The S-Word

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Guest post by Angela Quinn


Let’s stop using the “S-word”

This is an open letter to all of my fellow advocacy-minded mothers:

You should put that baby down; you’ll spoil him.  You should breastfeed; breast is best.  You should always try for a VBAC; it’s better that way.  You shouldn’t sleep with your baby; you’ll smother him.  You should let her cry it out; otherwise, she’ll never learn independence.  You shouldn’t wear your baby in that thing; he must be uncomfortable like that.  You should put some cereal in that bottle; she’ll sleep through the night.  What do all these statements have in common?  Well, nothing, you say, because some are clearly right and some are just plain wrong.  Oh, but they do have one important aspect in common.  They are all uttered with the absolute conviction of the speaker that they are indisputable facts. 

We’ve all been subjected to solicited and unsolicited “shoulds.”  From our meddling mother-in-law to the nosy old woman in the grocery store, from perfect strangers to well-meaning friends, everyone seems to think they know better than we do.  So, what’s the problem?  It’s a little annoying, but we can just ignore them, right?  The problem is everything that is implied by telling someone that they should or should not do something, especially when you are in a position of trust, as a friend, a counselor, a care provider or just as a more experienced mother.  This seemingly innocuous term – SHOULD - carries with it the assumption that the speaker knows best and the listener does not.  When we tell a woman that she should or should not do something, we do not empower her to trust herself, to educate herself and to make her own choices.  We dismiss her concerns, dissociate her from her instincts and undermine her self-confidence.  We treat her like a toddler who asks why and is told, “Because I said so!”

And I’m not talking about making broad “should” statements to groups or to society in general.  Yes, we SHOULD work to make access to support available to as many women as possible.  We, as a society, SHOULD make sure that women are provided accurate, unbiased information about issues that affect their health and the health of their children.  We should promote healthy behaviors and discourage harmful ones.  Sometimes a strong statement sends a powerful message and that is what is needed to reach a large audience. Here, I’m talking about the personal conversations that take place woman-to-woman, mother-to-mother.  These are the interactions that have the power to change the course of an individual’s life, to make a difference, and to have a lasting impact.  We need to make sure that we are not taking them lightly and that we are not letting our enthusiasm turn us into bulldozers.

Let’s think about this.  What are the possible outcomes when you offer piece of advice (an order?) to a fellow mother that begins with “should.”  One, she doesn’t listen to you and she succeeds anyway.  That outcome casts doubt in her mind about the validity and truth of what you said and undermines your credibility.  The result is the same if she follows your advice and fails, even if there are other factors that contributed to the outcome.  Because you took responsibility for directing her behavior, justified or not, in her mind you also have ownership of the failure.  Another scenario is that she does not take your advice and fails.  Now she feels ashamed or embarrassed, possibly regretful, and we naturally avoid people who make us feel that way.  Do you think that she’ll come back to you if she wants to try again, or the next time she has an issue that you may be able to help with? 

The last possible outcome is that she takes your advice and she succeeds.  Good, right?  Not necessarily.  By saddling your advice with a “should,” you created an unnecessary dependent relationship.  Now she feels that she succeeded because she listened to you and obeyed you, not because she took control of a situation, considered her options, and acted rationally based on the facts at her disposal.  The end does not always justify the means.  You disempowered her just like she is disempowered when her healthcare provider tells her to ignore her body’s signals, the books and magazines she reads give her false information, and her loved ones belittle her wishes.  Even the most well-meaning advice, when it’s not offered as a choice for her consideration, sends her a message that she is not capable of being trusted to make choices and decisions in her own life.  She must be deficient or inadequate somehow, and her doubts, fears, questions and desires are not important.

I will admit that I struggle with this daily, in my personal life as well as in the work that I do as a La Leche League Leader.  I have to make a conscious decision to reel in my passion and my convictions and recognize that I am there to offer advice, not to prescribe, and sometimes just to listen.  I can be a resource to make it possible for women achieve their goals, but it is not for me to define their goals.  It’s hard when we really care about something to keep in mind that this does not give us the right to dictate the course that someone else’s life should take.  I once had a woman in my local Mothers of Twins Club approach me about a problem she was having breastfeeding her daughter.  She said to me, I know I can come to you because you know a lot about nursing, but you don’t look at me like I just said the F-word when I bring up formula.  Because she felt comfortable that she would receive good information and would not be judged, she came to me for advice, and we were able to work through some solutions to her issues that resulted in her continued breastfeeding.  That interaction meant a lot to me and I think about it often as I struggle to remain non-judgmental, open-minded and accessible to those around me.  Of course I screw up sometimes.  I offend people sometimes.  I lose people sometimes.  But I just hope at the end of the day that those mistakes are the exception and not the norm.

When we are presented with the opportunity to talk with a fellow mother about birth choices, breastfeeding, parenting styles, and other issues about which we are passionate and convinced of our own righteousness, perhaps we should reconsider how we approach the conversation.  We might start out by saying something like…Did you know that…?  Maybe you could try…  How would you feel about…?  Many women find that… These statements open the door for more questions and they leave her feeling that she is empowered to make decisions.  They create a mindset where she is receptive to new information and not defensive or resentful.  They set up a safe place to which she can return, either as a shoulder to cry on or as a resource for more information.  Instead of making a proclamation, an edict from on high, let’s form partnerships with the other women in our lives to help each other navigate the obstacles and challenges we face along the way.

Let’s stop using the S-word and start using the C-word.  Not “you should” but “you CAN.”  Empower other women to succeed; don’t bully them into submission.  Our goal should be to make sure that every woman has the information, accessibility and the encouragement necessary to reach her goals. Nowhere in that list are words that suggest coercion, intimidation and judgment.  We should (yes, I know I’m using the word) strive to enact change, not by ordering the people around us to change because “we know best,” but by spreading accurate information, working to create conditions that make success more likely, and by being available as a valued resource to those who seek out our help.