There have always been issues where we have a great deal invested in our own point of view, and where we risk considering those who disagree with us as so different that we no longer see all that we have in common with them. This is never more so than when we become parents; this is a time when we are particularly vulnerable to other people’s opinions, because we are overwhelmed by a sense of responsibility, a desperate need to get it as right as possible. And other people are more than happy to offer an opinion! If we choose to bottle-feed our baby, for example, we are accused of denying our child the very best nutrition, whilst if we breast-feed we deny one parent the bonding opportunity presented by feeding the infant.
Most recently, the issue of immunisation has prompted articles in magazines and posts on social media that are divisive, unkind, and in some cases downright vicious. Those that intend to vaccinate are likened to brainless sheep, mindlessly following the flock, or stupidly believing the propaganda of a corrupt government and a profit-oriented pharmaceutical industry. Those who choose not to immunise are accused of putting personal prejudice above their child’s health, or of causing epidemics that will kill thousands of other people’s children.
Sometimes it seems that every single decision we make entails treading a fine line between two vociferous camps, each claiming that we will harm our child, or at least deny him or her the finest care, unless we agree with them. Allowing our offspring to watch television fosters a reliance on passive entertainment and thwarts socialisation, whilst preventing it deprives them of a window on the wider world. If one parent stays at home to look after the children, they will miss out of the horizon-broadening opportunities that a second wage packet can furnish, whilst leaving the children in someone else’s care risks depriving them of parental attention when they most need it.
Is it that we so need the validation of having other people agree with us so much that we cannot help trampling them if they don’t? Do we have so much invested in being right that we are blind to the rainbow array of “right” options chosen by our fellow travellers on life’s journey? Or do we fear that respecting those who choose differently will somehow disempower us?
This “them and us” mentality denies the most fundamental truth of parenting: what we, as parents, share with each other is far greater than that which divides us. I have yet to meet a mother or father who hasn’t given a great deal of thought to the choices that assail us, one after another, as we attempt to traverse the minefield that parenthood faces us with. All the parents I know have agonised over some of these issues. There are, for each of us, questions that we can answer fairly easily and others that preoccupy us – some of us are sure that we will use terry rather than disposable nappies, for example, and not at all sure whether we can handle the budget if one parent stays at home, or handle the guilt if both go out to work. But overall, decisions that feel terribly important, that will, we are sure, have a huge impact on the future of this little scrap of humanity that has stolen our hearts, are the major preoccupation of most parents. We all want to do the very best we can, and none of us can be sure, in all cases, what the right decision is.
So let’s see the person behind the stance, the caring behind the choices, the fellow-parent beneath the surface differences. Let’s respect each other, and give each other credit for doing our best, all of us, even if that best plays out differently for each of us. Let’s celebrate our commonalities – the overwhelming love we feel for our children, the intense yearning to get it right, the fear that we will not be as good parents as our children deserve, and the responsibility of continually making difficult decisions and facing unexpected challenges. And let’s accept that, however different the choices we make, the process, and the love that guides it, is something that we all share.