Making Peace with the Minimum

Barbie, Pregnancy, Doll, Education, Child, Childbirth

Remember the “Best Odds Diet” in What to Expect When You’re Expecting? As I recall from my anxious first-pregnancy reading, the idea was that you could eat junk food or you could eat healthy food, but if you really wanted to do everything you could for your baby, you would eat as healthily as possible. If you had a choice between a piece of whole-wheat bread and a piece of organic, whole-wheat, whole-grain, homemade, all-natural bread, why would you choose something with less nutritional benefit for your baby? Why eat something good when you could be eating something perfect? Didn’t you want to give your baby the best chance at perfection that you could?

I think I threw the book out when it suggested that it was okay to treat yourself once a month or so, but you should really try to make your indulgence something like homemade, fruit-sweetened carrot cake or a bran muffin. Sometimes this mindset is so obviously ridiculous that it’s easy to dismiss. But sometimes, it’s so subtle and logical-sounding that it can really get a hold on you. Do any of these sound familiar?

I just checked her diaper and it’s only a tiny bit wet, so I really don’t want to change it now. But now that I know, it would be wrong to wait–I’d be knowingly letting her tender skin come in contact with pee, and maybe she’ll get a rash! I better change it right now.

Maybe he has this inexplicable diarrhea because he drank water from that mud puddle! I could have stopped him but I didn’t. I figured “usually I stop him, but one time won’t be a big deal.” But what if this happens to be the one time that really mattered?

I’m sure I buckled her into her carseat correctly. But what if I didn’t, and she dies in a crash? I should go double-check, or triple-check. That would be the best thing for my baby. After all, I want to give her the best odds at survival.

Maybe you’re a normal person, and this doesn’t sound familiar. Or maybe you’re someone prone to worry, scruples, or obsession, and this is your life. But here’s a third option–maybe you’re normally pretty balanced, but right now you’re pregnant, or postpartum, or breastfeeding, and you’re not thinking logically. This is no way to live your life. It only ends in despair and self-loathing.

I recently saw a meme that rejected the mantra “fed is best.” Fed with formula is minimum, it argued, but breast is still best. Why would you want to give your baby the minimum when you could give her the maximum? Now, how you feed your baby is a lot more important that the little things I mentioned above, and breastfeeding is certainly best in itself; but even so, things get bent out of proportion when you elevate the feeding decision above everything else. If you look at it simply as a choice between what’s okay (formula) and what’s best (breastmilk), the choice is obvious. But that keeps you from weighing other considerations, like whether your mental health is up to the challenge, or whether your physical health is up to the loss of sleep. It’s very unlikely that you’ll be able to make a choice that’s optimal for every single aspect! Life just doesn’t work like that. Don’t let your mind bully you into thinking you have to make the best possible choice, every time. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

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7QT–Why Formula Feeding Was the Best Choice for Me

Calf, Hand Rear, Bottle, Milk, Teat, Baby, Orphan

Happy Friday! Here are seven reasons I chose to formula-feed my third baby after breastfeeding the first two, and why it turned out to be a real life-saver. This obviously isn’t the right choice for everyone, and I have extreme admiration for people who stick with breastfeeding when the going gets tough. I do hope that this might be helpful for women who are on the fence or feeling bad about their decision to bottle-feed.

