Get In That Ditch

A few weeks ago was The Hubs’ birthday, and we had a backyard BBQ. The Hubs loves to cook for people, so he smoked some ribs and grilled up some burgers and people brought their kids and we all hung out in our back yard. The weather was gorgeous, warm and sunny, as it had been for pretty much the entire month of July. Our grass is nicely toasted brown now, because the hell I’m going to pay to water something that will grow back just fine when the rain comes. And it WILL come, because this is the Pacific Northwest.

Behind our house is an alley–a private dirt road, really, along which runs a ditch. A drainage ditch, although it rarely fills with rain even in the winter, and at this time of year, with it being so dry, it was extremely dusty. You can see where I am going with this, right? The Boy and his friends (two other boys and a girl) asked if they could play in the ditch, and we said, “ABSOLUTELY. Get in that ditch.”

I think I just heard the Judgy McJudgersons of the world’s heads collectively exploding. I am sure this has caused a great disturbance in the judging force, as if a million judgers screamed out in pain and then were silenced. Even my friends at the party, who heartily agreed with each other that we should let the kids play in the ditch, felt a little uneasy about how the world might see their decision. Still, they all agreed I should blog about us sitting around the patio drinking alcohol while telling the kids to go get in the ditch. I think they felt that we were behaving the opposite of how parents are supposed to behave.

See, The Cult of Perfect Motherhood tells us we must remain ever vigilant and constantly protect our children from any potential danger. A ditch is rife with perceived dangers: a flash flood could suddenly wash our children away. There might be dangerous items in the ditch. The ditch is filthy; who knows what germs may lurk in the ditch! Someone who has not been deprogrammed from The Cult would definitely see ditch-playing as a bad idea.

But, the thing with perceived dangers is, many of the things we are so afraid of are such remote possibilities that I am more likely to win the lottery than to actually experience them. A flash flood in Seattle? When it hasn’t rained in a month? And when it does rain, it’s a drizzle? I’ll take my chances, thanks.

Other things we perceive as dangerous to our kids are only dangerous because we don’t teach our kids how to react when they come across them. If any of our kids HAD found a knife or whatever in the ditch, they have been taught what to do–leave it there and tell an adult–and what not to do–run around trying to stab each other with it. If you teach your kids what to do when they approach a dangerous situation, they are much less likely to come to harm. Because potential danger is everywhere, you can’t keep them from it forever. (Did you see Tangled? If that crazy lady couldn’t pull it off, I sure as hell can’t. She was way more focused and motivated than me.)

And as for drinking, do not get me started on people who judge others for having a beer at a BBQ. Alcoholism is a real serious problem. A beer at a BBQ is not. It’s like feminists who focus on spelling women with a Y, instead of real problems like pay equity and domestic violence and the billions of women in this world living in poverty with all that entails. The Y is not the problem. The beer at the BBQ is not the problem. You are wasting your energy on things that are trivial. Oy, see, you got me started.

Besides, there is a good reason to sit and have a beer at a BBQ with the other parents. Remember my tips about how to escape the Cult? Remember the one about connecting with other parents? A BBQ is a great place to do that, but only if you aren’t too busy chasing after your kids in case they find a knife in the ditch.

Great moms who have escaped The Cult of Perfect Motherhood let their kids play in ditches and get filthy and have fun. And they connect with other moms over a drink and some awesome ribs while their kids play in the ditch. So, if it’s dry where you are, tell your kids and their friends to get in that ditch, and have a drink. It’s what great moms do.

Sleeping Through the Night

When you are deciding to start a family, there is a lot of stuff you know, but you don’t KNOW it and you can’t KNOW it until you actually have that baby. One of those things is sleep deprivation. You know you’re going to be feeding the baby at 2AM, but you don’t KNOW what that is like until you’re living it. Like, people say “You’re going to be so exhausted” and you believe them, but you don’t UNDERSTAND what they’re saying until you’ve experienced extreme sleep deprivation. It is a hell of a thing that I can’t even put into words really, probably because when you’re that tired, that entire period of your life becomes a blur that you can’t really remember properly because you were too tired to know what the hell was happening around you. This would be the #1 reason why I think we need paid maternity leave in this country, because ain’t nobody doing their best work when they’re that tired. Seriously, when you’ve been running on 4 hours of sleep a night for 3 months, is it even safe for you to be behind the wheel of a car to drive yourself to work? Do you want to be on the road with that person? I didn’t think so.

