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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)