  1. More sleep. This wasn’t a luxury for me–it was a necessity. My baby really did sleep longer on formula, and I was able to let my husband give the baby a bottle in the middle of the night or while I was napping or cooking supper.
  2. Painless and easy! Again, many women are happy to make the sacrifice to breastfeed their children even when it’s difficult, but when life is already difficult enough for other reasons, there’s nothing wrong with making it easier on yourself. I had horrible pain and trouble breastfeeding my first. The second was better but still uncomfortable.
  3. Breastfeeding totally kills my libido, so bottle-feeding was a big boost for my marriage.
  4. Lots of women pick breastfeeding, in part, because it provides them with a few years of infertility to space their children. For me, though, that wasn’t worth it; sure, I’d probably be infertile for two years, but I couldn’t be sure, and meanwhile my fertility signs were so confusing that there was a ridiculous amount of abstinence and anxiety. Bottle-feeding made my cycle come back quickly, but then it was regular, so NFP was a lot easier.
  5. Bottle-feeding also made it easier to get out of the house and leave the baby with a babysitter, or just to get the baby out of my arms for a couple of minutes and with her Daddy or big brother or a comfy bouncy seat instead. At that particular time in my life, this was a Godsend.
  6. Bottle-feeding was not as hard as people made it sound. (I do know that I was lucky in this regard, because my baby didn’t need any special allergenic formulas or fancy bottles.) I thought I’d have to worry about the exact amount I mixed, and the exact time I fed the baby, and all sorts of expiration dates and holding times. In reality, it was as simple as breastfeeding. I took the advice of my midwife and never heated up the bottles, so the baby never expected them to be warm.
  7. As I write this, I realize that a lot of these sound like excuses. I can imagine myself, four years ago, saying “sure bottle-feeding is easier, and less painful, and gives you more sleep and freedom, but isn’t your baby’s health worth making sacrifices for?” That’s true, of course; but what I didn’t realize was that these principles are not absolute. My baby would be plenty healthy on formula, and there were times in my life when the extra benefits of breastfeeding were NOT worth the sacrifices. When you’re already weepy and depressed, bottle-feeding to get all the sleep you can is good for you and your family. By my third baby, I was confident and realistic enough to tune out the guilt and pressure and happily feed my baby the way that worked best for me. Here’s a nice little photo series that shows moms bonding with their babies over a bottle.  Head over to Kelly’s for the rest of the Seven Quick Takes!

You Know…

I wouldn’t mind it if Republicans said something like “Gosh, we hate to cut food stamps, but we really need to balance this budget for everyone’s good.”  Or maybe “We really need to cut spending somewhere, but we don’t want to cut it from people who need it, so let’s focus on getting rid of welfare fraud and waste, helping people graduate from assistance, and getting the money only to the people who really need it.”  But they don’t.  Instead, you usually find them saying something asinine like “Why should these people get free stuff when I have to pay for it?” or “Why don’t these people just go get a job?”  And that’s why it’s really hard to get behind them, even if they’re right about the need to cut spending.  To paraphrase Billy Joel, I’m starting to feel like I’d rather be wrong with the Democrats than right with the Republicans.

Coming soon, a few thoughts on the proposed Missouri law restricting people on food stamps from buying junkfood, steak, and seafood.  Non-ranty, I promise.

Making Decisions out of Fear and Guilt

Here’s a wonderful article, from the blog A Knotted Life, about how to be at peace with your decision to not homeschool.  My husband and I were both homeschooled for many years, and we’re very grateful for it; but we’ve decided to send our oldest child to kindergarten this fall.  I had always assumed that I’d homeschool, but the closer it got, the more I panicked.  I love teaching my son, and I had happily anticipated all the fun homeschooling we’d do–the field trips, the nature walks, the crafts, the science projects–but I had to reconcile myself to the fact that I am just not up for it right now.  With a small, crowded apartment, a busy schedule, and a toddler and a newborn, I knew that our homeschooling days would be filled with tears and yelling; and more importantly, I knew myself well enough to know that I was prime bait for homeschooling guilt.  I also knew that, if my son turned out anything like his parents, he would need a lot of help overcoming social awkwardness, and he wasn’t going to get it being homeschooled by us.  (I’m not trying to perpetuate the “homeschoolers don’t do socialization” myth here, but it’s important to note that, while most homeschoolers are socialized just fine, some really aren’t–and that includes me and my husband.)

