No Explanation Required

I give talks at mom and baby groups about breastfeeding. By the time most moms make it out to a group, they’ve passed the very early, make-or-break stage of breastfeeding. They have two-month-olds or four-month-olds, and while they still have breastfeeding questions, they are definitely past the point where I’m selling breastfeeding to them. Some of them have given up on breastfeeding, most of them haven’t, but either way I’m not looking to single anyone out.

I usually get the discussion rolling with an opening question that any parent can answer. Something along the lines of, “What’s one thing that surprised you about parenting?” Or, “If you could go back to before your baby was born and tell yourself one thing, what would it be?” I emphasize that no one has to share their breastfeeding story with me, and that I am not there to evaluate anyone’s parenting. I’m just there to answer questions they may have.

In spite of my efforts to not be the breastfeeding police, most of the moms do share their breastfeeding story. Whether they’re breastfeeding or not at this point, they all at least tried, and so they have some experience good or bad that they’re carrying around with them. I listen and do my best to honour their experience, however it turned out.

There are a few things I’ve learned from my time playing ‘Representative for Breastfeeding.’ One is that we all want our stories to be heard respectfully. Another is that most of us (myself included) take parenting choices very personally, and it’s hard for us not to internalize someone else’s statements about breastfeeding or discipline or infant sleep. But my biggest lesson, by far, is that pretty much no parent knows what they’re doing.

Babies don’t come with a manual, and they can’t provide you with regular reports on the quality of your parenting. When you have an infant, you’re working largely on instinct and second-hand information. But it’s important that you don’t mess this up too badly, so you try to evaluate the data to see how you’re doing. How much does your child sleep? How much does your child poop? How much does your child cry? How much does your child weigh? We read these signs like we’re reading tea leaves, searching for order in the chaos. And then we look at our neighbour’s kid, and try to see how our kid measures up in comparison.

Inevitably, as mothers share their experiences, two mothers come up with stories that stand in direct opposition to each other. Which is OK – no two mothers are alike and no two babies are alike. Trying to make everyone fit the same mold is fruitless. But still, when it happens, the question hovers in the air. Who’s right?

This is what I’ve come to believe about breastfeeding, and parenting in general: If your child is healthy, and it’s working for you, that’s all that matters. No further explanation is required. If you have the sort of kid who likes to sleep in a crib, that’s all right. If you have the sort of kid who likes to sleep with one hand on you, that’s all right. If you have the sort of kid who feeds every 3 hours for 10 minutes, that’s all right. If you have the sort of kid who feeds every 2 hours for 45 minutes, that’s all right. As long as the kid in question is healthy, and you are generally OK with things, no one else matters.

Sometimes, people from outside your family feel concerned about you or your child. They interpret your child in the light of their own child, or something they’ve read, or an experience they had 30 years ago. They say something because they genuinely care. They offer books or the number for their naturopath or a suggestion for how to better discipline your toddler. When someone offers unsolicited advice to me, I often don’t know how to respond. I may begin to question myself, or wonder if there’s really something wrong. Because I don’t exactly know what I’m doing, here, either.

Thankfully, I’ve discovered that you do not owe anyone outside of your immediate family an explanation. Other people can provide advice or experience, but you are free to take it or leave it. As long as your child is healthy and safe, and things are working for your family, you don’t have to provide any further explanation to anyone. Whether it’s me talking about breastfeeding at a mom and baby group, or the cashier at the grocery store, or a well-meaning older relative. If the question is Who’s right? the answer is No one. And everyone. It depends. Have a cookie.

Cookies are always the answer. And this is straight from the keyboard of the breastfeeding police, so you know the information is solid.

Have you ever received advice that was clearly off-base for yourself or your child? How do you react when that happens? I’d love to hear your tips!

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  1. This is a great post Amber. After feeling the pressure of my oldest daughter’s lack of sleeping (as an infant), I took straight to the books to “make her sleep through the night.” I read books till I went cross eyed….nothing seemed right to me, nothing seemed right for my daughter. Eventually I kicked a book (literally) across the room and I was done with feeling that my daughter had to sleep through the night and just let things be as they were. My job was to mother her through the sleepless nights and I accepted that. I did what I needed to do to get us through that time. At nearly 4 years old she is still not a great sleeper, and that’s just her. No advice is going to change that at this point! How great that you get to spend such quality time with new mothers! Yay!
    Kristin’s last post … Im Breathing Againand DancingMy Profile

  2. I’ve been given all sorts of unsolicited advice over the years. It doesn’t happen as often now my guess is because I no longer look like a teenager. With the oldest I got pregnant at 19 and wasn’t married everyone and their brother felt the need to tell me what I was doing wrong with him when he was young. The way I responded was usually to say something along the lines of that’s an interesting thought, I’m glad it worked for you. I will have to think about it more to decide if it would work for us. I learned that from my Mom. People always felt the need to tell her how to raise her 7 children when my oldest sister went through some rough times as a teenager.
    Amy’s last post … Christmas giftsMy Profile

  3. Amber, I’m really glad you are there to support the mothers. We need support!

    Unwanted advice? That’s why the term “mmhmm” was invented.

