Many of my clients have experiences where their authority as a mother to make decisions for their infants and parenting, or lifestyle around parenting are not only questioned, but threatened. No matter how many children you have, the time when you have a newborn and for their first year of life seems to be when mothers are most vulnerable to the opinions of others. How to find good sources of information for decision-making around parenting is a whole other topic for consideration. This post is about ways to claim your authority without alienating members of your community, friends, and family when offered unsolicited advice or your ability to care for your child is questioned.
Here is my tried and true method for claiming your “Mammauthority” in all situations. Please comment below with your experiences and let me know how this has worked or not worked for you.
Foundations of the Method
#1: The underlying principle in this method is that you are the mother and you have the right and responsibility to care for your child in the way you feel is most appropriate. This is not a democracy and no one else gets a vote. I’m not suggesting that you do not work together with your parenting partner to make parenting decisions. I am specifically speaking to times when mothers’ authority is questioned from someone outside of the parenting partnership.
#2: You may be triggered by words, especially when spoken by someone who you may already have a tense power dynamic with, but they are just words. So, I don’t want to demonize anyone, but I have to give some examples here, so, let’s just say that your brother and his wife have eight kids and you just had your first and the whole time you were pregnant your sister-in-law was telling you how unprepared you were, how you were never going to sleep again, how it was a joke that you were even thinking about using cloth diapers, blah blah blah. Then, after you have the baby, when your sister-in-law criticizes how you are caring for the baby, it’s not just that particular critique, it’s everything she has ever said to question your ability to mother that really upsets you. In this method it is important to remember that words are just words. Just because someone SAYS something to you doesn’t make it true, right, or even something you need to consider. Strip the words of their emotional strain or perceived meaning and they are just words.
#3: Human nature is that we want to be important, listened to, heard, and treated as though we are special and intelligent. Assume that someone who is offering unsolicited advice or is being critical really just wants to be seen as a person who knows more than you. Sure, you can let yourself be triggered and try to argue with them, but the truth is that they will likely fight you to the death and never agree with you or change their mind to agree with you simply because they only wanted to be seen as superior in the first place. I know, this is a hard truth, but it is important to know and understand this in order for the method to truly work for you.
In the method, regardless of situation (and I will give some examples), basically, you follow this dialogue pattern:
OTHER PERSON: Some type of criticism, advice, direction which is sometimes followed by “research” that supports their criticism.
MOTHER: Agree with the other person no matter what they have said. This agreement is followed up by either changing the topic if this person is someone you wish to maintain a relationship with (like a family member) or walking away (like if it is a stranger in the grocery store).
OTHER PERSON: I read that babies will sleep through the night faster if you give them a bottle of formula right before bed. You are starving your baby and that is why they are crying so much. Maybe you don’t have enough milk?
MOTHER: Wow! That is very interesting idea. I’m going to have to consider that. I heard that you and Bob are taking a gambling cruise next week! How fun is that? When exactly do you leave?
Now, listen, I know that this person questioning your choices regarding how you feed your baby and then suggesting that your baby is crying because it is starving is like a punch in the gut. You are vulnerable and there is a tiny voice in the back of your head that wonders—-“What if she is right? What if my baby is hungry and that is why they are crying?”. Your ego wants to respond from that little voice and argue with this person. You want to tell her that your baby is growing just fine and couldn’t possibly be hungry and then give her all the facts about how wonderful exclusive breastfeeding is. But, I can promise you that you could be a Board Certified Lactation Consultant and have written 15 peer-reviewed articles for medical journals on the topic and your arguments are going to fall on deaf ears. Really. This woman has no idea what she is talking about and she just wants to let you know that she knows more than you. I don’t know why, but she does. So, your only way to truly escape is to agree with her. Remember, words are just words. And, once you agree with someone, it ends the conversation because they can’t continue to argue with you. The wonderful thing about this method is that you haven’t agreed to change the way you care for your baby, you have only agreed to accept the words that came out of their mouth and to consider them further.
