Her Bad Mother

Friday, March 13, 2009

Shame And The Written Mom

Husband: "So, that whole thing, earlier this week? That made you a little crazy, didn't it?"

Me: "Yeah. Kinda."

Husband: "Why? Why did it bother you so much?"

Me: "-------?"

Me: "-------."

I tell stories for a living. Mostly, I tell my own stories, the stories of my motherhood, and reflections on same. I do it because I love to do it. I do it because it has become, in some ways, almost like breathing: automatic, unavoidable, necessary. I do it because I believe in it: making public the lived experience of motherhood is, I think, crucial to empowering mothers, because it allows us to share, out in the open, where everyone can see, what motherhood is really like, once we've stripped away the glossy magazine covers and the laundry detergent commercials and the longstanding cultural insistence that family be private, that mothering be private, that we just hush, and not talk about how hard and how terrifying and how utterly, confoundingly, gloriously complicated this whole experience is.

I also do it because I'm vain, and because I crave approval.

Someone (actually, more than one someone) commented on the post of the other day that if I'm committed to telling my stories publicly, to mothering publicly, then I should just accept that I will face criticism and judgment. Moreover - some commenters added, here and elsewhere - since I am semi-well-known for what I do (I never know how to talk about this semi-sort-of-little-bit well-knownness. Being well known in any capacity on the Internet is, I think, kind of like being well-known in Korea for that one karaoke video that you "acted" in that one time: meaningless to anybody outside of a micro-specialized niche of aficionados, and so very probably meaningless in any broader socio-cultural context. Which is to say, nothing to brag about) it is disingenuous and/or hypocritical for me to claim to be bothered by criticism or judgment or whatever slings and arrows get hurled my way. I blog because I'm shameless, right? And I've earned some recognition for being shameless, right? So what's the problem?

The problem is that I'm not shameless. I sometimes wish that I were: Socrates described himself as shameless, and argued that any true philosopher is by definition shameless, because the true philosopher loves wisdom/truth above all else, and certainly above any concern for social approval. If you're going to interrogate social mores to the fullest extent possible, you need to be above them, at least intellectually. Shame (understood classically) is what we feel when we cower under some disapproving social gaze. It is not - contrary to what someone asserted in comments the other day - what we feel when we know that we've done something wrong (although we might feel shame under those circumstances); it is not necessarily associated with guilt. One can believe whole-heartedly that one is entirely in the right with a given action or behaviour, but still feel shamed by the disapproving reaction of some portion of one's community. We can feel shame for living in poverty, for loving a member of the same sex, for breastfeeding publicly, if any measure of social disapproval is directed at those things. It doesn't mean that we feel guilty for those things, that we feel in any way blameworthy - it means that social approval matters to us, and that social disapproval stings.

I am vulnerable to being hurt by social disapproval. It doesn't matter whether that disapproval comes from one person, or a hundred, or a thousand, or more. I'm vulnerable to it. I fell vulnerable to it earlier this week. (All please note: what follows is not an invitation to direct further opprobrium against anyone who expressed such disapproval. These are my feelings, I am owning them and trying to make sense of them, nothing else.)

As it goes, the shame that I experienced earlier this week had - at least at first - little to do with my writing or my public persona. I felt shamed (note the distinction here: I did not feel ashamed of myself - I felt that I had been shamed, effectively, by the exercise of social disapproval toward some action on my part) for an action that I took in real life, that took place in the arena of lived space as opposed to written space. I did something and was observed and my actions were held up (in a misleading manner, which, as everyone knows by now, bothered me to no end) for interrogation and judged. Which, if that interrogation and judgment had occurred in some private space, or had remained unknown to me, might have been no big deal, but it occurred in a public space and was made known to me and so I felt - in a way that was different from how I would feel, have felt, about being judged for my writing or my online persona (I usually take that in stride. I've had lots of practice) - shamed. My real-life self had been observed doing some real-life thing and that real-life self was judged, publicly, and so that real-life self felt shamed.

