Saturday, May 28, 2011

mothering labels

How do you define yourself?

There are a million different ways people define themselves to others and to themselves. Profession, address, family, religion, education. All of these can play a part in defining us. In the realm of motherhood, it does not seem enough to define oneself simply as mother. Cute t-shirts with slogans such as "I get my milk from Mum - not just any old moo!" proclaim the proud Breastfeeding Mums. You can buy decals for your car to advertise that the travellers within enjoy a family bed - the Co-sleeping Mum. Ezzo Mothers press their copy of Babywise on you and sing the praises of routine. Attachment Mums adjust their sling and suggest routines starve children of love and affection. Homeschooling Mums speak about schools as state sanctioned child abuse while P&F Mums bake madly for the next bake sale to raise funds for the library and well up with tears as their child plays a tree in the school concert - thriving in the community of school. Don't even start on vaccination, circumcision, home birth and elective c-sections. The millitant on all sides sure that their way is the best way.

And then the battle lines start.

And that's where I START to have problems with the way we define, or label, our mothering.

Call me a little odd, but I feel that as mothers we need to be comrades rather than enemies. Honestly, the truest desire of each mother is to do the best she can for her child or children. Isn't it? Different education, cultural cues, histories, values, desires and personalities mean that how "doing the best we can" for our children looks is different for each of us. Yet our labels, our definitions, are so often a source of pain and distress. And they can also impair our ability to mother effectively.

Here are some of the problems that I have with parenting labels.

Reducing our parenting to labels, can reduce our parenting to formulas
. When my friends who are first time parents call me for advice they often come away frustrated. They want an answer to a question like "How do I get my baby to sleep?". They want formulas. They want me to say "Do XYZ and your baby will sleep through the night in approximately one week". Here's the rub. I can't do that. I can say about a dozen different things that have worked but for me but I cannot garantee that any of them will work for that particular baby. Because babies aren't machines, they are people. Some brave people have put down what works for them in raising children into writing which has helped many, many people. However, almost invariably, their words hae been twisted, misinterpreted, abused and over simplified. At times, to disasterous effect. Children are people, not machines. Life is LIFE, not an exam where we get each answer right or wrong. There is no cheat sheet. Following the "rules" of a certain movement, childraising expert or parenting style will not ensure your mothering turns our right.

Which brings me to my second point.

Clinging on to labels can prevent us from clinging on to Jesus. We don't want to fail at this parenting caper. The stakes are too high. So that sentence I just said 'Following the "rules" of a certain movement, childraising expert or parenting style will not ensure your mothering turns our right.' is liable to scare the crappers out of us. The natural question that follows is what WILL ensure our mothering turns out right? Here's the really scary answer...Nothing. We can do everything right, we can raise our children in the way they should go, we can do every single thing in our power to lead them to Christ but the truth of the matter is our child's relationship with God is just that, THEIR relationship with God. Now I have about a million different things that I do in order to raise my children in a way that encourages them to know God and I strive to learn more of how I can raise them well but this knowledge that the decision to follow Christ is theirs and theirs alone drives me to my knees in prayer - which, as a mother, is exactly where I should be. Rather than totally relying on a label or movement or expert or ANYTHING, perhaps we need to rely on God alone. After that, take what's helpful and loose the rest.

Hiding behind labels can make us judge others. Through fear, we start to judge others. We see a child throwing a tantrum in the supermarket and think "Hmm, someone needs to set better limits/ensure their child gets more rest/cut down on their sugar intake/fill in other blank". A mother confides her exhaustion after a sleepless night and we think "well, if she would just co-sleep/control cry/get a better routine/fill in the other blank she would get more sleep". We hear about tragedy striking another family - a child making horrible choices, a child being diagnosed autistic, a child suffering abuse at the hands of a family friend. Nodding sagely we comfort ourselves that it could never happen in OUR home. That only happens to families who don't homeschool, who immunise, who allow others to babysit. Fear that what happened to them could happen to us drives us in to the shell of labels and formulas. Superiority replaces humility and compassion. There is nothing wrong with offering advice - especially if it is asked for. There is something wrong with thinking that we have all the answers. There is something wrong with sitting in judgement over hurting parents.

Being focussed on our labels and self-definitions rather than people can lessen our ability to minister to others. I have a friend who I have known for years. This good friend is passionate about her beliefs and convictions - which is one of the things I love about her. A while ago, this friend was convicted that circumcision of infant boys was wrong. Several times a week links to anti-circumcision articles and clips would appear on her Facebook feed. Almost every time I logged on, I would be confronted with lists of reasons why circumcision was wrong and links to graphic video of circumcision. Personally, my sons are not circumcised. We have many reasons for this, which I am happy to discuss with anyone interested, but it got to the point that I was frustrated and annoyed by the confronting nature of the links so I did what I suspect most people do in that type of situation - I hid her Facebook feed! The language used in many of these articles was accusitory and provocative and I, who shared the conviction, was completely turned off from any information they may have contained. Language which deliberately provokes or accuses will not help other parents learn anything useful from us. Language which supports, uplifts, empathises and encourages is the type of language which should be exchanged between mothers.

An "us and them" mentality can alienate others and limit us. If a course of action you have chosen as a parent is at all countercultural you probably have encountered criticism and opposition. One way people who have experienced this show support to one another is to band together. You can find a web forum or online support group for pretty much any choice you make as a parent. There are playgroups, clubs and organisations supporting every lifestyle and parenting choice out there. There is nothing wrong with this, until exclusionary or judgemental statements and jargon becomes a part of our every day vocabulary and all our friends look exactly like us in philosophy and practise.

Defining or labeling ourselves in a certain way can stop us from being flexable.
I homeschool my children and I love it. It makes me happy, it works for our family and it is, at present, the best choice for our family. If, tomorrow, God tells me to put my kids in school - I will. And it will not change who I am as a mother. It will just give me less excuses to avoid housework! I believe the safest and best place for my family is where God wants us to be. I don't co-sleep with my kids other than in cases of illness or bad dreams. It simply doesn't work for me. I don't sleep well with babies or kids in my bed and my Beloved and I enjoy our quiet, personal time together kid free. However, if this changes one day, it will not rock my world as a mother. It will not change my definition of myself. Because while I am a mother who homeschools, I am not a Homeschooling Mum. I am a mother who chooses not to co-sleep, not an anti-co-sleeping Mum.

I have learned over the years that I only need one label, one definition, for my motherhood and myself, and it is Saved. And I think the sonner we learn that, the sooner we will be able to support each other as sisters in Christ rather than drawing battle lines on the playground.


Susan (HomeGrownKids) said...

Love it Jess- mind if I re-post on FB?

Jess said...

No worries Susan, glad you enjoyed it.

Momma Bug said...

I enjoyed very much. It was delightful to see how down to earth you are, and again, why I like you so much;-)
SAVED is all that matters in the
"end" isn't it?


Anita said...

Awesome Jess, I love your posts! Thanks for the encouragement and the challenge!