WHY OUR MOTHERS GIVE US BAD ADVICE
Prepare yourself. The unsolicited, outdated advice and the dire warnings are coming! Some are more questionable than others. Some are easy to dismiss, while others may leave you worried or confused. Chances are, you’ve probably heard some of them already: You shouldn’t announce the pregnancy before 12 weeks. You can’t drink coffee while you’re pregnant. Don’t exercise. You can’t/shouldn’t/won’t want to/won’t be able to give birth without an epidural. The hospital is safer than home. My mom/sister/friend would have died if she hadn’t been in a hospital. You need to rush to the hospital or call the midwife as soon as contractions begin. You will labour the same way your mom did. Episiotomies should be used as a standard precautionary measure. Circumcision is cleaner, better, necessary, not painful and not a big deal. If the dad is circumcised, then his son should be too. Spicy food will make your milk spicy. You can get mastitis from not wearing a jacket in the cold. You have to stop breastfeeding if you get a blocked milk duct. Babies should be bathed right away after birth. Kids should be fully bathed every day. If you pick up your baby too often, they’ll never let you put them down and they’ll never be independent. Don’t spoil them by holding them too much. Co-sleeping is not safe and they’ll never sleep in their own bed if you let them sleep in yours. Babies should be fed on a schedule, not on demand. You should give them formula to help them sleep through the night. They should be sleeping through the night by a certain age. They need to be potty trained by a certain age. They should only eat puréed food until age one. Let them cry it out; it helps their lungs develop and teaches them to self-soothe. Vacuum while they sleep so they get used to noise. You can’t drink any alcohol if you’re breastfeeding. You should turn the car seat forward-facing as soon as possible. Whiskey on the gums helps with teething. You can’t breastfeed once the baby gets teeth. They should be weaned by age one. If they are old enough to talk, they are too old to breastfeed. They’ll still want to nurse when they’re going into kindergarten if you breastfeed past the age of two. Cloth diapers are comparable in waste and cost to disposable diapers because of the washing involved. Kids should be quiet and well-behaved at all times; if not, they should be medicated. Spanking is the only form of discipline that works. You need to keep your child away from all germs and keep their environment completely sterilized. Fruit juice and cow’s milk should be regularly included in children’s diets. Additives, dyes, preservatives and pesticides in food have no effect on children’s health. Cavities don’t matter when it’s their baby teeth.
There is one simple explanation underlying why our mothers may give us “bad” advice: They don’t want to feel as if they failed in raising us. To admit that their way wasn’t the right way, or the best way, would contradict the deep-rooted belief that they were good mothers operating on good information from trusted sources. The truth is they were good mothers, generally speaking, because they were operating on good faith; doing the best they could with what they knew. Bad advice is most often a result of unfamiliarity and disconnection. I think of my own family on my dad’s side, where the last baby to be born out of hospital took place 101 years prior to my son’s birth. No wonder something like home birth sounds like a foreign concept and feels like a step back from societal progress, which is a big reason why people are quick to advise against it.
This isn’t to say that all the advice you receive will be bad, and this isn’t to disrespect mothers of previous generations. Advice is almost always well-intended. Valuable wisdom is traditionally passed down from one generation to the next through teachings and stories as well as modelled behaviour. It is this that has propelled the species forward on one hand, but, on the other hand, some of the purest knowledge of motherhood was lost when male-dominated industry decided it knew women's bodies better than women and it knew what was best for raising our children.
Two things happened to disrupt the natural impartation of maternal wisdom. The first was the introduction of modern medicine. The medical institution established a new paradigm for birthing. While we can acknowledge, with gratitude, the life-saving advancements that came from this movement, we must also acknowledge the setback it caused in terms of women’s trust of their own innate maternal wisdom and that of midwives. Not only was birth handed over to the influence and control of male doctors in a hospital setting, but society started to accept the view that the average birth was an abnormal condition, not unlike an illness, requiring medical attention and intervention. Because birth can result in fatalities and serious injury of both baby and mother, it is understandable that safety would be a primary concern. The issue is that intervention became the norm rather than the exception. Fear became a driving force and mothers were greatly disempowered by this shift. The information was hoarded by the educated. The process became controlled, even experimental. There was an emphasis on authority. Women didn’t need to know what was happening to them, they just needed to follow instructions. Not a word of a lie, my maternal granny’s mother, my great-grandma, was eight months pregnant in 1920 when she learned where babies come out of. Before that, she genuinely thought babies were born through the mother’s belly button. That’s how scant the information was dispensed to prepare her for giving birth at that time.
The second disruption to the passing down of maternal knowledge was an excess of information itself. With the emergence of the internet, search engines and social media, we collectively began to experience rapid access to an overload of information. In the grand scheme, more information leads to more informed choices. However, we are adjusting to a unique circumstance of large amounts of information available to us in a relatively short period of time. Two to three generations ago, there was no television. People lived in small communities, and limited information slowly permeated those contained bubbles through word-of-mouth, mail, telegraph, books, newspapers and, eventually, radio and telephone. The next generation made a leap to widespread television and then cellular phones. Still, nothing compares to the exponential proliferation of information like the age of the internet, instant recall and real-time reporting. It will take this generation some time to learn how to process and filter when we are receiving as much information in one day as our great-grandparents would have in a lifetime. There are a number of problems with such an onslaught of information, including often unfounded claims; the perpetuation of misinformation, the bandwagon fads, and the sly marketing that tries to convince us that what the “establishment” says we should do is in our best interest. Some people respond by becoming paralyzed with too many choices. Others will cling to what they know and believe, regardless of any persuasion or presentation of information. It really is no wonder that so many people – especially those who lived through the time before – are misguided. Our job now is to respectfully and compassionately reject those pieces of advice that do not serve us in our parenting endeavors.
We mustn’t blame our mothers and grandmothers for the task we have inherited of deciphering the information at hand. We must seek to understand the root of these generational wounds so that we may free ourselves and move through our own maternity without being guided by fear and falsities. In gaining clarity about how to filter the information we receive, we can make courageous and conscious decisions, for ourselves and our children, rooted in love. This understanding has the power to break cycles. It has the power to heal us and, ultimately, our children as well.
How does one discern which pieces of advice to heed and which to dismiss? For starters, trust your instincts. Your intuition is your most reliable guide for how to best care for your baby. Learn to listen to it and follow it when it feels right and safe to do so. Check your own unconscious biases. The defaults that we see and hear can make us believe that the popular option must be the best or the safest. The default is assumed, whereas the exception requires explanation, usually with qualifying descriptors. For example, “birth” has been assigned to hospital birth, making homebirth or out-of-hospital birth the exception. When listening to others’ advice, try to distinguish which recommendations are fear-based. These will often come in the form of warnings or stories about a “friend of a friend” and are usually not grounded in the adviser’s own experience. Advice is usually more useful when the giver can reference things that actually happened to them personally, and when they relate stories of what worked for them (rather than what went wrong). Support groups, whether in person or online, are particularly helpful because one question can be answered by multiple sources who, in all likelihood, have recently found a solution to a similar experience. The best advice can be corroborated by up-to-date scientific research. However, to this point, remember that a lot of research pertaining to pregnancy and babies cannot be conducted blindly, for the obvious reason that it is unethical to experimentally cause negative outcomes in babies.