A couple of months ago, I blogged about “What Not To Say To A New Mother” and I’ve gotten interesting responses since then, overwhelmingly consistent in theme. New moms, it seems, feel criticized easily, and (surprise) hate the feeling.
They can feel a sting even when they know that they’re not being criticized (e.g., “wow, your baby is big/small/hairy/bald/loud/quiet”) (mom mentally inserts the word “too” after “is”), or that the person criticizing them is ignorant (“is your one-month-old sleeping through the night?”), or a dumbass (“you shouldn’t be carrying your 3 month old around because he’ll never learn to walk”) or creepy (“you should cover your child’s legs because otherwise someone will come over and bite them like a chicken drumstick”).
When you’re not the mom on the receiving end, it seems obvious that the response to these is, “Mmm.” No one has to live with your baby but you, so who cares what their random “advice” or questions are?
But it’s not so simple when the remark is made to you. Moms – especially first time moms, not only want to do right by their kids, they also want to know that their judgment is good, that they’re Good At Being Moms. Until they feel self-assurance, they look for assurance, and approval, from others. This is why it’s so important for new moms to have real community, not just books and Expert Advice.
Once, while I was nursing my first baby at a family event, a relative of my husband’s said breastfeeding was “nasty” and “barbaric.” I was astonished that I cared at all about his judgment and yet the sting of it silenced and shamed me. It didn’t matter that he was the one who was acting nasty and barbaric. It couldn’t roll off me then.
Check me out being all nasty and barbaric
Here’s the weird thing: that desire for approval of the early decisions can last long after you grow confident in the mothering role. Which is why some small part of me, even ten years later, is not content to know that my husband’s step-mother’s cousin’s remark was nasty and barbaric, but, still, hopes that you are offended on my behalf.
This is also why you might hear defensive remarks from your own mother or mother-in-law (e.g., she sees you lie your baby down on his back and reacts as though you did it to accuse her of being an idiot for putting you down on your belly).
How can your mother feel even a tiny bit defensive about decisions she made 30+ years ago? It’s because when she made them she was a vulnerable new mom like you, wanting to strike the right balance between the “expert” advice and the idiosyncratic experiences of her own life.
Just the other day, I blogged in response to a mom who is considering travel that will separate her from her baby for four days. I mentioned that my mom had done this when I was a baby and that I thought it had been a big deal to her. My mom responded,
“It was a big deal. Big decisions involve hard choices. Glad we went and don’t think it impacted you much. I’m the one who missed those 9 days, so there r regrets. But it also made the time after my return that much more precious. Hope you know that.”
I read it and though it’s not written in a really defensive or insecure way, I immediately wanted to reassure her, “Of course I know that! I am not judging you! I am not upset that you weaned me, or went away! It’s OK!”
It was funny to hear even the smallest note of New-Mom concern in my own mother’s voice. To me, of course, she’s Mom. But she was once just like my students and clients, and like I was in those early days, a Beginner, finding her way, hoping her decisions were good enough, hoping it would turn out that she was good enough, not knowing, yet, that of course her children would find her more than good enough. Not even realizing, yet, that her tiny baby would one day be a woman and a mother along with her, sharing life and experiences.
Go give your mom a hug and remember that she was, once, a new mom, too, and that part of her always will be.