There’s a lot of judgment in the world of parenting, especially now that we have social media and the web. Don’t get me wrong, the Internet is wonderful with all of the support and information you could ever want as a new parent. But sometimes all of that information fools us into thinking we’re experts, or that we know for sure what’s best for everyone else … and that can come at a cost to others.
Because of the emphasis that’s been put on some aspects of attachment parenting, moms who choose not to breastfeed, wear their babies, or co-sleep are sometimes criticized or openly challenged. For most parents these criticisms are little more than an irritant, but for survivors of abuse or sexual violence, the choices they make can be crucial to their well-being as parents and being called out by others can be very upsetting and even triggering to conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Elizabeth*, a 35-year-old mother of two encountered this sort of judgment when she told her mommy group that she would not be co-sleeping, not ever. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, Elizabeth could not fathom having her children in her bed. Even with her own partner, there are times when a touch she isn’t expecting while she’s asleep can send her into a panic.
It wasn’t until she was face-to-face with 20 moms who wanted to know exactly why she had her baby in a crib that she realized how politicized the conversation could be, especially when they started talking about SIDS and attachment disorders.
“I wondered,” she explained to me, “how all these moms who are supposed to be supportive and open-minded could feel so empowered to put me on the spot like that, and really invade my privacy. It was very upsetting. I left the room and honestly thought about just leaving [the group].”
Elizabeth didn’t feel comfortable sharing the fact that she’d been abused with the whole group, even though she assumed that if they knew, they would back off.
“I was just really resentful that they would put me in the position where I have to either be judged by them as a lazy mother or reveal something that only a few people in the entire world know.”
Elizabeth stopped going to the group after that, and understandably never told anybody why.
Advocates of attachment parenting are far from the only parents judging others unnecessarily, and not all parents who have survived abuse find themselves opting out of co-sleeping or breastfeeding. Some find that keeping their kids close is healthiest for them as a family and face criticism on that front.
Melanie*, a mom in her late 40s with a daughter in college and a son in grade school, dealt with abuse and severe neglect when she was a child.
“The people who were supposed to keep me safe and provide a safety net just didn’t or couldn’t. It was vitally important to me that my children would never question whether I would be there to guide, protect, listen, and love them unconditionally.”
For Melanie, that meant sharing a family bed and very rarely leaving her kids with babysitters.
“I’ve received some criticism from really close friends with whom we travel about the sleeping arrangements, as well as my inability to leave my son with sitters that often,” she said. “It only makes me move away from those people.”
Melanie believes that the abuse she grew up with is nobody else’s business, and neither are her choices in how she parents her two very happy, well-adjusted children. She says that she just wishes people would stop asking, so she won’t be put in the position of having to explain her past or defend what works for her family.
Another mom, Betsy*, whose son is now in middle school, faced more than just judgment from other moms when she chose not to breastfeed. She was raped when she was 16 years old and conceived and delivered a child whom she offered for adoption. When she later became pregnant with her son, she expected to experience some triggers, but she didn’t expect to be treated with outright scorn and contempt when she said that she would not breastfeed.
“[A WIC representative] told me to quit making excuses because if I could have sex and get pregnant, I could breastfeed. They refused to provide me formula until my son’s doctor prescribed it. I was told to forgo my depression medication and breastfeed. I was told by WIC that I didn’t love my child if I didn’t want to breastfeed.”
While most of us are not in positions of power over others, like the representative Betsy dealt with at WIC, we may not realize the hurt we cause when we judge or criticize. Asking questions like “Why aren’t you breastfeeding?” or “Don’t you know how important it is to practice attachment parenting?” puts parents in a position where they have to defend a private choice that may have been made for reasons that are sensitive.
Dr. Lisa Kaplin, a psychologist and life coach who is also a mother of three says issues like this break her heart: “It is always most important for the parent to take care of themselves in the best way they can.”
She goes on to say that breastfeeding and attachment parenting can be healthy choices, but they can also be dangerous if the parent isn’t comfortable doing so.
“As long as you can meet your babies’ basic needs like feeding them and holding them to comfort them, they will be fine,” Dr. Kaplin explains. She also recommends that if parenting is highly triggering, seeking help from a mental health professional might be a good idea. Ultimately, she says, “Guilt will only make the situation worse for all involved.”
Tonia*, a mother of two small children, tried to breastfeed her first child but found it very uncomfortable. She was abused by an older relative as an adolescent and while that isn’t the only reason she didn’t enjoy breastfeeding, it played a big part.
“I breastfed my daughter, but the sensation of nursing and having to give my body over so completely and constantly was extremely unpleasant for me,” she said.
Tonia planned to breastfeed her second child as well, but right before he was born she had second thoughts.
“Just the thought of doing it all over again, and this time with a 19-month-old [to take care of as well], made me so anxious that I broke down crying one night and decided I would be going straight to formula.”
She’s happy she made that decision, and is now very passionate about parents being able to choose how to feed their babies without any judgment.
Attachment parenting isn’t for every parent, and that’s okay. Kids need lots of love and attention, but if constant physical contact is triggering, it’s okay to set boundaries. Asking for some personal space from older children can even be a lesson in consent.
Marnie Goldenberg, a health consultant and sexual health educator, explains that “offering a clear lesson to a toddler about choice and how sometimes moms or dads don’t want to hug or kiss even though they feel lots of love is a perfectly good message.”
Most of us don’t intend to hurt anybody when we question others’ choices, but it’s important to keep in mind that some parents are waging invisible battles every single day. Considering that more than 17 million women in the United States have been victims of rape or attempted rape, mothers who are survivors of abuse or sexual violence are far from rare. The choices they make in order to keep themselves and their families healthy and happy should be nobody else’s business.
*All names have been changed at the request of the mothers I interviewed.