Shame And The Written Mom

March 13, 2009

Husband: “So, that whole thing, earlier this week? That made you a little crazy, didn’t it?”

Me: “Yeah. Kinda.”

Husband: “Why? Why did it bother you so much?”

Me: “——-?”

Me: “——-.”

I tell stories for a living. Mostly, I tell my own stories, the stories of my motherhood, and reflections on same. I do it because I love to do it. I do it because it has become, in some ways, almost like breathing: automatic, unavoidable, necessary. I do it because I believe in it: making public the lived experience of motherhood is, I think, crucial to empowering mothers, because it allows us to share, out in the open, where everyone can see, what motherhood is really like, once we’ve stripped away the glossy magazine covers and the laundry detergent commercials and the longstanding cultural insistence that family be private, that mothering be private, that we just hush, and not talk about how hard and how terrifying and how utterly, confoundingly, gloriously complicated this whole experience is.

I also do it because I’m vain, and because I crave approval.

Someone (actually, more than one someone) commented on the post of the other day that if I’m committed to telling my stories publicly, to mothering publicly, then I should just accept that I will face criticism and judgment. Moreover – some commenters added, here and elsewhere – since I am semi-well-known for what I do (I never know how to talk about this semi-sort-of-little-bit well-knownness. Being well known in any capacity on the Internet is, I think, kind of like being well-known in Korea for that one karaoke video that you “acted” in that one time: meaningless to anybody outside of a micro-specialized niche of aficionados, and so very probably meaningless in any broader socio-cultural context. Which is to say, nothing to brag about) it is disingenuous and/or hypocritical for me to claim to be bothered by criticism or judgment or whatever slings and arrows get hurled my way. I blog because I’m shameless, right? And I’ve earned some recognition for being shameless, right? So what’s the problem?

The problem is that I’m not shameless. I sometimes wish that I were: Socrates described himself as shameless, and argued that any true philosopher is by definition shameless, because the true philosopher loves wisdom/truth above all else, and certainly above any concern for social approval. If you’re going to interrogate social mores to the fullest extent possible, you need to be above them, at least intellectually. Shame (understood classically) is what we feel when we cower under some disapproving social gaze. It is not – contrary to what someone asserted in comments the other day – what we feel when we know that we’ve done something wrong (although we might feel shame under those circumstances); it is not necessarily associated with guilt. One can believe whole-heartedly that one is entirely in the right with a given action or behaviour, but still feel shamed by the disapproving reaction of some portion of one’s community. We can feel shame for living in poverty, for loving a member of the same sex, for breastfeeding publicly, if any measure of social disapproval is directed at those things. It doesn’t mean that we feel guilty for those things, that we feel in any way blameworthy – it means that social approval matters to us, and that social disapproval stings.

I am vulnerable to being hurt by social disapproval. It doesn’t matter whether that disapproval comes from one person, or a hundred, or a thousand, or more. I’m vulnerable to it. I fell vulnerable to it earlier this week. (All please note: what follows is not an invitation to direct further opprobrium against anyone who expressed such disapproval. These are my feelings, I am owning them and trying to make sense of them, nothing else.)

As it goes, the shame that I experienced earlier this week had – at least at first – little to do with my writing or my public persona. I felt shamed (note the distinction here: I did not feel ashamed of myself – I felt that I had been shamed, effectively, by the exercise of social disapproval toward some action on my part) for an action that I took in real life, that took place in the arena of lived space as opposed to written space. I did something and was observed and my actions were held up (in a misleading manner, which, as everyone knows by now, bothered me to no end) for interrogation and judged. Which, if that interrogation and judgment had occurred in some private space, or had remained unknown to me, might have been no big deal, but it occurred in a public space and was made known to me and so I felt – in a way that was different from how I would feel, have felt, about being judged for my writing or my online persona (I usually take that in stride. I’ve had lots of practice) – shamed. My real-life self had been observed doing some real-life thing and that real-life self was judged, publicly, and so that real-life self felt shamed.

