It starts early, unsolicited parenting advice. Probably before you ever got pregnant. Maybe even before you started dating. Usually the floodgates open when you announce your pregnancy. Anyone who ever had a baby thinks you should use the same doctor they did, put the same absolute must-haves on your registry as they had, knows what you should never do, knows what you should always do, etc. Once you join the motherhood club, there are plenty of veterans waiting to provide guidance.
Those first few weeks with a baby can be like the first day of 7th grade for a lot of moms, even if you feel confident when you leave the house and you know you’re going to the right place, you start to question yourself if you don’t do what most of the people you know are doing or if they look at you funny. Throw in postpartum hormones and breastfeeding struggles and a mama may be willing to take advice from anyone!
But as with any group, the principles and methods of each member are going to vary greatly. So how is a mama to know what advice to take?
I’ve seen this scenario play out a few times. A new mama opens up to a more seasoned mother about a struggle, just looking for support. Or Seasoned Mom may witness something that prompts her to believe she has advice that can help New Mama. Here is an example: New Mama is visiting with Seasoned Mom about how often her new baby nurses and how he cries in the night for milk. Seasoned Mom thinks back to her early days with her babies and ways she worked through that short, but trying time.
One of two things will happen next.
1. Seasoned Mom will present her opinion as fact and take control of New Mama’s situation.
Seasoned Mom remembers that things seemed much better after she got her babies to sleep through the night. She tells New Mama she is spoiling her baby and she needs to break that tie of dependence now. In fact, she offers to immediately start the process by taking baby away from mom to a back room to cry to sleep. New Mama is dazed and confused about what just happened. She really thought all was going okay, she knew this phase would soon pass, but now she is doubting her judgement. She does not want her baby to grow up to be spoiled and she wonders who else thinks she is spoiling her baby. She leaves feeling lost and unqualified to make the best decisions for her baby. The next time her baby cries, New Mama calls Seasoned Mom, who gives her step-by-step instructions for breaking these “bad habits.”
I think Seasoned Moms feel obligated to step in when New Mama is going through the same trials they’ve experienced and really intends to be helpful. Maybe some of us pride ourselves on being fountains of wisdom and we get a dose of confidence by passing that on. But as someone who has eaten plenty of crow, helping someone else really isn’t about “me.”
Am I offering help because I can see they need it or because I need an ego boost? Or is it because I am threatened by people who do things differently than I did and I feel the need to prove I did it in the best way? What does this advice really do for New Mama?
It’s the classic “give a man a fish” situation. Even if New Mama needed someone to feed her that day, it doesn’t help her feed herself. And that is the glory of motherhood, really. That we do things we didn’t think possible. We work harder, sleep less, become master problem-solvers, grow and stretch our emotional limits… And the oddest part is that we actually WANT to do all of it. We have fallen so completely in love with these little ones that we happily take it all on, lay aside our wants for theirs and accept that one of the greatest benefits we receive in return is the confidence that we are capable. Every loving mama deserves that reward.
This may sound odd coming from a childbirth educator. Maybe with that title comes the assumption that my mission is to make sure everyone I know hears my opinions and adopt them as their own. But my goal is actually to help moms make informed decisions for themselves. Yes, some of those decisions seem really obvious to me, but honestly, it is not my call. And what I believe matters most in the end is that a mama made the decision herself, because then, mistake or no, she is prepared in some way to make the decision the next time without feeling overcome with inadequacy or self-doubt.
Ideally, this second scenario is the one that plays out.
2. Seasoned Mom asks New Mama questions to know how she feels about her situation, shares her similar experiences and then encourages New Mama to follow her motherly instincts.
I’ve noticed in my years as a mother, some advice I’ve received builds me up and some tears me down. I know the difference when I walk away feeling like, “That was helpful and I can use what she said to figure this out. I’m interested in how she handles this other situation, too,” and other times when I feel like, “Man, I feel overwhelmed, I’m not even sure where to start. I guess I need to call and update her on my progress, but I’m kind of dreading that.” Earmarks of the positive advice-sharing include the starting the conversation with one of these precursors:
“Not every one does it this way, but this is what worked for us…”
“Our situation is different from yours so not all of this will apply…”
“You know your baby better than anyone so I know you can make the best decision.”
“I read these books that kind of helped me figure out how I wanted to handle this situation…”
These all point New Mama to various resources, including her own intuition, which should not be discounted, rather than pointing her ONLY back to source of the comment. I am so thankful to have some mama role models who do this for me.
I am not at all proposing we should just keep our thoughts and experiences to ourselves and never share for fear of passing judgement. On the contrary, we NEED to continue the oral tradition of motherhood by gleaning from those who have gone before us. We all need to know we’re not alone and the more we share, the more supported we can feel as we explore new ideas and form bonds with other mamas. But with all that gleaning, some boundaries need to be set.
If you are a new mother, before you take advice to heart, think of the person offering it. Do they have the same parenting goals you have? Are their circumstances similar? Do they enjoy motherhood? The decisions I’ve made as a parent that were made solely from the fear of what someone else might think are the ones I regret. On the other hand, I look back confidently at the decisions that I made that were based on advice from others, but lined up with my principles, my personal goals and ethical code.
If you are a more seasoned mama thinking of offering advice to a new recruit, listen to her needs first. What an valuable gift for a New Mama to know you hear and care. Then let your words be seasoned with grace and the humility to instill confidence in her. The goal is to not to keep her coming back for fish, but to watch her fish on her own.