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The Scariest Part of Parenting Is Other Mothers

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There are a lot of things that scare me about pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting. I’m pregnant now with my first child and it’s easy to be anxious with so many unknowns. For instance, when I discovered my first hemorrhoid, it’s possible my reaction was on par with that of someone discovering a dead body. I’m not proud of my overreaction, I just thought hemies (my loving nickname for my new friends) happened to other people, not me.

Then there’s all the breastfeeding talk, throwing words around like “cracked,” “bleeding,” and “had to bite down on a rag,” that has my brain going in a tizzy. Of course, once people see the horror in my eyes, I’m comforted with “It’s only at first, once you two get used to it, it’s wonderful!” But the damage has been done. It’s like being told when you’re going to die — some things should just probably be a surprise.

And there’s childbirth. After my sister’s last baby, I visited her in the hospital, cradled my nephew, then did something really stupid. I asked, “So, how did the delivery go?” She casually took a bite of the piece of cake I brought her and said, “It was kind of like being cut in half by a chainsaw.”

But despite the fears and anxieties of the unknowns, I can say there’s one thing that scares me more than anything I’ve listed above. Yes, even more than the sensation of being cut in half by a chainsaw.

It’s other mothers.

To be more specific, other highly-opinionated mothers who, for some reason, have an oddly passionate and emotional interest in how other people raise and care for their children.

I’ve heard many of my friends share humiliating encounters brought on by the “kindness of strangers.” It was really hard for me to believe that people could be that bold and inappropriate. And then I got an English bulldog and realized people actually are buttholes, to put it kindly and immaturely. It’s disturbing how many times people have stopped me during walks to tell me he’s overweight or overfed, when he’s actually underweight and I manage his food intake closely with my vet to protect a knee he injured when he was a pup. It’s offensive and maddening, as if they care about his well being more than I do.

If people are going to “care” enough to be rude to a stranger about their dog, I can only imagine what a woman who can’t breastfeed must go through when she puts formula in her cart.

The natural assumption is that since we no longer live in villages filled with elders and a built-in community of loving support, we could find or create this type of loving and supportive community online and in many instances we can. A good friend of mine just told me how much she treasures the friends she met on her pregnancy board. Of course these types of bonds exist and it’s wonderful.

But like most things, there is also the dark side. It’s easy to be inundated by very opinionated and often judgmental advice about parenting — from celebrities, celebrity doctors and psychologists, bloggers, extended family, to the lady standing behind me in line at Target.

As my baby moves, kicks, and currently rests blissfully on my bladder, many thoughts race through my mind. How will I raise my little girl? How will I discipline her? Will we co-sleep? Will I be able to breastfeed her, and if so, will I do it until she’s old enough to ask me for a quick swig while on the swing set? I don’t want to overthink it, but I’m not sure I want to play it fast and loose either.

The beauty of the Internet is that we have instant access to all the information, experiences, and opinions we’ll ever need about parenting and strategies. Many times we can use that information to come to our own conclusions about what’s best for our family. The ugly of the Internet is that much of that information comes with strings attached – in the form of flocks of people who have desperate opinions about it, with absolute ideals and judgment for differing styles and methods.

Maybe I just need to stop reading the comments. Whatever, I digress.

About a year ago, a writer decided to share her success story sleep training her toddler, who if left to her druthers, would stay up until 2 AM requesting fishy crackers as she watches Yo Gabba Gabba reruns. I was interested in learning about what this writer had done, as I personally know people who aren’t big fans of sleep training and wanted a positive experience to inform my own decisions. I expected dialogue, differing opinions and the sharing of experiences in the comments — good and bad. What I didn’t expect was a mass exodus of people leaving nasty comments as they proudly announce hitting the “Unlike” button on her Facebook page.

I was so confused. Did I miss something? If I read her article backwards, is it a recipe for pot brownies? If I pulled out the first letter of every sentence did it create some type of Satanic message? Does it sync up to the Wizard of Oz?

The writer handled it like a pro, but I have to admit — it scared me. It’s one thing to decide sleep training isn’t best for your family, but I think it’s quite another to be so horrifically judgmental when a woman is just trying to survive and turn around a sinking, sleep-deprived ship.

It caused me to internalize the following message: keep your parenting trials private. 

Why? Because the “parenting community” has stalking wolves in sheep’s clothing who will enthusiastically rip you to shreds because you laid your toddler down at 8 PM instead of 10 PM. It’s a freaking nut house out there.