My online self, my written self, was, of course, not completely detached from this experience. I made public my act, by Tweeting about it. I fully intended to blog about it. I had most of that post already scripted in my head. I was a little bit in love with it, to be frank: it was going to sort through all of my complicated feelings and ambivalences and reflections about what had transpired. I was going to tell the story as I wanted to tell it. It was not going to be a story about whether nursing another woman’s child was the right or wrong thing to do – there was no doubt in my mind that there was nothing wrong with it, even though I knew that it was not something that everybody would do, and even though I knew that some people, even people that I love and respect, would find it off-putting – it was going to be a story about what the experience was like, and about my complicated feelings surrounding it (for example, that it was an act that was both intimate and not intimate, that it felt both ordinary and extraordinary, that I initially felt a little afraid to do it, etc). But I was not able to tell that story, because sometime in the late hours of Monday I heard word that I had already been judged for my actions and I made the mistake of seeking out that judgment and reading it for myself and becoming upset by it and the rest, as they say, is history.

Part of my upset, in other words, was that I felt robbed of my story. It had become someone else’s story, told in a different way and with different and misleading details and I no longer had any control over it. It took on a life of its own and my feelings about it changed and I felt that, in addition to having been shamed, I had been robbed of my experience and my ability to define the terms of expressing and sharing that experience. I don’t necessarily have any rights to those things, but still: the deprivation of them hurt. Had I written about the experience myself and received shaming comments (by which I do not mean comments that expressed disagreement, but which attached moral judgment to that disagreement, i.e. it is wrong to do that, you were wrong to do that, women who do that are disgusting, etc.) I could have addressed them directly, on my own terms (or, yes, deleted them). I could have incorporated them into the larger story – which was not, as I originally imagined it, about mothers being shamed, but about trust and intimacy and support and community in motherhood, and also, maybe, about eros in motherhood (not in the sexual sense, but, rather, the classical sense. What of our profound physical and emotional connections to our children? How are these disrupted or affirmed by something like nursing another child?) – and controlled the impact of that shaming upon, and its place within, the story that I was telling.

That, obviously, was not to be. And so the story became something else entirely, and I struggled with and against the experience of feeling shamed and with and against the feeling of having lost control of my story, and it made me, yes, a little crazy. A little crazy and a lot exhausted. But beyond that crazy there was reflection, and reflection is good, right? I know now that I’m not as thick-skinned as I thought; I know, too, that I am – rightly or wrongly – possessive of my stories – told or untold – in a way that is much more intense than I understood. I learned more than I wanted to of the personal experience of shame, and I know that I have no desire to revisit it. But I am a writer and a woman who remains committed to sharing, publicly, the experience of her motherhood and of her life, generally, and so I know that critique is inevitable and judgment is inevitable and, probably, some further experience of shame is inevitable. The first I will embrace, as best I can; the second I will tolerate, as best I can. The third, I hope to continue to fight, however weakly, however awkwardly, however ineffectually, because although criticism is good, and judgment to some extent inevitable, shaming – when it is directed at any action or behaviour that is (and I realize that these are fluid concepts) well-intentioned and/or harmless and/or necessary and/or none of anyone else’s damn business regardless of how public the action is or how well-known the actor is (Salma Hayek, call me!) – is neither of those things. And the only way that I know how to fight that kind of shame is by continuing to tell my stories as if shaming didn’t matter. As if I was, in fact, shameless, in the best sense of that word.

That, and I’m going to make sure that the next time I go traipsing down the Internet rabbit hole in pursuit of stories being told about me? That I just don’t.

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    Her Bad Mother March 14, 2009 at 8:00 pm

    Mimi – ha, it WOULD mean the opposite. and it would be AWESOME.

    Throw some approbrium on me!

    (Also, seriously, I NEVER went to Rate My Professor, for the exact same reason. Also, because I heard that there was sometimes a bit too much talk of boobies when it came to younger female profs and lecturers. Which, was not up for.)