    And now I want to share something that isn’t answering your questions, but I feel compelled to mention it whenever there is talk of parents “just going on instincts”. Instincts are a great way to go if they work for you. Mine didn’t so well.

    I also believe there are some of us (like me), who find the subject of child-rearing interesting to learn about, and the more I have learned through books, articles, research, etc., the more intriguing, even fascinating the experience has become. I needed to get my mind engaged in some of the subtleties of parenting to make the job more fun. (Let’s face it, much of child care is pure drudgery.) And, not to be scary, but there are lots of things going on in children’s hearts and minds that we don’t see when they appear physically healthy. Anyway, I guess my point is that I don’t think there is ANY shame in wanting or needing advice.

    • I’m not suggesting there’s shame in wanting or needing advice. I have asked for advice, and read books, and all of that, too. But there’s a big difference between seeking out information, and receiving unsolicited advice.

      What it comes down to is whether or not what you’re doing is working for you (and your kids). If it is, then you’re probably not looking for input, and you don’t owe anyone any explanations within the realm of reason. Of course you can share your story if you feel inclined, but you’re not obligated to, and that’s a key point.

      I also realize there’s nothing wrong with providing help when you’re asked. That’s why I’m at these groups, in fact – to provide help to those who want it. But I don’t want anyone to feel that I’m there to evaluate or cast judgment on them if they are happy with the current situation. You know?

      • Oh, I wasn’t suggesting that you were suggesting there was shame! Just wanted to put it out there in case others find that their instincts fail them at times, like mine did…

        I totally agree with you that our choices are none of anyone’s business and we should never have to explain. And parents need to feel confident, so they don’t feel judged by differences of opinion, solicited or otherwise. None of us has all the answers and we all make mistakes. I think it helps to embrace parenting as a learning process.

  4. Oh you hit a nerve with this one.
    My baby cried, he cried A LOT! He ate, amost all the time, and he never slept for more than 3.5 hours until he was SEVEN months old (I have a journal that kept me sane-ish so I know I’m not exagerating this point). My milk was painfully plentiful, and maybe that was part of the problem, he couldn’t possibly get to the rich hind milk could he? But he was chubby and growing and other than the crying seemed to be doing very well. No book was there to tell me what was going on, they all had these “what to expect” lists that didn’t seem to apply and I was scared, sleep deprived and feeling like a failure, a milk machine, a complete wreck honestly. Nobody I knew had babies yet, and my family was too far removed from the experience.
    Other than his size, I felt like there was no way it was right.
    In his moments when he was not crying, he was a cooing little cherub bright and curious. The problem was the wailing that always came. My doctor said he was an “angry little fellow”. I took offense, what could a baby be angry about? She got me to calm down and said that he was a high needs baby that would grow into a high needs toddler and a high needs teen, but would probably be a fantastic adult, so accept him as he is (temper and all) and go with it. I felt doomed. And yes, my doctor’s predictions are true. He is now 13 and still terribly emotional and tempermental, but his morals are great, his stubborness helps prevent bad influence (thank goodness!) and I have high hopes for his adult life.

    After all that I decided we need another one. And boy #2 was completely textbook. I still had uncomfortable quantities of milk, but it all goes smoother when the baby books apply. I used Tracy Hogg’s “Baby Whisperer” strategies for him and I had a content, predictable, thriving baby that was sleeping more than 6 hours before he was 3 months old! That felt like a blessing after the stressful ordeal with the first.
    *pol’s last post … Baby- its cold outsideMy Profile

    • Temperment is HUGE! I have a 15-month-old BITER/HITTER. Do people think I’m training him that way at home? It’s completely hard-wired and yet very few kids do it. We’ve tried everything, and now I know that he needs to kept away from other toddlers in stimulating situations especially if he’s tired, and I have to shadow him and be persistant about letting him know that his biting is unacceptable. But it’s mortifying to catch him doing it.
      harriet Fancott’s last post … Shout OutsMy Profile

  5. Thank you for such a great post Amber. Even as recently as two days ago I was jumped all over by another mom for having an opinion that isn’t line with hers in regards to breastfeeding. It really doens’t feel very great to have anyone condem you or judge you or belittle you for how you are doing things and how they are working. As a mom and a women I think we need to love and support our fellow moms with babes in arms as it is tough. All I can do is say what worked for me and move on. If someone picks up my tools that is great, if they don’t, that’s just fine too. I certainly don’t think I am the end all be all guru of motherhood (and I am sure I have a zillion more mistakes I am going to make).

