Body Image

Will I Accidentally Teach My Sons to Devalue Women???

So often, I’m inspired and intrigued by the writing of another mom out there on the web. It’s wonderful to read another woman’s words and think, yeah, I totally get where she’s coming from, and I am so glad she wrote that!

Today, I’m having this feeling about Kasey Edwards‘ piece over at Role Reboot, entitled, “When Your Mother Says She’s Fat .” Her letter to her mom is a bit of a truth bomb, especially as she describes when, at age seven, she first heard her mother called herself “fat, ugly, and horrible”:

“In the days that followed I had some painful revelations that have shaped my whole life. I learned that:

1. You must be fat because mothers don’t lie.
2. Fat is ugly and horrible.
3. When I grow up I’ll look like you and therefore I will be fat, ugly, and horrible too.

Years later, I looked back on this conversation and the hundreds that followed and cursed you for feeling so unattractive, insecure, and unworthy. Because, as my first and most influential role model, you taught me to believe the same thing about myself.”

That first idea, that “you must be fat because mothers don’t lie,” really strikes me. It goes along with the notion that “The way we speak to our children becomes their inner voice” (most often attributed to author Peggy O’Mara). But what Edwards implies is that not only does the way we speak to our children become their inner voice, but the way we speak to and about ourselves in front of them contributes to their inner voice as well. I think for many parents, myself included, we place a lot of emphasis on the way we speak to our kids about them, but not quite so much on how we speak about ourselves in front of them. Perhaps, though, this is just as important.

Edwards goes on to talk about the responsibility she feels toward her own daughter: to end the passing chain of self-degradation around ideas of beauty and worth. Her piece makes me think about my role as a mother, too – only I have sons, not daughters.

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me and my guys

What Am I Teaching My Boys?

I believe I have a huge responsibility as a mother of boys to model positive ideas about beauty and worth with regard to women and girls – ie. that there is no connection between social norms of beauty and inherent worth as a person. (Yes, with regard to men and boys, too, but the correlation is so much stronger for women in my culture, so my work has to start there).

But damaging ideas about beauty and thinness are actually not what I worry about passing on to my boys the most. I have a different brand of negative-self-talk that I worry will affect their perception of girls and women.

We all have our baggage. Mine is along the lines of general self-doubt and low self-esteem. Now, I’ve done some hard work on this in the last decade and I think I’ve come a long way – a looooooong way. I no longer have panic attacks about not being good enough. I don’t wallow for days in a defeatist stew of blaming myself for everything and everyone unhappy around me. I don’t have unrealistic, perfectionist expectations that follow me around everywhere while I try to put on a happy face as if my constant effort isn’t painful.

All. That. Being. Said…

…There are still rare moments where glimpses of this unconfident, former self re-emerge. When I’m particularly sleep-deprived, or there is too much on my plate, I occasionally still hear myself (usually through tears) saying things like:

  • Oh my god, I’m just the worst. I’m terrible. (eg. when my child gets more than a minor hurt and it scares me and I wish I could have prevented it)
  • Sorry, sorry, I don’t know why I’m like this. I just can’t ever seem to read situations right. (eg. when I’ve realized after a meltdown that I could have chosen a better time to have a difficult conversation with my partner)
  • I don’t know why I never ever learn! You’d think I could have figured this out by now. (eg. when the same obstacle presents itself over and over and I wish I had prevented it)
  • I can’t ever do anything fucking right. (eg. when I’m particularly stressed and so have more at stake than is reasonable on something, and it doesn’t go perfectly)

Let me start by saying I don’t think there’s anything wrong with me having these feelings of stress or regret in and of themselves. Feelings are what they are, and I can’t control that they arise. But I can try to control what I do with them. And importantly, I need to consider how my kids may perceive my reactions, especially as they get grow and learn about the world around them.

It’s not unreasonable to suppose that my kids, growing up in a family with hetero, cis-gender parents, are probably going to form some pretty deep-seated ideas about “how women are” and “how men are” from their two main role models: me and my husband. Whether I like it or not, this is probably what’s going to happen. So if in times of stress, I resort to self-blame and devaluing myself, but in the same stressful situations, my husband does not have these reactions, what might my sons learn?

