Friday, October 13, 2017

Communication About Pregnancy and Parenting

Hey! Long time no write!

To be honest, I feel a little bit that blogs have fallen out of favor, at least for me. I used to write to keep in touch with friends and family, and now there's seemingly too much social media available for that and I gave up on blogging a bit because I felt like people probably didn't have time for that.

Today, however, I had a topic I wanted to talk about that is too long for Twitter or Facebook, so . . . I'm BACK! And PREGNANT. For the first time. At age 36. Yep. Even before we were really trying to get pregnant, we got all kinds of "advice" and "requests," which are already pretty weird. Now at almost 34 weeks pregnant and still fascinated with the psychology of things (for those unfamiliar, I had a 3.97 GPA in my BA in Psychology; I freaking love psychology and ongoing research), I wanted to write about my insights. I think lots of people really don't think about these things and there's a bizarre culture surrounding how we talk about parenting and pregnancy. Here we go!

Bias warning: This is only my introspection and you're welcome to disagree; my hope is by discussing this, it will help everyone's overall communications on these topics.Most importantly, I hope that we can learn to be okay making our own choices for ourselves and knowing that mistakes are going to happen and that's alright too.

Pregnancy and Parenting Advice

Pregnancy and parenting advice is a little bit strange for several reasons. Like many types of advice, it is often unsolicited. However, most advice is given knowing the audience. For example, my husband and I are very comfortable with one another since we've been talking to each other for 21 years and love and respect each other. If we notice something, we speak up to the other without waiting to be prompted. It goes well probably 88% of the time, and the rest of the time could be attributed to having a bad day or some deeper issue. It's the same with friends! I have friends I can say anything to and feel pretty safe and some friends where I know to keep my trap shut. We know our audiences; we learn what causes drama and what doesn't. What makes parenting and pregnancy advice weird is that people give it without knowing their audience. At ALL.

I should start by saying that both my husband and I are very proactive learners. If we want to know something, we take classes and read books (yes, multiple), and we even go so far as to track down the research and check out its methodology and look for multiple supporting or non-supporting sources as the case may be. We're thorough.

At first, when I received unsolicited advice, I was like, "Oh! Maybe I'll learn something new!" But, I find that most of the time, unsolicited advice is for the benefit of the giver, not the receiver, and is often actually more of a judgment and demand rather than actual advice. :} It's truly bizarre. I don't think people even realize that they're doing it.

Examples of unsolicited advice/requests I've received that falls into these categories:
  • "Children shouldn't play video games." (I grew up on educational video games and am grateful for all my father taught me about computers because it's definitely made me a more capable person and an extremely valuable employee. Also, video games are a wonderful storytelling medium. I even wrote a huge report on several studies on video games and their impact on children while getting my BA, and the research all pointed to children developing more skills they can't or don't get elsewhere, including genuine teamwork skills far better than those developed in forced groups in school.)
  • A 3-page critique of our baby registry from someone I've only spoken to in person twice. (My husband, Jesse, and I noticed that after the critique was received that said person didn't even buy anything from the registry. I spent over a month creating that registry based on heavy research, really painful digging through reviews and options, and deep introspection about what would make our lives easier since we'll both be working and can't afford daycare and will be essentially handing off our baby to each other throughout the day. I even carefully evaluated what kinds of things we could "wing it" with and dug through our house to find out if we had alternatives or variations that would work. Even tried to keep prices low because I hoped that if other people wanted to help us out, it wouldn't be an insane request for help. The person who wrote this critique had no idea how much work went into it and never asked.)
  • Asking for our child to be named after someone we didn't know for most of our lives.
  • Telling me what vitamins and supplements to take through my husband.
  • EDIT (added this one as an after-thought because it's ridiculously common): The "I-bet-you-forgot-you-are-having-a-baby-and-it's-going-to-be-challenging" type of advice. Usually, this emerges when you're not talking about the baby but about yourself. In my case, it's been "Man, I'm looking forward to being able to walk around normally with my body after I'm done being pregnant," or "I'm looking forward to no longer having nausea," and just talking about concerns within your own body. People have this bizarre tendency to, instead of showing sympathy or empathy or just listening to you vent or sharing in your hope to return to having control over your own body, say things they clearly think are clever such as "Except you'll be walking around with a baby." :> Or, "Except then you'll have a puking baby." It always comes in as a smart comment like they think you've forgotten that will happen or never stopped to think about it. We didn't forget; we're not talking about that right now. And I think about it all the time. Of course, paired with these comments almost always comes some form of advice. Even if it's good advice, I have to say that (and this is just for me) if I'm not talking about the baby that's already consuming so much about my life already, I'm not really interested in talking about baby stuff right now. I wanted to talk about me. :} Talking about pregnancy symptoms isn't an opening for advice or talk about the baby. Even further removed is talking about things not related to the pregnancy at all and people still managing to use it as an opportunity to give advice.
Obviously, these are pretty intrusive examples and certainly aren't all of the ones we received. The advice I want to give for better interpersonal communication is this:

1.) Know your audience and know yourself. Do they actually need your advice? Is your advice just an opinion you want to thrust onto others? Will it be welcome? And, are you doing this for yourself or really for the other person? Be honest in this assessment. It's okay if you just want to chat about things, but take a step back and realize if you're creating a situation in which someone's options include agreeing with you or feeling uncomfortable because they disagree. Know if you're looking to feel needed versus if the other person really needs you.

2.) Depending on the relationship, it's probably better to wait to be asked for advice. And, if you are asked, only answer the question asked. Someone coming to you for advice should be honored by respecting that they only asked you about one thing. This is not the same as permission to open the floodgates and give them all of the advice that you've been holding back on giving. :} You may be eager to help, but refer back to #1.

3.) As written about so eloquently by Amanda Palmer in her book, be aware of the difference between an ask and a demand. If you're asking, that means "no" is an acceptable answer. I know some people think of a "no" as being rude, but it's actually a person's autonomous right. In my case, when I've been asked and said no it's because I didn't want to argue and I knew I didn't need the advice because I'd already done the research and hard work and made up my mind for myself. That's a healthy way to be, so I hope that instead of perceiving it as something rude that perhaps you can see it as healthy and have trust in whomever you wanted to give advice to. Of course, it's our responsibility on the receiving end to try and be nice about it. :}

4.) Check your information first. Just because you think something is true doesn't mean that it is, and blurting out something that isn't accurate creates more drama than it solves. Before you have a knee-jerk reaction to someone saying something about parenting/pregnancy and feel the need to "correct" them, or before you offer requested advice, think about the sources of where you've obtained your information. Is it up to date? Was it really true? What proof do you have? Have you really done the research? If it's only your experience, know that you're working with bias (and your needs may not be the same as the needs of the person you're giving advice to). And, if thinking about all of these things seems like too much for you, maybe it's better to refrain from giving advice? Maybe.

5.) This one applies to all communication styles, but I've gotten a lot more of it while pregnant and it's also a pet peeve of mine. Don't argue and then after you've spoken your mind claim that you don't want to argue to end the conversation, or even worse storm out on the person you're speaking to. Yikes. If you feel like you have to say something to someone, and you want to be truly heard, then the right thing to do is be willing to find out that you're wrong and be willing to listen to the other point of view of the person you're talking to. If you're not doing that, see #1 and #3. No one wants to listen to someone who isn't willing to listen to them, and behaving in this way is one of the most aggressive forms of ignorance I can think of. I have to say, when people use this "communication" tactic it appears that they are afraid of being proven wrong and are bailing to avoid that happening. It makes you look bad as well as making the person you were talking to feel bad. Strive for healthier communication! You can do it! I believe in you. :)

People aren't all bad, though! Which is a segue into my next thought about parenting communication.

Information is Quickly Outdated or Irrelevant

Even with the best of intentions with advice, parenting/pregnancy thoughts/ideas will quickly become outdated. This was a very recent revelation to me. Having been pregnant or actively being a parent does not give anyone the kind of credit that 10 years of software development gives a programmer. You don't graduate to have more experience. In fact, no one knows everything about pregnancy and parenting; let's establish that first. My being pregnant doesn't make me an expert on other people's pregnancy experiences, and someone else having been pregnant before doesn't make them an expert on mine. Not being pregnant or a parent also doesn't necessarily give you an "objective point of view." XD Knowing someone who is currently pregnant and getting advice from them hardly makes an expert either.