  6. You’re so right on with this, Amber. As somebody who leans toward the crunchy end with a lot of my choices but really and truly not only accept but embrace other people’s less-crunchy choices, it can be really frustrating when things I share are met with a sort of defensive need to explain. I feel like I”m always having to over-explain and it takes the fun out of it. But at the same time I know those defensive responses come from a place of insecurity that all moms feel at some point. I wish we didn’t all go through that period, but it may be as inevitable as comments from family.

  7. This is a great post Amber! I really enjoyed it and like your no explanation required policy for healthy kids.
    Wendy Irene (Give Love Create Happiness)’s last post … Warm Banana Spice BreadMy Profile

  8. Love this post! Great job. I like your balanced approach. My grandma told me I spoiled the hell out of my youngest because I wore him in a baby bjorn, well, constantly. Hey, I said, the constant crying just wasn’t working for me.
    Nicole’s last post … I just want to eat my COOKIE!My Profile

  9. This is so timely for me. My mother and sister (aka the Judge and Jury) are coming to town and staying with us for several days due to the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday. My husband and I have been stressed over it for weeks. Usually their criticism ends up with me getting defensive and stressed out and yelling at someone before the visit is over. Hopefully I can avoid any meltdowns this time around.

    You wrote ” If the question is Who’s right? the answer is No one. And everyone. It depends. Have a cookie.”

    Cookies. Yes. There will be cookies in my near future.
    Shana’s last post … 3 Things I am Thankful ForMy Profile

  10. Yes, I think new moms need support/respect more than advice. If they want advice, there is no shortage of it out there. As for people giving me advice, I’m pretty happy not to take if I don’t feel it’s right for my/my son/ my family.
    harriet Fancott’s last post … Shout OutsMy Profile

  11. Amber, you are wonderful.

    Also, if/when we have a second baby I want to hire you to be my personal breastfeeding cheerleader and advice giver. I would have loved to meet someone like you when I was struggling.

  12. You’re awesome. Not that I’m judging you — but if I were judging you, I’d conclude that you are awesome. (Pssst… I’m judging you…).

    The awful thing about it is that no one ever points out what you’re doing right. At least in my experience. I don’t get unsolicited compliments on my parenting, just crits.

    I didn’t talk to a very best friend of mine for a long time when she gave me a lecture about how I had to do something about the way my 3-year old pretended she was a cat or else she would grow up to be a gigantic loser with no friends. Man, I get angry just thinking about it.

    I think it’s easy to forget how very sensitive new moms can be. They are just the rawest of people.

    It just warms my heart to think of you being gentle with moms. Most people don’t think of it, is all. Even other moms.
    Betsy’s last post … Let Them LookMy Profile

  13. Unsolicited advice is annoying and above all inappropriate oftenmost. But healthy and safe now as a criteria for good parenting choices seems a little reductive – after all, our children will spend most of their life as adults, and trying to teach them to be healthy and safe then would seem more important.
    Francesca’s last post … Last paper link!My Profile

    • I’m using ‘healthy and safe’ here, because if a child isn’t healthy and safe, then clearly something needs to change. It’s reductive because it’s a baseline for adequate parenting, not a criteria for good parenting.

      Also, I’m talking about young babies, who aren’t really equipped to learn a whole lot about adult life. Of course, parenting and needs change as children grow. And so I focus on teaching my preschooler about traffic safety, which is a life skill, but I don’t worry about that sort of thing with a 3-month-old.

  14. Yeah, I get “assvice” we call it all the time from well meaning family friends. Gearing up to hear it over Thanksgiving on Thursday. Especially in regards to schooling, ever since we pulled my son out of preschool. Things like, “Well he has to learn to like school sooner or later so you aren’t doing him any favors by spoiling him now…” I just listen and repeat my mantra “like water off a duck’s back” over and over. Especially with people I don’t see often and don’t want to get into a real discussion with. Just smile and nod. Let it roll off. And absolutely then steal away to the kitchen for the cookies.
    Amber’s last post … My Maternity Shirt Pattern or just a mama shirt patternMy Profile

  15. I think every parent in the history of having kids has received bad, unwanted, or wack advice. I’m pretty strong-minded and I may have a bit of a loud mouth from time-to-time so my reaction to that advice usually depends on if I’ve had my morning coffee.
    Marilyn @ A Lot of Loves’s last post … It Came From the Sky- Wednesday of Few WordsMy Profile

