This past weekend, Andrew and I attended a friend’s wedding, John in tow. It was the first time that we were bringing John to a wedding that did not involve family members, and as we took our places in a pew, we were both a little nervous. John had been miraculously well behaved at the last wedding we had attended, but it seemed unlikely that we would be so fortunate twice.
As it turned out, John was a perfect little angel for exactly half an hour, about the length of time needed for a wedding ceremony. It would have been the perfect timing, had the wedding begun on time. But unfortunately for us, it started half an hour late, and by the end of the Responsorial Psalm, Andrew had already resorted to distracting John outside. I didn’t see them again until the end of the ceremony.
It was a forty-minute drive from the church to the reception, and John spent the first half crying and the second half fast asleep. Once we arrived at the reception hall, it was only a few minutes before we were permitted into the banquet room to find our seats. As the rest of the wedding guests assigned to our table took their seats around us, it became obvious that we were sitting at the designated baby table. Over the course of the dinner, I had a few opportunities to talk with a mother of an almost six month old baby boy, as well as ample time to just watch them. What I learned while we sat there made me aware of a whole different world of parenting, one that is very different from the one that we have here in America.
A few weeks ago, I learned that American parents are generally less happy than their foreign counterparts. Actually, I merely confirmed what I had already suspected. I also was not overly surprised by the reasons given. Apparently there are two: we live in a culture where new parents do not feel well-supported, as well as one that is obsessed with safety. These two reasons combine to give rise to an atmosphere that can create some very unhappy parents.
This past weekend, I was able to witness a different take on parenting. Andrew and I were seated next to a couple who had been raised in Morocco and were raising their own children in England. Just watching them gave me the impression that they had a very different approach to parenting, a suspicion that was confirmed by my conversation with this mother.
This woman was probably the most laid-back mother I have ever seen, though apparently most mothers outside of the US take that approach. She brought her stroller everywhere, and her son spent most of his time lying in it, making cooing noises and smiling at everyone who passed by. He seemed perfectly content lounging in his stroller, and his mother did not feel like it was necessary to “wear” him constantly. She gave him formula in his bottles, which she mixed in front of everyone, as if she didn’t care about the judgmental glances around her. And it really didn’t seem like she did.
Her older daughter, on the other hand, was free to roam about the reception venue. She was incredibly independent, but came back to our table occasionally just to check in. When she fell on the dance floor, her mother did not jump up and rush to her. Instead, she remained in her chair beside me, and when her daughter looked up at her mother, she just smiled and waved. Her daughter got back up, rubbed her knees, and went back to dancing as if nothing had happened. Her mother did the same.
As we talked, it became clear that Europe and Africa both have very different mentalities when it comes to parenting. They definitely operate according to a “whatever works” philosophy, whether that be formula or breast milk, prams or carriers, swings or cribs. If it works for you, then it’s right. While there is some awareness of different parenting styles, they are not so rigid as here. Most parents certainly do not go so far as to define themselves according to those styles. Parents can feel free to use formula, but also co-sleep, “wear” their baby, but also sleep train. Helicopter parenting is largely foreign to European and African parents, and mothers have no problem leaving their baby in his pram for extended periods of time, as well as watching from afar as their toddlers careen across the playground from swing to slide and back again.
While I’m sure that judgments pass between parents in other countries, without such strong alignments to specific parenting styles, the judgments are merely the result of individual human weakness, rather than the result of mutually exclusive parenting camps that are constantly at odds with one another. The need to label everything, to create unnecessary dichotomies, is not as prevalent in other places. Consequently, mothers can be more appreciative of differences between their respective styles. Friendships do not come to an end merely because you have different opinions about the best way to get an infant to sleep, or bottle versus breastfeeding.
I think we American mothers have a lot that we could learn from our foreign counterparts. If we were to abandon our labels, disband our parenting camps, we might be a bit happier. We wouldn’t be so apt to compare and judge, to assume that one philosophy must be better than another. We might be more willing to pick and choose, and to accept mothers who do not fit into a given stereotype. Mothers might feel more comfortable both nursing and sleep training, formula-feeding and co-sleeping. We might not be able to change the way our society views motherhood in an instant, but we can begin to change it over time by learning from others and abandoning our attempts to fit motherhood into a preconceived mold.
We are not cookie-cutter parents. We might not fit into any particular parenting philosophy, but that doesn’t mean that we are bad parents. It just means that our babies are unique. They don’t fit into the mold either. They don’t even know that the mold exists. Not only do so many of us acknowledge that these molds exist; we worship them. We aim to be the best “crunchy mama.” We try to be the best CIO mother. We try to fit ourselves and our children into molds that just don’t always work. Some of the reasons behind America’s unhappy mothers are external: poor maternity leave laws, very little assistance for working mothers, inadequate support of mothers trying to feed their babies, whether that be with formula or breast milk. But some of the reasons are also internal. In some ways, we are responsible for our own unhappiness. We are the ones who compare, judge, and stereotype. We are the ones who believe in the cookie cutters. Our culture does not help us, but neither do we help ourselves. I think we just need to forget about the cookie cutters. Let’s just eat the cookies.
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!