Columnist Rachel Peters says it doesn’t take every busybody in the village to raise a child.
When I started showing during my first pregnancy, I noticed how visible I became. When I went into a store, shopkeepers would smile at my tummy; a stranger yelled at me in the street, telling me I was having a boy (I was not); at social events people hovered their hands over my belly asking if they could touch it.
I soon came to realise that not only was I visible, but that I was being examined.
My blood pressure got very low, and one day, not feeling well enough to go out to a cafe for lunch, I went to the vending machine and bought a packet of chips. I was eating them at my desk when I got my first pregnancy telling off from a colleague.
Nothing but nutritional food was to enter my body apparently. Not knowing anything about my health, my dizziness, my exhaustion, someone decided they still knew what was best for me and my baby. During pregnancy we get judged for what we eat, how much we exercise, how big we get, and how we choose to birth.
In ante-natal classes we were told that 99 percent of issues with breastfeeding could be sorted through seeking more support and persisting with it. We were given no information about bottle-feeding at all.
Well, what a shock I got when my daughter was born, and didn’t stop crying. I kept calling the midwives during my stay at the postnatal unit, asking what was wrong. They told me to record how many times I was breastfeeding. Record it?! The breastfeeding didn’t stop! Yet, all I could get out of anyone was that she was hungry. My partner was not allowed to stay, and I felt isolated at night. I began to panic, how was she still crying? On the second night, at 5am, I broke down to the midwife on duty, said I wanted to leave immediately, I wanted to get back to the hospital, something felt wrong.
“There there” she said in a hushed tone, “I am not supposed to… But…If you were to ask me for formula, well we do have some, if you ask for it. I think she’s hungry.”
Then when I said to her on very clear terms, that I would like formula, I was given a form to sign, acknowledging that my decision was not recommended and that breastfeeding was a better choice for me and my baby. Yet, when my daughter was given a tiny sample of formula, her whole demeanour changed, she looked happy, her whole body relaxed, I wrapped her up in her swaddle and we both got our first decent postpartum sleep. After a rocky start, I ended up breastfeeding my daughter for a year, using formula as a supplement.
So who are these people who know what is best for me, and my children, just because they have read some longitudinal study which links breastmilk to IQ levels (without taking into account all of the other variables)? Who decided that the postnatal unit should have posters on the wall which list the amount of nutrients in breastmilk vs formula? Don’t they believe parents should have their own autonomy to decide what is best for their children?
And so it goes on, across so many areas of childcare, how much screen time they should be getting, how long they should sleep, if you should swaddle them, if you should send them to childcare, and at what age, and with what teaching philosophy…
Parents are so overloaded with information and judgments about what is best for their children, always according to the ‘evidence’. This study shows this… this study shows that… Most researchers are actually quite aware of the limitations for their studies, but this nuance is often lost to proponents of a particular way of parenting. While it is useful to be informed, information should not be used to pressure parents into making decisions they are unhappy with, that do not work for them. We cannot all live up to some stay-at-home, earth mother who somehow manages to have disposable cash, ideal.
Our family participated in a study which focused on how children form their identity through communication. I remember the researcher asking me about having a very supportive, close knit family. “It’s great” I said. “I can rely on them for support, I am always accountable to them, my children are the children of the whole family, everyone is always looking out for each other. I wish everyone could have the same support”.
That’s what parents need, a support network to help them learn the skills on the job. As long as parents are making decisions which are not going to harm their children, then those decisions should be supported and affirmed. Parents do not need to be questioned on their ability to make decisions on how to birth, how to breastfeed, what to eat, and how to care for a child, by people with absolutely no understanding of the family’s personal beliefs and circumstances. Support, not judgment, is what leads to better outcomes for our children.