Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Unearned Guilt and the Mommy Wars

Ah, the Mommy Wars. Breast vs Formula. Stay-at-home vs Career. Homeschooling vs Private vs Public Schools. Repeat C-Section vs VBAC. Natural Birth vs Epidurals. Positive Discipline vs Super-Nanny vs Spanking.

Those are just a very, very few of the main battles that are ongoing in the realm of Mommydom (and Daddydom--Dads are not completely immune, though it's mostly us Mommies).

I've written about these issues and the Mommy Wars that surround them in the past once or twice, but I've never specifically addressed what I see as a primary cause of the Mommy War Phenomenon itself. When a battle in the Mommy War breaks out, I see a couple of themes over and over again: "Don't Judge Me (or Anyone)" and "Stop Trying to Guilt Me into X."

Just so you know the kinds of things I'm talking about, here's an example of a couple comments on a post on Motherlode, the parenting blog of The New York Times (my emphasis):

. . . I think women need to be less judgmental of each other in this matter.

. . . I also want to add a note about what I came to think of as the “lactation mafia” — women who do their best to guilt other women into breast feeding, no matter how good a fit it is for the mom and the new baby.

These sorts of comments are very typical, and it took me less than a minute to locate them in the comment thread.

Here's the thing about the Mommy Wars:

I don't play.

And it's a game, not a war. It's a game of guilt and judging-while-pretending-not-to-judge and not taking into account the full context of one's (or another's) decisions and pragmatism and subjectivism. It's a game and I refuse to play.

Here's what Ayn Rand said about moral judgment (my emphasis):

The precept: “Judge not, that ye be not judged” . . . is an abdication of moral responsibility: it is a moral blank check one gives to others in exchange for a moral blank check one expects for oneself.

There is no escape from the fact that men have to make choices; so long as men have to make choices, there is no escape from moral values; so long as moral values are at stake, no moral neutrality is possible. To abstain from condemning a torturer, is to become an accessory to the torture and murder of his victims.

The moral principle to adopt in this issue, is: “Judge, and be prepared to be judged.”

The opposite of moral neutrality is not a blind, arbitrary, self-righteous condemnation of any idea, action or person that does not fit one’s mood, one’s memorized slogans or one’s snap judgment of the moment. Indiscriminate tolerance and indiscriminate condemnation are not two opposites: they are two variants of the same evasion. To declare that “everybody is white” or “everybody is black” or “everybody is neither white nor black, but gray,” is not a moral judgment, but an escape from the responsibility of moral judgment.

To judge means: to evaluate a given concrete by reference to an abstract principle or standard. It is not an easy task; it is not a task that can be performed automatically by one’s feelings, “instincts” or hunches. It is a task that requires the most precise, the most exacting, the most ruthlessly objective and rational process of thought. It is fairly easy to grasp abstract moral principles; it can be very difficult to apply them to a given situation, particularly when it involves the moral character of another person. When one pronounces moral judgment, whether in praise or in blame, one must be prepared to answer “Why?” and to prove one’s case—to oneself and to any rational inquirer.

Ayn Rand, “How Does One Lead a Rational Life in an Irrational Society?” The Virtue of Selfishness, 72.

So what does this mean? It means I have made moral choices regarding my parenting and myself according to the best of my judgment. Some of those decisions have been objectively less-than-ideal, but morally correct, given my personal situation.

A great example of this would be my three c-sections, particularly the third one. I know that c-sections are riskier for mom and baby, and less-than-ideal. In most situations, a vaginal birth is clearly the way to go. I support VBAC and natural birth and home births, if that's what a mom wants. I think the c-section rates are way too high, especially in Georgia. You can quote me the statistics about c-section rates and risks to mom and baby. I know them. I know enough to quote them back at you, probably. I do not support c-sections for either the mom's or doctor's "convenience" and will do my absolute best to talk someone out of that idea (believe me, there is nothing "convenient" about recovering from abdominal surgery while exhausted by caring for a newborn!).

You may judge me for choosing to have Sean via c-section. Of the three kids, he is the one I most likely could have delivered VBAC. I did not choose to even try. I had good reasons (selfish ones, even) to make this decision. But I'm not even going to try to explain them here. You may judge me, you may choose to think I was right or wrong about this. It's okay, and if you think I was wrong, I do understand your point of view.

Here's another thing:

I don't feel guilty.

