Tuesday, May 15, 2012

On Labels

I've recently come up with a theory about parenting. That theory is that once you put a label on a parenting choice, once you name it, you've suddenly created a division or cause that never existed before, even if the practice itself is as old as time.

For example:


I think waaaay more parents "cosleep" than are willing to admit it. The number of parents I've talked to who mention something about their child climbing into bed with them, sleeping on their chest, having to be coerced or bribed to stay in their own beds, only being able sleep cuddled up with one of them, only being able to fall asleep if Mommy or Daddy is lying in bed with them, only being able to go back to sleep if allowed to climb into Mommy and Daddy's beds, far exceeds the number of parents who simply say, "Yes, we cosleep." Cosleeping is a term that loosely refers to any arrangement whereby a baby, toddler, or small child sleeps with a parent. People who "cosleep" (and call it that) typically went into it on purpose; that is, they said, "Yes, we're going to let Jack sleep with us." On the other hand, plenty of parents "accidentally" cosleep, in that Jack will only fall asleep or stay asleep if nestled on Daddy's chest or with Mommy's arm around him.

I'll never forget baby-sitting a four-year-old girl when I was about 12, and part of my instructions in putting her to bed was to lie down next to her and put my arm around her until she fell asleep. I think it's fair to call that cosleeping, even if it's only for a brief period. And how many times had her parents fallen asleep like that, only to wake three hours later and groggily stumble back to their own bed? But I bet they never said "We cosleep."

Granted, there are plenty of parents who absolutely, positively do NOT allow their child to be in their bed EVER. But I bet it's fewer than you think.

But, suddenly, when you ask someone if they cosleep, or you tell someone that you cosleep, or coslept, or plan to cosleep, or are trying to stop cosleeping, it becomes a weird parenting "thing" that only some people do, the crunchy ones, the ones who can't let their kids go. Believe me when I tell you, I want nothing more than for my child(ren) to sleep in their own beds so I can stretch out comfortably at night. But I'm too lazy to wake up all the way to nurse somewhere else, so I'm stuck curling up with GI for a while longer. (I don't really mind that much. If I did, I'd have changed it by now.) But my husband and I also think it's good for our kids to know that if they need the security of Mommy or Daddy curled up next to them, they can have it. Certainly NJ and SB sleep the vast majority of nights on their own at this point, but it's a fairly common morning that sees all five of us in the same bed. But then, I'm one of "those" parents who actually admits to cosleeping.

What else?

"Extended breastfeeding."

I think waaaay more mothers continue to nurse past the first year than are willing to admit it. I think even mothers who desperately wanted to wean at a year or who think it's odd or wrong to nurse a toddler might find it more difficult than they expected to suddenly withhold the source of comfort and nutrition that their beloved baby has relied upon her whole life. I think plenty of mothers continue to nurse a couple times a day well past the first birthday, if only because they can't find a way to stop, or they realize that just because they've flipped another page in the calendar doesn't mean a switch has suddenly flipped in the baby's head that says "okay, I don't need to nurse anymore." I think plenty of toddlers get to cuddle up to Mommy's breast once or twice a day, even if Mommy doesn't come out and say, "Yes, I'm an extended breastfeeder." There's a lot of stigma against nursing a kid who can "ask" for it in the Western world, especially in the U.S., and I think it's entirely probable that if the "practice" of "extended breastfeeding" were more acceptable, we'd find out that plenty more women are doing it than we expect.

I know I purposely nursed SB long past his first year (I weaned him at 25 months). I know I have every intention of nursing GI just as long. So maybe I'm an "extended breastfeeder," but, really, I think I'm just a mom who sensed that her son still needed his "nur" well into his second year of life. Anyway, I had no idea how to get him to sleep without it.

I know other women who wanted to wean at a year. Some did it. Others found it not to be such a simple prospect, for whatever reason. Are they "extended breastfeeders"? I don't think they'd call themselves that. I think they'd just say, "Yes, I'm still nursing," if asked. And so what? Do we need to label every last parenting decision we make?

Perhaps the labels serve a purpose. If we have a label, we can bypass a great deal of explanation and jump right into the arguing. Maybe this isn't such a good thing. Maybe if we were required to still explain ourselves before the other person has labeled us, then that other person would be more understanding. Instead of saying "We cosleep because...", when the other person has already decided that you're a ridiculous person because you "cosleep," maybe we can say, "I let Horatio sleep with me for a few months because it was easier to nurse him back to sleep that way than to have to get up and traipse all over the house." See, with that second statement, you're not a "cosleeper," you're just another tired mom who's trying to get as much sleep as she can. Instead of "I believe in extended breastfeeding because...", where now the other person already thinks you're a crunchy weirdo for nursing a kid who can ask for it in a complete sentence, maybe we can say, "Esmerelda really needed to keep nursing after she turned one because I still couldn't get her to eat a lot of nutritious foods and she didn't like cow's milk." See, now instead of being an "extended breastfeeder," you're just a mom who's trying to make sure her child is getting all the nutrition she needs to grow, and who wouldn't want that?

Labels help us put people into categories, but there are so many directions to go when you're parenting, and so many ways to interpret any given practice, that we end up with a stack of labels that we carry with us everywhere we go. I'm a "cloth diapering, extended breastfeeding, extended rear-facing, cosleeping, natural-birth-having, WAHM." But, I don't cloth diaper because of any great environmental philosophy, which is the first thing that comes to most people's minds when you say you cloth diaper, and I don't even cloth diaper 100% of the time. I do it to save money and because it's kind of fun (except for the poop in the washer part...). I am an "extended breastfeeder" in the sense that I believe babies still need to nurse well into and possibly beyond their second year, but I also don't see myself continuing to nurse to three or four years, like some other "extended breastfeeders." I am an "extended rear-facer" because I know it's much safer for my child to rear-face as long as possible because his neck and spine cannot withstand a crash force when facing forward until he's at least two years old. I had a natural birth almost by accident because I was more afraid of having interventions than I was of the pain, and not because I had any kind of "earth mother" or spiritual need to have one. And, I work from home because we can't afford to live on one income at the moment, but we both feel it's important that I'm here and available to our children. And I happen to like my job, anyway. So now, see, all those labels? Worthless. Because I've explained myself anyway, and I don't exactly fit most people's idea of what those labels mean, and I'm certain that almost no one does.

Tell me, what are your parenting labels? :)

1 comment:

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