Sunday, April 18, 2010

Be Who You Are, Do What You Feel

There are so many "shoulds" when it comes to birthing and parenting. There are so many ideals, many of them conflicting, it is amazing women in the childbearing year aren't walking around with their heads literally spinning.

One of the "isms" I now find many of my clients getting caught up in is goal/achievement oriented perfectionism. They are terribly terribly worried they are not going to do something perfectly "right", and end up damaging their babies permanently. But what does "right" mean?

I was sitting in a cafe with my new student Kat, who is a circus performer among other interesting things, and I just loved the way she described her concern about the "swinging of the pendulum, from one extreme to another." Which is a poor mama supposed to do, unassisted birth where she is to trust Nature implicitly and believe any issue that arises is a reflection of her deep seated emotional traumas, or a scheduled C-section to bypass all potential obstetric concerns? Should she exclusively breastfeed until child led weaning even if she feels revulsion in her very core every time the kid eyes her boobs because it is emotionally damaging to impose weaning upon a child, or should the child be well versed in bottle feeding immediately after birth so as not to become too clingy? Is "middle ground" too "suburban"? What is middle ground anyway? What will my friends think? Will my mother-in-law judge me? Which book is the right book?

I have women telling me they are afraid to put their hopes anywhere because if birth goes awry and they end up needing an intervention, they don't want to feel disappointed in themselves. Why would they feel disappointed in themselves?! We are so afraid to become disappointed in ourselves if we veer from our own sense of ideal. Why are we so hard on ourselves, especially in an arena that is as unpredictable as birth and mothering? The arena in which we are the most vulnerable and needing tenderness is sadly the one in which we are so judgmental of ourselves and others.

Every woman's birth and parenting experience simply is what it is. I don't have any answers as to how it should be for any given woman. For example, women are expected to be full of love and awe for this baby flying onto their chest immediately after birth. Yes, it is true, the vast majority of women are over the moon to receive their babies in their arms right after birth...but the occasional woman needs a few moments to come back to herself before embracing her child. And what is wrong with that? It's not exactly natural for a baby to be "delivered" onto us after birth, as nice as this image might be. Without people between our legs to catch the infant, we'd probably kneel or squat on the ground, give birth, and take the baby to us when we were good and ready, which may be in a minute or so after birth. We must not allow this mom who feels a need to take a breather before receiving her baby to feel like she's defunct and lacking in maternal instinct.

Another example is the "breast crawl" rage. I do love a good breast crawl, but it is something I never knew about when I was having my own babies. My gut maternal instinct was to take my babies to my heart and offer them my breast when they seemed ready for it. I don't think I did anything "wrong" because breast crawl is "supposed" to be the be all and end all. By all means, if this is what a woman wants to do, this is her prerogative, and I fully support that as an amazing start to breastfeeding. But again, it is an ideal. Others may find it a bit intellectual to watch the cool crawlie thing the baby happens to be able to do.

I am tired of a generation of new mothers feeling like they're failing every time they do something that veers from their or another's version of "ideal". We do our best. If a mom really wants a natural birth and ends up receiving an epidural, the last thing she needs is my judgement. Why don't we focus on the really positive aspects of her labour instead? If a nurse or doctor sweet talks her into giving her baby a bit of formula in the hospital after I've left, even though it was against her better judgement (but she was told she was starving her baby with her inadequate boobs), yes we'll hold the space for her to express her feelings about this when I talk to her postpartum. And then we'll move on, because really, in the grand scheme of things, it's not the end of the world that in a fit of desperation the baby received a "dose" of formula. No, it's not a good situation at all, and yes, the hospital shouldn't have done it. But what's done is done, and wallowing in the quagmire of "I should have" or "If only I had been strong enough to.." leads to a lack of presence for the situation at hand, which is to mother a new baby . Getting too hung up on our "failures" heals nobody.

Besides, there are so many little perfections to achieve in the realm of birth and mothering, it's impossible for us to please every expert, every friend, every family member. And really, that's quite a good lesson in letting go of the "pleaser" impulse within many women. Mothers need to be strong, and to protect their sense of "rightness". This is often why new moms are very strong advocates of what they do, and I think this is a beautiful thing. But it's important to temper that passion with wisdom, knowing that what is bliss for one mother may be trauma for another, and doing what our hearts tell us is where it's at. If my client chooses an epidural and feels proud of herself for how she gave birth and is a really happy mom, I'm nothing but happy for her. If I come to a new mother's house 8 days postpartum, the mother has a baby with a pacifier in his mouth, and she's gleaming with pride telling me she tried out the binky by chance and found everyone got an extra hour of sleep and her milk production/sore nipple issue improved with that rest, I say, "Bravo!" even though pacifiers are not "supposed" to be used in the first six weeks after birth.

The more perfection experts put out there, the more judgement there is upon that mom who discovers that her baby may have different needs from her neighbour's baby, who follows the rules to a "T" of whatever "The _______ Whisperer" book is all the rage at the time (insert whatever you can think of in that blank, "whisperer" being the mot du jour for "expert"). I would like to write a book for new parents called There Is No Master Plan. There are as many ways to birth and parent as there are parents and babies.

I have heard enough criticism of women over the years to make me step back and see that fellow mothers can eat each other alive when armed with a load of ideals. I was at a birth once in which the mother's friend said, "well, I don't know why you yelled like that. I was focused inwardly, and was really quiet." My plump, vigorous newborn was blissfully nursing at my plump, vigorously spurting breasts and a friend walked in and said, "you shouldn't be holding your breast like that." I've had mothers try to talk the doctor into forcing their daughters to take an epidural during labour. It's hard to come out unscathed with all of these intense belief systems being projected onto our unique relationships to our babies from every angle.

Let us also remember that babies are resilient. Yes, they are tender and vulnerable, but they are STRONG. If a baby ended up being separated from his mother for awhile after birth and the mother discovers later in life that this was a "bad" thing, it does not mean she's irrevocably damaged her child with her "ignorance". People find healing from releasing the wounds of the past and focusing on the present. A baby who has been separated from his mother will heal from loving, focused presence NOW. You can't go back in time, really. You can go back with therapeutic techniques, and this can be a great thing for some wounds, in mothers and babies alike. But sometimes focusing upon something that may really be small in life's grand order may just make it all bigger than it needs to be, rather an attempt to assuage guilt from not being perfect than an impetus for true healing. That's for the individual to determine, not an "expert".

I'd like to remind people that whether you're shooting ideals from the left or shooting ideals from the right, shooting at people is still violent, and you can end up injuring a vulnerable being. Instead, let us mother authentically, being who we are, and doing what we feel...and allow others to mother in their own authentic way. There are many paths to enlightenment.