A friend I met years ago in a mother-baby group recently told me she had been shunned by her social bubble for being too strict during COVID. "They call me the Taliban because I measure the distance we sit apart and enforce it," she told me. I recalled she had been the same way with her first baby, imposing a rigid regime and carefully measuring her breast-milk output.
As a new mother, I often reacted viscerally to other parents behaving differently. These days I find myself similarly aggrieved by those taking a different approach to the virus.
When I had my first baby 20 years ago, I discovered just how judgmental others could be. Family, friends, fellow mothers, and even perfect strangers felt entitled to tell me what I was doing wrong. The disapproval appeared to be everywhere. When I first took my two-week-old baby outside in a carrier, I was chastised for a full five minutes by my elderly neighbor. "Oh my dear girl, you can't take the newborn out in that sling in this weather, and without socks, she'll catch her death." The baby was wearing a footed onesie, and it was May, but I was the one with cold feet. I went back inside to put booties on the baby, because I'd rather she overheat than be judged as a bad mother. I was insecure and plagued with self-doubt.
For weeks after that incident, I stayed at home in self-imposed isolation. I wore the same elasticated maternity leggings every day. I had bits of toast in my hair, and cabbage leaves stuck on my boobs to relieve the mastitis. Breastfeeding was painful, but I was a martyr to the cause, bitterly judging those that bottle-fed. I finally left my house and went to a local mother-baby group, where I encountered Sally, the "perfect mommy." Sally was the antithesis of me: confident, calm, and clad in size two jeans. She was an expert in everything — and in an accusatory manner told me that bottle-feeding would solve all my problems.
All our choices as new mothers feel like a statement of who we are. Whether to have an epidural or natural birth, cloth or disposable diapers, breast or bottle, free-range or attachment parenting. All these decisions are fraught with angst and subject to derision. In this pandemic, our decisions also feel fraught and now there are lives at stake, which means I feel particularly entitled to have a say in other's choices. I cast judgment on those not wearing a mask, standing too close, crowding on beaches, eating at a restaurant, or going to the dentist. It is all scrutinized. I regard those who are too cavalier about certain restrictions as insouciant. They, in turn, judge me for being overly-anxious.
When I had a baby, the fad was for a regimented sleep and feeding routine. Gina Ford, a midwife, allegedly held the secret to "calm and confident parenting." I didn't think much of Ford's The Contented Little Baby Book or the regime she promoted. I eschewed her advice, preferring to go with my instinct for a flexible "on-demand" approach, sure that my way would result in better bonding. "Haven't you heard of the Romanian orphans deprived of contact?" I said to those who critiqued my choice. Friends who were devotees of Ford talked of sleep-filled nights while I was on night duty for months. I thought they were control freaks, putting their own needs ahead of the baby, beholden to a preposterously specific schedule. Conversely, I was considered a hippy, too lax, a slave to the baby.
At the time, we were all testy and tired. Friendships ended over differences in parenting styles. I sensed that the path another mother took was a negation of my own. It was easier to shame and blame than sit with the fear that I had made the wrong choice. Mothers are judgmental of each other at the best of times. It's a protective instinct, and because we are uncertain, we seize on anything that makes us feel more secure that what we are doing is right. Somebody else's different choice becomes a personal criticism.
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