Educated people were threatening, and higher education was the realm of wealthy men. Not for our impoverished, occasionally homeless family, and certainly not for a girl (as Lorraine Berry so fantastically illustrates here). At least that’s how it all seemed to me. I learned early on that thoughtful questions tended to make my parents uncomfortable and even angry. I remember spending a large percentage of my childhood feeling angry, depressed, and completely powerless.
In my teens I started realizing that I might be smart. Maybe even smart enough to go to college. People in authority outside of my family and our religion treated me with respect. I realized that I didn’t have to fulfill my dystopian destiny. I wasn’t really trapped. I could choose a different life. So of course, I rebelled. Which felt great, but it was an unthinking, oppositional reaction to the mores of my childhood. It didn’t feel so great when diametrically opposing my parents meant I wasn’t acting in my own best interest.
Near the end of the self-destructive years, I returned to college. Anthropology blew my mind. To this day I remain deeply moved by the profound diversity of human experience around the globe. Exposure to myriad cultures that seemed to (usually) function well in their own fascinatingly exotic ways led me to embrace diversity. It turns out that spicy food, among many other esoteric delights, is awesome! Anthropology and higher education generally were incredibly empowering.
The lens of ethnography has allowed me to view my own childhood as a product of outdated, historical social norms and a specific religious culture. This long view removes most of the emotional toxicity that I had carried into young adulthood. Once I gained this perspective and started thinking critically about my own life as ethnography, I started making better decisions and living a far more joyful and fulfilling life. I felt like I had ascended into disinfecting sunlight. This was the seed of critical thinking that began to germinate years later when I became a parent.
I feel like I came to motherhood between generations. I knew I wanted to be a different kind of parent than my own parents, but I wasn’t sure where to look for guidance. People of my mother’s generation seemed to disapprove of everything I was doing: breastfeeding, breastfeeding (discreetly) in public, breastfeeding a toddler, babywearing, baby sign language, baby music and movement classes, breastfeeding exclusively until six months, positive (non-violent) discipline, babies sleeping on their backs, child car safety seats, bike helmets, and so on. Our pediatrician’s recommendations were in direct conflict to their methods, and their children turned out fine....
Meanwhile, many stay-home mothers in my age cohort were preaching a more intense parenting dogma. 2003 was the year my oldest child was born, and it was right in the middle of the surge of the attachment/helicopter parenting paradigm here in the US. Every single facet of life with a child became a line of social demarcation and marker of status, and this dynamic dominated in numerous parent subsets in real life as well as online. No detail was too small to warrant judgement and render guilt. The pressure was intense and made it difficult for me to just enjoy being a new mom.
A major parenting trend at the time was anti-vaccination. I first encountered anti-vaccination propaganda at at time when I was already driving myself crazy worrying about how I diapered (or if diapering itself was a terrible mistake), imaginary toxins in my food that were poisoning my breastmilk, the provenance of the fibers in my baby’s clothes, and the fact that I drank one cup of (ethically-grown, fair-trade, dark roast) coffee each day even though I was breastfeeding. More than anything else, anti-vaccination was what tipped me into becoming a more skeptical, critical thinker because it was the one major tenant of the dominant subculture that inflicted the greatest level of cognitive dissonance.
I couldn’t believe that millions of medical professionals, including two personal friends who are medical doctors, were knowingly harming their own children. It just didn’t make sense to me, so I tried to figure out what was going on. I had already been inundated with anti-vaccine propaganda, so I looked for counter-arguments from the other side. I found SGU, which let me to Science Based Medicine, which has extensive information about vaccinations including links to primary sources about evidence of vaccine safety. This is where I started learning how to sort out credible research from anecdote. This is also where I first learned about Andrew Wakefield’s despicable shenanigans that sparked the current vaccine rejection trend. (Of course I have some anthropology-related opinions about the vaccine rejection trend, but that’s a topic for a future post.)
Critical thinking helps me cut through the noise and find a path to decent and peaceful parenting, especially when other parents pile on. Instead of feeling terrified and insecure about every imaginable facet of parenting, I can relax and simply enjoy my bright, laughing children. I have emerged into sunlight again.
*I don’t parent in isolation, thank FSM. My husband is an awesome father who deserves much credit for the state of our children. He’s inherently more rational than I am, and his journey to critical thinking was much shorter and less colorful.