Even after realizing all these things, I still felt compelled to homeschool.  Most of my friends are homeschoolers, and of course I’ve heard all the public school horror stories; so I felt horribly defensive any time it came out in conversation that I was considering public school.  I escaped this mindset mostly through the example of my sister, who wrote about her decision to stop homeschooling here, and chronicled some of her kids’ positive experiences with public school here; but it was only recently that I made a final and peaceful decision about it.  I realized that I had been feeling forced to choose homeschooling out of fear and guilt.  Instead of thinking of homeschool and public school as two neutral options to choose from, depending on my family’s situation, my son’s personality, and the quality of our local schools, I was thinking of homeschool as the default thing, the really good and wonderful thing, and public school as the not-so-great option I could choose only if I had reallyreallyreally good reasons.  Once I removed fear from the equation, I realized that my reasons for choosing public school were more than valid.

I have recently realized that many other parenting decisions I’ve made have been made out of fear.  I had always heard so much about how modern society fears the sacrifice and lack of independence that comes with having children, and how many people contracept because they are afraid of what parenthood will do to their lives; but I also realized that the opposite problem is possible too: I was afraid to even entertain the idea of having a small family, because I was so afraid that I would be judged, or I would not be living up to my faith.

Now obviously, fear can be a healthy thing, when we’re talking about fear of something intrinsically evil: fear of sin, fear of Hell, fear of offending God.  But when we’re talking about a decision that is morally neutral in itself, such as the decision to have another child, it is not okay to be motivated by fear.  Fear of falling short of the ideal picture of motherhood in my head led me to choose breastfeeding over formula, even when breastfeeding was becoming a problem for my health and my family dynamic; it led me to resist painkillers during childbirth, even when they wouldn’t have hurt the baby, and they probably would have helped me calm down; and it led me to feel horrible guilt over my inability to even imagine having a large family.  Only recently have I realized that I should not let guilt be the deciding factor in the way I live my life.  (And I’m not saying that I don’t feel guilty anymore!  Just that now, usually, I recognize it for the seductive falsehood that it is.)

These realizations probably have less to do with my spiritual state than with the fact that, 3 kids into this, I don’t really have the energy left for any unnecessary guilt.  The hell with it.  And let me tell you, nothing feels so good as stepping out of the box that you have guilted yourself into and finding out that you–not the internet, or the tricks your mind plays on you, or the perceived judgement of your peers–know what is best for you.

P.S.–when I was re-reading my sister’s articles, I discovered one more that pretty much says what I’m saying here, except probably better. Here it is.

 

“When Did I Get Like This?”

When I was pregnant, too exhausted to read anything of substance, and desperately in need of comic relief, I searched around on my husband’s kindle and grabbed the first mommy humor book I found: When Did I Get Like This?, by Amy Wilson.  It wasn’t the self-deprecating, witty stand-up routine I was expecting: instead it was the vulnerable, candid memoir of a modern professional New Yorker, learning everything about motherhood the hard way.  This poor lady got sucked into all the popular pregnancy and motherhood myths, and had to figure everything out by herself.  Take her experience with her first pregnancy:

Today, everything from pacifiers to preschools seems to be marketed to mothers in one overarching way: this product, the ads say in one way or another, is chosen by mothers who want what is best for their children.  Well, who doesn’t want that?….But…should you ignore this new and helpful parenting suggestion, you are in effect saying that no, you do not want what is best for your children….With every step we mothers take these days, we are aware that there is only one right and true path that we should follow, a ‘better’ way to feed our baby, a ‘best birth’….

Her guilt-wracked pregnancy, complete with detailed birth plan and the infamous “Best-Odds” diet from What to Expect When You’re Expecting, ended with a revelation: doctors are not the enemy.  Her doctor, on hearing her desire to avoid fetal monitoring and stay mobile, had a gentle suggestion: “‘You may find, though, as many of my patients do, that once you are admitted to the hospital, you will be happy to lie down.'”  She comments, wonderingly: “Dr. Merman did not seem dismissive when he said this, neither rigid nor patriarchal.  He seemed, merely, kind.”  Sure enough, lying down with an epidural 11 hours into labor feels awfully good.  But when the baby is finally born, she confesses:

