Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Parenting Decisions as Moral Choices and Other Ridiculous Ideas

During the first eighteen months of Sadie's life, she hardly slept for more than sixty minutes at a time.

As a result, those months, and especially the first few months after her birth, are something of a blur.

Yet there's one memory that has stood out through the last seven and a half years because it was so very odd.

I was standing in the aisle in Target that has feeding supplies, staring at the bottles on the shelf.  Sadie was in her baby carrier, strapped securely to my chest, and I was bouncing her up and down and pushing the pacifier that I'd finally broken down and given her back into her mouth.

That little pacifier was a turning point for me.  It marked the beginning of the end of knowing everything that there was to know about parenting choices (Annie wrote a great piece today about this very subject).

You see, before Sadie was born, I knew that I was never, ever going to give my baby a pacifier.  I'd read the all the books and new all about the evils of the binkie.

I shook my head adamantly when nurses, and even lactation consultants, suggested that she was the kind of baby that needed a pacifier and that I needed to give her one if I was ever going to sleep.

When she was four weeks old I finally broke down and began to wonder if maybe the people who had suggested giving her a pacifier weren't just agents of some binkie selling conspiracy.
After seven hours of nursing and spitting up and screaming any time she wasn't eating I broke down and admitted that a pacifier might help.  And it did.

So the pacifier was important, not only because it bought me brief moments of rest so that I didn't fall asleep while I was on my feet, or driving to the grocery store, but also because I began to realize that parenting choices aren't quite as black and white as they seemed when I was reading those books without actually ever having changed a diaper.

Back to that aisle though, on that mid summer afternoon in 2008.  I was standing, staring at the rows of bottles and had just picked one up when a voice off to my right startled me.  A woman was standing there and she had just asked me what I was doing and why I was buying those bottles.

She was, she explained, from the local La Leche league and could help me breastfeed.

"Oh no," I explained, caught of guard enough to offer her information she had no right to, "I'm nursing."  And I continued to explain that we lived in a remote area and it took an hour and a half to get to the store to do our shopping and we were going to a family reunion, that would mean an entire day in the car driving, and I wanted to have a bottle of expressed milk on hand, because we couldn't stop every five minutes or we'd never get anywhere.  I had a pump, but no bottles.

She looked at me doubtfully and told me I was buying the wrong bottles.

The oddness of that moment has come to mind now and then over the last few years, and last night I remembered it as I read Simcha's excellent response to Greg Popcak's latest post, where he agrees with a "moral developmental psychologist" who claims that breastfeeding is far more than a choice, but is in fact a moral obligation.

Here we go, I thought as I read his post.  And then I couldn't help but think that he'd finally come out and said what some who engage in "Mommy War" style debates seem to have believed all along: that parenting choices are actually moral matters with solutions that are either right or wrong (just writing that makes me sigh...).

Breastfeeding or formula feeding (or a mix of both)? Cosleeping or crib sleeping? Pacifiers?  Babywearing? Cloth diapers?

There are people who will tell you that the answers they've discerned to these questions aren't choices at all but that they are basically moral imperatives.  And often times breastfeeding stands at the very top of the list of questions that somehow assume moral authority.

Which is ridiculous because they aren't moral choices.  And acting as if a family making this decision is making it because it's the "easier thing to do" is ridiculous.  

If there's one thing that the last seven and a half years have taught me it's that the choices that we've made as parents have seldom had anything to do with doing the "easy" thing and everything to do with doing what's right for the individual child and for our family as a whole.

Because raising children is hard, even when you make the best decision.  But sometimes the best decision is a little easier, because you're doing what's best.  Not always, but sometimes.

Sometimes, for us, that's been crib sleeping.  Sometimes it's been cosleeping.  For some babies it's involved a binkie and other babies have been furious at the suggestion of a binkie.

Some of our kids have wanted to be worn constantly and others definitely wanted to be down and let us know they wanted their own space.

These simply aren't decisions that are right or wrong in the general sense.  They were conclusions that we came to, after weighing our specific situation and our children's individual personalities, and deciding what was right for that particular child.

To be honest I find myself marveling at the hard work that my friends put in who have decided that formula feeding is best for their children and families (and also for those who pump.  All of you in both groups are seriously rock stars!  And of course nursing moms too.  Because feeding babies can be hard, however you do it!).