When we had The Boy, he came home from the NICU on August 1, and on the night of my birthday in early October, he began sleeping through the night. And when I say sleeping through the night, I mean 12 hours straight, every night. People used to congratulate me on it, and ask me what I’d done to get him sleeping through the night so quickly. I was like, “Damned if I know.” Really, I had no idea why he was such a good sleeper. But people would press me for my secret, as if I had learned some special wisdom somehow, like I was the Baby Whisperer or whatever. I actually had people say to me, “It’s because you’re such a good mom and you’re so laid back, that’s why he is able to sleep so well.”

Then I had The Girl. She’s now almost 2 and there are still nights she’s up at 2AM, just AWAKE and wanting to play or talk or whatever. She also screams in her sleep a lot, for no apparent reason. I’m guessing nightmares maybe? Perhaps she farted and it scared her? She is just a really really bad sleeper, always has been, maybe always will be. At first I sought out advice about how to get her sleeping better, thinking maybe there WAS some trick I could learn that would help her sleep through the night and if I just learned the right trick, I’d finally be able to get a good night’s sleep. But you know what? People have all kinds of ideas about what they think worked with their kids, but none of it may work for your kid. None of it worked for my kid.

One of the tenets of the Cult of Perfect Motherhood is that there is some body of knowledge out there that you need to acquire in order to raise your kids the right way, and in fact, that there IS a right way to raise your kids. And if you just find the RIGHT book, it’s going to teach you how to get your kid to sleep through the night, because there is a perfect motherhood out there, and you must try to live it. But, kids are all different. Some of them sleep through the night for no reason, and some of them don’t sleep through the night for no reason. Some of them walk early and some of them walk late, some of them have disabilities and some of them don’t. Some are great eaters and some are not. There is no one right way to parent your kid. Every kid is different and every parent is different. People can share ideas and advice, and it may be completely useless to you, or even destructive. And it doesn’t mean they’re bad parents, and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent. It just means, every kid is different and there is no such thing as the one right version of motherhood.

Why You Should Never Let Your Husband Touch Your Breast Pump

When I was pregnant with The Boy, my plan for feeding him was at I would nurse until he grew teeth, and then I figured I would be too freaked out at the possibility of my nipple being bitten off to want to stick it in his mouth anymore. I also planned to pump when I went back to work, and I wasn’t really sure if I would keep pumping after I stopped nursing.

Then, I have written before, The Boy ended up being born 13 weeks early. Babies that premature can’t eat right away. They just don’t know how to suck, swallow, and breathe the way a newborn does, because their brains aren’t ready for something that complex. So, instead, The Boy got his first nutrition through an IV, and after that it came through a feeding tube. And what they put in that feeding tube was my breast milk, mixed with a calorie fortifying formula, to help him bulk up.

I started pumping on the day he was born, using a loaner pump from the hospital. It was a ginormous thing and it took me a while to get the hang of getting the flanges arranged on my breasts and working the controls on the pump at the same time. So, my first pumping session home from the hospital, I asked The Hubs to adjust the suction while I held the flanges on. I kept telling him “A little more, a little more” and that’s when he decided it would be easier to start at the maximum suction and dial down instead. (Exhaustion makes even smart people do stupid things.) The string of swear words that came out of my mouth at that moment would have made Ava Gardner blush. He was not allowed to touch my breast pump ever again.

Once he was big enough to try feeding by mouth, he both bottles of his breast milk-formula cocktail, and we also tried nursing. Now, most preemies tend to do better nursing instead of bottle feeding–it tends to make their heart rates and breathing stabilize. The Boy, however, was the opposite, and he would desat horribly when I tried to nurse him. After a couple of attempts that didn’t go all that well, I decided maybe it was best just to feed him bottles until he got home from the hospital, and then make an attempt at nursing in the comfort of our own home, where we no longer needed to worry about him desatting. So I kept on pumping.

But at home, the few times I tried to nurse him, he screamed bloody murder. The Boy wanted nothing to do with my boobs, period. Holding a screaming, unhappy baby who was rejecting me felt pretty damn shitty. It felt like the opposite of bonding with him. It felt like torture. We both cried. And I quickly decided that I would just keep on pumping. And I did, until he was a year old, when I decided I had had enough of the pump and I stopped.

I didn’t choose to exclusively pump, if you really think about it. My son’s prematurity made that choice for me. It was one of the many times that I had little control over how I could parent my child during the first year of his life. His prematurity was driving the train pretty often.

What I took away from the experience of feeding The Boy is that feeding your baby is a super emotional thing for moms. It was one of the biggest surprises about becoming a parent for me, just how emotional a thing feeding is. How much it hurt my heart when The Boy refused to nurse. How powerful it felt to be able to provide him with breast milk even though my body couldn’t carry him to term. Feeding you child is just a very emotional thing.