What am I saying here? No one is qualified to be giving advice on every topic. Even my doula uses an outdated book, though she is a great resource for most things and is currently going to school to relearn! (In fact, we're lucky because she's doing this for free as part of her education credits.) My midwife knows what she needs to know to be a great midwife, and the sonographer knows what they need to do for the ultrasounds, and the trainers for our classes knew what they wanted to talk about in class but didn't have outside information about other research (for example, our breastfeeding instructor had no information about babies crying because of REM cycles and the apparent need for mothers to be cautious about overfeeding). I think we should all be reasonably able to accept that no one knows everything, and that's okay! And, information you once thought was true and useful may become outdated within a decade or less. Even information that is still true needs to be treated with caution.

A great example is that two of my friends recommended that I get lanolin cream for my hospital bag  because I intend to breastfeed. I didn't know anything about lanolin, but I figured if two of my friends were recommending it then it merited researching and potentially adding to my list. There are still semi-recent studies that show lanolin is very helpful. However, the additional information I discovered through my own research was that lanolin can sometimes include pesticides. Even when it doesn't, it comes from sheep, and in my personal experience sheep can actually be pretty disgusting animals and though I'm sure it goes through some cleansing process it still sounded gross to me. With this lead-in from my friends, I could find more recent research that shows that breast milk itself and other alternatives are just as effective or more so than lanolin. This is great news, as it reduces potential risks to the baby. Obviously, lanolin worked just fine for my friends and their children are okay; nothing about this new information disputes their experience or invalidates their feelings about it. It's just that there's now new information that's available for me so that I can make my own informed choice. I'm going to avoid lanolin and try one of the alternatives.

Also, the experiences people have are not universal. Those who tell me it's important to have children be outside alone even as toddlers, for their development, don't seem to recognize that it's not an option where I live. All of the people who recommend this raised their children in places that had secured yards or farms, and they knew all of their neighbors. I don't have a secured yard, I live directly on a street where I've witnessed a few collisions from my window (and people speed all of the time even if they don't crash), and in this day and age I'd almost definitely get contacted by CPS. I'm not saying I want to coddle my child or be a "helicopter parent." (What a horrible, judgmental term, btw.) I'm just saying I have to do what's right for me and my situation. Of course, someone out there who might read this may be screaming internally that children must be watched at all times. Notice that these points of view are both opinions and not facts, which makes them even less relevant. Though I don't have any research within my grasp at the moment, I'm fairly sure it's safe to assess that these two different sets of children, raised differently, could still grow up to have just as happy and fulfilled lives as the other, just as children who are breastfed versus formula fed will all be okay. Love is probably the most important thing, I think. And even that is only an opinion! If you live in a war zone, that's obviously not going to be true for you!

I prefer to be optimistic and believe most people's intentions are good. :) Especially those with prior experiences of things they feel went well with their own children hope to pass that on to loved ones. And, they likewise hope to avoid things they felt were negative experiences. Once again, I think communication can be improved by not taking it personally if someone has a different perspective than you. In my case, I choose to honor many things that I perceived to be good experiences between my father and myself, or my in-laws and myself and their kids. At the same time, I also want to branch out and try new things with my husband, create our own traditions, and find out what works best for us and our child. After all, just because it works well for other people doesn't mean that it works well for everyone.

Not a Dichotomy, and Not Mutually Exclusive

Some people I know have a tendency to get butt-hurt over silly parenting/pregnancy things. In some cases it's data that's changed that they refuse to accept for reasons unknown to me, and in other cases it seems to be that they become defensive. In any case, the type of arguments about parenting/pregnancy that I'm talking about emerges usually because some expert source has supplied information to the masses and, based on personal experience (which can be very valid!) someone develops the notion that the two ideas are mutually exclusive or are a dichotomy. These are logic fallacies, and I encourage folks to take a step back and think about why they are getting so upset over these things . . . because most of it is really trivial.

One example: one of my friends rolled her eyes at me because I mentioned concern about blankets in a crib with a baby and SIDS. This is something that, if you're seeing a doctor/midwife about your pregnancy, using a pregnancy app, or reading any pregnancy books, you're going to get slammed with information about. In her experience, her baby was cold and wouldn't stop crying until he had a blanket. She felt, seemingly very strongly, that this meant that the SIDS concern about blankets was stupid. But, the two things aren't mutually exclusive! You can be aware that blankets can be a suffocation hazard and be aware that you need to keep your baby warm. My immediate thought was that with SIDS, they're concerned about loose blankets. Swaddling, therefore, would be safer if your baby needs to feel warm and safe. So, maybe that will work well for me since my baby is going to be born in winter. Her judgmental reaction was so off-putting, though, I just didn't say anything. :} I know that while she had a strong reaction, it doesn't mean she's going to be losing sleep judging me over that. That's not true of everyone, though, and this still creates a very negative communication experience.

