It seems the meaning of ‘it takes a village’ has changed a little in the past few decades. Not so long ago the phrase was a source of comfort for parents; a reminder that there is help at hand, that they aren’t expected to do it alone, and that there is a whole community of people behind each little family, offering encouragement and support. Like a web of experience and understanding which creates a giant safety net. When my Grandma says ‘it takes a village’ it sounds so comforting. It means I’m not alone. In this current age, where new advancements are a daily occurrence, where every wannabe parenting expert can twist any obscure piece of research into an agenda, and where social media and digital platforms give everyone a voice, the phrase sounds very different. It sounds angry, judgemental and impatient, like a thousand screaming voices. When a well-meaning onlooker says ‘it takes a village’ it means I’m not parenting the way another villager wants me too and I may be lynched by a mob with pitchforks. It means I am very much alone, and being assessed by accusing eyes with every decision I make.
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Perhaps that sounds paranoid. Maybe I read too many articles on social media or join too many discussion threads. I have always thought that knowledge can only be a good thing, that information can only enrich our lives and embolden our decision making process. I have always believed that having information, or acquiring knowledge would make my parenting journey easier. I would be more confident and be more assured in making decisions on behalf of my children. Now I am not so sure. I read yesterday an article written by hypnobirthing teacher and lactivist Lottie Daley, which was written as a hypothetical conversation and likened sleep training infants to an abusive relationship between two adults. I was shocked at how outwardly nasty this premise is.
To suggest that a parent who engages in a well-documented parenting method, (which some people disagree with), is in any way similar to a violent relationship between a husband and wife – regardless of whether you agree with the idea or not – can only cause significant confusion and hurt for a large group of parents that are trying their best. The author, I am certain, meant no offence or upset, but her means of making her point attacked the very people she was trying, (I assume), to help. She could have presented her argument factually. She could have used logic or persuasion. She could have questioned the ‘experts’ who support these techniques, even pondered what their motives are in giving their opinion. (Book sales, anyone?)
Instead, she used guilt. She willingly manipulated the feelings of parents who, by the nature of their circumstances, are probably very fragile. I don’t want to pick on Lottie specifically because it happens every day. But her piece is a good example of the new age village. The very premise of her argument, like so many others, relies on dictating to parents what makes them successful or giant failures. On any given day I could spend two minutes looking at the headlines and find something similar on the front page of a digital newspaper, on a morning TV show, or making the rounds of Facebook. In fact truth be told, in less than that I could probably find all three. And most likely they would all contradict each other.
In years gone by, this kind of rhetoric would be shrugged off, lost in the ethers, or ignored as an occasional rant. In years gone by, obviously, we weren’t bombarded with horror stories and scary predictions through mass and digital media. But more importantly, in years gone by parents could rest easy in the knowledge that they had the support of an entire community behind them. Constant virtual criticism must be a lot easier to handle when you are part of a collaborative effort on a parenting journey.
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Now, the village looks forward to new techniques instead of the old methods, and there is nothing wrong with that. But in doing so it criticises us. It judges us. It tells us what we are doing wrong. What we should be doing better. And there is always a new way, a better way, a more important trend. I once asked my grandma what she felt the most judged about as a parent. She looked at me blankly for a moment and said “Well, we weren’t keen on eating too much table sugar with our cereal when we were pregnant.”
And therein lies the difference; it took my lovely grandma a minute or two to even come up with one obscure thing she felt judged about. If I was asked the same question, I could list ten controversial topics off the top of my head that divide parents. They would be hot button issues like circumcision, breast feeding, schooling, birthing and sleeping. Within each topic there would be a dozen or so talking points – where the baby sleeps, how we get her to sleep, what aids we use, how feeding fits into our schedule, whether we should even have a sleep schedule… Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, she used the word ‘we’ twice and ‘our’ once in that short little sentence.
In contrast, in my parenting lifetime, phrases such as ‘you’re not supposed to’ and ‘the experts disagree that…’ are common place. At a time when parents are most vulnerable, not only is the advice conflicting and the consequences seemingly insurmountable, but the supposed support network is often hostile. This open hostility is not just prevalent in the language used by parenting commentators and on forums and in threads in the digital universe. The very fact that outsiders feel as though they have an intrinsic right to direct the behaviour of other parents is frankly, unhelpful.
I’ve written about judgement before, but it never seems to ease. The truth is, the best parenting strategies are probably those that employ a great deal of moderation. And even then, how would I know? I can tell you, definitively and without a single doubt what I know to be true and right for my own children, but as for the two or three billion other kids in the world, I wouldn’t have a clue and it’s not my place to say.