And this is why it is so important to be extremely careful when you talk to other moms about how they feed their child. Because it is so emotional, it is very easy to come off as a Judgy McJudgerson when you talk to other moms about how they feed their baby. It’s easy for well-meaning comments to be received as judgment. Especially because, for many moms, what they planned for feeding didn’t work out for reasons beyond their control, and so the judgment they feel about their feeding method feels especially unfair.

And because it is so emotional, that is also why I think it is so important to help women feel supported in whatever feeding method they use. I honestly believe that most American women are aware of the benefits of nursing. They know breast milk’s benefits, or if they don’t, someone will tell them about it at some point in their pregnancy. Most women are not stupid. They gather information and then make a decision about how they will parent based on that information…or, the realities of their situation dictate their decision.

So, I think the best approach to discussing this topic with other moms is to ask open ended questions, and then to LISTEN to them. Listen to them talk about why the feed the way they do. And then tell them “I support you.”

The Cult of True Womanhood

Where did I come up with this phrase, “Cult of Perfect Motherhood”? Well, that is a story that takes me back to my college days. I was a history major in college and I minored in women’s studies. Had there been a major in women’s studies at my university at the time (there is now), I almost certainly would have double-majored in history and women’s studies. I know, you’re SHOCKED! SHOCKED! to learn that there is a feminist writing this blog. And not only a feminist, but a university-trained one, which means I know my shit. I learned my women’s history from the best, including Bonnie Morris (whose books are amazing because she is brilliant) and some other amazing professors. Because of what they taught me, now when I look at how the women around me are living their lives, I see all sorts of parallels between the shit that happened to women in the past, and the shit that happens to them now.

And one of those parallels that jumps out to me all the time is between how mothers experience parenthood now, and what feminist historians call the Cult of True Womanhood, AKA the Cult of Domesticity. Shout out right here to Barbara Welter’s classic text on the subject. What feminist historians mean by that phrase is this: during the Victorian era, middle and upper class women were expected by society to meet an ideal of womanhood that included being docile to one’s husband, being pure and chaste, being super pious (Christian was preferable), and of course, being the ultimate homemaker. I’m really abbreviating the historical discussion here, but just think of poor long-suffering Melanie Hamilton from Gone with the Wind, and there’s your example of the ideal woman during the Cult of True Womanhood era. (You haven’t read the book OR seen the movie?!?! Stop reading right now and go fix that. No, seriously, go right now. I’ll wait.)

How was that ideal enforced? Well, women who didn’t live up to the ideals of the Cult of True Womanhood got shit on. God forbid a woman did something untoward or worse, unchaste. Throw that woman out of “decent” society, shunning is the solution! Poverty in 19th century America was even shittier than it is today. Nobody wanted to be disowned by their parents and end up living in a tenement in 1870. Seriously.

Now, you may be saying at this point, “Gee, that sounds shitty, but hello, it’s 2013.” Yes, in the words of Ani DiFranco (see, feminist!), “Chicks got it good now–they can almost be president.” See, the thing is, progress doesn’t mean the end of the need for change. You don’t stop potty training your kid after the first time they pee on the potty and say “That’s progress, no need to actually get you to stop using diapers entirely.” Nor do you say, “We tried teaching you to use the potty, but you had an accident, so we give up, you’re wearing diapers for the rest of your life.” No, you keep at it until you no longer have to keep cleaning their shit off their asses for them. And, feminism doesn’t stop just because women are going to college and playing sports, because women are still living with crazy unrealistic expectations placed on them. The expectations have a slightly different flavor than they did in the 19th century, but we have to keep pushing back against those expectations. Because they are crazy and nobody can meet them. Hell, even Melanie Hamilton took that money from Belle Watling.

So, I started calling the flavor of today’s idealized womanhood The Cult of Perfect Motherhood. Start with the Cult of True Womanhood, and replace being docile with being constantly vigilant about your child’s safety, and replace being pious with being completely dedicated to following the teachings of the latest parenting “experts.” Being the perfect homemaker remains part of the picture (Martha Stewart, Pinterest). Chastity is no longer the standard exactly, but it’s been replaced by an extremely complicated relationship with our sexuality–must be attractive, can’t be slutty. See? Same cult, different flavor.

What’s so fantastic about studying women’s history is that we can learn from the women who fought the last cult, and maybe they can teach us how to fight back against the cult. There were some seriously badass women who took a big bite out of the patriarchy back then. Did they eat it all and poop it out and now we live in some utopian paradise? Of course not, but they made progress, and maybe if we learn from them, SO CAN WE.

