A discussion last weekend at the playground with a creative, lovely, and wicked smart lady yielded the following observation: we’re all desperate to protect and justify our choices. After reading Peggy Orenstein’s Flux and The Atlantic Monthly’s article “The Case Against Breast-feeding,” the glaring truth to me is not that one side of each debate is right or that each side despises the other’s choices, but that we each have a lot at stake in making sure our decisions were at least good, if not the best.
Breast or bottle, nighttime parenting or cry-it-out, stay at home or work and daycare—we all have the same secret fears that the choice we are making is costing us more than it should. Hanna Rosin’s “The Case Against Breastfeeding” really isn’t a case against breastfeeding. It’s a case against the all-or-nothing mentality that has parents segregating into those who chose wisely and those who are ruining their children. And the root of our belief in our own choices and our disdain for any different points of view is the hope that we’re doing what’s best for our families. And if we’ve chosen incorrectly, we risk not only breaking our children, but also having lost all the effort we poured into our choice. Rosin is not arguing that women should not breastfeed. After nursing three children, she’s simply wondering why she felt that was the only choice, why the pedants on each side of the debate swear the others have lost their minds (or feminism or chance at a healthy child). Why the black-and-white thinking? Because we’ve all gone through a lot (a lot a lot a lot) of trouble to do what we’re doing, so it had better be right.
I postponed (at least0 or gave up (at worst) two outstanding careers, one potential career, and a path toward a PhD to stay at home with my son because I thought, given my endless research that confirmed nothing except that I’d eventually have to make a choice, that staying home was most likely to give him what he needed to grow into a delightfully useful member of society. If I’m wrong, and I should have focused more of my daylight hours on myself and my career, then maybe I’ve wasted these years and he will blame his miseries and failures on me. Or, even worse, I will be an empty shell of a person, having subjugated my only self for a person who becomes a serial killer and about whom the history books will only write that I ruined his life and sense of what the world should be and that he stabbed his neighbors.
Conversely, the women I know who work outside the home, who decided that they needed to create a family in which each person’s work is vital, in which attentive, loving care can come from a paid helper as long as it’s consistent and supportive (they hope) made their decision to give their children what they needed to grow into a delightfully useful members of society. If they are wrong, and they should have focused more of their daylight hours on their children, then maybe they’ve missed the most important years, and their children will blame their miseries and failures on parents who worked their children into the margins of their lives. Or, even worse, these parents will be bitter, unfulfilled shells of people, having chosen empty pursuits and subjugated their children’s needs, resulting in a generation who become a serial killers and about whom the history books will only write that their mothers ruined their lives and sense of what the world should be. And that they stabbed their neighbors.
Wait a minute, that’s exactly the same outcome as the other moms! We’re all screwed!
Or we’ll all just fine.
But nobody is going around saying, “I hope I made the right decision so that my children don’t stab their neighbors.” (At least in my neighborhood. But I lead a sheltered life. Maybe your neighbors say it. Maybe about your kids. Wait, which choices did you make? Quick, tell me, so I can judge you.) Instead, we secretly hope that we made the right decision, missing a large chunk of our children’s or our adult selves, counting each mistake, tallying each proud and loving moment, and hoping it’s all enough.
Ah crap, I didn’t nurse long enough. My child will be obese, stupid, and chronically ill.
Ah, crap, I nursed at the exclusion of my own sanity. My every waking moment has been for someone who really didn’t get that much from it.
Ah, crap, I let my child cry it out and now she’ll have insomnia and a sense of abandonment as an adult.
Ah, crap, I lost years of sleep attending to my child at night and now they’ll get to college and cry for me in the dorm every night.
And so on, ad nauseum.
Because if we made the wrong decision, we’ve screwed not only ourselves, but our children, as well.
So we disdain the people who make decisions different than our own, and align ourselves with likeminded people because we need to know that others feel our pain and share our justifications; because, deep down, we suspect it might be okay no matter what we do. And all things being equal, we might like a do-over. Or a medal. Or both.