If I could sum up the most important thing I have learned in my almost three years of parenting, it would be “Don’t judge.” I’m not by nature a merciful person. I tend not to give myself much grace, nor others either, and that has caused me a lot of frustration over the years. I’d like to think I’m improving on that front, and much of that is due to the hard-knocks education of surviving my children’s early years.
Maybe it started with the fact that I couldn’t breastfeed Rose. Breastfeeding is a big deal these days. The tables have turned over the past couple of decades, and now it seems the breastfeeders have claimed the moral high ground and feel justified in declaring (or at least privately basking in) their superiority over their bottle-feeding comrades. I probably would have taken that route myself had it not been for the cleft palate thing. My baby was 100% unable to breastfeed, and the only way to keep her alive was to let go of the vision I had of my baby peacefully nursing in bed with me and instead to embrace 2 AM dates with my Medela Pump-in-Style (I’m not sure I will ever hate any sound as much as that of the rhythmic electric sucking of that infernal machine), while my husband was the one sleeping on the couch with my newborn by his side, getting to be the one to nourish and bond with her by painstakingly squirting tiny amounts of milk into her mouth in rhythm with her instinctual but ineffective attempts to suck.
It was a few months before I stopped crying about my own sense of loss, and several more before I could let go of my desire to explain myself to everyone who saw me offering her a bottle in public. I wanted them to know how well I had prepared myself for a nursing relationship that turned out not to be possible, how hard I had worked to give her as much pumped milk as I could, how hard it was to feed a special needs baby…but as it turns out, it’s rather awkward to start volunteering that information to perfect strangers.
So I would sit there feeling ashamed and misunderstood. In some cases, I’m sure I projected all those attitudes from my own insecurity and people were really thinking nothing of it. But I know my own prideful heart, so I would be naïve to think I wasn’t sometimes right. I’m sure I was boosting some people’s ego by my apparent lack of concern for giving my child the very best.
So the first lesson I learned was the importance of giving others the benefit of the doubt. Even though I was blessed enough to be able to have a wonderful nursing relationship with my second baby (one that is still thriving at 14 months and that I cherish every day), those first couple of months of extreme pain and exhaustion reminded me that breastfeeding, even when it ends up working, is rarely as simple as just deciding to go for it. Without a great support system, in less-than-ideal circumstances, or in those cases where the baby or the mother’s body simply won’t cooperate, I can 100% understand why someone would decide that it’s not the best choice for their family to keep fighting the battle. Families with newborns are nearly always under tremendous pressures of various kinds, and there may be things they have to prioritize above their desire to nurse. We never know what someone else is going through.
The other lesson I learned is that I can’t really justify my own parenting choices, or anything else in my life, to others and expect them to understand. We will all be misunderstood frequently, by many people, for many of our choices. The desire to feel superior to others and to justify ourselves at their expense is central to our fallen human nature. We can and must work hard to tame that pride within ourselves, over and over, as we repeatedly fail to approach others with the proper grace. And we cannot expect others to have conquered that in themselves. We have to live with knowing that other people will never fully approve of us, and that that is ok, because we do not have to answer to them (unless they ask us, in which case we can unload all of our cleft palate back story). There is so much freedom in letting go of that Mommy Shame, even for the thousandth time.
Breastfeeding, or the lack thereof, has been just one of many aspects of childrearing that have shown me how little control I have and how unable I am to handle, much less thrive in the midst of, parenting two small children. I could go on about my failure to have the natural childbirth I wanted to pursue, or about my failure to have either of children sleeping through the night by their first birthday, or about 18 months of futile potty training, or about how my home can go from spotless to health hazard in just 48 hours when my housekeepers leave for the weekend, or about disregarding the warning on the Bumbo seat and sending my 8-month-old plummeting head first from the kitchen counter…Suffice it to say, I am nowhere close to having it all together, despite my quest to get that magical snapshot of toddler-management bliss and frame it and pretend that our life is actually like that. I have two domestic employees and a fantastically supportive husband, and I can still barely make it through the day.
There is a part of me that will always long to be that mom who is the embodiment of all the calm collectedness of Supernanny, the creativity of Martha Stewart, and the domestic charm of June Cleaver. But all things considered, I guess I would rather be the frazzled mommy learning slowly and imperfectly to embody the grace of Jesus Christ, accepting it for myself and extending it to others. May I always endeavor to let Him work in me.