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When Is Help Not Help?

When a woman gets pregnant, it can seem like open season for Advice Giving. I’ve seen women shocked by the amazing gall people show as they get unsolicited advice, the weirdest often coming from complete strangers. As copious as the “recommendations” are in pregnancy, they are nothing compared to what comes after the baby is born. And should we choose to parent differently than our families of origin, or even our close friends, the advice can take on the volume of a screaming bullhorn. 

Many of you reading here are Attachment Parents, parents who practice (more or less), the 7 B’s – birth bonding, breastfeeding, babywearing, bedding close to the baby, belief in the language of the baby’s cry, beware of baby trainers and balance (in all things). This style can be such a departure for those around us, they can be intimidating for new moms (and dads), teasing at first, then critical, moving to hyper-critical and even sabotaging our beliefs whenever they have the opportunity. Not having support is exhausting, especially when you find yourself defending your beliefs at every turn. 

When my kids were little, I had very unhelpful relatives, not so many critical friends because they didn’t have kids and weren’t wont to dispense advice (although, sometimes the most advice comes from the childless!). When Meghann began walking and was toed-in (“pigeon-toed”), a relative said I was going to have to get her feet broken and casts put on them or she’d never be able to run. The same person told me that, when Tristan still wasn’t peeing or pooping in the toilet at 3.5 years old, that I needed to get him electric training pants (I am not kidding) so when he peed, he would receive a shock and that would get him potty trained right away. (Blessedly, this now only seems to be an adult kink and not something you can buy for a child.) Needless to say, I didn’t do either of these gross and vile things. My heart ached, thinking about that person’s kids and what they must have endured. 

Instead of following their advice, I countered with information. When the listener didn’t give a whit about the information, I started getting smart-alecky and then, when they didn’t shut-up about it, I got mean. 

“Meghann nursing at two-years old really isn’t a big deal. Most of the world nurses their kids until they are four, so we have a long way to go to catch up.”


“Seriously, I promise, she won’t be nursing when she graduates from high school.”


“Look, you don’t have to nurse her, so what do you care anyway?” 

Me, nursing Aimee; Meghann nursing Rosie. (circa 1986) 

And so things went… with homebirth, the family bed, breastfeeding/nursing, no bedtimes, no shoes, little clothes, no weapon toys, vegetarianism and on and on. I was not only an anomaly in the family, I was a freak. 

It was scary, standing up against so much criticism. I didn’t have anyone in our world to point to that had done anything like this, anyone who had grown kids that weren’t serial killers from all the “coddling.” I remember my sister distinctly telling me Meghann was going to grow up a spoiled brat because I nursed her for so long. Hmmm. Interestingly, it wasn’t my kids that have struggled in life, but hers. (Not that breastfed kids can’t struggle; I have three that most definitely did!) 

But now, my babies are all grown, all through their phases of nudging (pushing!) boundaries and have all become the most wonderful, productive, tender adults in my world. I can now speak with confidence when I encourage moms to listen to their instincts, that what they believe in their hearts is exactly what they need to do. That when the baby cries and the family nearly physically blocks you from going to her, shove them aside and listen to that ache within that drives you to your child. I tell mamas that we have that incredible pull because, once upon a time, we didn’t live in houses with separate baby rooms with pretty wooden cribs… that nature created the human to live in the wild and if a mom didn’t keep her baby close, the kid would be eaten by the tiger waiting over there, just out of the fire’s light. That this brief period in time has brought the separation of mothers and babies and that, for most of the time on this earth, we’ve been a unit with that child until about two to three years old… if not longer. We’re hard-wired to attend to our child’s cries; not only does it serve the child, it can serve the safety of the tribe. 

In this culture we are also counseled about our parenting styles by the Pediatrician. It took me years to understand the Pediatrician was a doctor, a man/woman trained to attend to sick children, not well children. Sure, s/he also does the cursory well-baby visits and the yikkity-yacks about vaccinations and such, but when did it become the Pediatrician’s job to advise us on how to parent our children? Did this begin with Dr. Spock in the 50’s? Wherever it came from, it needs to recede once again because unless the Ped parented in your same style, it’s going to be one big fight about who’s right –and, sadly, the doctor all too often wins. (And the baby, therefore, loses, in my opinion.) 

When someone tells me their Ped told them they need to wean the baby/give the baby formula/put the nursing baby on a diet/not nurse the baby to sleep/give the baby supplemental iron/etc., my first question is: “And how many babies did s/he breastfeed successfully?” 

