Thursday, 6 December 2012

Just who is brandishing the switch?

I have noticed myself getting fairly ranty lately. I briefly struggled to resolve being an angry activist with being a gentle, non-judgemental doula, but then I realised, it's the balance, it is the mama bear saying "LEAVE THE POOR MUMS ALONE" Grrr.

You see the thing I get most angry about, is when women are denied the freedom to become and continue being a mother on their own terms. To listen to their bodies, to respond to their babies and to do what they know is right. In close second place are those who, although not denying a woman her freedom,  support her inappropriately so as to insidiously undermine her confidence, and make her feel guilty for doing what feels right to her, leaving her with no comfortable option.

I am talking about the "rod for your back", and I shall begin by giving an example.

Imagine a new mum is tentatively planning a night out, the first one since birth. Perhaps she is aching for some time alone with her partner, perhaps she is a bridesmaid feeling obliged to attend a hen night, it doesn't matter really. Nor does it matter how she chooses to parent for now, what matters is how people respond to her. Imagine she updates her Facebook/Twitter or posts a question on a forum and it goes something like this:

"I'm really nervous about leaving baby for the first time this weekend"

You can guarantee that amongst the replies you will find some variant of the following:

"Oh no, that's far too early to leave him, he'll miss you so much, you aren't going to drink are you?" 


"Leave him, it will do you both good, he needs to learn to be independent or you are making a rod for your own back",

[inevitably I read both of these and have to go and have a little lie down, and this is why...]

Both of these replies suggest judgement. What does she do now? If she goes out she is a bad neglectful mother in the eyes of her friends/family (or gods forbid, strangers on the internet), if she stays in she is cultivating a mummy's boy who will still be co-sleeping with her when he goes to university (and that could be awkward).

But she didn't ask for judgement. We can't be sure whether she was looking for reassurance to give her peace of mind, or permission to change her mind and stay with her baby, but these responses won't help either way. What she needs is to be listened to, and given the opportunity to process her options in an environment that reassures her that she has the ability to come to the right decision for her and her child.

"A rod for your own back" is my most detested phrase in child rearing, as an "Attachment Parenting" mother I have heard it quite a lot. It is a horrendous threat of some imaginary consequence of the mother attending to her baby's needs. It leaves a mother either upset by not being "allowed" to have the closeness with her child she physically craves, or feeling guilty that she is moulding them into a  non-functional person. It is not the future child that will punish the mother for her choices, it is the person making the judgement, right here, today.

The thing that strikes me, is that the critics who threaten mothers with the futuristic stick are rarely going to be exposed to the consequences of  the parenting in question. Is the neighbour, aunt, or old schoolfriend going to be affected if an 11 month old is still nursing to sleep? Highly unlikely, but we can't help but interfere. They say it takes a village to raise a child, and it is certainly true that people always seem to have an opinion and a strong urge to relate it when a child is involved.

I think it's lovely that even nowadays people to take a community interest in raising children, and it is wonderful when awareness is raised, people are educated and children benefit as a result. But before we go sticking our oars in, lets try to pause for a moment. Listen to the parents, what are they asking of you? What do they want? How can you give them information without alienating them? And most importantly, how valid, in their world, is your opinion? Are you going to make life better for the parent, or worse, and if it is the latter, can you just sit on your hands until the urge passes?

[Postscript: I deliberately avoided making this into a comment on the benefits, or otherwise of parenting styles, but for reassurance: My co-sleeping baby now sleeps in his own room, it took very little effort because he was ready; the baby that nursed to sleep well past a year old eventually stopped, and now settles himself happily singing to his bears; and the baby I "never put down" now runs away up the climbing frames at soft play and won't come back to me for 4 hours, even when tempted with snacks, until I physically wrestle him out of the place. On baby number 2, I now have no fear of the rod.]

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