I’ve noticed something disturbing recently, and it has to do with our expectations of what it is like to parent a child. That is, we automatically assume what it’s going to be like. There’s no push back; it’s just “well, that’s how it is.” For instance, the idea that babies won’t sleep through the night. We don’t question this “fact” because it’s presented just that way: as fact. Now, I’m not going to address that specific point in this post, but I think it’s a great example. There are plenty of people, including myself, that have researched alternative ways to get babies to sleep through the night at an early age. Instead of attributing this to a different style of parenting, we’re just told we have an “easy” child. Or, worse, that we’re somehow abusing our kid because we’re sleep training them. Again, there’s no room for discussion about how we did it. It’s just pure luck – or wrong entirely.
There are SO many instances of this type of ideology when it comes to parenting, and I don’t like it. I don’t like that mothers are automatically expected to give up everything, including themselves, for their children. I don’t like that we don’t have higher expectations for babies in general, especially when it comes to teaching babies. We consider them completely dependent and unable to learn how to function or control themselves appropriately. In my mind, we’re doing such a disservice to them! I know this is controversial, I get it. Who knows, I may even end up back on some blog snark site for this thought process, but it’s such a huge value of mine. That is, I give my kid more credit than that.
This is problematic to me. We just assume that babies can’t understand simple concepts, but then get frustrated when they grow into children who still don’t understand these concepts. The most obvious example of this, and what I want to talk about to today, is teaching your child consent.
From the moment women get pregnant, our bodies no longer belong to us. The moment the line turns pink, we are incubators. Our personal autonomy goes out the window and suddenly our every action is up for public scrutiny. We are told to “think of the baby!” when making decisions for ourselves, which as a result means we aren’t actually the ones making the decision. We’re bullied or misinformed into choosing what others determine is appropriate or “right.”
Once the baby comes into the world, we are told that breastfeeding is the only way to go. Once again, there’s no room decision making; the decision has been made, and if you don’t breastfeed, you’re not trying hard enough. Your child is going to suffer. I hate this.
Internalized misogyny is the idea that sexism is so ingrained in our social values and structure that we internalize it ourselves; that is, we allow ourselves to be subjected to it because “that’s just how it is.” Women aren’t immune from holding misogynistic values; if anything, we believe that we “deserve” it because that’s just life.
Breastfeeding, in my opinion, is the first instance of teaching our children that women’s bodies aren’t to be valued. Our bodies exist for the sole purpose of creating and sustaining human life. When a baby cries because they are hungry, we are expected to drop everything and feed them.
To be clear, babies need to be fed. There’s no question about that. Especially when they are newborns, they do need to be fed fairly often. I’m not advocating for not feeding your child. That is abuse.
As babies grow and they don’t need to be nursed around the clock, however, we are still expected to drop everything and give them our bodies. A baby’s demands, even if they are unreasonable, are still more important than a woman’s personal autonomy.
So when do you draw the line? When a baby is 6 months old? A year? 2 years? Obviously that line is going to be arbitrary and different for everyone, but I wish I saw more women drawing that line when they felt ready and not when society tells them they should. I wish I saw more women empowered to make informed decisions for themselves, rather than just being told that babies can’t be taught because it’s a slippery slope. Babies who aren’t taught to respect the bodies of other people turn into children who don’t respect the bodies of other people, who turn into adults who don’t respect the bodies of other people.
See where I’m going with this?
Why are we so afraid to use the words consent and respect with our children? I stopped nursing Remi when he was eighteen months old, and weaning was a positive experience. It wasn’t as difficult for me because I drew firm boundaries with him. We stopped gradually, but I didn’t minimize my own experience by lying to him or using cutesie language. I see women doing everything from putting Band aids on their nipples to coming up with elaborate stories as to why “their milkies are gone” (and yes, I see it referred to the child’s milkies all the time, rather than their mother’s milk). We weaned gradually, and I told him: this is a special time for us, but mommy won’t be nursing you forever. You are getting big enough to eat food and drink milk out of a cup, and soon you won’t need to breastfeed anymore. I still love you to the moon and back, and we can still have all the cuddles you want.
He still loves to crawl all over me or lift up my shirt to play with my belly button (difficult at 39 weeks pregnant). Of course I cuddle him and let him do his own thing when I am okay with it. But what happens when I don’t want to be touched? Do I just let him do whatever he wants and be miserable myself? Absolutely not. I tell him that he needs to respect my wishes and that I don’t consent to him touching my body at that time.
The reverse of this, of course, is that we respect his wishes when it comes to his body. Even now, if he doesn’t want to cuddle or kiss me, I don’t force him. Remi (and Leo) will never be expected to hug a family member or friend if they don’t feel comfortable. There will be times when his personal wishes need to be overridden for his own good, but I’ve always talked to him about what is going on, even when he was first born. For example, “I know that you don’t want your diaper changed right now, but I promise to be quick and then you can go back to playing.” Or, when he gets shots at the doctor: “This isn’t fun, but it will be over soon. We want to make sure you stay healthy!” By reciprocating, or in some ways just acknowledging, that consent, you are creating a mutually respectful relationship in which both parties are equal. That is SO important when raising a child, in my opinion.
I think I am an exceptionally loving mother. We all do what is best for our children. Using life experiences to teach your child, or (god forbid) discipline them is, in my mind, what is best for them. So let’s start giving our children more credit than we do. It takes time, and they will push back of course. It’s a process. But, I would much rather have a resilient child that respects the personal autonomy and decisions of others than a child that can’t understand that their wants aren’t more important than the needs of another person.
Photo by Marianne Wilson Photography