My online self, my written self, was, of course, not completely detached from this experience. I made public my act, by Tweeting about it. I fully intended to blog about it. I had most of that post already scripted in my head. I was a little bit in love with it, to be frank: it was going to sort through all of my complicated feelings and ambivalences and reflections about what had transpired. I was going to tell the story as I wanted to tell it. It was not going to be a story about whether nursing another woman's child was the right or wrong thing to do - there was no doubt in my mind that there was nothing wrong with it, even though I knew that it was not something that everybody would do, and even though I knew that some people, even people that I love and respect, would find it off-putting - it was going to be a story about what the experience was like, and about my complicated feelings surrounding it (for example, that it was an act that was both intimate and not intimate, that it felt both ordinary and extraordinary, that I initially felt a little afraid to do it, etc). But I was not able to tell that story, because sometime in the late hours of Monday I heard word that I had already been judged for my actions and I made the mistake of seeking out that judgment and reading it for myself and becoming upset by it and the rest, as they say, is history.

Part of my upset, in other words, was that I felt robbed of my story. It had become someone else's story, told in a different way and with different and misleading details and I no longer had any control over it. It took on a life of its own and my feelings about it changed and I felt that, in addition to having been shamed, I had been robbed of my experience and my ability to define the terms of expressing and sharing that experience. I don't necessarily have any rights to those things, but still: the deprivation of them hurt. Had I written about the experience myself and received shaming comments (by which I do not mean comments that expressed disagreement, but which attached moral judgment to that disagreement, i.e. it is wrong to do that, you were wrong to do that, women who do that are disgusting, etc.) I could have addressed them directly, on my own terms (or, yes, deleted them). I could have incorporated them into the larger story - which was not, as I originally imagined it, about mothers being shamed, but about trust and intimacy and support and community in motherhood, and also, maybe, about eros in motherhood (not in the sexual sense, but, rather, the classical sense. What of our profound physical and emotional connections to our children? How are these disrupted or affirmed by something like nursing another child?) - and controlled the impact of that shaming upon, and its place within, the story that I was telling.

That, obviously, was not to be. And so the story became something else entirely, and I struggled with and against the experience of feeling shamed and with and against the feeling of having lost control of my story, and it made me, yes, a little crazy. A little crazy and a lot exhausted. But beyond that crazy there was reflection, and reflection is good, right? I know now that I'm not as thick-skinned as I thought; I know, too, that I am - rightly or wrongly - possessive of my stories - told or untold - in a way that is much more intense than I understood. I learned more than I wanted to of the personal experience of shame, and I know that I have no desire to revisit it. But I am a writer and a woman who remains committed to sharing, publicly, the experience of her motherhood and of her life, generally, and so I know that critique is inevitable and judgment is inevitable and, probably, some further experience of shame is inevitable. The first I will embrace, as best I can; the second I will tolerate, as best I can. The third, I hope to continue to fight, however weakly, however awkwardly, however ineffectually, because although criticism is good, and judgment to some extent inevitable, shaming - when it is directed at any action or behaviour that is (and I realize that these are fluid concepts) well-intentioned and/or harmless and/or necessary and/or none of anyone else's damn business regardless of how public the action is or how well-known the actor is (Salma Hayek, call me!) - is neither of those things. And the only way that I know how to fight that kind of shame is by continuing to tell my stories as if shaming didn't matter. As if I was, in fact, shameless, in the best sense of that word.

That, and I'm going to make sure that the next time I go traipsing down the Internet rabbit hole in pursuit of stories being told about me? That I just don't.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

And With This, We Shall All Move On (Also, Unicorns!)

I've said my piece, and then some. Am talked out. Have been living too intensely in mah feelings for the last two days. (Oh, hey, guess what? I has feelings! Which, I know: shocking, seeing as I put my life on full display and so must be assumed to have skin thicker than a dinosaur's, but there it is. If you prick me, I bleed. And then I blog about it, and angels weep and bunnies burst into flame and it all, you know, goes kinda badly.)

(I promise to wield my feelings more carefully in the future. Or maybe make sure that they're not loaded before I start waving them around.)


I am done with hurt and defensive. Am moving on to happy! Let's all be happy, 'kay? Also: NICE.

I declare it International Nice Day Of Awesomeness And Unicorns. Go eat cake. Maybe say something nice to someone, tell them that they have nice shoes, that they're a good mom or dad, that they have great taste in unicorns. Spread sparkles and rainbows. But mostly, eat cake.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

They Shoot Wet Nurses, Don't They?

Her name was Laura, and I nursed her baby.

We had met, initially, at breakfast and immediately hit it off. We sat down with our coffees and immediately got swept up in a conversation that ran the gamut from the advantages of Twitter over Facebook to the challenges of leaving one's baby for a night. Which is precisely what I had done: I had left my baby to attend a symposium on parenting. And it was, as I told Laura over coffee, in some ways profoundly liberating, and in others completely terrifying. Also, my boobs hurt. Badly. I had forgotten my breast pump and an hour of hand-expressing in the shower that morning hadn't helped much. I didn't mention that part, though. I just said, I miss my baby.

