I went to bed at the scandalously late hour of midnight and the baby began his morning cluster nursing around 4:30 am. You can bet Cinderella wasn't breastfeeding a 10 month-old. We dozed/nursed until 8:30, when he began to whack his pudgy little hand against my cheek. Secret code for: OK Lady, Time to Haul Ass Out of Bed.
|Cinderella, sans milk stains|
Shame. Shame, shame, shame. Shame on the mother-blamers.
IN A BAD RELATIONSHIP? BLAME MOM is by Wency Leung. She writes for the Globe and Mail Life section, addressing such difficult topics as why swearing is "good for you" (it ups your pain tolerance by releasing stress hormones), Starbucks closing its toilets to customers (only a few in NYC), and "The prettiest bean you'll ever eat" (cranberry bean). To be fair, she's not all fluff. She's also got some articles on nurses refusing to perform abortions and the Canadian penchant for Spam.
|Cranberry Beans (pretty!)|
The article in question is really just a summary of a press release from University of Minnesota researcher Jeffry Simpson. Simpson and his colleagues conducted a review of the literature on mother-baby relating and attachment styles. They also studied 70 low-income mothers and their babies. It was a longitudinal study, so those babies (now young adults) are probably still coming in to the lab to answer questions about their intimate encounters, relationships with their peers, the length of their left ring fingers, and other questions psychologists like to ask.
|Doc Jeffry Simpson|
Simpson and co. have found that the quality of the mother-child relationship between 12-18 months has some bearing on the child's future relationships -- in exactly the way we would all expect: a good relationship with mama leads to better relationships (specifically, more positive interpretations of others' actions) later in life.
I kind of don't even know why they have to do a study on this -- isn't this exactly why we don't just farm our children out to be raised by machines? I'm tellin' ya, when it comes to the motherhood game, I'm not really in it for the poop. It's all about relating. The authors of the press release seem to agree, acknowledging that the literature on infant attachment has been around for a long time, but "solid evidence for it has been lacking." (Freud's nanny, who nursed him, disappeared suddenly when he was a toddler -- that should be evidence enough, no?)
|Doc Sigmund Freud, poorly attached fellow|
The most interesting finding of their research -- and the thing Leung's admittedly small article fails to mention -- is that the relationship with the mother was only a small (but significant) predictor in the young adults' future behaviour. There are a lot of other factors at play. Are your actions exclusively the reflection of your parents' attitudes? I hope not, because then we can't be friends.
The thing is, people change. Adults are responsible for their own actions. We can't just blame our mothers for our relationship problems, and we can't accept blame as mothers ourselves. It's not helpful. And it's not right.
When I tell people I'm studying to become a psychotherapist, they often think my job is to find out what bad things someone's parents did and then allocate the blame like servings of birthday cake: Oh no, not too much for you little Johnny. Alice, you need to take a bigger slice. Susy -- you want one of the icing rosettes?
But it's not true! The work I do involves digging deep to the personal 'truth' of someone's past, looking for its relevance to the present day, and processing whatever emotional baggage has been barnacling onto its hull -- to use a mixed but somehow attractive metaphor. We often work on gaining some understanding of their parents' actions and letting go of the need to blame them. Sometimes this requires confrontation, but more often than not it requires insight and empathy: stepping into the parents' shoes and trying to get a sense of where they came from.
So where was I? Oh, right: not blaming mothers. I think mother-blame is a special form of woman-hating, particularly virulent because it's self-righteous and wears the guises of self-exploration or 'care' for other people's children. It takes the one realm that's exclusively female (but it's not exclusive, trans people can be mothers too) and loads it with stereotypes, voodoo powers, and conflicting directives. The result? Fear.
Fear in the hearts of mothers who are just doing their best but can't be honest about their child rearing practices; who instead pepper anonymous online forums with such pressing questions as: What are too many head-bumps per day? Is my baby normal for eating with his fingers? How much should I play with my baby? Mothers who have seen motherhood dissected and criticized throughout our culture (Teen Mom, Sixteen and Pregnant, Dance Moms, anyone?) and who struggle on the daily to gain a sense of wholeness, intuition and peace surrounding their parenting.
Don't get me wrong. Information sharing is important. I wish there were more of it. But I wish there were less judgment, too. Although mothers make horrible mistakes, I've never met one who didn't want the best for her child, however she perceived it. OK, I did meet one -- she smiled as she explained to me the horrendous abuse her daughter had suffered as a child and how she "knew nothing about it". I felt like I was going to throw up. But aside from the requisite sociopaths, the vast majority of mothers are relating to their babies as best they can. We don't need more blame, the kind of judgment that sends women who are having trouble relating with their babies into hiding.
I refuse to hide. Yes, there are days when my mothering is vastly imperfect. But not only do I try my darndest not to dole out blame to mothers, I also refuse to accept it. Sorry, Sweet Baby James: though I take raising you as the greatest gift and responsibility, though I endeavour to cradle you in the arms of lovingkindness, the world is a big, bad, beautiful place. When you grow up and make mistakes -- break hearts, cheat and lie, wear tapered jeans, whatever -- I will be there to comfort you. I will not fall at your feet to beg for forgiveness.
I keep searching my soul for anxiety about the way Sweet Baby James will turn out but I just don't feel it. Yes, I know it's early days and he can't even talk yet -- not even to say, "I always felt invalidated when..." but mother-guilt has yet to plant its seed within me. Perhaps it's the sweet confidence of youth. Or maybe just the ugly arrogance of privilege.
I'd go on about my privileged circumstances but that would just be bragging (yes, I've got it that good!). Let's just say: I am joyously monopolizing the affection of the best husband/father in the world. I have more than enough money, food and time to spend with my baby.
And it's still tough.
Being a parent is the most important thing I've ever done. It means the world to me. That wouldn't change if I lost my socio-economic status. But the time I could spend with my baby probably would. And the ease of breastfeeding. And the energy I'd have to carry him around in a sling. Almost everything would be... harder. I saw the strain and grief in my mom as she raised us on her own with precious little income. She always cries at these lines from The Invitation (by Oriah Mountain Dreamer):
It doesn’t interest me
to know where you live
or how much money you have.
I want to know if you can get up
after the night of grief and despair
weary and bruised to the bone
and do what needs to be done
to feed the children.
I don't presume to know what low-income mothers need. But I'm pretty sure it runs more along the lines of healthcare, childcare and recognition than condemnation and further academic study. Le sigh. I know studies need to be done, but how about some class analysis?
And, getting back to the article, how about some personal responsibility? If our relationships are shitty, why not set the blame aside for a minute and go talk to our mothers? Let's ask them what was going on in their lives when we were born. Let's find out how they felt about being a mom and what they did -- or didn't, or couldn't do -- to connect with us as little kids. Let's find out what their early childhoods were like. Maybe if we can stop criticizing them and start listening to their stories we can give each other a break, too.
Ed.: The past few weeks (decades?) have seen a rise in posts along the let's-stop-judging-mamas lines. Here are some of my favourites: When Mean Girls Become Mommies from Brooding, Lesson One in Mother Blaming and Shaming from Blue Milk, and I'm a Good Mother, You're a Good Mother from 6:30 and a Glass of Wine.