[Before the birth] I thought…I would become another victim of a needlessly meddling medical establishment.  But in the end,…I had an episiotomy, which the books warned me would happen to any mother who didn’t stand up for herself,….I had also had an epidural, which the books warned were foisted on all laboring mothers…[T]here was a tiny part of me thinking not of how I had made it through a twenty-hour labor to deliver a perfect baby boy, but of how I had fallen short.  I was a quitter….But lying there holding my son, I could also see that it was screwed up to regard my caregivers’ attempts to alleviate the pain and inertia of…a first labor, as the machinations of the enemy.  They had only been trying to make me feel more comfortable, trying to deliver my baby to me as soon as possible, as safely as possible.  And they had.  That could not have been wrong.

In the hands of a perfectionist like me, the birth plan was the snake in the garden, dangling the apple of an idea that there could be a ‘better’ or a ‘best’ birth, one that could in any way exceed the happy ending of a healthy baby, safe in its mother’s arms, both of them whole.

There’s a lot of other great bits in this book–I plan to write a bit more of a review later–but for now I’m going to leave it here.  I think this is such an important insight.  Sure, you have to look out for yourself, and there are ignorant or mean doctors out there; but what a horrible burden to put on a new mother, to convince her that she is the only one capable of making sure everything goes perfectly, and she had better live in suspicion and guilt for 9 months to make sure she doesn’t mess it up.

Is “Natural” Always Better?

There’s a great scene in the British show Doc Martin where the doctor finds out that some of his patients have been visiting an amateur natural medicine practitioner on the sly.  One of them is nearly killed by an herbal remedy which the natural doctor recommended to him without doing any research into his medical history, which would have shown that this particular herb is contraindicated for people with his condition.  When one of the villagers protests that he doesn’t see what could be wrong with taking something natural, Doc Martin snaps, “poison ivy’s natural, too!  You wouldn’t take that, would you?”

I’m not here to dismiss natural remedies, but I want to talk a little bit about the danger of assuming that natural necessarily means better.  When it comes to women’s health, especially, I am so tired of hearing that your body knows what it is supposed to do.  Yes, most of the time, it does.  But sometimes it screws up.  This isn’t necessarily because nature is bad, or God created us with flaws; it’s because our nature isn’t what it used to be.

Most of the time, pregnancy and childbirth go smoothly, because a woman’s body was made for that. But sometimes, your body doesn’t know how to take care of the baby, or when it’s time for him to come out.  If you sit around for 43 weeks waiting for that baby to come out naturally, he may not make it out alive.  Time for an intervention.

Most of the time, breastfeeding goes smoothly.  They tell you, “if it hurts, something is wrong.  It shouldn’t hurt.”  But sometimes, you’re doing everything right, and it just hurts anyway.  Time for…well, there’s not much you can do, but time to stop thinking it’s your fault for not doing it the way nature intended!

Sometimes, depression can be cured with changes in diet, exercise, and mental routine.  Sometimes, all you need to do is take care of your body, and it will function normally.  But sometimes, if you don’t interfere with your body, it will kill you.

Now, our bodies are still wonderful things.  It makes sense to look for natural remedies first, and to try to be in tune with the way our bodies were intended to work.  But to act as if the “natural” course is always the right course is to ignore the fact that our nature is no longer what God intended it to be.  It’s fallen.  The woman in the NFP forum, who thought that antidepressants were just as bad as artificial birth control, was mixing up “natural” with “moral.”  For her, birth control was not evil because it does violence to God’s original design for our sexuality; it was evil because it was artificial.  In reality, though, the Church doesn’t reject any artificial or technological remedies unless they interfere with the integrity of the person.  As one of my sisters pointed out, if the Church were against artificial medical remedies, she would not approve of any fertility treatments, either.

To be continued when I manage to sort out my thoughts a little more, hopefully without getting a little heretical!  I’m still trying to figure this out.  Thanks for listening!