  16. I’ve received unwanted advice so many times it’s impossible to count. Thankfully when it comes to raising my kids I do feel confidant. Funny how that happened for me. There are so many areas of my life where I have NO confidence, but where my kids are concerned I do. I knew how I wanted to parent, I made my choices early on about breastfeeding and I knew it would be hard. So I decided to seek out support venues that would support that and encourage me along, rather than provide me with information I didn’t want. With both my children breastfeeding was a complete joy. There were many things that I found hard and stressful, but breastfeeding wasn’t one of them. For that I am eternally grateful.
    Christine LaRocque’s last post … Trust what comesMy Profile

  17. to take it one step further, this also pretains to your childs doctor. doctors are great. and they have a lot of great information, but they dont know your family and your child like you do. especially a baby who cant talk and say what theyre feeling or not feeling. my daughters doctor is great for when shes sick, but when it comes to ehr wellness check-ups, he always tells me what i should be doing when it comes to one thing or another…and my daughter is healthy and progressing perfectly. i admit, the first few times we went to him, i tried to change and do everything he said, but its didnt work for us. so i stopped and went back to what i was doing before. she was/is fine. at her 6m check-up i realised that if shes healthy and its working for us, status quo is acceptable…and everything he says is a suggestion, just like my moms advice to stop breastfeeding at a month, and just like my grandparents advice to stop picking her up everytime she cried [which i really dont do all that much…being a single mom living at my dads for the time being, its just not feesable in our very crazy life.]

    of course, i look at my friends babies and think, oh shes throwing things, by now, hes was walking, by now, oh he doesnt cry this much, oh she says mama, already…and i think maybe i should take their advice. but im starting to look at my daughter as the unique individual that she is [and thats mainly attributed to the montessori research ive been doing.] and in doing so, i think im enjoying her little moments a lot more, im enjoying the NOW and what she can do in this moment a lot more. i dont think much about when is she gonna walk? lets try to teach her to stand! shell learn it all in her own time, following someone elses advice or not…i mean, the very first human to ever walk upright learned it with advice or someone teaching them, so shell learn, too.

    i still have a lil stigma about formula feeding, but im slowly coming around to the fact that III was only breastfed for a month, and IM perfectly fine. my cousin got rice in his formula at 2 days old to help him sleep better [whether it worked or not is totally up for debate] but he turned out to be a perfectly healthy person that served in the USMC.

    anyway, long post short, i totally agree that every parent [even between mom and dad] is different and EVERYONES advice is just that…advice.

  18. I just wanted to say that I love this post Amber. Like real love. True love. That is all…
    Melodie’s last post … Wild Mother Arts Nursing Necklace GiveawayMy Profile

  19. Cookies are the key to everything . . .

    A vague “mmm-hmmmm” seems to get me past a advice-givers. They look for someone else to tackle.
    Lady M’s last post … Redefining Activities When Accompanied by Small ChildrenMy Profile

  20. Great post, Amber. Unsolicited advice can be so hurtful and so I have tried to remember this as a grandmother and MIL. Encouragement for what’s working is so powerful, isn’t it?

    On a slightly different subject, having a family member with a serious medical condition can also elicit an avalanche of unsolicited advice regarding doctors, diet, treatment plans, you name it. I realize these “suggestions” come from a place of concern, love and a genuine need to help or perhaps even a sense of fear and helplessness.

    I have tried to remain calm and clear that we are doing everything we can to deal with the situation. And, yes, if there is information I haven’t heard that may be helpful, I am open to hearing it. But, please assume the people affected have already researched the topic thoroughly.

    I am so grateful for good friends I can report to, who listen carefully, offer kind and loving words and who share stories and experiences with us. I believe this is the best way to support parents, as well.

  21. Fantastic post, Amber. Deserves to be published beyond your site, for sure.
    Sarah@EmergingMummy’s last post … In which I am experiencing a thousand gifts 499 – 508My Profile

  22. Yup, one thing I definitely have learned, everyone has an opinion on everything! When its welcome advice, fantastic, but when its advice wrapped in judgment, not so fantastic 🙁 As a mom you gotta do what you gotta do to be the best mom you can to your little one…every experience is different!
    Jenn’s last post … Raising a ReaderMy Profile

  23. Love the post Amber. Parenting decision are very personal and many are too difficult to explain (or justify) to outsiders. Whether you breastfeed past 12 months, or co-sleep, or let your baby sleep on their side, or any type of controversial decision, no one knows your child like you do and you never owe an explanation.
    TotBargains’s last post … CrayolaMy Profile

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  1. […] blog, but I think it bears repeating: if your child is healthy, and things are working for you, that’s all that matters. You don’t need to worry that how you respond to your two-month-old will create a lifetime of […]

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