Well, I can’t be sure, but it might go something like this:

  1. Mommy must be the worst, never learns, and can’t figure out how to do things right, because mothers don’t lie.
  2. Daddy must be getting things right since he doesn’t worry (out loud) about not getting them right or say he is the worst.
  3. Daddies (men) get things right and are fine the way they are; Mommies (women) don’t know how to get things right and always need to improve.

Hmm.

A thought-train like this will sure play nicely into established ideas about men and women that they’ll see all around them in their dominant culture. Men as self-assured, women as flaky. Men as rational, women as emotional. Boys as good enough, girls as having something to prove. Patriarchal valuing of “male” attributes over “female” ones will be reinforced. What they see at home will reflect what they learn from their culture, strengthening it.

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Changing My Language

So I’m going to try to remember this in times when my old baggage comes creeping back. If I bring myself into the moment instead of making those sweeping conclusions about myself, I can lower the stakes for these times. Maybe I can change some of my words, as even small shifts could have a big impact.

Instead of talking about how I’m the worst, maybe I can focus on how I’m disappointed with what has happened right now. Maybe instead of apologizing for being the way I am, I can acknowledge that I could have done this one thing better and move on. Instead of bemoaning that I never get anything right, I can applaud my dedication to always keep trying.

And instead of worrying about the negative things my boys might think of me, I can strive for the things I want them to learn about me, and vicariously, to infer about women and girls. Now that list could get really long… it’s a thought for another day!

 

 

To Push or Not to Push: That is the question

pregnancyThe third trimester has officially started at our house. Woohoo! As Raise a Mother regulars will know, this pregnancy hasn’t been the easiest, so I am excited to be heading into the homestretch.

At the same time, we’ve still got so much to do. When I was pregnant with our first, I carefully researched and planned, making sure we got things ready throughout the nine months so we wouldn’t have too much to do at the end. This time…not so much. One of the things we have yet to sort out? Whether or not to try for a vaginal birth after c-section (VBAC) or to opt for a repeat c-section.

We are fortunate to have health care providers who are committed to giving us all the information we need and then supporting whatever decision we make, (Shout out to Ontario’s midwives!)

Still, it’s a big decision. After all, it’s literally deciding how we want our child to come into this world. If you had asked me right after my son was born, I would have said, without a doubt, that I wanted a VBAC. I even asked my midwife at my discharge appointment what I could do to help to increase the odds of a successful VBAC the second time around.

I had a hard time with my c-section, both before and afterwards. I was disappointed when my son refused to move from his breech position – our little Buddha making surgery a necessity. I was scared shitless when my belly stopped growing properly around week 34 and then my amniotic fluid got low, ultimately resulting in our surgery being scheduled earlier than initially planned because little buddy was no longer getting the nutrients or space he needed. After the surgery, my body temperature remained too low for me to hold my sweet baby, so I watched from under an inflatable hot-air blanket as my husband had the first skin-to-skin contact with our son. I had to wait at least an hour to hold him, let alone try to feed him.

I felt like a failure whose body hadn’t done what it was “supposed” to do. It didn’t help that I, like many women who have had c-sections, had difficulty breast feeding. My son didn’t regain his birth weight for a full three weeks, and we ultimately moved fully to formula feeding after three months of struggling with a never-ending cycle of bottles, boobs and pumping. I promised myself that if I had the chance to do it again, it would be a vaginal birth all the way.

But now, more than two years later, I can honestly say I’m torn about what to choose.

Because I’m not the same Mom I was when my son was born. I have enough distance, perspective and confidence to know that I didn’t fail my kid when we had a c-section (or for that matter, when we switched exclusively to formula). In fact, that was me Mom-ing Up. We did away with my expectations of how things were supposed to go and instead went with what was going to work best for my kid and for our family.

Now, there is a big part of me that finds it appealing to go with what I’ve already done – the “devil I know”, so to speak. After all, there are so many things about parenting that throw you into the deep end, leaving you to either sink or swim. Why not choose the thing that’s more familiar – where you know what to expect – if given the option to do so?

On the other hand, assuming that all is going well and there are no complications, VBACs are statistically safer than having another major surgery – which is, of course, what a c-section is. Not to mention that the idea of trying to deal with a six-week recovery period with a two-and-half-year-old at home sounds far from appealing, if not impossible. Seriously, how am I not going to pick up my firstborn for six weeks?