Shut Up, Judgy McJudgerson

Earlier this year on a rainy weekend day, my family and I went for a ferry ride. Actually, we went for 3 of them, because my kids love the ferry. First we drove to Tacoma and hopped the little ferry to Maury Island, then we drove to the Vashon ferry and rode it to Southworth, and then we drove to Kingston to catch a ferry to Edmonds. We stopped for food and at a bookstore along the way and it was a fun outing. As we were sitting in the ferry wait line in Tacoma, my son and I got out of the car for a minute to stretch our legs, and then he and I sat in the front passenger set for a little while, while we waited for the ferry to arrive. My husband took a photo of us and posted it on Facebook.

Now, what happened next says a lot about how Judgy McJudgersons come to think at their behavior is totally acceptable, and why it drives me COMPLETELY AND TOTALLY INSANE. It’s sorry for the shouting, but seriously, this behavior just makes me stabby. If anything about this story sounds like something you have done, please please please never ever do it again. Ever.

People began commenting on the photo about the fact that my son was sitting on my lap in the front seat of a car and neither of us were wearing a seat belt. The comments were along the lines of, “I hope the car wasn’t moving when you took that photo” and “why isn’t he in a booster in the back seat?” Well, DUH. Because I think boosters are for wimps, and so are seat belts, and also I send my kid to the store to buy me some smokes and a bottle of Jack every afternoon. (That’s called sarcasm right there.) Of course, the real reason is, the car was parked. In a long line, that wasn’t going to be moving until the ferry arrived and unloaded the arriving cars. Last I checked, when a car is parked, it’s socially acceptable to be sitting in it without a seatbelt on.

Because of my NICU experience, one of my triggers is when people make me feel like I am not a good parent. It makes me completely irrationally angry. I spent too many weeks where I wasn’t allowed to parent my kid at all because he was in an incubator on oxygen, and the feeling of having my independence and judgment as a parent questioned…well, it pretty much sends me over the edge. So when people suggest I am idiot enough to drive around with my kid not seatbelted in, that makes me nuts. It makes me feel like my autonomy and authority as a parent are being taken away. That said, I know a lot of moms without PTSD who feel the same way when someone questions their parenting choices or accuses them of being less than safe with their kids. They get angry and defensive. I mean, who DOES like to feel like they’re being accused of being a bad parent or endangering their kids?

Now, the Judgy McJudgersons of the world aren’t trying to make us feel that way, of course. They come from a place of good intentions–that is, they genuinely want what’s best for my kid. They want him to be safe and healthy. And that’s great and all, except, they use that good intention as an excuse to throw out everything they know about me as a person and as a parent, and let themselves assume I am doing something crazy dangerous with my kid.

I’m not talking here about your friends who are experts and so you ask for advice about stuff like which car seat is going to fit best into your tiny car or whether you’ve installed it properly. The difference is, you ASK an expert for advice, you seek that information out. A Judgy McJudgerson forces that information upon you. A Judgy McJudgerson assumes you do not know as much as them and makes it their job to educate you, whether you want or need them to or not.

I’ve spent a lot of time wondering what it could be about the Judgy McJudgersons that makes them act this way. And the best theory I can come up with is that they are scared. Scared shitless, in fact. Scared shitless that THEY aren’t good parents themselves. So they take every opportunity they get to show off their parenting expertise, be it car seats, the dangers of GMOs, the benefits of homeschooling, whatever. Whatever their “thing” is that they’re into being an expert on, they take every opportunity to tell everyone, from their friends to perfect strangers, the absolute best information about their thing. That it comes off as demeaning to the parents they are lecturing just doesn’t seem to cross their mind.

And the reason they feel scared shitless? You guessed it, the Cult of Perfect Motherhood. It makes all of us feel like we aren’t good enough. And then we feel the need to show the world we ARE good enough, by Judgy McJudgersoning all our friends and their parenting choices. I will not lie, I have done it. Truth time: we are all Judgy McJudgersons sometime. I have looked at a photo of a mom and kid doing something and thought “oh my gosh, that looks dangerous…I wonder if she’s read that article about blah blah blah…” But now that I’ve escaped from the cult, I say to myself, “SHUT UP JUDGY MCJUDGERSON” and I keep it to myself. Because that mom is a friend of mine, and she is doing what she thinks is best for her kid, and I am not going to judge her. Just like I don’t want her judging me.

So, next time you see a photo of a kid in a car who isn’t wearing a seat belt, just take a step back from the computer and ask yourself, “Is my friend really that much of a moron, or is it possible that there is a reasonable explanation for why that kid doesn’t have a seatbelt on? How will this person feel when I publicly shame them? Am I being a Judgy McJudgerson right now?” And then wait five minutes before you comment.

