When I was a new mom, and Patrick was a wee four months old, I gave up nursing him. My decision to wave the white flag of surrender wasn't because I didn't desire to breastfeed, but was because he wasn't gaining enough weight on my milk alone. I was barely producing two ounces in one nursing session, let alone enough to sustain his growth.
It wasn't for lack of trying, however.
In the months after Patrick was born, I hired lactation specialists and attended Le Leche League meetings. I read every book on nursing and how to overcome feeding issues and I implemented every suggestion just about anyone had to offer: I pumped in between feedings, I took natural supplements like fenugreek and garlic, I purchased special bras, I even used a supplemental feeding system but none of it --none, I'm telling you--worked. Patrick wasn't gaining weight and I wasn't producing enough to keep him healthy.
It was the lactation consultant, the woman who offered her assistance to me for months, who eventually encouraged me to call it quits. I had dragged Patrick to her office one morning--again--for advice when she said it:
"You know, honey, you're not a failure if you give your baby a bottle. You've tried your best to nurse him and it's not working. I don't know what else you can do. I'm worried about you. You look too thin and very tired. I don't think you taking care of yourself very well and I think you need to be realistic--you've tried to nurse and it didn't work. Formula feeding Patrick does not make you a bad mother."
Tears rolled down my cheeks and I nodded. I sobbed the entire drive home.
I wanted to nurse Patrick and while I knew the lactation consultant was right--that I wasn't a failure as a woman and a mother--I felt like one. Still, I followed her advice, bought some formula and gave Patrick a bottle. He sucked down that milk like a little piglet on the teat of it's mother and the rest was history. He ate and ate and ate some more and he grew fat and round and happy. Oh, was he happy! I didn't have to take him for weekly weigh-ins anymore and though I was sad (and even embarrassed about) the bottle, I knew the formula was the right thing--for all of us.
A few months later, when Patrick was about six months old, a few friends and I attended a Catholic Woman's Conference in Minnesota. I brought Patrick with me on the get-away and I was excited to eat good food, be spiritually nourished, and spend time with my closest friends. We shared baby strollers and diaper bags and we roared with laughter deep into the night. So I was caught off guard, when right before one of the talks, another female Conference attendee approached me and said,
"You know, if you really wanted to breastfeed your baby, you could. There are ways to do it. You don't have give him a bottle, if you don't want to."
"Yes, I know," I said as I choked back tears. I turned my back on her because I didn't want her to see me cry and I walked away.
I know the woman was trying to be helpful, but her polite suggestion was actually anything but--her words hurt me. I had tried all those ways she alluded to and I felt judged by someone who, without all the information, decided I wasn't doing the "right" thing. This woman--another like-minded Catholic--had inaccurately assessed my situation, assumed I hadn't tried hard enough or didn't care enough, and offered her opinion on the "right" way to feed my child. It wounded.
This morning, I chatted with a friend of mine on the phone. She is a good, faithful woman devoted to her family. For various personal but important reasons, she and her husband recently made the decision to put their children back into public school. As we talked, she admitted she felt like a failure as a mother, but she also said she felt judged by some of the Catholic women in her homeschooling group.
I sympathized with her. I've felt the same way and after we hung up the phone here's what I realized:
It's not the snarky women at the store or playground who criticize our decision to have large families or homeschool or whatever who are the most hurtful. We can expect this kind of attitude from secular society. But when we're judged by like-minded moms--women who love the faith and strive to live it daily just like we do--when those women deem us not as "good" because we do something outside of the "Catholic thing to do", this is when we most suffer.
And here's some shocking news, friends.
I don't think breastfeeding, natural child spacing, attachment parenting, family prayer, homeschooling, daily Mass and frequent reception of the Sacraments or any other practices touted by Orthodox Catholic groups are an insurance policy for raising well-adjusted Catholic citizens. Just because we do these things does not mean our kids will be practicing Catholics who never commit mortal sin, nor does it mean our kids will be normal, functioning adults able to thrive in the outside world.
Some of the holiest priests and lay people I know were not homeschooled but, in fact, attended public school. (Gasp!)
I know families who used attachment parenting and who have strained, dysfunctional relationships with their children.
I know families whose parents attended daily Mass, prayed the family rosary, and did everything else "right" according to Catholic standards and guess what? Their children have left the Church, had babies out of wedlock, divorced, co-habitated, or had substance abuse problems (and sometimes all of the above).
On the other hand, I also know parents who didn't bring their children to Mass for years but somehow, by the grace of God, their children are faithful, practicing Catholics.
I know families who have suffered from serious substance abuse problems but who have, by the grace of God, experienced great healing and developed intimate familial relationships.
I know families who never looked like the poster people for Catholicism--families who didn't have the children in matching smocked outfits in the front pew at Mass every Sunday or who couldn't afford premiere Catholic education--but who, by the grace of God, have had several vocations to come from their lot.
And you know why this is?
Because God's grace is greater than our efforts and while we may try our very best to do the right thing by our children, our children have a free will with which they can choose the good or the bad. And sometimes, no matter how perfectly we've parented, prayed and performed, our kids are gonna choose the bad--even if we've homeschooled or gone to daily Mass or used attachment parenting.
None of these things are an insurance policy.
Sure, these practices are good and noble and some of them (like frequent reception of the Sacraments) are even dire, but just because we do them does not mean our children are going to turn out perfectly. Nor does it mean we are failures if we can't pull it off.
God calls all families to love and follow and serve Him but the way in which He calls us to do it looks different for every one.
We all need to try our best (and assume everyone is doing the same) but we must also recognize the rest is up to God.
So let's have mercy on our fellow Catholic moms, shall we?
The women in the trenches next to us are trying their very best to form their families (and it's important to remember, I think, that some of them may not have all the tools we do in their tool box). Let's have mercy on those moms who do things differently than we do because it doesn't mean they're doing it worse (or better!), it just means they're doing it differently. And let's rally behind each other to offer love and support and encouragement, instead of offering our (most of the time unhelpful) opinions.
Because until we've walked a mile in another's shoes, we can't ever know the reasons behind the decisions a family makes.