Dividing Lines

My mom, having raised three kids, understands most of my parenting challenges. She knows that breastfeeding can be an emotional roller coaster, that sleeping can be a real bitch, that the baby garbage can threaten to overwhelm your previously minimalist—or at least tastefully maximalist—home. She has survived any number of the other milestones and setbacks between birth and the first day of school.

But she’s flummoxed by the rise of the mom tribe. She’s had mom friends, of course, acquired through various means—her pre-natal group when she was pregnant with me, the other moms who came in to volunteer in my younger sibling’s kindergarten classrooms, and even the moms who would park their strollers at the edges of the community-centre step aerobics class. These are friendships that started because they were in the same place at the same time, and blossomed into some of my mother’s richest and longest relationships.

Toronto, like most big cities, isn’t known as a particularly warm place. Compared with boisterous Montreal and laid-back Vancouver, it can be downright chilly here, and that coolness extends to parents. For instance, while I often wear the baby, when I’m out with NS in the stroller, the baby-wearing moms straight-up ignore me; other stroller moms might give me the nod. To put this in perspective, riding the TTC with NS is like riding the bus with The Beatles: he is old-lady catnip, school aged kids tickle him under the chin, and grown men shout down the aisle, “Hey, that’s a cute baby!” But to other moms? We’re invisible.

I think part of my mom’s confusion stems from the fact that, in today’s parenting practice, everything means something. Your decision to sleep train, do baby-led weaning, co-sleep, baby-wear, breastfeed, make your own baby food, babyproof, stay home, put the kids in day care, whatever, all of it says something about your parenting philosophies. None of it is about survival and trying to just make it through the baby years anymore. It’s ideological. Back in my mom’s day, there were crunchy moms and there was everyone else; these days, the crunchy moms have become the normies.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t always a bad thing! The rise of attachment-style parenting has changed the way we do things. Newborns love being carried, which is a major tenet of attachment parenting; parents that, a generation ago, would have listened to their babies wail in a bassinet are instead doing the dishes with a sleepy eight-week old on their chests. Rushed mothers of two may hand their baby a pizza crust to gnaw on as the four-year-old refuses to eat anything that didn’t originate in the Kraft factory; that’s baby-led weaning. We name old practices and imbue them with new meaning, and out of that, form links to other parents.

But there’s a dark side. I’ve heard from more than one person that the women involved in babywearing communities can be, uh, judgemental. Owning a soft-structured carrier or (god forbid) a stroller is Doing It Wrong, and their role with fellow parents is to either show them the light or stay away. In some circles, feeding your baby iron-enriched cereal is tantamount to feeding her jello shots (despite the fact that exclusively breast-fed babies often need iron-rich foods by about six months, and unless you’re regularly preparing chicken liver, enriched cereal is an excellent place to get it). I was able to breastfeed, but I would never take the stance that it’s the only way, or even the best way, for every baby to get fed—food and bodies are complicated! But I have some mom friends who would absolutely go there.

Sigh. I don’t know. Human beings have always used signals to attract mates, both romantic and platonic. What’s so terrible about approaching the mom withe the hemp-linen baby wraps, and passing by the lady pushing the stroller? What’s the damage in striking up a convo with the woman with her boob out in favour of the mama holding a bottle? One is more likely to be doing things your way, after all. And we want to know people who hold our same values.

But I think this is based on a mirage. So much of early days is about survival—pushing the stroller to help the witching hour pass, offering a bottle of pumped milk or formula so that mom can get some rest, feeding babies the iron-rich cereal because they had a c-section and couldn’t delay cord clamping. Parenting isn’t like buying a hybrid car or working at a non-profit—we live our values through our children, sure, but we also have to ensure that they’re healthy and we’re meeting their needs. Sometimes, that’s the complete 180 from what we thought we’d do, but it makes for happier babies and parents.

Assuming that all parenting choices are based on careful thought and philosophy—and that when you see those choices in action, you’re getting the whole story—is a fool’s game. It creates distance where distance doesn’t need to exist. It reinforces the myth that there’s One True Way of motherhood, when in reality, there are as many ways of parenting as there are children. And it brings us back to cliques and tribes, which can be both useful and damaging.

Find your mom tribe! Absolutely, yes, do this. Find the women you can message at four in the morning when the baby hasn’t stopped crying or when the toddler just threw up half a crayon. Find the women who make you feel like you might get through this after all. But for the love of god, don’t choose these women solely on if they have a stroller or feed their babies organic food or bedshare. Choose them based on if they make you laugh, or if you can cry in front of them, or if they’ll talk to you about stretch marks and feeling weird about post-partum sex, or if they’ll swing by with a plate of muffins (and it doesn’t matter if they’re from the farmer’s market or the grocery store) and hold your newborn while you shower. Choose your tribe with an open heart, with a willingness to be comfortable with difference, and with a kind of anti-snobbery that becomes necessary in a phase when most people are feeling vulnerable, raw, and maybe a little afraid. And remember that friendships aren’t always obvious on the surface. If it helps, think of the few first years of parenting as being like summer camp: you may form deep attachments, very quickly, but you have to talk to everybody. If you stay open, stay friendly, and stay kind, you will find your mama tribe.

About the Author

Kaitlyn Kochany
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Kaitlyn Kochany is a Toronto-area freelance writer and editor. She had her son, NS, in January 2016, and has been trying to sleep and write since then.

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