Issue 133 (Mothering Magazine)
by Peggy O'Mara
This summer I met with several wonderful Canadian families at the Hollyhock Retreat Centre, on Cortes Island in British Columbia. I gave a five-day workshop in "Parenting: Finding Your Way," and parents came to the workshop understandably expecting to discover the essential rules of natural parenting. Instead, we talked about something much more difficult: becoming an authentic parent. We talked about the inevitable contradictions between our high parenting standards and real-life events.
Birth is one of those events. Mothering regularly publishes articles on homebirth and on midwife-attended births because these are the standards of care in countries with the best infant and maternal mortality statistics. When women don't receive this standard of care, it is not their fault. Often, they are simply not attended by practitioners who believe in normal birth.
Sometimes, however, even when everyone believes in normal birth, even when all the right attendants are in place and the best plans have been laid, emergencies happen. This can be hard to accept. A woman can at once feel glad that she is alive and wonder if there was something she could have done to prevent the emergency. She may feel that her body has let her down. She may even feel responsible for something that was out of her control.
Even when a woman understands that a birth situation was out of her control, she can still feel a great sense of loss that things did not turn out as she had hoped and planned. She may also be very angry at the situation and at the people who were present. Following the birth, she can even have post-traumatic stress, feeling vulnerable to the apprehension that anything might happen.
Several of the parents at Hollyhock talked about births that had not turned out as they had expected; births that had actually been traumatic. We receive strongly felt letters from readers who tell us of their own traumatic birth experiences, and who say that the more positive birth stories we publish make them feel guilty. They don't believe that these stories acknowledge their own experiences.
At Hollyhock, telling our stories was a simple thing that we found surprisingly healing. As women told their birth stories, they were able to psychologically organize their experiences anew for themselves. In having their stories heard and accepted without judgment, these women were able to be more understanding of themselves.
Finally, hearing about others' sorrows and losses put their own in perspective. It is a challenge to keep this perspective at Mothering because, as one of the few media voices for normal birth, we feel compelled to tell birth success stories to inspire others to the possibility. In doing so, however, we risk giving the impression that birth is always within our control. This message can give the erroneous impression that birth will turn out well if we only try hard enough.
Trying hard enough is a real issue for women whose breastfeeding experiences have not turned out as they hoped, or who have been told they "failed" at breastfeeding. I spoke to such mothers at Hollyhock, and Mothering receives letters from them. Some of these mothers got bad advice; others got good advice, but still, nothing worked.
Women have told me that they feel so ashamed when they don't breastfeed that they hide the fact from friends and never bottle-feed in public. What a reverse prejudice this is. While we want mothers to feel welcome to breastfeed in public, it is ironic that bottle-feeding mothers would feel unwelcome. They fear they will be labeled unenlightened mothers.
Seldom do we suppose, when we see a bottle-feeding mother, that here is a woman who may have tried so hard to breastfeed that her heart broke when she could not.
There are plenty of other things that break our hearts as parents. One mother lets her first son be circumcised because she doesn't know she has a choice. By the time her other sons are born, she knows better"hbut how does she live with her regret at having had her first son circumcised? Another mother vaccinates at first, only to later find information that makes her change her mind. She doesn't know whether to continue vaccinating or to just quit" but if she quits, she then must face regrets about the vaccinations her children did receive.
But as parents, we often change our minds. When we stop spanking, do we berate ourselves about the hitting we did in the past, before we knew better" or do we forgive ourselves and move on? It is precisely this type of ongoing moral dilemma that one must face if one is to have any parenting standards at all. Even as we hold to these standards, they are always in the process of being refined, changing in response to new knowledge about and fresh understandings of our children and ourselves.
Recognizing that our ideas, beliefs, and attitudes about our children and ourselves as parents are always in process keeps us from turning our good ideas into dogma. Natural family living is full of good ideas. There's plenty of evidence that responsive parenting works well. And yet ideas, no matter how good they are, must be forged by real-life experiences. We have to learn how to mediate them with the inevitably uncontrollable nature of family life.