What is a “Good Birth”?

My husband and I often talk about how much we plan to shelter our children.  We both know families whose kids have been completely sucked into the worst of pop culture; but we seem to know even more families whose attempts at sheltering their kids backfired badly.  When the kids finally encountered the real world, they often rebelled or succumbed to the worst, because they had not had the benefit of knowledge or exposure to build up their defenses.  (I’m being vague here, because I don’t mean to criticize any of the parents I knew, who were certainly doing their best!  But I have experience with all the examples in this post.)  I have seen parents be so scared of inappropriate sex education that they barely gave their children any at all.  The kids had to learn it on their own, either through experience, or through less reputable sources than their parents or teachers.  There is also the danger of sex being seen as something “dirty” that you don’t talk about, which leads to a really unhealthy attitude toward sex.

What I’ve realized lately is that this is not just a problem for children, but for adults as well.  In my last post, I talked about the dangers of sheltering women from the realistic expectations of pregnancy.  I see something very similar happening with childbirth.  Women are assured that, with the proper “birth plan,” they can achieve the perfect “birth experience.”  Now, I know that I have been very lucky: my midwives and nurses were respectful and considerate, and I was never pushed into something I was not comfortable with.  However, I have also heard of so many women who were led to believe that they could have a low-intervention, peaceful, joyful natural birth, only to be crushed when necessity dictated otherwise.  Once again, we’re setting women up for shame and guilt. No matter how much we understand rationally that a C-section, or an induction, or an epidural may be necessary, that nagging little voice inside our head will say “you’re taking the easy way out” or “you’re not letting your body do what it’s made to do” or “you’re giving in;” but if we’ve let our expectations become completely unrealistic, we are feeding that irrational guilt.

The friend I quoted in my last post made the same connection between pregnancy and childbirth expectations; after commenting on the importance of your “attitude” and “focusing on the positive,” she noted that “the people who helped me have a good birth were the ones who kept telling me a good birth was actually possible.”  Now: how do you define a “good birth?”  A birth that goes as planned?  A birth that is peaceful and expected?  Or a birth that results in a healthy baby?  If you only tell a pregnant woman stories of ideal births, how will she feel when her labor fails to progress, and her baby is in distress?  Google “birth disappointment.”  I have seen so many sad stories of women who felt horribly disappointed in themselves because they “gave in” and got the epidural, or because they had to have a C-section.  Instead of fully enjoying the baby, they feel a sense of loss and grieving. They may feel, like this poor lady, that “this was my fault” because their bodies are “broken.” 

[A side note: yes, your body is broken!  But it’s because of Original Sin.  This is why it doesn’t make sense to me to expect childbirth, or sex, or breastfeeding, to go perfectly just because it’s natural and it’s “what our bodies were made to do.”  Our bodies, like everything else in the world, sometimes don’t do what they were made to do.  If we put all our faith in “nature,” we are going to be let down because our nature is broken.]

Again, I am not recommending that we flood pregnant women with horror stories!  But imagine that we tell them something like this instead: “My first was born naturally, and it was wonderful!  My second had to be induced, and I was hooked up to 3 IVs, and that was pretty awful.  But you know what?  I didn’t even care, because then I got to hold my beautiful baby.”  Or this: “I was really loopy after the pain meds, so I don’t really remember the birth well, but we had nice quiet cuddling time afterwards.”  Or this: “The epidural worked great for my first, and failed for my second.  But either way, I got through it.”  Let’s give them realistic expectations, so they’ll be prepared; but let’s always remember to finish up with the most important part: the baby.  A good pregnancy is a pregnancy that ends in a good childbirth, and a good childbirth is one where the baby gets born.  Period.  Natural birth, water birth, home birth, epidural, induction, C-section, forceps, IV, hypnosis, episiotomy, whatever–I wish you a peaceful and pleasant birth, but please remember that no matter what your “birth experience,” the main thing is getting that baby safely into your arms!