Why do mothers judge each other’s parenting so harshly?
I seem to have had variations on the same conversation a few times this week, about motherhood and how women tend to give themselves, and each other, a hard time.
We tend to forget that every person, every pregnancy, every birth, and every baby are different, and because of that nobody is really qualified to comment on another’s experiences.
But we all do it, even if we don’t say it out loud. In our heads we all think we would be able to stop that baby from crying, could stop that toddler having its tantrum, could prevent both and many more things besides.
It’s a habit I’m trying to get out of, because I know that I don’t know the best way to look after someone else’s child, any more than someone else knows the best way to look after mine.
Before I had a baby, a screaming infant in a supermarket would make me think, tut, shut that thing up, the same way everyone else does when they’re stuck in a queue and can’t escape the noise. Nowadays when I hear that scream my first thought is, Poor little baby. My second thought is, That poor mother, she must be so stressed, trying to do her shopping while we all stand here and silently judge her for not being able to get her baby to shut up. When you have a baby everyone says, Ooh, sleepless nights! As if it’s some hilarious joke that babies scream all the time. And then when they encounter a screaming baby in public they are surprised, as if the screaming should be confined to the house. When I see that mother trying to placate her screaming baby while she’s also trying to make sure she doesn’t forget to buy nappies, I want to go and stand next to her and eyeball all the passersby, shouting, What’s your problem, never heard a baby crying before?
The ideas I had about motherhood changed the minute I found out I was expecting. Things changed even more drastically when S was born. I was planning on being a yummy mummy; motherhood would not stop me from going out and enjoying myself; the baby would stay with a sitter while I went to the gym and wherever else I felt like going; this child would not rule my life!
And then S was born, and I found that I didn’t want to leave her anywhere, with anyone, ever. And I didn’t much care how I looked, either. (Some might say I never really did) I have to say my propensity to judge was… encouraged, shall we say, by S’s father. He was very into my taking supplements, taking care of myself (strangely, this did not include keeping my stress levels down) in order to produce some sort of super-baby that would be so much better than all these children of mothers who didn’t take Pregnacare Max or continue to walk everywhere until they literally popped. All of his babies had been at least 8lbs, and mine would be even bigger because I’d looked after myself better than his wife had with any of her pregnancies. His babies were all very alert and strong from the get-go, and this one would be as well, not like all those other, floppy babies who are disinterested in their surroundings. These are the things that were told to me almost daily while I was pregnant.
The whole world has an opinion on the best way to raise a child and most of them will not hesitate to stop you in the street and tell you what you should be doing. People you barely know give you random, unsolicited advice. Some of it is useful; some of it is more a question of choice, and some of it leaves you wondering how the hell that person’s child has survived thus far. I read somewhere that the best thing to do is to nod and say thank you, act like you’ve taken it on board and you’re going to do exactly as they say, and then walk away and do what you were going to do any way.
People don’t like to feel their advice is not being heeded, you see. They love to tell you your baby is too hot, too cold, should be wearing a hat, shouldn’t be wearing that coat. Having S in the sling so much, I get a lot of people telling me she should be in the push chair instead, where she can see more (at knee level, so… she can see a lot of knees).
That said, if someone looks like they are having a hard time, I’m apt these days to offer them some advice. I try to always remember that my experience is just that: one experience. Not a universal truth. My advice, when I give it, tends to start with I found that… or Someone told me… rather than you should…
I decided early on that I would breastfeed S on demand, exclusively. I have friends who have bottle-fed since day one, others who tried breastfeeding but could not get on with it, some do a mixture of breast and bottle; others give their baby a bottle at night to allow him to sleep through. Some mothers know they will be going back to work soon and so move from breast to bottle fairly quickly to make things easier. When I was in hospital, a lady in the bed opposite was unable to breastfeed because of the medication she was on, and felt that she needed to explain this when really, it was nobody’s business but her own.
All of these babies are perfectly healthy and thriving. As far as I’ve seen, none has any limbs missing or any issue related to having two heads. I do feel that if women were given more support to breastfeed earlier on, they might stick with it a bit longer; many give up in despair (and a lot of pain) after a few weeks, not realising that it takes at least 6 weeks to establish properly (and for the pain to settle down). But that assumes they want to breastfeed in the first place. The fact I wanted to doesn’t mean anyone else does or should. And yet, the first question anyone asks you when they see your shiny new baby is, are you breastfeeding? I’ve done it myself, and then realised that actually, I don’t give a shit what you’re feeding your baby. It is of no consequence to me. It’s your baby and your choice, and feeling like I’m judging you because you didn’t choose the same thing as me is not going to make your day any better.