She said, I know. Her own baby - a dark-haired sprite, just one year old - bounced happily on her knee. I would find it hard to leave her.


I liked her. I offered to help her sort out her Twitter/Facebook conundrum, and introduce her to some New York area bloggers. She invited me to a parenting event in Albany later in the month. We chatted throughout the day. The chirps and coos of her baby reminded me of my own chirping, cooing baby, who had accompanied me in the previous month to two conferences, who I was unaccustomed to being without, especially in this environment. My heart hurt, and my breasts ached. They ached. I kept my arms pressed against my chest for most of the morning.

At lunch I fled to my room and tried, unsuccessfully, to hand-express. I returned to the symposium, and sat down near Laura, and another woman that I had met that day. We were supposed to have a conversation about our parenting successes, or something like that. I said, you'll have to count me out. I'm in a lot of pain and don't know what to do. I huddled on the chair, squeezing the rock-hard contours of my chest as tightly as I could without screaming. I explained about the missing breast-pump, the terrible ache of my engorged breasts, the hours remaining before I would see my son. The other woman asked, is there a store nearby? I shook my head - the concierge had told me that there were no pharmacies in the immediate area. Laura cocked her head thoughtfully, and looked at her daughter, who was beginning to fuss. Would you consider, maybe... I know it sounds sorta weird, but... I have no problem with it, and she's hungry... She looked at me, and waited.



I paused. My head spun, a little. Would I do this, really? Would it be weird? And then I thought, no. There's nothing weird here. Boobs are boobs. Breastmilk is breastmilk, in all of its liquid gold glory. I bond with my son when we nurse, but it is not because he is latched to my breast. It is because I have him in my arms, and because I love him. Our intimacy derives from that love, and that love would be just as forceful if I fed him with a bottle. So would it be weird if someone else fed him from a bottle? No, of course not. These are only acts of nurture, whether they involve the bottle or the breast. And this is what the breast is made for.

I nodded, and reassured Laura that as a nursing mom I did not take any substances or medications that might compromise my milk.

And so. I took Laura's daughter in my arms and she smiled at me and I lifted my shirt and she happily bent her head and drank her fill.

(Was it weird? No. It was different. Describing the thoughts and emotions that accompany nursing another woman's child requires more space than I have here. It was intimate, but not inappropriately so - no more inappropriately intimate than someone holding your baby and cooing in his ear, whispering sweet baby nothings. If anything, it brought me to a deeper, more visceral understanding of my body as a miracle of biology, as a work of nature that is built to do certain things, one of those thing being - in my case; this is not necessarily true for every woman, and no woman is lesser for not being able to do it - nursing babies. My breasts are not sacred or magical objects, they are not quivers full of milk-arrows that can and must only be directed to blood-offspring. They provide milk. They nourish. They are both utterly mundane and terrifically awe-inspiring for that fact.)

I was grateful - so, so grateful - for Laura and her child; their generosity and open-mindedness and open-heartedness saved me a great deal of pain. At the end of the day, a mother was released from some considerable discomfort, and a child was nourished. Wonderful, no?

Well, as it happens: no. Not for everybody. Someone was watching, and someone did not like what they saw. Someone was watching and decided that what I had done was deviant. Irresponsible. Disgusting. Eww. So she wrote a post describing, in entirely misleading terms (we were total strangers! we had no discussion about it! a lady just blithely and irresponsibly passed her baby to a total stranger without a word! and that stranger - me, if you're keeping track - might have been diseased!) (she has since admitted to me that her representation of what happened was misleading), what she saw and explaining why she thought it was wrong. And it was wrong, from her point of view. Unsanitary. Dangerous. Wrong. Her commenters went even further: why, I might have AIDS! Be homeless! A drug user! Sexually loose! In fact, was what I'd done really any different from wandering into a bar and asking some strange man to grope my titties? Really? Also: AIDS! Or some other horrible virus. That, and my boobs - this helpfully noted by the author - were probably unsanitary, to boot. Also, I'd probably been drinking.