Not that I am the World’s Greatest Mother or World’s Greatest Role Model of a Mother, but when you get parenting advice from folks, look at their kids, their adult kids if possible, and see if you think that style worked in the children’s favor. Are the kids respectful? Do they treat their parents kindly? Do they belittle others? It isn’t always jail or dancing on a table that distinguishes the “bad” from the “good,” but the level of respect someone offers others… friends as well as strangers. 

So, this mama will give you some advice (and I try not to do that often). Even if you are unsure about an aspect of your parenting… if you might be trying something new and don’t know if it will, in the end, become part of your lifestyle, if someone confronts you on an aspect of parenting, pretend you know exactly what you're doing –even if you don’t have the slightest idea. People smell fear and pounce on it. If you are able to matter-of-factly state "We're more casual about bedtimes. It works for us," then even if they tsk tsk you and your style, you can shrug and say, "Isn't it great we all get to parent the way we want to?" There’s even a non-committal way to acknowledge someone in a respectful way, say an elderly aunt who really does mean well. You could say, "Thanks! I never thought of that. Not sure if we'll try it, but thanks for telling me about it” or even just “Thanks, I never thought of that,” even if you’ve heard it a hundred times already. 

But the caveat about standing up for your beliefs, even when you’re unsure is you cannot bitch/complain/whine about whatever you are faking about., at least to the uninitiated. Complaining is an open gate to criticism; everyone thinks they know better. Even those that complain about their own lives/kids! 

I hope you mamas who find yourselves struggling with these issues find some solace that many, many La Leche League children, Dr. Sears’ own sons and an entire generation and a half of AP kids have become wonderful adults. I mean, just look at mine!

Meghann, Darren, Aimee & Tristan (circa 2005)

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Reader Comments (12)

Love this post and your kids are gorgeous.

There's so much insecurity in parenting - reliance on doctors, manual and so on. It's very sad how dependent we are. We seem to think 'experts' have some magic knowledge that we can never attain.

My Granny has a saying about avoiding vexations to the spirit. I like that. Avoiding people who are critical, unhelpful or unthinking makes life much better. I'm not really bothered what people think about my parenting, but I do worry about the power of authorities and stories such as the homebirthed baby being removed from her parents.

November 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKatharyne

My FIL is a pediatrician, he no longer practices much (other than very specialty cases) but runs a residency program for new docs. I've heard him say, many times, that there a lot of "crappy docs." That the person whom graduates at the bottom of their class is still a doctor.

Docs are for when you child has a medical problem. At my new LO's 3 month appointment, her ped. asked why my husband and I have very few questions and have never called the office...I replied that LO hasn't had any health problems. He said that most parents call in about all sorts of stuff or ask a lot questions about sleep, crying, eating, etc.

Weird, all of this info is readily available on the internet (from good sources like Kellymom for nursing info.), or from good books. I wouldn't think to call her doctor just because she didn't sleep well for a few nights. Sometimes I don't sleep well for a few/several nights - and I have a lot more practice than her!

November 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMeghan

I'm keeping this one tucked away for "someday". I'll be a new mom in about 7 months and I'm already worried about the eyerolling I'm going to see from family and maybe friends about our parenting choices: using Hypnobabies, co-sleeping, cloth diapers, possibly homeschooling, etc. As my sister puts it, I'm "granola" (as I sit here in my Banana Republic outfit). What I want to say back to her won't really help, but it's hard to keep my thoughts to myself when I know how many years I've spent doing my research to make the best possible decisions for myself and my future family. I wish people would just mind their own business.

November 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLessons in Life and Light

Ahhh the irony. I am an avid reader of your blog, had a natural birth in a birth center (although I hesitate to say empowering, blissful, yadda yadda, it SUCKED and it HURT), cloth diaper my son, cosleep half the night, and am breastfeeding unrestricted at 11 months... but I would not consider myself an AP parent. We started out that way, not really to follow the dogma so much as I just did what seemed to make my cranky, always in need of stimulation son happy. As he grows older though, I find myslef becoming more traditional in parenting styles- no means no, we do some cry-it-out if the bedtime situation becomes extreme and a battle of wills (yes, a one year old is capable of testing your boundaries LOL), three squares and two naps a day, sometimes you have to sit on the floor and cry while mommy takles a shower or makes dinner, etc.
Unfortunately I think the ap movement can and does produce some entitled, spoiled, and bratty children. The "just nurse and cuddle" crowd would crack down on me as a baby hater if they read this, and I'm sure they will. But labeling a baby as "high needs" or a child as "spirited" just rubs me the wrong way. All babies are high needs, all children are spirited. They need lots of cuddling and love as babies, and increasing guidance and education as children.