    Lisa March 14, 2009 at 8:16 pm

    I don't want to take sides, especially since I haven't been following this entire mess, but I do peek in from time to time on your both blogs so I did catch some of the controversy. I finally read the original post. It does make me sad and I wish for once people can just get along. It kinda reminds me of the aftermath of Motrin moms (I know, we are talking oranges & apples here).
    I will say the one thing that would just would unnerve me is that if I went to a blogging conference and someone actually nit picked what I did on their blog. That would bug me. I would think there is some mutual respect, no? Then again, I'm sure the guys in their tech shows do that too. (Probably not fair comparison though–think women are different lol?)
    Anyhow, good lessons for us all. And, I'm just so sorry to hear there was such anger and hurt on both sides :-(

    JPTG March 14, 2009 at 9:52 pm

    hey, I’m proud of what you did, what you wrote earlier this week, that you opened it for hundreds of comments, and what you write now. The original act may not have been what I chose, but I love that this world is made up of many choices and personal styles. Kudos to you for showing us (again) your “I will soldier on and persevere” style. Immense respect is thrown your way… whatever will you talk about next week? I’ll tune in, regardless! Go enjoy your weekend, offline, with your family.

    Mom101 March 14, 2009 at 11:03 pm

    @Cassi I’m going to agree with HBM that folks are pretty well-behaved at blogging conferences. Mostly everyone’s too busy telling their own stories that they don’t have time to tell someone else’s. I’ve seen panelists critiqued for a controversial point of views or whining about the hotel room, but that’s pretty much it.

    I also think the good generally outweighs the bad – why devote a rare free moment to blogging about someone you don’t like when you could be torturing someone you love?

    Um…I mean blogging about. Blogging about someone you love.

    Joy March 15, 2009 at 12:15 am

    I keep typing, and deleting, my comment. My words are muddled, and my tongue gets twisted as I try to say, essentially, that I respect the heck out of your brain, and you inspire me. You really do. Thank you for sharing, and for continuing to share, your experience of motherhood with ‘us’.

    courtney March 15, 2009 at 2:20 am

    That was a beautiful post and I love that you took the time to sit down and figure out just what about the whole thing made you so angry. Well done.

    And now I’m wondering what the Dooce/Bloggess controversy was all about because I read both of them and apparently missed it!

    Joyce March 15, 2009 at 6:40 am

    I’m a little embarrassed at getting so sucked into it last week. I was really upset (ask my husband)–though it didn’t happen to me personally, I felt as I would have done the same thing, therefore my values were shamed as well. Plus, it is just sad when mothers don’t support each other, no matter what their opinion on certain issues. We’re all living this bizarre lifestyle together. I’m glad it’s being put to rest, you’ve wrapped it up perfectly. My husband is relieved.

    Heather Happymaker March 15, 2009 at 11:01 am

    I didn’t know you existed until this business began. As you see, I live under an udder. I don’t like the business, but I like all the “players”. You’re all so different. And I’d like to think you all mean well. I’ll be following you now.

    What strikes me like a hit of bad milk is that this business went down at a conference meant to bring female bloggers together. Women: In the past we’ve been each others’ constant competitors and worst enemies. We can’t brush each others’ hair without being flooded with mixed emotions of love and sisterhood co-mingled with jealousy and fear for what the other is capable of taking from us. And how unfair it is. As though there were only a finite amount of love and approval to be had.

    Best to do, as you have, examine our own motives or lack of them, and find out why a situation bothers us so because there’s always a chance for growth there even if we’ve done nothing wrong as it were.

    Strong women: I fear you no more! I want to bask in the glow that is your internal fire and warm myself to fortify for the next (gawd) learning experience.

    Keep on keepin’ on, Sistah.

    Eva Robertson March 15, 2009 at 7:53 pm

    I very much like your discussion of shame, but it is all so abstract! You did write about your experience of nursing another woman’s child and about the shock and shame of being disapproved for it. And it seems to me that, apart from the the actual social disapprobation that occurred, the possibility of social horror might be something you would fully anticipate or worry about. I know I would.