I can't even begin to describe how hurtful it was to read these things. This was me they were talking about. And Laura, who was as lovely a woman as I had ever met. Laura and I had just met, sure, but I think that we both hoped that we were becoming friends. And we share a belief - a healthy, woman-affirming, baby-adoring belief - that we mothers are all in this together, that we're all served and enriched when we trust each other and help each other. She had a hungry baby; I had excruciatingly painful breasts that needed to be released of their milk. We came together with our needs. You're welcome to say that you couldn't see yourself doing this; you are welcome, even, to cringe and shudder a bit in distaste. Whatever. We all have our issues. Just don't flaunt your disgust. And certainly don't use it to publicly shame mothers who make choices that you might not make. What I do with my boobs - what any mother does to ensure that her baby gets fed - is none of your business. And your public expression of disgust and alarm hurts. It hurts me, it hurts all of us. It reinforces the idea that breasts and breastfeeding hover on the very razor's edge of shamefulness, that these things on our chests are somehow, in some way, dirty and icky and bad, unless we operate them under the very strictest rules of propriety (only if they're covered up! only if it's your own baby! only if it doesn't make us uncomfortable! only if WE SAY IT'S OKAY!)

Memo to everybody: these? Are not your boobies. They are mine. And my babies? Also mine. I will nurture and nourish them as I see fit, and I will champion any other mother to do the same. Your disgust, your judgment threatens to undermine us, weaken us, take away some of our power as mothers who demand to make their own way and their own rules. Which, fuck that.

This is MY motherhood. These are MY boobs.

Hands off.

Memo to everybody: in case you missed what I said above - "You're welcome to say that you couldn't see yourself doing this; you are welcome, even, to cringe and shudder a bit in distaste" - I'll say it again (it seems that I need to): you are welcome to disagree with I did, and/or with what Laura did. You are welcome to say that you would not do this. You are welcome to voice a contrary opinion. I encourage it. I'm fascinated by so many elements of this discussion (not least, something that one commenter brought up - trust and community. Under what circumstances do we choose to trust or not trust each other, to take each others' words, or not do? Laura trusted me when I said that I was healthy and not taking anything that might compromise my milk. Perhaps this had everything to do with my appearance, or with the fact that I was obviously a nursing mother, or perhaps just with the fact that she had decided that I was simply worth trusting. I was moved by this. We need more of this kind of generosity of spirit in daily life) and I enjoy hearing different opinions. What I don't like: inappropriately expressed judgment or shaming. That's the whole point of the latter part if this post: shaming hurts everybody. If you're here to express an opinion, respectfully - great. I'll support and defend that. But if you're here to call names or point fingers or say anything that you wouldn't say to someone you loved, then maybe just turn back now.

Let's be kind.

Which means, too - and forgive me if it seems hoity for me to take this on - that everybody is very welcome to NOT direct opprobrium at the blogger mentioned here. This has no doubt been hard on her, and although I remain hurt and (yes, am juvenile) angry, I do not want her to be put through any more of a ringer than she already has. Please. Both she and I deserve some peace around this.

Comments on this post are now closed. I'm happy to read other posts on the subject - yes, even they disagree with milksharing - so if you write about it, please do let me know.

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Monday, March 9, 2009

Out Like A Lamb

I don't understand how this works, but for some reason, getting away by myself for one night this past weekend seems to have caused me to become even more tired than I am usually. Of course, the fact that getting away for that one night involved flying to New York and attending an event that was by some turns thought-provoking and by others head-exploding (more on that at some later date, when head-combustion is less of a threat to the structural integrity of my psyche) and, in the process, suffering near-intolerable nursing-boob-related pain (relieved only under circumstances that, again, must wait until I am considerably less tired to be explained and discussed) goes some distance to explaining why I am so tired. It does not, however, explain why I feel so emotionally fatigued, why I feel so utterly tapped-out, so completely drained of any will or energy to write/create/stand upright.

Spring is pressing upon my window, and I feel in my bones that the coming season will bring good things (a baby who sleeps through the night in his crib, who takes an occasional bottle - both causes were advanced by my night away - renewed energy for me, renewed spirit, sunshine) but at the moment I just feel limp. Lifeless. Maybe this is just late-arriving winter dormancy; maybe it is just March coming in like a depressed lion. I don't know.

Whatever it is, it requires that I sleep. And eat, maybe, and try to not worry, for the moment, about finding ways to express things that have hurt my heart or my brain. That, and watch the entire first season of Gossip Girl over the course of an afternoon while eating chocolate and popcorn. I need a day, or two.

And a little mental space to enjoy me my sunshine.

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