Because the work they put into buying formula and prepping bottles is far more intensive than anything I do when I'm nursing, which is generally the time when I get to a) sit down and b) glance at social media or catch up on blog reading.

Which brings me to another little secret.  One of my favorite things about nursing is that, for me, 99% of the time (with the exception of the first month the first time) it has been easy.  And that, along with other considerations, is part of what made it the best choice for our family.

So when I see other moms putting in way more work to nourish their babies I think of how amazing and awesome they are... because it doesn't look easy at all.  It looks like they love their kids and are doing what's best to feed that kid.

Our passion for a particular choice is not the measure of whether that choice is something that is simply preference, a personal decision for an individual or a moral matter.

Instead of shaming women for making a decision that is very often incredibly difficult and incredibly personal, let's recognize the sacrifices that often go into making those very difficult decisions.

Don't be that woman in Target (either online or in real life), walking up to a brand new mom and demanding to know her reasons for being in the bottle aisle.

She had no idea why I was there or what struggles I'd gone through that had brought me to that moment.  There was a fair chance that I had been standing there because I hadn't been able to nurse and that I was making the very difficult decision to give up what had been a dream of doing things the way 100 different baby books told me that they needed to be done.

There are enough pressing moral matters in this world without inventing new ones.

There's a difference between offering support to someone who's struggling and crossing over the line into wildly inappropriate pressuring and even shaming over a matter or personal choice.

Let's not presume to know the motivation for another family's chosen method of feeding their child, and let's give this tired old debate a rest.

It's more than time and resurrecting it as a moral issue is ridiculous.


  1. Thank you Cammie. Seriously THANK YOU. I tried breast feeding and I couldn't. I could not get let down because I was so anxious and my first child just didn't latch and was a lazy nurser. I will never forget going to his doctor's office when i was literally on about 2 hours of sleep a day for a month and she said, "If you do not supplement I will be forced to call social services on you. He is not gaining weight." I cried and cried. I had been nursing, and then pumping for 15 min after each feeding (still at every 2 hours for a month)and he wasn't gaining. I had been to lactation consultants. The consultants at the hospital told me not to supplement. I ended up bottle feeding my first child for both my and my husband's sanity. I did try and breast feed my second child and I couldn't get let down sometimes because of my anxiety. I literally could not do it. I had the fear of being put in jail for failing to provide for my child physically. That one doctor scared me and ruined breast feeding for me for every one of my children. The anxiety of "is my child getting enough?" killed me. My third child I breast fed until I left the hospital and decided to just bottle feed. My last day at the hospital the anxiety came back and I couldn't get let down no matter how good a latch he had. It was what was best for us. People need to stop judging. My child is getting fed. My child is being loved. My child is being clothed and is clean. Those are the things that matter. Some women just physically have a hard time breast feeding no matter what they do. Some babies are better at it than others. Seriously thank you for posting this.

  2. Thank you for sharing this. I have often caught myself being judgemental at times although, through the years, I have learned not to express my opinions on the "best" way to parent unless I am asked lol. I have learned that most of the time passing my unsolicited opinion onto someone else seems like I am attacking them, even when I am giving them advice, it is out of love.

    As for me, I have a different approach that has faired well over the years. My approach may or may not be what is popular, but it is typically fairing as close to natural, the God given natural approach, as possible. I always ask myself that "if humans had not chosen to "civilize" ourselves, would ____ be the decision that I make for my child". Typically, this method has my decisions more clung to breastfeeding than not, more prone to a snuggle than worry that I am spoiling my child, more prone to think a great date involves my entire family, more prone to listen to my instinctive reasoning over the current popular "medically acclaimed" trend, etc.

    Who knows if I am right or wrong? What I do know is, like you stated, different things have worked for different kids. The one consistent thing being to be supportive of others, either by my support when asked or by my silence when another's way is not the right I think is right ;)

    God bless you and all those cute little babies. Thank you again for sharing.

  3. Well said! Of course parents have a moral obligation to do what is best for their children--but as parents we also have the right and responsibility to determine what is best for our family. Some things are absolutes--feed your baby!--and the details are usually matters of prudential judgment. Like you said--there are enough moral issues without making up new ones!


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