as well, that we've got it right. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have all the answers?