Other People’s Stories, Part 1

This took me a long time to write, mostly because my own life has been so crazy busy with the new baby, but it touches on something so important. This is the first on a series of posts on why the “you can do anything you set your mind to” philosophy is problematic..and ultimately inhumane.

This first post is about AdjunctMom, who I found when she posted this story. Go read it – it is about comments around her not breast-feeding. The judgement and cruelty to which she was responding were so…blithe. It really hit me. AdjunctMom had medical reasons for feeding formula, which she bravely discussed in a later post. Go read that too.

Could she have breast-fed if she “put her mind to it.” No, not at all. And yet, I suspect that all the commentary she received came from well-meaning in their own minds people who firmly held that belief.

And what about the Mom who works as a super-store clerk, has no paid leave, can’t afford to take leave, and can’t get breaks to pump? Is the issue that she can’t put her mind to it? No…and I hope no one dares to suggest that she shoudn’t have kids. Seriously, $ don’t make a parent. My own parents weren’t perfect, but I can assure you that being “working class” did not, in any way, make them lesser parents…

And maybe I will post on THAT another time as well.

And so, those of us who faced no medical or financial barriers to this lovely experience should not feel righteous, or like “we had the right attitude.” No, I don’t think so. And I suspect that mind-set leads many to be cruel in their words and deeds, as experienced by AdjunctMom. Instead of counting one’s blessings, one pats one’s self on the back and says “I made that happen,” and then goes on to accost others who arent’ “making” the same reality.

Seriouly, maybe it did take work, maybe a person deserves a pat on the pat. Maybe you do. But when we start judging others by our own stories, we become desperately poorer.

If we have a happy story, if things have worked out well for us, well, some of what we have, some of our own story, we earned. Some of it , we made happen, and some of it, we had a lucky opportunity to make happen. Some of it, we didn’t do a darn thing to make happen.

And I know this one first hand:

If things goes sour, if something we desperately wanted doesn’t go as planned, despite tens of thousands of hours of hard work and the right attitude, well, a soul might find knowing the differences between, “I made this happen”, “This is a blessing”, and “Damned bad fortune” to be a blessing too.

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5 thoughts on “Other People’s Stories, Part 1

  1. Good points, all. There are a variety of factors that are probably at work here. First, we tend to assume that if we could do something, everyone could do it and should do it (egocentrism). We also tend to underestimate the impact situational factors have on other people’s behavior (psychologists have labeled this the fundamental attribution error) — we assume that others behave as they do as a result of who they are, rather than the situation they find themselves in. This can result in blaming the victim (if something bad happened to you, you must deserve it). I try to hold this in mind when I am trying to understand someone’s behavior — I try to think of multiple potential explanations for their actions and not leap to judgment too quickly.

    And finally, this is all colored by mother-blaming. We hold mothers to an impossibly high standard and hold them responsible for everything that happens to their children — mothers should be perfect, and self-sacrificing, doing any and everything to make sure their children’s needs are met. Paula Caplan did a study in which she found hundreds of articles theorizing that mothers being somehow responsible for their child’s mental disorder, and very few making similar claims about fathers. We have an image of a perfect mother, and anything less is suspect. But not only is it impossible to embody this perfect maternal image, but theories of what that perfect mother should be are always changing and differ across cultures. Psychologists in the early 20th century thought that too much affection would cause problems in child development. John Watson crusaded against overly affectionate mothers: “When you are tempted to pet your child remember that mother love is a dangerous instrument.” He claimed that there are “serious rocks ahead for the over-kissed child.” Obviously very different from the advice we would give parents today!

    I think we should endeavor to provide a developmental context for children in which they can thrive and grow to their fullest potential. I think we should provide parents (and teachers and child care providers, etc.) with the resources they need to create healthy, nurturing, loving, and stimulating environments to meet children’s developmental needs. And we do need to be mindful that there are bad parents (and teachers and child care providers, etc.) out there and try to protect children from harm. At the same time, there are many ways to be a good parent, and we need to be open to the possibility that our idea of ideal parenting may not be feasible or even desirable for all families. After all, what worked for one parent/child combination may not work for another.

    1. “Fundamental attribution error.” Interestingly, I am currently being force-fed this as “business theory.” And (of course) “positive thinking.” (No, if it makes you say mean things, it’s not so positive).

      And the mother blaming DOES add a whole additional layer. I wonder how much of that comes from the unfortunate undercurrent of belief that there is something “mystical” about being female. After all, if we’d just deploy our magic powers, everything should turn out OK, right? ; )

  2. adjunctmom

    I am truly humbled by this. Thank you.

    You said what I was trying to get at: the idea that “if you’d only tried harder” is really just another way to hurt someone because you don’t know everything that went into the decisions that were made.

    Something good came out of those hurtful comments, though. We met and for that I can be grateful. Still think the original commenters need to grow some tact, but that’s a different issue.

    1. I have enjoyed meeting you as well, and it means a lot that you trust me (a faceless e-friend) to link to you.

      As for growing tact, I’ll admit it took a LOT of pain for me to do that. It seems sad to me that so often people who have things the easiest are the least likely to see how lucky (or privledged) they are.

  3. Pingback: Taking a Little Break « Momsomniac

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