I swore I wouldn’t take the bait. There have been plenty of opinions rolling around the universe about the now-infamous Time Magazine cover, and I wasn’t going to add mine to the mental clutter being churned out daily on the internet. I had resolved to myself to spare you the various responses I’ve had since that photo broke; but ultimately, I cracked.
I’m sorry. But after mentally discoursing with myself for days now about what it means to be “Mom Enough,” among other things, I’ve got to let it out (or else be REALLY not Mom enough, when I end up rocking and muttering under the bedclothes because I’ve pent up all the things I want to say).
I have no particular agenda regarding breastfeeding vs. formula-feeding, which may surprise some of you; but it’s the truth. And since I am probably one of the only mainly neutral parties in this particular battle of the Mommy Wars, I generally try to stand far, far back from any breast vs. bottle politics. This post really isn’t about that, I promise (though of course we’ll have to start there). What this is about is me sizing up for myself whether I’m “Mom Enough,” or really, even, what kind of Mom I might be. I’ve been engaging in the same mental inventory of my Mommyhood that I suspect many of us have done in the past days — not because I feel insecure about my parenting, but because there has been so much discussion of all different kinds of parenting choices that it just seemed like a moment where an intellectually curious person like myself ought to stop and take stock.
And I’ve concluded this: I am no kind of Mom.
I’m not an attachment parenting Mom. I like to think of myself as having grown rather attached to the boys in the five-plus years I’ve been a parent, but it seems that’s not what “attachment parenting” means. I didn’t co-sleep with my kids (they both actually seem to rather like sleeping in their own beds — they enjoy flailing room), I didn’t practice elimination communication, and while I did “wear” P. quite frequently, L. rejected all possible babywearing apparati with surprising hostility. And I didn’t breastfeed.
That’s right. I didn’t. Breastfeed.
Not that it’s anyone’s business, because it’s not, and it’s not the measure of me as a parent nor as a person. But let’s get it out in the open, for purposes of this conversation. I TRIED to breastfeed when L. was born. Weeks of misery (for him and me) turned into bleeding so badly that pumping was the only option. Every effort to make things better only resulted in failures (which were not, really, human FAILINGS on my part, but which felt that way) that drove me deeper into the grip of a postpartum depression that would not leave me until L. was nearly walking. Despite the fact that milk came in, it never seemed to be enough to sate him, and finally I realized that each time I needed to feed my baby, the mere thought of it sent me into tears of exhaustion, frustration, and guilt.
Formula-feeding saved us. I have no doubt. Both his doctor and mine — after much pleading from J. and other members of my family — convinced me that the “nursing relationship” was a toxic one for us, and wasn’t even providing L. with all the nourishment he needed anyway. I still remember the mixture of fear and relief that washed over me when I locked eyes with a medical professional (who I was SURE would be judging me) and heard her say: “Are you enjoying being a mother? Because if you’re not, you owe it to yourself and to him to remove any obstacles that stand in the way of that.”
After that experience, nobody — not me, not J., not any of the doctors — thought that nursing P. would be a particularly good idea. It wasn’t a strictly easy decision, but neither was it a difficult one, because I still had the fresh memories of what a different mother I was before breastfeeding and after. We happily formula-fed both boys, then moved on to the next phase of feeding our children. You know, the phase otherwise known as THE REST OF THEIR LIVES. The phase when suddenly nobody cares anymore if you nursed or you didn’t, and unless they ask, they can’t tell anyway.
So clearly, I’m no attachment parent; and obviously I’m not at the other end of the spectrum, where parents head home from the hospital clutching preschool entrance exams and debating the merits of an au pair who speaks Mandarin versus the one who’s certified in baby massage. I’m not authoritarian, but I’m also not into letting them finger-paint the neighbor’s cat to express their creativity. I do, however, have something in common with all of those kinds of parents, which is this simple and inviolable truth:
WE ARE ALL DOING THE BEST WE CAN WITH WHAT WE KNOW AND/OR BELIEVE AT THE MOMENT. AND WE HAVE OUR KIDS’ BEST INTERESTS FIRMLY AT HEART.
So I don’t need to be any particular kind of Mom, and I don’t need to size myself or anyone else up against any arbitrary yardstick. The truth is, even when we try to label ourselves we are probably going to fall short in some respect. I’d be a far better Crunchy Hippie Intellectual kind of Mom, for example, if I had used cloth diapers, or banned plastic toys, or known enough to keep the Johnson and Johnson’s lotions and potions out of the house when the kids were small. I’d probably do some things differently if I were parenting infants now than I did five years ago, or even three years ago. Or even last week. Because, fellow humans, we are all evolving every day, and we are all learning (and if we’re not, then what the heck are we doing with our time?). We change our minds. We change our priorities.
Do I care, particularly, if somebody out there in the world breastfeeds until her kid is in elementary school? Nope. Neither do I care if someone else comes home from the hospital loaded down with Similac samples. It doesn’t tell me anything important about what kind of parent that person is going to be. It doesn’t tell me anything about what she’s going to learn tomorrow, or how she’s going to evolve as that highly adaptive species known as Mother to meet the needs of her individual children in the best way she can. And if I can’t even properly label the box into which I have tried to stuff MYSELF, then I owe it to every other parent in the world to resist the temptation to try shoving them into boxes. It’s an almost surefire guarantee that I’ll get it wrong.
By deciding that I am no kind of Mom, no particular kind at all, I declare myself free of the need to beat myself up for the mistakes of the past (and the present, and the future). I can proclaim without guilt or shame that yes, I, a parent who believes in the best possible nutrition for her children and all children, used formula to feed my infants — and it didn’t define us. I didn’t give up on myself; I kept moving forward, kept evolving, and with each bite of food I’ve set before them I have learned more about what I personally believe to be right and true about the feeding relationship that works.
It works for us. And I share it with the earnest hope that some of it will work for some of you. What’s good, you’ll take; what you don’t want, you’ll leave. No one decision, no one food choice, no one way of feeding our kids binds us forever to some parental identity that we’re required to uphold. Not even the choice to breastfeed or bottle feed has the power to shape the whole complexity of the parent-child feeding relationship, long-term health, and nutritional and emotional well-being. We like to behave as though it can. But it’s not the be-all and end-all.
Each meal of your child’s life, both the ones you feed them and the ones they will eventually choose for themselves, are just individual steps. Some of them may end up being stumbles, some of them may be leaps; but just because you may have stumbled before doesn’t mean you have to keep falling down. (And I can tell you from personal experience, by the way, that if you get too caught up in the pride and excitement of the leap, you WILL fall when you land. I’m not known for my physical grace.) So if these things are true — and I assure you, they are — then why are we so hard on each other? And why are we so damned hard on ourselves?
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can be our OWN kind of parents. We can be the kind of Moms and Dads who do their best and love their kids and vow to keep learning and growing. We can throw out the labels, the titles, the books, the methods, and the visions of what “should” be in favor of extending ourselves and others just a little bit of grace. I’m choosing to be no kind of Mom because it means I can make lots of room for everybody at my little picnic table, and if they come to my table, we can all share what we’ve got to offer.
No matter if it’s breast, bottle, seaweed snack, or froot snack. Deep breaths. And grace.