Is there no balance between mother as subject and child as king vs. sparing the rod???

November 11, 2010 | Unregistered Commentererin

I also hope to wean by age 2. But good luck finding advice on parent led weaning (if we need it that is). Either you bottlefeed from birth or you nurse (or are supposed to) until the kid says "well it'll be kinda hard to nurse at lunch when I'm first grade" and stops on their own.

November 11, 2010 | Unregistered Commentererin

LiL&L: I thought I'd done a retort post, but don't see one, so I'll just have to do that this month. (I do have *several* other posts I'm working on, but that would be a *fun* one!) Might not be long when I do it, but I've stored up a lifetime of retorts. I swear I've written something at one time or another about this... I'll have to poke around my Documents and see what I can find.

Erin: Balance! Balance is the last of the 7 B's. It's funny how I write, probably how lots of us think... that what I say will be translated through my own point of view, through the filter of what I mean, even if I am not hyper-clear with what I say.

I *do* consider myself an AP mom, but do NOT see myself as the Queen of AP Parenting. My kids *did* holler and cry. I had a swing... well, the *babies* had a swing... although, it certainly was for *me* they had a swing! Tristan sucked his thumb until he was 8. I *rarely* sat on the floor and played with the kids. In fact, a common refrain from me when I would hear the whiny, "I'm boooorrreeedddd," was "I'm not Julie, your Cruise Director." (A reference from the 70's show "Love Boat.") Meaning... find your own entertainment; I'm not finding it for you.

And you are right. In my "Babies" post, I mention the Unschooling movement, wondering what our/their lives will be like when they are adults. That isn't there a place for structure and discipline in a child's life? I believe there *has* to be or else we *will* end up with bratty, self-absorbed children.

I am not a mom with young kids right now, so perhaps my piece is colored by my life's time of parenting young kids. There wasn't the same amount of coddling then that I hear about now (that I would recognize, anyway). Discipline *was* a part of the AP world then. I am, dare I say, rather amused/sighingly saddened by the Unschooling movement, because, to me, children who have no limits to push (especially as teens) will be lost in the world outside of the family (bed) home.

Unless you work for "Mothering Magazine," you're going to come up against corporate rules and regulations and they have ZERO tolerance for individuality and, rarely, creativity. And, for laughing sake, they have *deadlines* to meet. And, as we can predict, not every Unschooled kid is going to be a famous artist, a movie star or a brilliant entrepreneur by the age of nine. Most of us, as Chris Rock says, are "in the middle... a Nation of B & C students." But, how do we know who is a B & C student if there are no grades? The WORLD will be the grading teacher, not the carefree mother who adores/worships her child even as they are playing with their shit.

And as for mother-led weaning, please don't be so cynical! I can totally understand the frustration and in this all-or-nothing mommy world we're in right now, it might be hard to find info, but let's look for it together. And if we don't find anything, maybe *I'll* write something. ;) Nursing should only be continued if BOTH parties are delighted. If one of you is miserable or has limitations, then it deserves an end. It doesn't have to be an abrupt and mean end, but it is, in my opinion, absolutely fine and dandy to *have* an end.

Great comments, all.

November 11, 2010 | Registered CommenterNavelgazing Midwife

I am surprised how many moms on some of the boards I'm on seem to ask their pediatrician's advice on things that seem like parenting decisions to me. Though, speaking of pediatrician's advice, do you have any thoughts on breastfed babies getting Vitamin D supplements? I'm skeptical of the idea that our babies need something that our breast milk doesn't have, but I know you're really big on the Vit D, and of course, we tend to keep our babes in the shade because they have tender skin and can't wear sunscreen. All the peds are really pushing it.

I do some AP stuff, but probably don't qualify as an AP parent. I know many, many people in "real life" were a bit squicked out when I was still nursing my son at 18 months. I also know there are attachment parenting devotees who feel bad for him that he was weaned at 22 months.

I do worry about mistakes I might be making along the way, especially now that he's a little older and has been through a rough year of many, many changes. It's hard to know if I'm providing the right guidance, drawing the right limits, saying the right things. In another on-line space I frequent, someone wrote recently that some kids need the shit kicked out of them (figuratively!!!! meaning strict boundaries and quick consequences) and some kids need the shit hugged out of them, and the trick is knowing which is which. And I try to remember that the be-all, end-all of good parenting isn't whether a 4- or 5-year-old boy can be quiet in a grown-up space.

What I am quite sure of, however, is that any problems he is having right now are not because I nursed him until he was almost two!