How I Escaped the Cult

Like most moms, I was once in the Cult of Perfect Motherhood. What’s that, you say? Are you shocked to learn I was not born a radical mom who throws off the bonds of society and embraces her failures? Please, girl. It took a lot of shit to get me to where I am now. I started out like a lot of moms, just swimming in that Perfect Motherhood myth until my fingers got all pruney. It was back when I was pregnant with my first born, The Boy. I was one of those people who spent hours, days, weeks, agonizing over what stroller to buy. I researched and read reviews and test drove them at Babies’R’Us. Of course, I was registered at BrU, and man, did I register for a lot of crap. I mean, a LOT of crap. I was sure I needed all of it in order to be a good parent. I mean, having a baby is a lot of work, right? I was going to need a LOT of gadgets to help me get the parenting work done. Like a bottle warmer, and a sleep positioner, and that mega stroller that the infant car seat snaps onto that also converts into a bassinet.

Then everything went haywire. The Boy was born 3 months premature, because my water randomly broke in the middle of an otherwise normal healthy pregnancy. 6 years later, we still don’t know why it happened. I would give anything for it not to have happened, because the NICU is a horrible place. I am not going to go into detail right this minute, but let’s just say, watching your baby laying in an incubator covered in wires and tubes and not being allowed to hold him? Yeah, that’s indescribably horrible. It’s every bit as horrible as you imagine it might be, times a million. My husband and I have PTSD from it, and we have both needed therapy because of the NICU experience.

But as horrible as the NICU was, and as much as I would never wish that experience on anyone, not even my worst enemy, I have to admit that it taught me some things about parenthood that have been valuable to me. I have heard a lot of cancer survivors say that as awful as cancer is, it was also a gift, because it made them value their time on earth more and gave them permission to quit that shitty job or try that thing they’ve been too scared to try. Well, the NICU is like that, except the gift it gave me is the knowledge that I have no control over a lot of what happens to my children. I can do my best and read every book and carefully control every food I eat when pregnant and get great prenatal care, and still something can go horribly wrong for no understandable reason whatsoever. It comes down to this: shit happens, and it doesn’t make you a bad mother. My NICU friends are all good moms. Every one of them. They didn’t bring this awful thing on themselves, it just happened. (Not that I felt like that about myself during the NICU, I had tons of guilt. But therapy helped. A lot.)

Another thing the NICU taught me is that babies don’t need half the crap they sell for babies. I mean, The Boy had tons of medical equipment in the NICU, but when it came to actual baby stuff? He had zillions of receiving blankets, diapers, bottles, and some clothes. He had a pacifier he didn’t want to use. That’s basically it. We warmed his bottles in hot water from the sink in a coffee cup. There was no contraption in the NICU to warm it. Sleep positioner? Rolled up blankets work just as well, and once he was out of the NICU, he didn’t need them anyway. Hell, they didn’t even use baby wipes. They used soft paper towels that you run some water over and wring out. I mean, if a preemie, the neediest of babies, can thrive and grow and triple in weight without a bottle warmer, every kid can get by without one. And if they can get by without one, then why the hell was I agonizing for hours on end about which bottle warmer was THE right one? Why was I spending all my energy on that crap? My husband and I took practically everything off our baby registry when we realized we didn’t need it.

But the most important thing I learned from the NICU is, make friends with the other moms. Let me say that again, because it is really important, I am not kidding you guys LISTEN RIGHT NOW I MEAN IT: make friends with other moms. Because, parenting is hard, and having people you can confide in about how hard it is and what you’re feeling? That is priceless. You NEED people who get what you’re going through and who are going to be able to give you a hug when you’ve had a shitty day as a parent and boost your confidence and help you see you aren’t alone. You need that on the day your kid has to take a trip to the ER because he took a header over the front of his ride-on toy into the TV stand (yep, that happened)–you need someone to say, “Wow, it took 18 months for him to have to visit an ER? You must be doing an awesome job, because my kid fell off the slide and broke his arm waaaaaay younger than that. Scary as shit, wasn’t it? Don’t worry, they get less clumsy as they get older, I hear.” You need someone to empathize and help you realize that you aren’t a horrible person just because something awful happened to your kid. You and they are good people, trying their hardest, and that is the best any of us can do as parents. When you don’t have those people in your life, the Cult of Perfect Motherhood can swallow you whole.

I wouldn’t wish the NICU on my worst enemy. But I am glad that I learned things from that experience, things that have helped me be a happier, better mother.