As for dichotomies, some people treat information like light switches with two possible outcomes. With babies, parenting, and pregnancy, they seem to believe things are very simple. Either the research is right, or it's wrong. No room for middle-ground. No room for exceptions or confounding variables. What a scary way to live! I think it goes without saying that things are not true in every instance. There's usually exceptions to the rule, sometimes many exceptions to the rule. That doesn't make it invalid or not worth thinking about. It's a bad habit many people have about many things. It's infested our view of politics, bigotry/racism, and so many other hot issues in addition to all of the little ones. It's contagious because our brains like to have things simplified, but it doesn't make it right. In fact, it makes it harder to hear each other and understand what other people are saying if we try to think of everything in dichotomies. The nature versus nurture debate is the most obvious example! Why are there only two options given? Why are they considered opposites from each other? It's a non-argument; you can't have one without the other, and it implies that only two options for perceiving parenting. If you're thinking in dichotomies, I encourage you to question that line of thinking because the dichotomy you're visualizing is probably a fabricated construct.

Gender Language

Last, but definitely not least! Although you might think this is about over-gendering babies, I actually think people worry too much about that (I never wanted to look like Barbie, but I loved Barbie dolls; I loved looking in magazines but never felt the need to look like or be like the girls in magazines; there are plenty of strong women in video games and have been for a long time. If you didn't find them, you're not trying.). I'm actually talking about how fathers are treated.

My husband was very lucky, along with his brothers, to have his father as a stay-at-home parent. His mother was the breadwinner in his family, and it sounded challenging as there were few fathers during that time period doing what he was doing. Today, I would argue that more fathers are involved in some way or another with parenting. More fathers have access to information they didn't have access to before. Yet, in literature (even literature received from our birthing classes and community programs), they write about fathers in a demeaning way. The writing implies that men are inherently stupid about parenting and need help every step of the way to bond with their child. Obviously, it's challenging. A mother can breastfeed and a father can't, for example. But it's upsetting that fathers are treated as outside people instead of equal partners in parenting.

Each parenting relationship with children is going to be unique and different. My thought here is that we just need to change the narrative to be less presumptive. The narrative where mothers inherently love their children and are giving and fathers have to be taught how to be emotionally available and not kill their children because of goofing off and being irresponsible and silly. This narrative is dangerous. My biological mother never loved me; she was abusive and horrible. I went to various resources for help (a school counselor, the police, and a community program receptionist for abused children), and because she was a mother, all of them laughed in my face or couldn't believe she would do the awful things that she did. Ironically, my mother-in-law who is very sweet was accused of abuse because she rushed her boys to the hospital when they were hurt. :p Argh. Anyway, if anything was perceived to be wrong with me, it was assumed it was my father's fault, but he was the good parent. Even after long days of working hard, he'd stay up to make extra time for me. He was the one who read with me. He was the one who wrote educational programs to help me with areas I was struggling with in school. He was the one who made sure I had things that I needed and noticed my love of music and encouraged me to pursue it by buying me instruments and showing me midis. I spent a ridiculous amount of time correcting people about their assumptions in regard to my family.

Of course, gender can't be treated by individual experiences either. On this topic, I feel an increasing importance in making no assumptions about either gender and keeping that in mind with literature for forthcoming parents.

I'd also like to see more inclusive options available for fathers. There are many online baby groups and apps, but the weirdest thing about them to me is that there's no option to sign up as a couple. I can do that for my shopping list app; why can't I do that with the father of my child? Why can't we both receive information about our growing baby on a regular basis? Why are men not allowed onto the forum with women so that they can understand concerns about pregnancy and how to support their partners better? Or, maybe your partner isn't a man. At any rate, the partner should be included in some way and have the same access and ability to share accounts and experiences and polling, and right now it's geared toward the mothers only. Yet, there is a lot of literature that talks about the exclusion of fathers/partners. Let's stop talking about it and do something to fix it!

Alright. That's all of my thoughts on that. I think everyone has to make the best decisions for themselves and I dream of inclusiveness. I know people want to support each other, and sometimes we're just misguided in our efforts. I know I have been myself, so I certainly don't blame anyone else. It's tough. Hopefully this blog will help someone think about communicating differently and maybe even improve your relationships with others. It's important to be honest and open as well as respectful.