On Being a Parenting Original

By Kelly Coyle DiNorcia 

Issue March/April 2008

cheery breastfeeding momI’ve always been a little odd. I decided at age 11 to become vegetarian. As early as middle school, instead of passing notes in English class like my peers, I was a prolific letter-writer on a variety of issues. As an adult, my way of life was seen by others as quirky, eccentric, and unconventional, if still tolerable.

However, when my daughter was born, something changed. What had previously been viewed as interesting, if a little peculiar, was suddenly seen in a whole new light. My lifestyle became the target of constant criticism. Some of my parenting choices were viewed as silly wastes of time that would be abandoned as soon as they became inconvenient, such as cloth diapering and making baby food from scratch. Others, such as babywearing and extended breastfeeding, were seen as indulgences that would surely turn our daughter into a spoiled brat. Sometimes I was accused outright of child endangerment, because our daughter slept in our bed with my husband and me, and we didn’t have her vaccinated.

Mere acquaintances somehow felt justified in judging the way we parent our daughter. Relatives rarely passed up opportunities to share their opinions about the way we’re raising Bess. I grew so tired of answering the questions: When are you going to move her to her own room? When are you going to stop breastfeeding? Why don’t you just let her cry it out? When such criticism began to actually come between me and my relatives—when I found myself wanting to avoid certain members of my extended family rather than endure the confrontations that were sure to ensue—I knew it was time to find a way to deal with it.

We knew that we were making the right choices for Bess, but our resolve was weakening under the constant attacks. At first, we tried to just ignore the naysayers, knowing that, one day, our healthy, intelligent, kind, and well-adjusted daughter would silence all critics. However, my own failure to respond was interpreted as either a refusal to listen to the criticism, or an inability to understand it. Rather than this defusing the situation, my frustration escalated with each repetition of unsolicited advice. At a time—the early months of parenthood—when I really needed the support of my family and friends, I began to feel alienated and isolated from them. My husband and I needed to find different ways to stay true to ourselves, while continuing to live among people who, by and large, disagreed with us. Here are some of the strategies we have found to work for our family.

1. Find a supportive health-care provider. Along with our chiropractor and naturopath, we found a pediatrician who respects our right, as parents, to make all decisions regarding our child’s care. He strongly supports extended breastfeeding, prescribes medication only when we and he agree that it is absolutely necessary, and uses “mother’s intuition” as a diagnostic tool. Most important for us, he respects our right to decline vaccinations, satisfied that our choice is well informed.

2. Find a group of like-minded parents.Nothing is as empowering as being surrounded by other mothers and fathers who have made unorthodox parenting choices and have raised happy, healthy children. We joined our local chapter ofHolistic Moms Network. Other good resources are La Leche League International and Attachment Parenting International.

3. Make efforts to stay educated. Staying abreast of current research and expert opinions on various aspects of parenting has helped us feel confident that we are making good choices for our daughter. This allows us to provide others with information when they ask for it, and broadens and deepens our understanding of the issues involved.

4. Do not feel obligated to discuss your parenting choices. We’re not comfortable lying about our parenting, but neither do we feel obliged to share the details of our lives with anyone and everyone who asks us questions about how we raise our child. It’s important to balance our role as ambassadors for attachment parenting with our need to maintain our sanity; if our audience isn’t receptive, they’re not going to hear what we have to say, regardless of how well-informed and articulate we might be.

For example, when Bess was about seven months old, she came down with pertussis. When many people said that they thought that pertussis is part of the customary vaccination schedule, we replied that the vaccination series was not complete at seven months, or that vaccinations are not 100 percent effective. We did not say that our daughter had received no vaccinations at all. There was no point in even opening the door on that discussion: When someone could actually see Bess suffering from this illness, they weren’t going to listen to our reasons for not vaccinating her against it.

5. Try to understand where your critics are coming from. Many people honestly believe that cosleeping, not vaccinating, and other choices are dangerous, and these beliefs are perpetuated by the media and most health-care providers. When people express to us their disapproval of these practices, we find it easier to deal with them when we remember that their attacks are not personal, but are usually born of their genuine concern for Bess’s well-being.

6. Have compassion for those who disparage your parenting choices. When Bess was born, my mother had a hard time accepting many of our parenting choices. In an attempt to help her understand our perspective, I asked her to read a book on attachment parenting that I had found helpful and informative. When I asked her about it a few weeks later, she said that she hadn’t finished it, then proceeded to angrily refute the parts she had read.

But as we talked, it became clear that my mother did not actually disagree with what she’d read. In fact, the real issue was that she viewed the book as an indictment of her own parenting choices, and as an indirect accusation by me that she had been a bad mother. It was painful for her to examine her own choices in light of what she was reading, and she mourned the relationship with me she thought she might have missed out on. I was sorry that she felt so bad, but I was glad we’d gotten the chance to become closer and understand each other better as mothers and as women. The insights I gained from this conversation helped me to accept her criticism with empathy instead of anger.

7. Find creative solutions to conflicts. We try to live a simple lifestyle and teach our daughter the values of frugality and minimalism. This poses a problem during the holidays, when family members look forward to showering her with gifts. We don’t want Bess to equate love with “stuff,” but we also recognize that many people see gifts as a way to show her that they are thinking of her and that she is important to them. In particular, family members who don’t see her often view this as a way to stay connected with her. Therefore, we encourage people to give her nonmaterial gifts, such as paying for swimming lessons. This type of “gift that keeps on giving” is far more practical, helps us minimize clutter in our house, and allows people to be a part of Bess’s life on an ongoing basis.

8. Stand your ground. Sometimes it seems as if it might be easier to allow ourselves to be bullied into doing things we’d rather not do merely to keep the peace, particularly with family members we see only rarely. However, we quickly realized that these relationships are damaged far more by the resentments that build up inside ourselves when our values are ignored and belittled. We had to decide where we were willing to compromise and where we were not, and then stick to those decisions.

In this type of situation, we find it helpful to first acknowledge the other person’s feelings: “I know you don’t get to see Bess very often, and you just want to have fun when you’re together.” Then, we reassert our expectations: “However, we don’t want her to eat ice cream.” Next, we explain our reasons for this choice: “All that sugar is not good for her, and dairy products make her congested and constipated.” Then we propose an acceptable compromise, if there is one: “We would rather she have fruit for dessert, but it’s OK if she has one or two pieces of hard candy.” Finally, we explain the consequences of failure to respect our wishes: “We’re glad that you want to have fun with her, but if you can’t respect our wishes, we aren’t going to be able to leave her with you.”

Parenting is never an easy job.
It’s often occurred to me that if you aren’t terrified of being a parent, you haven’t given the job enough thought. It’s important to follow your own instincts, even when that leads you to make choices that are outside the mainstream. After all, you are the parent, and you know what is best for your child. With a little effort, you can maintain peace with your family and friends, and even gain their respect, while making the choices that are right for you and your family.

Kelly Coyle DiNorcia is a mother and educator who lives in northwestern New Jersey with her husband, John, their daughter, Bess (2 1/2), and various four-legged family members. The DiNorcia family is awaiting the arrival of their second child.

Photo by Laura Joyce-Hubbard