I don't feel guilty because I made the correct decision, morally. I chose the objectively less-than-ideal for moral reasons and I did the right thing. If someone judges me, if someone shakes their finger at me and says "You did the wrong thing!" I can deal with that. I know what I chose and why. I have nothing to feel guilty about, and therefore the fact that someone might say "You made the wrong choice!" or lift their eyebrows when I mention the c-sections or advocate natural birth or say out loud that "Every woman should try to have such-and-such-type of birth because it's ideal." . . . none of those things has the power to make me feel guilty about my choice.

The only person who can make ME feel guilty about a moral decision I've made is ME. So I can accept that you disagree with my choice--and move on with my life. I can support your doing something differently, and even agree with you: "Yup, having a vaginal birth is best for everyone!" Because objectively, all other factors being equal, it is. I can't argue with that fact of reality.

If I know that I made a morally correct decision, and yet feel "pressure" from other moms who have made different decisions for their circumstances; yet feel that those other moms are trying to "make me feel guilty" somehow; yet feel threatened and defensive about their other choices; then I am accepting what Ayn Rand called unearned guilt (again, via the online Ayn Rand Lexicon and my emphasis):

The virtue of Pride can best be described by the term: “moral ambitiousness.” It means that one must earn the right to hold oneself as one’s own highest value by achieving one’s own moral perfection—which one achieves by never accepting any code of irrational virtues impossible to practice and by never failing to practice the virtues one knows to be rational—by never accepting an unearned guilt and never earning any, or, if one has earned it, never leaving it uncorrected—by never resigning oneself passively to any flaws in one’s character—by never placing any concern, wish, fear or mood of the moment above the reality of one’s own self-esteem. And, above all, it means one’s rejection of the role of a sacrificial animal, the rejection of any doctrine that preaches self-immolation as a moral virtue or duty.

Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness, 27.

I have felt guilty about some of my parenting decisions--because I made wrong decisions. I didn't judge them as wrong because they differed from the decisions of others (that's second-handedness) but because they were objectively wrong. I don't confess my sins to others any longer (since leaving Catholicism), because I don't need others (real or imaginary) to forgive me, so you'll just have to wonder what those sins are. ;)

Here's an example of a time I accepted unearned guilt--when Ryan had his Big Peanut Kaboom. Practically the very first thing I read online about peanut allergies basically said that women who ate peanuts while pregnancy caused their kid's peanut allergies. Guess what I ate a lot of during Ryan's pregnancy? :( I felt horrible. I thought I had done this to my child. Even after I learned that this link was tenuous at best (and all but disproven now, to my knowledge), I continued to feel guilty and what-if myself. Finally, I realized that even if there was a direct causal link between what I ate during pregnancy and Ryan's terrible allergy, I shouldn't feel guilty about what I had done because it was an error of knowledge. I can't be morally responsible for doing something harmful when I had no idea that it might be harmful, and I really didn't. (I would be morally responsible for doing it when I knew it was harmful.) I was able to let the unearned guilt go after realizing that.

I don't feel unearned guilt because my friends gave birth vaginally. I am not defensive when they tell me about their birth experiences. I don't feel "pressure" or unfairly judged for my birth decisions. I love to hear their stories, and wonder what labor would have been like for me. My feelings are not hurt if they say "I think there are too many c-sections." or "C-sections are not as safe for mom and baby." My feelings are not hurt because those are factual statements.

And I can't feel guilty about my c-sections. I think c-sections are wonderful things and I'm so happy that I had a doctor who is really great at doing that surgery. Without them, my first baby might not have survived. And, too, my second baby was at a high risk. I made the morally correct decision for rationally selfish reasons to the absolute best of my knowledge. And therefore I am free of "pressure" from others who confidently declare their ideas of the best ways to give birth.

Conversely, I feel confident in stating out loud what I believe to be Best Parenting Practices: vaginal births, not spanking, attachment-style parenting when they're babies, keeping kids out of government schools, breastfeeding. I have reasons for thinking all of these things, and I think I'm right about them. I will be happy to talk to you about my reasoning, and am also willing to check my premises (because I might be wrong!).

But I am not stating these in an effort to make you feel pressured or guilty for doing something differently. Now, you may make different decisions from me, and be guilt-free about it, knowing that you have made perfectly moral decisions. If you feel guilty, maybe you are accepting unearned guilt, or maybe you made a wrong decision. Only you can really know that, and I don't need you to confess to me, either! But that guilty feeling comes from you, not me.