The other question people always ask is is, does she sleep through the night? S is five months old now; when I say no, she still wakes once or twice to feed, they look at me with a face that says both oh poor you and that’s because you’re doing something wrong. Everyone wants their baby to sleep through, apparently, and if yours doesn’t, then you must be doing something terribly wrong. One friend with a 3-year-old son mentioned recently that she felt a complete failure when her son was a baby and not sleeping through, but that a lot of her friends had since admitted that they weren’t telling the whole truth when they boasted that their child slept soundly from dusk till dawn.
The fact is that if a baby is exclusively breastfed, you can’t really expect them to sleep through the night until they’re a lot older. S wakes anything from once to five or six times in the night, depending on what sort of a mood she’s in. Sometimes, yes, it would be nice to be able to sleep a bit more, and if I’m tired I have been known to groan when she rolls over to feed yet again. But it’s not like I have to get up and go to work in the morning, and once you just sigh and accept that you’re not going to get that magical 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep, things are easier. Still though, we judge each other based on our babies’ sleeping habits. It’s ridiculous when you think about it; if your child sleeps for 2 hours or 10 hours, it will make not one iota of difference to what mine does. And really, when it comes to sleep deprivation, nobody needs to be judged for not getting enough sleep, do they.
One thing I know tends to raise eyebrows and cause people to do “that look” is the fact that S shares my bed. I commented the other day that although I have bumpers in the bed to stop her rolling out, once S is a bit more mobile I’m not sure what I’ll do to ensure she doesn’t just face plant the floor when she decides she doesn’t want to be in bed. The response was, Well you really should put her in the cot. My issue is with how to make my bed safer; it hadn’t occurred to me that I should just stick her in the cot to make things more convenient. As it is, I will probably take my bed off its frame fairly soon, and cover the floor with spare duvets and padded play mats, until S is old enough to learn how to climb down from the bed safely.
I have no idea why S should be in her cot. What purpose would it serve? Why does that person care where my daughter sleeps? Yes, it would be a problem if S were sleeping in my bed, under my duvet, while I was knocked out on sleeping pills and unaware of what was going on. But that is not the case. As long as she is safe, I see no problem with keeping her in my bed. For one thing, while she’s still breastfeeding and waking in the night, it’s 100% easier to just roll over and feed her without either of us waking up too much, than to get up, get her out of the cot, feed her, and try to settler her back into the cot before I can go to sleep. They call it “dream feeding,” and I literally could not survive without it.
Becoming a mother has made me more sympathetic to the problems other mothers face. Once you’ve been through these things for yourself, you care more for other people who are struggling as you have, and perhaps still are. I was chatting to a friend today, and she started to complain that her partner never took his turn doing night feeds. She stopped herself half way through, saying, Sorry; I know you never get a night off. But I understand what she means. I’m here on my own, so I know I’m on night duty all night, every night. If there was someone snoring in the bed next to me, I would be seething if they didn’t get up to help from time to time and give me a rest. Quite often I start to get jealous of my friends, having a partner or husband there to help them with the baby duties (not to mention the washing up!), but from what my friends have told me, their partners are not that helpful. Before Twunty left, I complained to a friend that he had not changed her nappy more than 5 times in her life. She responded, That’s just men; they don’t help out much.
It’s natural to compare ourselves and our babies with those around us. I have a terrible tendency to look at babies born around the same time as S and think, S doesn’t do that yet… and then I have to remind myself that she was 5 weeks premature and will take a while to catch up developmentally.
If you put a group of mothers into a room together things can quickly descend into a discreet but bitchy game of one-upmanship. My baby has 3 teeth, mine had his first tooth at 2 months, mine can sit by herself, mine can stand already. We judge ourselves, and each other, by this invisible yardstick of what’s supposedly normal, as proscribed by… what? Who says what’s normal, what your baby should or should not be able to do? Is it that bloody What To Expect book? A TV show? Gina Ford?
Perhaps we should just do away with the comparisons and the judgement, and give ourselves and each other a break. Yes, your baby is adorable and very bright and clever. So is mine, and so is that baby over there. They’re all perfect and normal and their mothers are doing the absolute best they can on very little sleep. Nobody tells you what a massive shock to the system it is when you go from being just yourself to you-and-the-baby. Everything changes and it all feels very strange and confusing. The last thing you need when you’re trying to find your feet, and keep them where they are, is a bunch of busybodies telling you (or implying) you’re doing it wrong.
Women in general seem to have been pitted against each other by the media and society as a whole for so long, it’s like we’ve forgotten to just be compassionate towards each other. Everyone is struggling in one way or another, and if we could just remember that perhaps we wouldn’t all feel quite so judged all the time.