Letting go without giving up

A fellow doula called this week to ask for some advice about a client. As she told me the story, I couldn’t help but remember that I have heard this same story, or some equally sad variation of it, many times before. It goes something like this:

The story

A woman has a baby. It might be her first, but maybe not. The birth didn’t go exactly the way she planned and she struggles to come to terms with what she did wrong that caused the undesirable outcome. Her friends and family and maybe even her partner think she should just get over it because the baby is healthy and, after all, that’s really the only thing that matters.

She was not really prepared for how sleep deprivation would affect her. She feels irritable and moody most of the time. She loves her baby but it is an awful lot more work than she thought. Sometimes she just wants to curl up in a ball and go to sleep. Sometimes she cries for no reason, or out of frustration. Her partner has gone back to work and she hardly sees any adults during the day, or the ones she sees don’t agree with her parenting decisions.

She had really looked forward to breastfeeding but the baby lost 11 percent of his body weight in the first four days so her pediatrician told her to supplement with some formula. Of course she wanted her baby to get enough to eat so she gave him a few bottles, not realizing that getting a bottle in the very early days of breastfeeding sometimes interferes with the baby learning how to breastfeed. The baby began to gain weight but seemed to forget how to latch on properly, so she began pumping and bottle feeding with pumped milk.

Now that the baby is two months old, she’s seriously considering giving up trying to breastfeed at all, and maybe even giving up on pumping. It’s just so exhausting to try to feed the baby for a half hour, then give expressed breast milk, then pump so she has milk for the next feeding. She feels like breastfeeding is her last chance to prove herself as a competent mother and now she’s failing at that too.

The moral of the story

This story and its many variations should remind us of something very important: having a child is not a competitive sport. There is no “winning” or “losing” or “succeeding” or “failing.” As parents, all we can do is the best we know how to do in the moment. Certainly, we can be self-reflective and look into our own childhoods for what might cause us to believe or act in certain ways. But to connect our own self-worth to a particular outcome around our children is almost always a recipe for disaster.

For the parents of young babies my advice is to use the early years to practice, practice, practice the art of letting go. If you believe that whether or not your child breastfeeds reflects on the kind of parent you are, just imagine how you’ll feel when he comes home with an F on his report card or refuses to eat anything green or sneaks off and gets a tattoo.

The practical application of the story

But—and this is a big, big, BUT…

Just because you can’t control the outcome of something doesn’t mean you should give up trying to tip the odds in favor of the outcome you want. (After all, you don’t have to let your kid play video games instead of doing homework, stop serving broccoli, or give him a ride to the tattoo parlor.)

Before your baby is born, thinking about what you hope your birth experience will be like, preparing for it, and then letting go of any expectations you might have will help you avoid becoming too attached to any one particular way of having your baby. For early parenting, surrounding yourself with people who share your view of how you want to be a parent is incredibly important. For breastfeeding, arming yourself with basic knowledge before the baby comes can help you make decisions afterwards that are less likely to interfere with your aspirations. As your baby grows, seeking out other parents to share ideas with and muddle your way through some of the everyday challenges helps keep you sane.

The kind of person you are before you become a parent has a huge influence on the kind of parent you become. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use parenting as an opportunity to grow, change, and practice giving yourself the ultimate gift: self-forgiveness. I fervently hope the mothers whose stories sound like the one above can come to see parenting as just such an opportunity.