My point about the Mommy Wars is that it's fine to judge others and be judged by others, and to know that if you are making your decisions to the best of your knowledge, within your own rationally selfish context (if you truly need to work, then by all means, feed your baby formula sometimes!), then we Mommies should stop accepting unearned guilt and getting all defensive when other Mommies choose something else and confidently declare that they are proud for doing so. If you do feel rightly guilty (as I have) about something you have done, then figure out why, try to correct it and try not to make it again.

Also, it is possible to simultaneously judge someone else's actions as wrong and yet understand that you may not have all of the information about that person's context. So judge it as wrong, and if later evidence comes out that sheds a different light on that person's decision, change your mind about it. That's possible, too. And it's also possible to judge inside one's head, and not offer a loud opinion in social situations where such discussion is out-of bounds. (That's just good manners.)

If someone tries to make me feel pressured or guilty about c-sections--well, they can't. Because they don't have that power over me. Because I know that not every repeat c-section is the result of an immoral decision. Because I choose to say "Oh. Hmmm." and move on with my life. Because I can know that they don't understand (or maybe even want to understand) the particulars of my situation. And I can choose not to explain the particulars, too. I can find those sorts of people pushy and annoying, but they can't give me guilt.

So I urge you, the next time you feel pressured to participate in a Mommy War, consider dropping your end of the rope, walking away from the playground, just not playing. Don't feel guilty for your morally correct choices. And don't stop judging either.


rachel... said...

What a great post. I have to admit to having been on both ends of the Mommy War rope before. And you're right. I think both the judging AND the guilt come from the same place - so desperately wanting to do the BEST for our children. Nobody likes learning that the choices we've made may not have been the best, so we get defensive and judgemental. I like your analysis and your strategies with dealing with it, Jenn.

Dionna @Code Name: Mama said...

Wonderful thoughts! I read a post by another blogger recently who pointed out something similar - when mothers feel judged by how her family lives, by the decisions they make - she cannot accept responsibility for that feeling. She is only living. If you feel judged, you may want to examine your reasons for feeling defensive and decide whether you want to parent differently. Because if you are parenting in the way that feels right to you, in the way you think is best, there is simply no reason for feeling defensive.

As an aside, I've read two of Ayn Rand's books, but never one of her non-fiction works. I had to chuckle when I got to the source of your quotes - I was pretty sure they came from her fictional books. (I am aware that her fiction is a reflection of her philosophy, I guess I didn't know it was to such a great extent!)

Kim Catacutan said...

Your post is right on and very insightful! A friend of mine posted a link to an article about homeschooling on Facebook. She received so many comments from moms who were obviously defensive and sounded guilty about their choice to send their children to school. I wrote her a private message and basically told her some of the same things you wrote on your blog (though not nearly as articulately). I have noticed the same thing in my non-Facebook encounters. I simply mention that we homeschool, and I receive an array of explanations (almost attacks) about why they send their children to school, why school is a better choice, what is bad about homeschooling, etc. The same thing happened when I used to mention breastfeeding and home birth. It seems to me that the individuals lashing out have not examined themselves and their parenting choices, or they wouldn't feel so guilty about them. Introspection is key!

Realist Theorist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Realist Theorist said...

Great post.

Choices are made within a context. In particular, a lot of the decisions you're talking about are highly contextual. There is nothing intrinsically right or wrong about home-schooling or not home-schooling. Depending on one's context, either one or the other can be objectively right. It is perfect for some and absolutely wrong for others. The same for choices like nursing and type of delivery.

So, I agree with your post, but I suggest you should not give the other side the sanction of saying that something they recommend is the objectively-better choice, but it does not work for you. Rather, it is not the objectively-better choice, given your context.

Also, good point on "errors of knowledge". When I was a young programmer, I always felt guilty when I found a bug in my program. A good project-manager taught me how to adopt a different attitude. Instead, I continued to try to remove all bugs, but always reminded myself that there had to be some bug still in there. I think this is a good reminder in all sorts of situations: "I am trying my best, but I know there are some things that I am doing wrong; this is the nature of being who I am."

eeeegads said...

That was a fantastic post. I appreciate your methodical approach to it, and rational thought to such emotional topics. It all harkens back to "until you've walked a mile in someone else's shoes".