Parenting seems to be the new competitive sport.
I am visiting my parents in DC this week and picked up a copy of the Washington Post off the table and read this essay about one woman’s very painful journey into motherhood and her experience as a formula feeding mother of baby Lincoln. Later that day, a link to the same essay was posted in a mom group I am in on Facebook and generated quite a bit of discussion.
In short, Wax-Thibodeaux is a breast cancer survivor who underwent a double mastectomy, subsequently suffered from infertility, and had her little boy, Lincoln, at 37. As a result of the double mastectomy, she is unable to breastfeed. No breast tissue = no milk production. However, from the time Lincoln was born, she felt judged and was the recipient of many comments and “helpful hints” about feeding her child. Some of the incidents she describes are simply appalling. A (male) Facebook friend commented on a picture of her feeding Lincoln, asking why she wasn’t breastfeeding and helpfully informed her that it’s better for the baby. Another mother in a Mommy & Me yoga class also felt the need to point out that breastfeeding is “optimal.” This kind of thing is completely obnoxious. For starters, I think we can all be fairly confident that an educated 37 year-old woman is aware that breastfeeding has many benefits. Secondly, mind your own business.
I totally get why Wax-Thibodeaux chafes at these comments and feels defensive about the way she feeds her child. Nonetheless, I can’t help but think she overcompensates a bit in her quest to defend formula feeding. For starters, outside of a very specific social circle (probably the one that includes mothers who attend baby & me yoga classes), formula feeding is not only acceptable, but pretty much the norm. Public breastfeeding garners far more staring and gawking than does bottle feeding. Secondly, I think talking about how breastfeeding is “overrated” to a friend who is successfully breastfeeding her own child is simply turning the tables on exactly the type of behavior she found so invasive coming from breastfeeding champions.
But as Wax-Thibodeaux struggles to make peace with her situation, her inclination was to turn to research, to articles and essays she found in various publications. She cites a large, recently released study which claimed that breastfeeding did not in fact demonstrate all the benefits typically associated with it when factors like socioeconomic status were controlled for. (She either doesn’t know or simply doesn’t mention that the study had one major methodological flaw- it lumped any child that ever received breastmilk into one category and children that had never received a drop of breastmilk into the other. In other words, a baby who was breastfed ‘part-time’ for 6 weeks would be considered a breastfed baby, as would a baby exclusively breastfed until weaning.) She educates her friends on the history of formula, invented in the 19th century to prevent infant death from malnutrition. She reads essays from Atlantic Monthly and Jezebel on other mothers’ struggles to breastfeed.
I think the “mommy wars” exist mostly on the internet. In real life, I have never heard anyone tell another mother that they are wasting their education by staying home, or conversely, that they are neglecting their children by choosing to work outside the home. Likewise, the in-person interactions I’ve witnessed and been part of have never included chastising someone for how they choose to feed their baby. But behind a computer screen, people get a lot snarkier and more passive aggressive.
On the internet, the mommy wars are waged on the daily. I can’t help that think much of this is driven by the tendency for this generation of older, well-educated, affluent mothers to view parenting as a competitive sport or profession. I don’t think our mothers’ generation read studies in scientific journals when making decisions about feeding or discipline or infant sleep or medical care. Perhaps it is a (neurotic) need for us to feel like our mothering is “accomplishing” something, or a tendency to value only that which we can quantify and measure. Maybe we just want to show the world that we are still smart, still educated, and can use our skills to make decisions not only in a work setting, but in our homes. I don’t know. But I do know that there is an incessant posting of “helpful” articles, essays, and studies on Facebook and other social media, designed to bolster our own parenting decisions. I’m not sure what promotion/raise we are hoping for in this professional parenting world, or what trophy we think we might win, but apparently there’s one out there.
At the conclusion of Wax-Thibodeaux’s essay, she quotes the instructor at that yoga class who told them, “In a few years….you’ll never have to talk about breastfeeding again. So don’t even think about it. Enjoy your baby.” This line is, in my opinion, the best in the entire piece. For new or fairly new mothers, it is easy to get caught up in your “mommy identity” as it relates to how you feed and diaper your baby, whether or not you vaccinate or circumcise, where baby sleeps and if you sleep train, and if you wear your baby or push them in a stroller. But the reality is that the vast majority of one’s mothering career will not be spent doing (or not doing) those things. These topics are “issues” for only a few short years, and then there are much bigger fish to fry, and bigger children to mother. For myself, I am trying to think how I want to identify as a mother over the long term. Baby Will (and the future siblings I hope he will have) will soon be a little kid, and then a big kid, and then a teenager, and then a man. I hope he will always know and never doubt how much I love him and what a gift he is to me. I hope he will never feel like I wanted to be somewhere else or doing something different than being with him. In each phase of his life, that might look different and different issues will present themselves along the road, I know. But I want to keep those hopes and goals in the front of my mind, while remembering that when Will is 34, the type of diaper on his bottom now is not going to be of primary importance.