And, just because my c-section no longer makes me feel like a failure doesn’t mean that I’ve given up my desire for that moment of having my child placed on my chest immediately after he’s emerged from my body. Do I really want to give up that opportunity voluntarily?

On the other hand (yes, I have three hands in this scenario), the idea of trying to have a VBAC and ending up with an emergency c-section scares me the most. The idea that I could shoot for the moon and end up with a birth where I feel even more separate from my baby – and both of us are put at greater risk – is my personal nightmare. So, does that mean we shouldn’t even try?

At the recommendation of our midwife, my husband and I attended a VBAC information session run by ob-gyns from a local hospital. The facilitator emphasized that we shouldn’t think of this as a single decision, c-section or VBAC. Instead, we need to answer a series of questions: Are we comfortable with any medically-approved induction methods or do we want to rely on my body going into labour naturally in order to go for a VBAC? At how many weeks do we give up on that and schedule a c-section? If we opt for an elective c-section, what does our birth plan look like if I go into labour before the scheduled surgery date?  etc, etc, etc.

I found this framing very helpful because it recognizes the many variables that come into play in any birth experience. My husband and I want to ensure that we are on the same page, so our plan now is for each of us to answer the questions and come up with what would be our own ideal birth plan. Then we’ll compare and find the plan that will work best for both of us.

Of course, the decision may not end up being ours in the end. I know all too well that kiddos have a way of rendering your well-thought-out plans irrelevant. The circumstances of this pregnancy may shift and a VBAC may no longer be an option. The best we can do is plan for the best-case scenario, be prepared for things to change, and keep our focus on getting our little nugget here safe and healthy.

I’d love to hear about your experiences with a repeat c-section or VBAC. Any advice you can offer to this mama-of-two-to-be?

 

Our Bellies, Ourselves

A couple of weeks ago, I got on the bus for my morning commute. It was crowded and I was carrying a large bag, so I was pumped when a woman got up to give me her seat. I was less pumped a few minutes later when a couple of kids got on the bus and the same woman insisted that I remain seated because I was pregnant.

The thing is, I’m not pregnant. I was pregnant a year-and-a-half ago, but I’m not anymore.

I didn’t know what to say to the woman, so I said nothing at all, and just stayed in my seat. I figured that correcting her would only serve to make both she and I feel embarrassed and uncomfortable — and the kids had already found other seats anyway. Still, the experience stuck in my mind for the rest of the day.

When I was pregnant, I was thrilled when people noticed. I loved getting seats on the bus and using the “Expectant Mothers Only” parking spaces at the grocery store. It was one of the only times in my life when I truly embraced my body in all its forms. It was remarkable to me, then, how bothered I was when someone thought I was pregnant now. Why did that assumption suddenly make me feel so bad about myself, when it used to give such joy?

When I told a colleague what had happened, she gave me a hug and said, “That’s just the worst. Because that person is really just saying that there’s something wrong with your body“. Lindsay concurred: “People just don’t recognize that there are many different, normal body shapes,” she said.

And they were right. What I was most bothered by was a stranger making any sort of presumption about the state of my body and feeling comfortable enough to comment on it.

This annoyed me when I was pregnant as well. My husband was shocked when I told him about complete strangers touching my swollen belly, or sharing unsolicited advice about pregnancy, birth, my health, or that of the baby. But other mamas and mamas-to-be I talked to had all experienced the same thing.

The truth of the matter is that even a slight indication that a woman might be pregnant seems to suddenly turn her body into a public object that all are entitled to judge and comment upon. And whether or not the woman is actually pregnant, these judgments can cause her to feel quite insecure.

Last year, Jennifer Garner made headlines when she told Ellen DeGeneres that she did indeed have a baby bump — one named after her three children — and that everyone (including the tabloids) would just have to get used to it. Women cheered. Because whether my rounded tummy is the result of a bun in the oven, or a cinnamon bun for second breakfast, it shouldn’t be up for public comment.

Aside from the fact that it is generally much safer not to comment on someone’s pregnancy until there can be no doubt that there actually is one, I appreciate that this woman was only trying to give up her seat on a bus to someone she perceived as needing it. But even if I was pregnant, I would be perfectly capable of deciding to give up my seat for someone else.

Because it’s my baby bump after all.

~ Shannon

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