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Learning to Ignore Parenting Judgment — Even from My Feminist Friends

As a funky-glasses-wearing, short, 34-year-old Jew-nerd, when I became pregnant a year ago, I’d assumed that my mothering style would be criticized: by my mother, her friends, my suburban high school peers, or other crazy conservatives. I didn’t know that the most intense condemnation I’d face would come from my allies: my fellow liberal feminist urbanites.

“I’m so sorry,” my downtown neo-natal yoga teacher consoled me after she found out that I was having my child by planned C-section for medical reasons and could not participate in her $500 ‘being with breathing’ labor preparatory workshop. “Those nasty doctors make you miss out on a lot.”

“Oh well,” I said, when actually I wanted to say that without those nasty doctors and their nasty procedures, I’d be missing out on something even bigger — having a child at all.

“Remember to refuse the Demerol!” she commanded. I just smiled, when really I wanted to say, “Are you crazy? I need the Demerol now just thinking about it.”

That wasn’t the only time I bit my pregnancy-swollen tongue.

“What’s your breastfeeding goal?” the nurse at a progressive uptown hospital asked us in the first five minutes of her breastfeeding course that I had enrolled in due to all my friends championing “breast is best.” No one answered less than a year.

How could they be so sure? I’d never breastfed before and could not tell whether I’d enjoy it. “Six months,” I eked out when it came my turn.

“I’ll write six plus for you,” the nurse said, smiling fakely. “My goal is to have everyone here feeding for at least twelve.”

“OK,” I said, wanting to fit in with the eager earthy moms, when I wanted to say: Why does your goal matter? I really wished I had just paraphrased Tina Fey’s line: “Breastfeeding was amazing; the most gratifying seventy-two hours of my life.”

The next day, I had a phone chat with a private lactation consultant; she’s so hot on the Brooklyn new-mom scene, I was lucky a prominent literary friend referred me. After explaining how her process worked, she threw in: “I have to ask — why are you having a C-section?”

I paused, annoyed. I felt like joking: “Because my husband is forcing me to maintain the integrity of my lady parts.”

“Not only was I surprised by who was expressing judgment about my child-rearing, but when.”

“I have a history of abdominal surgery,” I actually said, telling the truth. “I had a major experimental GI operation when I was 15, and a natural birth risks ripping the sutures.”

“Oh, then I guess that’s OK,” she answered.

I said nothing, but felt angry. Medical reasons or not, I didn’t need her approval.

These have all been professional encounters, but the same comments emerged in books, blogs, and from my left-wing, bohemian social crowd. When it came up that I would birth in an O.R., even for medical reasons: “Really? Do you have to?” When I went out of my way to ask about the liquor content of a tiramisu: “Fetal alcohol syndrome.” When I was at a birthday bash and instead of partaking in the delicious-looking giant margaritas like everyone else, I had my one Diet Coke of the month: “Soooo, starting her young on the aspartame.” Even the waitress in a vegan hummus bar insisted I was having a boy. “Actually, it’s a girl,” I said. “But your belly is round.” “Yes, but the sonogram shows female genitalia.” “No!”  Um, yes.

Not only was I surprised by who was expressing judgment about my child-rearing, but when: I hadn’t realized it would begin — and so harshly — while my baby was in utero. Perhaps I’d been privy to these opinions because these women assumed I was “on their side.” And I was — I read literary fiction. I worked twelve freelance jobs. I spent a decade eschewing meat, even mock duck. I never owned a car, even a second-hand Prius. I had a PhD in women’s art. My celebrity look-alike twin was Woody Allen, and that was in his later years.

By the end of my third trimester, I’d come to learn that everything I did in my pregnancy was, in my urban organic world, grossly untrendy. Trendy: do not find out the sex of your child, have as “home” a home birth as possible (in a pool, if can do), and plan to breastfeed until the Bar Mitzvah. Medicine was seen as the devil, formula as crack-cocaine (even more toxic than high-fructose corn syrup), “the natural way” was celebrated … and no one was shy about telling me this. All the time.

It was very annoying.

After all, people, I don’t judge you when you name your child Timothée or Franzen or Valrhona Mousse, nor when you get undressed at dim sum to allow your fully toothed son to chomp on your nipples. I don’t criticize when you insist on a back-to-nature water birth even though the prehistoric water-loving women you are emulating were 14 and you’re 42 (and many of the 14-year-olds died!). I don’t even reprimand when your insistence about your entire household — including your doula and her rescue dogs — all sleep together in a single futon bed is more dogged than any doctor’s prescription.

And in the odd case that I might, I certainly never say it.

Or should I?, I began to think, in my last weeks of the pregnancy. My final chance for hormones to take the behavioral blame, I’d begun wondering if I should let my larynx loose like my prenatal yoga-stretched ligaments. Next time I would be passively accused of abusive atrocities, I kept promising myself, I would proudly declare the truth: “No, I will not be giving birth in an organic sink in the Park Slope Food Co-op followed by a barbecued placenta brunch, nor will I use diapers made of fair-trade recycled sweaters!”

My fantasies, however, were interrupted by something else: birth. Despite months of meticulous planning, my water broke at 3am, just 13 hours before my scheduled C, and when none of the specialist surgeons I’d rigorously lined up were on-call. I unexpectedly went into heavy labor — I hadn’t taken the class for that.

More frightening was that quickly my fetus went into acute distress. The monitor went silent. The doctors lost her heartbeat. My planned Ceasarian became an emergency one. I was, within seconds, surrounded by MDs, whisked to an operating room, and without knowing what was happening to me, immediately put under general anasthetic. The obstetrician, whom I’d never met before, miraculously took my healthy daughter out in one minute.

(Which, I joked to my husband, is about how long it took to put her in.)

This all reminded me, at the literal last minute, not merely of my fortune and life’s fragility, but also, how parenthood can’t be planned. Whether I was planning for a premeditated C or bath-birth, this distress would likely have occurred. Had I listened to those judging me, and had the O.R. not already been prepped for me, the situation could have been much worse.

Two hours after the surgery, when I was just coming to, a nurse handed me my baby, asking if I wanted to feed her. I panicked. It was my first act of motherhood, and my mind suddenly echoed with myriad theories about how and when to nourish, with what positions, motions, and degrees of skin contact.

But while I was busy worrying about my technique, my daughter — with her incredible blue-eyed, porcelain doll face; a warm, breathing creature that had miraculously developed inside my stomach — beelined for my breast and confidently, firmly latched on. She knew what to do. I understood: Motherhood was something that the two of us would figure out together.

Judy Batalion is a writer and performer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Salon, the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, the Jerusalem Post, and Nerve among others. She is currently working on a memoir. Visit her at www.judybatalion.com.


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