A friend of mine recently shared an essay published on the Washington Post titled “Why I don’t breast-feed, if you must know,” about a woman who had all of her breast tissue removed due to breast cancer. Obviously unable to breastfeed, she was still “lovingly” bullied and harassed by lactivists. The post stirred up comments on my friend’s thread where women were coming out of the closet about bottle feeding, sharing stories about public confrontations from strangers that encouraged nothing, but shame.

My friend talked about hiding the formula in her cart because of the awful things people would say to her while shopping. She went on to say, “My frustration with people who push breastfeeding on others is that they do it with concern — that maybe I didn’t KNOW that breast is best. But I’m well aware, thank you. I would bet that MOST people buying formula know the benefits.”

While I’m sure that many women are well-intentioned, there is a special kind of arrogance required to confront a stranger in this way. When you do, you approach them with a myriad of assumptions that are more often than not wrong. What your concern actually says is, “I know more and care more about what’s good for your baby than you do.” Or even worse — “I feel sorry for your baby.”

Yep. I’ll take a chainsaw and cracked nipples over that crap any day.

Attachment parenting, homeschooling, c-sections, home births, breastfeeding, cloth diapers, disciplining tactics — the “Mommy Wars” can be absolutely brutal. And you know what? That really sucks. I want to be able to talk about my parenting journey without an underlying feeling of judgmental doom.

Right now, I don’t have a solid opinion or conviction on anything. I’m learning as much as I can and although I do have some bias from my own wonderful upbringing, experiences, and education, I’m completely open because I know parenting theory is a much different ball game than walking around your living room bawling at 3 AM with a colicky baby.

What troubles me is the bar of parenting perfectionism that’s getting set higher everyday. A bar we’re not only trying to hold ourselves to, but also those around us. There’s a reason very few women start a mommy blog when their kids are 16. It’s because by then, most of us realize we have no freaking clue what we’re doing.

And that’s exactly the way it’s supposed to be. The minute we arrogantly tell the universe we’ve got it all mastered, it so majestically has us turn around to see our son peeing on another kid at Chuck E. Cheese.

If anyone gives off the illusion that they can do it all, with a perfect birth story, perfect children, a perfect marriage, a perfect home and a perfect homemade bunt cake, don’t be jealous and please don’t let it make you feel like a failure. Their illusion of perfection is your first clue that their life is in chaos.

How do I know this? Well, I suppose I don’t know anything for sure, but I do know it’s human nature to care about what other people think, especially for those of us feeling insecure. Caring about what other people think creates a strong desire to pretend and create illusions.

I don’t know about you, but I refuse to feel bad about myself or how I parent based on an illusion someone painted so perfectly for me on Facebook. When it comes down to it, I know incredibly loving, supportive parents who have a child in jail and I know physically and emotionally absent parents who have a child on a mission to build water supply systems in Africa.

There is no formula for perfect parenting because we are not perfect, and we’re raising separate human beings with their own souls and destinies who definitely aren’t perfect either. How I raise my kids has to not only take into account my own limitations and personality, but those of my children as well.

This is messy, it always will be. It’s deeply personal and many times, completely frightening. Our identities can be wrapped up in perceived idyllic outcomes rather than reality. It causes a feeling of vulnerability that should call on all of us to provide a strong support system, not to take each other out at the knees.

If there’s one major takeaway from my Master’s Degree in Interpersonal Communication, it’s that judgment and/or cruelty are really just originating from one of two places — mental illness or fear. When we feel confident about who we are and the intention behind the difficult choices we’re making, there’s no motivation to tear other people down to prove we’re right. When you’re confident, you have nothing to prove.

A loving confidence breeds generosity of spirit. We can share our experiences while still supporting others that have differing opinions and circumstances. If we find ourselves becoming nasty and judgmental because someone spoke about a disciplining strategy that differs from our own, it’s a good clue to step back, take a long look at ourselves and find that place in us that’s afraid, perhaps a little wounded and focus a positive and loving energy there — not a nasty energy towards people who do or don’t share a bed with their kids.

As a first time mom who is about to get her world rocked in just a couple short months, I’m looking for kindness. Truth tellers. Please, share your stories, what works for you, what doesn’t. I’m a big girl, I can rummage through information and glean my own ideas.

What I don’t need is another article preaching a perfect method or implying other methods will ruin my baby forever. What I don’t need is another self-righteous mother that thinks she’s right and the rest of us are abusive monsters.

I mean, really. Who does?

We’re in this together. If you have my back, I promise I’ll have yours. Until then, if you see me on the street walking my bulldog, he’s not fat — he’s a bulldog, mmkay?

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