OTHER PERSON: (Walks up to you in the grocery store.) You better put socks on that baby or it is going to get pneumonia!
MOTHER: Oh, will you look at that? Thanks so much for caring. (Now, keep on walking Mamma!)
Now, this example may seem like a no brainer. But, trust me, that little voice will creep up and you will want to explain to this complete stranger how you had socks on the baby, but they fell off in the car seat and you have no idea where they go or that your baby screams when you try to put socks on them or maybe you are a barefoot kind of mamma and it never dawned on you to put socks on a baby. Whatever it is, you don’t owe a stranger an explanation. Actually, you don’t owe ANYONE an explanation.
Also, a little smile and acknowledgement goes a long way with most people. It doesn’t hurt to smile. And, maybe you are reading this example and thinking that this kind of thing doesn’t even bother you. Well, maybe it doesn’t, but in my experience, it is good to have a strategy because it all starts to add up. By the time the fifth person of the day has made an unsolicited suggestion, the little voice in your head might have become a roar and your confidence buried under the chronic questioning of your “Mammauthority”.
Other Mother at Baby Sit and Sing Program at Library (Yep, we mothers do this to one another too!): Oh, you are using the Bimba style carrier? I considered that, but then I read all those studies that showed that infants carried in Bimba carriers learned to read two hours later than those in Eeeko carriers. Who wants to risk their infant’s future literacy?
Mother: Wow! That’s some interesting research. Amazing how many ways there are to carry a baby! (Now, walk away because this other mother is not good friend material.)
I know Mamma, I know what you REALLY want to say, “Oh, that’s OK because my baby can already read.” The challenge with other mother challenges to our Mammauthority is that any response other than agreement just challenges THEIR Mammauthority and that is a power struggle I just don’t want to engage in. That fight is not worth your energy. Also, any mother that behaves in this way is actually showing you that she has the least confidence of anyone in the room. This is a mother who, at her core, is terrified that she will make some mistake that will impact her child’s life in ways that can not be healed or rectified. That is an anxious mother at best and, maybe she is also just not a very nice person. Either way, you need to “PEACE OUT” of that conversation as quickly as possible and walk away. In her desperation to prove to you that she knows more, that she has done more research, or has superior mothering skills, she isn’t going to stop until she has you questioning your every decision.
How to find nourishing Mamma Friends will be the subject of another article, but suffice to say, anyone who demands that you qualify yourself and your decisions in casual conversation between strangers is simply not nourishing friend material.
With practice, you can learn to maintain your Mammauthority without frustration, anger, or diminished confidence. Trust me Mamma, if I could protect your wisdom and make sure that no one questioned your authority as a mother, then I would. But, since this is not possible, I offer you this very simple, yet effective method for deflecting and diffusing unsolicited advice as quickly and compassionately as possible.
Remember, your baby chose YOU to be its mother. You are the perfect mother for your baby. You will make some mistakes, you will change your mind—sure—but you are NEVER “wrong”. A mother and her baby are in relationship. As with any relationship, it takes a lot of work, communication, and experience to figure out how to make it work. Theory is interesting, but you are on the ground and you have to do what works for you. Sometimes, someone offers us advice that we haven’t considered and a little positive voice sounds in our head, “Hey, that sounds pretty good and worth trying!” and I encourage you to explore ideas, methods, and products that may improve the quality of your life and your relationship with your baby. This isn’t about dogma or sticking to ideas that aren’t working for you because you decided while you were pregnant that this was how you were going to parent your baby. The bottom line is that YOU know best and you don’t owe anyone an explanation for your mothering decisions.
Please let me know your experience with this method, if you have a way of maintaining your authority as a mother that is different, or if you have any questions in the comments below. I think you are brilliant and I would love to hear how you have maintained your Mammauthority in the face of unsolicited advice.
This “Ask Sharon” column was written by Sharon Fennimore, a mother of two and global doula helping women and their families all over the world enjoy optimum reproductive health, have great pregnancies and live with new babies in peace.