Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Fine Art of Maternal Apologetics

Recently I've had a breakthrough in the form of a breakdown over the birth of my daughter in March.  For those of you unfamiliar with the story, or how I'm dealing with it, let me break it down.  I planned a homebirth and wound up with a hospital induction and repeat cesarean, but this isn't about that.  Not really.  This is about maternal apologetics, or more simply put, defending your mommyness.

At first sight
My breakthrough was actually the result of a question I got about breastfeeding from an anonymous user on formspring.  This mom wanted me to write a post about how she could talk to other moms about her not breastfeeding.  You see, she hangs with a lot of our crowd (AP types) and she really wanted to breastfeed and could not.  How could she explain that?

It's been months and I don't have an answer.  I asked for advice on twitter about it once and received a lot of "she shouldn't have to explain herself!" comments.  And I agree with that, but I also understand that this isn't about just explaining or excusing, it's about defending.  I met a similar mom in person recently and she looked embarrassed as she pulled a bottle out in a circle of breastfeeding moms.  She hurriedly told us the whole story.  How hard she tried.  How much she pumps.  I recognized the defense mechanism immediately, because it's something I do myself.

Maternal apologetics, or the practice of explicating our experiences or self-perceived shortcomings.

We do it to "fit" in.  We do it because we don't want to be judged by those we admire.  We do it to show we are educated and informed.  We do it because we feel like we failed even though we didn't.  We do it because we don't want our maternity to be defined by our shortcomings in the eyes of others.

I am a birth apologist.  I will tell a stranger walking down the street about my birth stories if they show the slightest interest.  This is partially because I'm the world's most open person, but mostly it's a chance at obtaining the validation I so desperately need and can't find in my own analysis of the events.

I hang out in the birth community, because I love birth.  I believe in birth.  But it sort of exacerbates the problem.  A nice woman at a homebirth event on Sunday sat down to sign me up to support a new Friends of Missouri Birth Centers group, and then she pointed to my daughter and asked the million dollar question: Did you homebirth her? Cue my verbal birth saga.

I can't claim to have homebirthed, but I'm a homebirther.  I know this in my heart, but it seems ludicrous to say "nope, I had a repeat cesarean" when someone asks me that question.  They have to know.  I have to explain.  I have to defend.  I have to validate.

And you know it would be easier for me if I didn't know the assumptions most birthy people would jump to if I said I'd had two cesareans.  If I didn't know they were wondering what mistake I made or if I hadn't educated myself or if I could have advocated better - or worst yet, if I chose to have a repeat cesarean.

I know I fought.  I know I was educated.  I know I didn't  fail.

But why do I feel like I did?  Why do those unanswered questions outweigh the truth?  Why do I have birth story diarrhea?

I suppose because at the end of the day those stories do matter as much as the truth.  We can get so caught up in advocacy that all we hear is "couldn't," "formula," "c-section,"..."tried."  But us apologists offer a valuable  balancing point for advocates.  We remind them that there is no cookie-cutter formula to success.  We remind them there is still work to be done to promote policy change regarding birth, breastfeeding, and so many other  maternal issues.  We remind them that advocacy is important but so is every woman's story.  We remind them not to be dismissive.

Someday I think I'll be done telling my story.  I'll smile and say, "No, I didn't homebirth.  She was a cesarean."  I'll leave it at that.  I'm just not done yet.

I've learned something valuable from my experiences - a deeper, more genuine sense of compassion for a woman's story.  I've learned to listen. I've learned to welcome with outstretched arms.  I've learned to open my heart.

I'd like to close by thanking those who have listened to my story and who have understood its importance to me, with particular thanks to my midwife, who always refers to me as a homebirther.   Your compassion has made all the difference in my story.


Stephanie @ Confessions of a Trophy Wife said... [Reply to comment]

*sigh* I totally do this. Both with my C/S and inability to breastfeed. I feel like if I say "I had a C/S" it doesn't explain the whole story of how badly I did NOT want a C/S and how I tried everything to avoid it. If I just say "he's formula fed" it doesn't explain how badly I WANTED to nurse him and how hard I tried to be able to do so. So, I too have verbal diarrhea when it comes to these things, the formula feeding in particular. I found myself going into a whole explanation with someone at the farmer's market the other day and immediately afterwards thinking, "gah woman! These people don't care about the whole story!".

Cyn said... [Reply to comment]

This was a very eloquently written article about a real problem within the "mommy" community, and within ourselves. I do the same thing over and over, and beat myself up, but what good does it do? I am no less of a person because I had c-sections, or because I couldn't make my formerly-reduced breasts produce enough milk, and yet somehow I end up feeling that way, whether because of others' attitudes or my own.

Jenn @ Connected Mom said... [Reply to comment]

I think being cognizant of it and learning to SHARE our stories instead of EXPLAIN ourselves is key to the issue. We need to reprogram it in our own heads, you know?

ErinKate said... [Reply to comment]

Guilty as charged - ha, I find myself looking to apologize for apologizing!

No matter what it is, I feel the need to explain all the good reasons I have for straying from what I perceive to be ideal as a mother. Especially with breastfeeding; I guess that what comes from being a lactivist who formula feeds. Or a hypnobirthing mama who ended up with an epidural and pitocin.

I think all of these things, if we look at them correctly, help us become less judgmental and more empathetic - and isn't that what we want to show our children, anyway? I'd rather have a compassionate formula-fed baby than a mean breastfed one....maybe this is God/Universe finding a way to bring that about.

Bethany Taylor said... [Reply to comment]

I have the same problem telling people I had a CBAC. I can't simply say Teagan was a section, I always start out with, "Well, we'd planned a VBAC and we had doulas and then she had fetal distress, but real distress, you know, not the fake kind, etc, etc."

What kills me is that while I was pregnant, I used to have the same kind of snap judgements. Like, oh she had a c-section. She must have not done this or that, or not wanted it badly enough.

Hilary Jacobson said... [Reply to comment]

Jenn, I was like the mom who asked you how to explain to others not being able to breastfeed. It's when we want to but then fail that we suddenly see how judgmental we may have been, and experience how difficult it is to rub up against the judgments of others.

I hear this story on MOBI Motherhood Intl (Mothers Overcoming Breastfeeding Issues) all the time. On this forum, a lot of mothers are grieving disappointments both with their birth experience and with breastfeeding outcomes, even as they try to find solutions. We see a lot of mothers with insufficient glandular tissue or with unexplained low milk supply who would give anything to have had that ideal birth and/or be able to provide a full milk supply to their baby.

We really only understand what it is like when we walk in those shoes ourselves.

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