A few months ago, one of my girlfriends was in the waiting room of her vet's office with her children in tow. She has three of the yummiest, most fantastic kids ever -- a 3-year old girl, 2-year old boy, and an infant boy. As she describes it, her infant was in his car seat, being an infant and doing nothing, and the two older kids were playing quietly beside her. Everything was cool.
My friend goes out with all three kids all the time, never batting an eye. It's not always a calm scene, like the other day, when her 2-year old was at the top of a playscape and decided to remove his pants and Pull-Up and sit naked on his older sister's face while the infant began howling for his bottle. Yet my friend handles it all with the greatest of ease.
On this particular day, on top of three kids, she had a large dog in the mix. An older woman in the waiting room observed my friend and her children, looked at my friend and said,
"I think it's time you stopped having kids."
When I heard this story, I was absolutely livid. The nerve!
"What did you do!?" I asked, "How in the world do you respond to something like that?"
My friend is polite to a fault and simply smiled and said nothing, probably the best way to handle a bitter old bat like that. And while she surely came up with a lot of responses after the moment, in the end, she simply ignored it and went on with her day.
This reminded me of when my daughter was an infant. Though I'd had lots of practice with children because I have two stepchildren, I didn't enter their lives until they were 4 and 5, so going out into the world with a newborn was extremely intimidating to me.
When my daughter was about 2 months old, I was shopping and minding my own business when she began to cry. Never one to let a baby cry it out, I grabbed her out of her car seat and began to pat her back and try and comfort her. A woman (perhaps the exact same woman my friend encountered at the vet's office), approached me and said,
"She's hungry. That's the kind of cry they cry when they're hungry. You should feed her."
What this ballsy woman didn't know was that I had been having a terrible time with breastfeeding, to the point where our daughter was actually losing weight instead of gaining. It was scary. She was born right before Mother's Day, and to this day I will not show anyone the photographs my husband took of my exhausted, overwhelmed fake smile as I held our frail, underweight baby. It's just too painful.
What this ballsy woman also didn't know was that I was unknowingly moving around in a pretty serious state of postpartum depression. So when she came to me and gave me instructions to feed my daughter, I didn't respond with the grace that my good friend used at the vet's office.
"Really?" I asked, biting and sarcastic, "She's hungry? Well breastfeed her yourself, then!"
Looking back, I'm kind of proud of myself for being crazy and quick enough to respond in that manner, but at the time, her remark struck a painful chord that just made things seem worse. And now that it's been nine years and I can reflect on how difficult that time was, it makes me realize just how much judgement awaits us when we become parents.
I label this post "Chapter One on Judgement" because I can't address all of the levels on judgement in one piece because there is so much of it out there. So for today, let's just consider the judgement placed upon the parents of infants.
I read very few parenting books before having my daughter for a variety of reasons -- time, fear, stubbornness -- but the primary reason was because there was so much information out there it felt overwhelming. So when the baby came, I ventured out on walks in the neighborhood, and learned a lot about parenting from other mothers with babies. One of my neighbors was that enviable kind of mother who pops out a kid without drugs (I had a scary emergency C-Section), loses her baby weight the same day she delivered (I have baby weight 9 years later), and produces enough breast milk to fatten up her happy little baby and have enough left to donate to the Mother's Milk Bank so 16 other babies could eat as well. I kind of hated her.
One muggy afternoon at the park, I sat with my friend and some of her other marathon-running moms, cross-legged and sweaty as my baby cried the "I'm hungry" cry. My friends gracefully whipped out full, non-sagging breasts ripe with nourishment, and their plump babes ate peacefully while my daughter screamed and grimaced as I shoved an empty boob at her red, angry face.
"You're having a tough time with breastfeeding?" my neighbor asked, concerned.
I nodded shamefully as I fought back tears and my daughter wailed, and briefly considered begging her to breastfeed my baby just to give us both some relief. She gave me some tips, suggesting that I try to relax first (yeah, right), and invited me to join her at a mommy meet-up group. I know that she could see I was desperate for help.
I put off going to the meet-up group until I worked out the breastfeeding issue, and after several lactation consulting home visits and doctor's appointments, learned that it simply wasn't in the cards for me and that formula was a better solution. Though I felt like a failure in the breastfeeding department, things were getting much better at our house, and the baby was gaining weight like a champ. So I decided to venture out to the meet-up group and spend some time with some moms. I didn't ask questions before hand.
I should have asked questions.
I won't reveal the name of this particular group, because that's ugly, but I learned quickly that I was out of place in a big way. I arrived with my daughter in her car seat, completely unaware that nobody else had a car seat in sight, as if their babies flew there on magic hippie love clouds. After settling in, I noticed that everyone wore a sling. I'd already given up the battle of the Baby Bjorn, so a sling was nowhere in my vision of how to schlep a baby.
The topic of the day was toys, with tips and advice on where to find wooden toys. I swiftly buried the plastic teething ring underneath a blanket in the carseat and listened while I learned how terrible plastic toys are. Don't get me wrong; I knew very little about BPAs and the dangers of plastic then, and if I could go back I would make some different choices, but at the time, my biggest concern was getting my baby to eat, so banning plastic toys was really low on my priority list.
While I learned about wooden toys and resisted the temptation to ask, "But what about splinters?" I looked around to see all sorts of full breasts feeding all sorts of rosy-cheeked babes. And toddlers. And kids that might have been a little old for the breast? But if I'm discussing judgement, I guess I shouldn't be judging.
I prayed that my daughter would wait to cry her "I'm hungry" cry until the meeting was over. Of course that didn't happen, so I sheepishly whipped out a plastic bottle full of formula and began feeding my happy baby.
"Oh," said one of the moms, eyeing me with a mix of sympathy and distate, "You don't breastfeed?"
"No," I said, "It just didn't work out for me..."
And with that, I began to cry. I apologized for crying, scooped up the baby, carseat, plastic teething ring and bottle full of formula, and excused myself and left. And I never returned. And for me, that was a good thing.
It's so easy for all of us to judge. I do it constantly. In the car the other day, I told my husband that more than one bumper sticker on a car is a good indicator of a crazy person. But the problem with rushing to judgement? I have one school bumper sticker on my car now, and another one waiting to go on for my stepdaughter. As soon as I start judging, I have to turn around the finger I'm pointing and point it at myself.
So what became of the frazzled mother, riddled with postpartum depression, guilty for turning to formula and plastic toys? Once she gave up breastfeeding and stopped worrying about what other people thought of that, she turned out just fine. And most of all, so did the baby.