This post was inspired by a conversation I had recently with my oldest and very wonderful friend who had her first baby in the middle of last year. We were talking about how easy some people find it to judge people who make what they perceive to be the ‘wrong’ choice about certain parenting issues, in particular breastfeeding.
I have felt for many years now that it is unfair to judge any woman for choosing not to breastfeed, however clear-cut the situation appears to be to outsiders, and even if she herself would admit she just didn’t want to breastfeed.
My reason is that I firmly believe that we really don’t have as much choice as we think we have. I’ll rephrase that: most people don’t have as much choice as they think they have.
The fact is that very few of us have awoken to the deepest truth of personal responsibility. I know I only have within the last couple of years. And I feel that those of us who haven’t have much less choice than they realise when it comes to any decision-making.
This is because our capacity to choose a particular course of action is influenced by an infinitely complex mix of factors – how we were brought up, what our parents’ values were, how we are and were influenced by our peers, by the media, by corporate marketing, by our culture, what our experiences have been up until now with regards to work, friendships, relationships, how strong our self-esteem is (and by that, I mean our true self-esteem, not a false self-confidence created to mask a subconscious low self-worth), what our beliefs are about any number of issues – religion, spirituality, feminism, politics. I could go on for ever!
The mother who says she just didn’t want to breastfeed may be doing so because she has been told countless horror stories about saggy breasts and reduced libido and may believe that it is her physical appearance and sexual availability that is most important to her. This isn’t a true choice if she has created these beliefs by being brought up by a mother who encouraged her to always look nice to her husband, or had friends who felt that the number of sexual partners was one of the most important things in their lives.
The mother who says she didn’t want to breastfeed because her career was too important to her to take the time to get it started didn’t really have a choice if she holds beliefs about stay-at-home-mothers letting down the sisterhood thanks to conversations she’s had with feminists who hold those views herself; and if she feels that her place in society is only of value if it can be measured in financial terms thanks to having to fight for many years to compete in a male-dominated work environment.
The mother who breastfed until her son was four years old and believes she made a conscious choice to do so may not be aware that she was only able to make that ‘choice’ because she had friends who had done so, or because she happened to stumble upon a book that suggested that it was OK to do so.
I’m sticking with the breastfeeding issue here, but this could be extended to any number of issues – women who stay with violent partners (watch this amazing TED talk by Leslie Morgan Steiner for an in depth look into why women who do so are not really making a choice in the way we think.); the career we ‘choose’; even the supermarket we decide to buy our food from each week.
We are all the mercy of the things we are exposed to in our lives, and our opinions, beliefs and our understanding of the way the world works is shaped by the myriad experiences we live through in our lives and the information we are exposed to.
However, this lack of real ‘choice’ needs to be balanced against the vital need we all have to improve our understanding of personal responsibility. It is my belief that when we make ‘choices’ that do not fit with our hearts, we feel uncomfortable about them, and we often bury that discomfort with defensive justifications and bravado, so much so that we begin to believe them ourselves.
But when we learn to really listen to our hearts, and when we really take personal responsibility for the decisions we make, then we are more likely to make decisions that are wise and improving to ourselves and, therefore, to the world.
Again, however, we’re back to our being at the mercy of our experiences. I would not know the things I know now if I hadn’t followed the path laid out for me by the ‘right’ books and the ‘right’ people in my life, for example. I know that I didn’t consciously get where I am now, and that I was led here. But I also know that I have a responsibility to take decisions I make seriously, because I am responsible for my life, and I am the only person who is.
It is not helpful to go through life like the guests on daytime chat shows who say ‘it’s not my fault I hit her! I can’t control my temper’, because it is that person’s responsibility to learn how to control his or her temper. Yes, she may have been brought up believing that violence is the correct response to fear and anger, but she has also been brought up believing that it is OK to blame others/her parents/the world for her problems.
The issue is complicated because, yes, those things have brought her where she is now, but we will get no where until we accept that we are the only people who can change ourselves and change our lives. We are responsible only for ourselves and no one else is responsible for us.
Yes, Jim may have been brought up by homophobic parents, but once he reaches adulthood – maybe even his mid-teens – it becomes his responsibility to educate himself and form his own opinions and if he has the capacity to isolate his opinions from outside influence, then they’ll be much truer and will feel much more ‘right’ to him in his heart than otherwise. And I don’t really believe that any human being’s heart would lead him to hate anyone, gay, straight, female, male, Jewish, Muslim…I’m afraid I don’t believe in inherent ‘evil’.
I believe we are all born with pure hearts and we can all return to pure hearts if we accept that we are able to and work to get there.
How does this relate to parenting? Well, I believe that this is one of the most important things we can teach our children – that their lives are their responsibility, no matter how their minds and beliefs are shaped by their experiences. Of course we cannot help but pass on our values and beliefs to our children, but, with my children, I try always to temper what I do and say with a ‘but you must make your own mind up’ and I trust, I really do, that while their paths won’t necessarily be the same as mine, they will still walk a path of compassion, empathy and love because we are trying to teach them to listen to their own hearts, not those of other people.
Clearly, this is a jumbled, incomplete opinion of mine, and begs future examination so that I understand it further, so I welcome your thoughts on this matter. I know there are a lot of readers of this blog – stick your head above the parapet and leave me a comment, if you dare! ;)