As an adult, I met some of my closest friends because I breastfed.
There's a kinship, a recognition that takes place when you meet another breastfeeding mom. Particularly for those of us who choose to be the “weird” breastfeeders: the ones we call full-term, the media calls extended, and Health Canada and the WHO calls ideal. Moms who breastfeed beyond six months, a year, two years create an even smaller group within the parenting circle.
Within that group there is great variety of income, philosophy, education and all the things that make us individual. Yet it's still a select group with whom you share a choice.
My cousin recently travelled to Florida with her two older children and an infant. She remarked in wonder on how as she carried her infant daughter in a carrier, other "babywearing" moms approached her to discuss the benefits of babywearing and the relative merits of various carriers.
Other parents create bonds with a larger group because of the education methods they choose, the way they choose to potty-train or diaper their child, the foods they feed ... within parenting there are a number of sub-cultures all of which allow parents to identify with each other, gather information and resources, and develop kinships.
And yet these subcultures can also be divisive.
The breastfeeders vs. the bottlefeeders, the homeschoolers vs the public schoolers, the working moms vs. the stay-at-home moms.
In all the ways that the subculture bonds are valuable, the petty division is damaging.
It doesn't help that the media, parenting websites, and those who have no place commenting on parenting choices such as radio and TV personalities contribute to this division. In our celebrity infatuated society, it is no wonder that what Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow and Emma Thompson have to say about parenting choices and the value of various methods and philosophies is considered valuable media.
But whether Angelina feels qualified to complain about parenting knowing that she's a privileged parent or Emma thinks moms should take time off from work for their children is not as valuable to the well-being of an “everyday” mom as the support of peers.
Within the subcultures we find this support, but in the lines between these choices we find derision, ridicule, and estimations of low-value.
A parent is not created through a single choice, however. Nor, indeed, even through a series of choices. An organic-only, breastfeeding, babywearing, homeschooling mom is just as likely to be a bad parent as a processed-food, bottle-feeding, public schooling one. And both are much more likely to be good parents than bad ones.
Too often, judgment of a choice becomes judgment of the person who makes the choice. I can say “I would not make that choice” but I am not qualified to say “that choice is wrong.” And the same goes for all parents, all media, even, dare I say, all celebrities.
There are some things we know are wrong: neglect, abuse, exploitation. And while all of these things can be defined upon a slippery slope — some call circumcision abuse, some call a vegan lifestyle neglect — there are things we know, with absolute certainty, fall under these criteria. Things we know that no matter how much we explain why we, personally, think it is wrong the person making that choice has chosen not a lifestyle, a philosophy or a method, but indeed has chosen to merely be a horrible person.
Those are the bad parents.
The rest of us? We're all making good and bad choices in our attempts to do the best for our children and our families. Sometimes my kids eat cheap hotdogs. I make that choice according to budget, dietary need, and the particularities of my children's taste. I know it is not the “best” choice as to what a child should be fed. But I also know it is a deliberate choice within the balance I try to create as a parent.
And yet, every time I fill my cart at the grocery store, I do think about what other parents are thinking as they look at my cart or what the cashier thinks as she rings in my purchases. The stress of such perceived scrutiny can make parenting even more of a chore than it already can be.
The fact is, probably no one has noticed what’s in my cart. Other parents are also trying to make their choices and keep their children in line and think about their budgets while shopping. The cashier just wants to get through her shift and home to her own children. But we are raised within this culture of absolute scrutiny of all choices that it’s hard to believe that no one is watching and judging.
We internalize the judgment because it is so prevalent. And we internalize the feelings attached to it as a form of identity. “Good choice” and “bad choice” come to equal “good parent” or “bad parent.”
I actually am quite a good parent. So are most people I know. I’m pretty sure most people I don’t know are too. It’s time that we stopped feeling like those things we let define us as parents define the value of our parenting.
I may belong to the breastfeeding subculture of parenting, but that doesn’t make me a good parent any more that someone who belongs to the bottlefeeding subculture is a bad parent. We’re both just parents. We’re parents that have made different choices based upon our personal circumstances and values.
To be clear: bad parents beat their children; bad parents continually neglect to feed their children (no, this does not include that one time your child complained he was hungry and you told him he had to wait until supper even though you knew he wouldn’t eat supper). Bad parents exploit their children (and not just for likes on Facebook).
Good parents make choices for their children, tuck them into bed, and choose to keep making decisions tomorrow.
It doesn’t matter what the decisions are so much as the fact that you’re making them, thinking about them and committing yourself to them.
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