Certainly we will feel regret when things turn out different from what we'd hoped. And we all ask the proverbial "Why?" when bad things happen. Too much time spent trying to answer this question, however, can distract us from finding out something even more important: What can I learn from this experience?
A bad experience is like a dive for buried treasure. There is a wreck. Someone has to figure out what happened and remember what to do the next time. Everyone hopes to find the treasure hidden in the wreck, even though many doubt that it's there at all. Like a bad experience, once we mine our regrets for information about what we might have done differently, and what we might do if the same circumstances arise again, we've already discovered a lot of treasure. When the time is right, we can then let the experience go.
However, it's easier said than done to surrender to things as they are and to let them go, much less to find the jewel in the tragedy.
Here are some things that help:
Tell your story.
As we learned at Hollyhock, there can be magic in just telling your story. It's important to tell your story among friends who are intellectually honest and emotionally mature and who have a good opinion of you. However, you can find these traits even among strangers; sometimes it's easier to tell your story to those who don't have preconceptions about you.
A tragedy, or even a seriously disappointing experience, can often be too big to carry alone.
There is something about simply saying it aloud that requires you to organize your thoughts; it also allows others to show you how to forgive yourself. Look for opportunities to tell your stories; especially, give yourself permission to share the difficult stories. You'll be surprised how grateful others are to share the intimacy of your pain.
This is obvious, and the words make it sound easy. But forgiveness is among the most difficult things to do. Conflicts with others arise because we just can't forgive them for something in particular, or because we simply can't tolerate their idiosyncrasies. When we begin to contemplate forgiving others, we have to be ruthlessly honest. We have to learn to tolerate our own idiosyncrasies. In this way, suffering teaches us self-knowledge at the same time it offers us self-forgiveness.
Acknowledge your place.
The ideas of natural family living or of any worthwhile philosophy can be intoxicating. If we cling to them, they can make life with children"something inherently out of control" seem controllable. Our ideas can even seem capable of protecting us from suffering. Good ideas protect us most of the time, but not always. Some things are simply out of our control.
Create your own relationship.
Among those of my generation, it was once popular to talk about "creating your own reality." It is easy to think of a parenting philosophy as a way to create a happy reality. If you have a "good" baby, this way of thinking works just fine, and you can take credit for his or her behavior. However, if you have a "high needs" baby, you are likely to blame yourself and think there is something you can do to change your baby. But it is these definitions, not your baby, that are the problem. While it may not always be possible to create your own reality or to change your baby, it is possible to learn a new relationship to reality. It is possible to learn to roll with the punches. This is what bad times teach you. This is the hidden jewel.
While these suggestions may help us surrender to things as they are, it is important not to set impossible standards in the first place. As natural approaches have become more popular, many people have forgotten that their roots are in the idea of "doing your own thing." The natural way coincides nicely with research and tradition, but it is also common sense; it is what we all would do most of the time if we had the confidence to follow our instincts and our hearts.
Following our instincts and our hearts does not mean that we will never have regrets. When we regret things and can't stop thinking about them, however, this means we have unfinished business. While we often blame others and ourselves for these regrets, there is usually no one at fault. It certainly doesn't make sense that we would knowingly be the cause of our own suffering. Taking the responsibility for understanding what has happened to us without placing blame on others or ourselves is a powerful exercise.
It is in taking responsibility that we mature in our authenticity and authority as parents. Parents are always faced with a paradox. We must keep high parenting standards even at the risk of unexpected failures and disappointments. It makes sense then to cultivate the safety net of self-forgiveness and give ourselves the benefit of the doubt.
As parents, we are willing to factor in the unexpected only reluctantly because, even in the face of obstacles, we unwaveringly believe in our capacity to work miracles for the sake of our children.