November 11, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterchingona

@erin ... It is hard to find advice out there about gentle weaning. Whenever moms ask about weaning, it seems folks try to talk them out of it, which is one thing if the baby is 6 months old, though I do still feel it ultimately is the mom's choice, but when a baby is 18 months old, if you're just ready to be done, you've done more than your duty in that regard and have every right to reclaim your body. I've been a little disturbed recently as several mothers who are nursing two year olds have told me they hate it and it makes their skin crawl but they feel like they can't quit because they are so committed to child-led weaning.

I'd love to see a post/discussion on gentle weaning and balancing your needs with your child's needs. I started out planning to nurse for a year and then play it by ear after that. I never got sick of nursing, but I started to feel like he was developmentally ready to wean and also, in all honesty, somewhat self-conscious when he would ask to nurse in public, which wasn't often at that point, but did happen.

At 22 months, my husband took our son on a fun weekend at grandma's without me. He never once asked about it and slept fine without it at bedtime. When they came back, he asked once or twice, but didn't cry when I said no and offered a distraction or a toy.

I'm curious how this will play out with my daughter. She is four months old (today!) and a great eater, but she does not do a lot of comfort nursing. I have the same plan - at least a year, and then we'll see - but it wouldn't shock me if she self-weaned earlier than I weaned my son.

November 11, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterchingona

Chingona... I'm laughing and nodding at wondering if you're doing the right thing or not, especially when they have a hard week/month/year or more. We joke all the time about the kids and when they butt up against a difficult obstacle... whatever, jail, dealing with an abusive bf, you pick... and we'll say, "It's because she was only nursed for 2.5 years" or "It's because he had baby food at 4 months old" or "I let them fall asleep on the floor instead of having a bedtime."

It's all absurd. No matter the person, if you're living in this world, participating in this world, you/we will all have very hard and very serious hurdles to jump. It is in learning how to soar over them that we become the more complex and often more compassionate people we parents crave for our children to become. (Not sure that was a grammatically correct sentence, sorry.)

All 4 of our kids were essentially raised the same. Ate the same food. All nursed for about 2.5 years (except Tristan; I weaned him at 4 months). All were AP'd, family bed'd, etc. And all 4 couldn't be more different than if one was raised by wolves, another in Alaska, still another in a born-again Christian home and the last coming from a pagan commune. I often think, "Did ANYTHING I do make a difference? Maybe I should have smacked them sometimes. Maybe then they wouldn't be <fill in the blank>."

What they *do* have in common are values. All of them, as different as they are, all share the same core values that Sarah and I have. Even in the hardest times, being able to see glimpses of that fact sustained us. Now that they are all, for the most part, through the shoving aside societal boundaries and have been sufficiently conformed (HAHAHAHA!) into pleasant adults, their core values have become the armor they wear instead of the thongs they hid and you could only see when they bent over realllllly far.

November 11, 2010 | Registered CommenterNavelgazing Midwife

Oy, I didn't mean to come out so angsty in that post. Sorry!

Although I would love to see a post on weaning Barb :)

November 11, 2010 | Unregistered Commentererin

My mom practiced AP to a certain extent. She just did what felt right to her. And what felt right to her was extended breastfeeding (maximum of age 2), co-sleeping part of the night (she said that was the only way she could get any sleep), and wearing us when possible.

I would like to do the same when I have kids, along with cloth diapering. I think AP is great, but I think some parents go too far with it. There's a woman in my parents' ward who wore her youngest child CONSTANTLY, and that child was significantly delayed in learning how to crawl and walk.

Of course, I don't have children yet, so what do I know?

November 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

Amen. I am so glad I listened to my instincts. My daughter (first baby) wanted to be held and nurse ALL.THE.TIME. I got a lot of flack from my mother in law...she get kept pressuring me to not nurse so much, not sleep with my daughter. When my daughter was a year old, I (finally...after a year of making the rounds of neurologists and developmental peds) took her for a hearing test. She is profoundly Deaf, and I believe she was born that way. It BREAKS MY HEART to think about what life would have been like for her, had I not followed my instincts...to be sequestered in a crib, in the dark...not being able to hear your mother, thus...not knowing where she is. Instead, she was always connected to me physically, being held or worn...despite that she had no meaningful access to language until we starting signing immediately after the hearing test....she is rocking it as far as communication...she signs and uses her cochlear implants to listen and she talks A TON and she loves her special pre-school. My son is 10 months old and it's much easier this time around to be confident...but also easier to not get my panties in twist about what anyone else is doing lol. Guess I'm lots busier with 2 little guys!

November 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnne

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