    This post seems to be in part about how being shamed robbed you of your story. What was that story? Would it have been utterly disconnected from the social opprobrium that one would have to expect?

    What I am dying to hear is this other goldfish woman’s point of view. You were so hard on her for her disapproval and are now indicating that she affected you so deeply — did she have something interesting to say???? The shaming is not that public since you haven’t shared it with us and it is nowhere to be found on the internet, as far as I can see . . . .

    Anonymous March 15, 2009 at 10:02 pm

    I love you. That is all.

    Anonymous March 16, 2009 at 9:21 am

    Hi Eva (who left a comment)

    Here is a link the original post of the other blogger (now reposted). It’s not quite what I was expecting given everything that followed from it tbh.

    Lisa in Omaha March 16, 2009 at 11:53 am

    Hey, congratulations to you and to the other mother for solving a real (and painful) problem so wonderfully.

    Both my husband and I have relatives, in the US and in England, who were wet nurses prior to the advent of formula. It was a matter of survival. So sorry you had to endure the pain of the ignorant comments.

    LAVANDULA March 16, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    another brilliant post catherine! and for the record i think what you did was kind and no shame about it okay

    Eva Robertson March 16, 2009 at 1:29 pm

    Witnessing this cat fight between Catherine and Cheryl, I just had to put my two cents down on my blog. In my view, you are both so right and so wrong. My post is entitled “Whose Boobs Are Bigger, Catherine’s or Cheryl’s?”


    Her Bad Mother March 16, 2009 at 1:44 pm

    Eva – laughing. I’ll go check it out once I’ve caught up on sleep and e-mail.

    Anonymous March 16, 2009 at 3:04 pm

    You go girl. Don’t let the bastards get you down.

    Aimeepalooza March 16, 2009 at 5:44 pm

    I am not well known and it upset to me to hear one stupid guy make fun of my child and his hyper-activity in a public place. It’s tough writing about kids and hearing people’s opinions…

    Mandy March 16, 2009 at 9:25 pm

    Fantastic post!

    I am a big fan of yours, and I just have to tell you that I LOVE how honest you are.

    A lot of mothers with blogs try to make themselves seem un-humanly PERFECT, and live some sort of fantasy life on the net…

    Your blog is so refreshing, and makes myself, and I’m sure a LOT of others, feel great about being not so perfect, and HUMAN.


    Anonymous March 17, 2009 at 3:45 am

    I think this has become tiresome and you take yourself way to seriously.

    Ohio_Momto3boys March 17, 2009 at 8:59 am

    I found your blog from a link sent to me by former students (who are now moms). My babes are all adopted and I was not able to nurse them (although I got a ton of flack for not ‘trying harder’…whatever). Keep on keepin’ on, my friend. Let people say what they will. We would have been thankful to have a volunteer nurse for the young’un’s!

    Lenore Skenazy March 18, 2009 at 10:55 am

    What’s nuts is how everyone thinks that there is a right and wrong way to parent/feed/blog/live (and especially if you’re trying to do all four at once!). You’re out there, so people will comment (don’t I know it!) but your attitude and common sense will see you through. And most of us are totally on your side! — Lenore “Free-Range Kids” Skenazy (the mom who let her 9-yearold ride the subway alone…)

    Liz March 19, 2009 at 11:03 am

    Great post. I think what you and Laura did was fine.

    After reading your thoughts, I read the other blogger’s post. It occurred to me that if she really found the act bizarre and shameful, maybe she thought you wouldn’t write about it, and that maybe no one would realize that you were the subject of her post.

    aqua March 25, 2009 at 11:42 am

    I discovered your blog yesterday, and I can’t stop reading! You’re so witty and such a gorgeous writer.
    Breastfeeding your new friend’s baby was a beautiful thing to do, and it shocks me every time I read people’s reactions to this natural act (when will I learn to expect such divisive rhetoric? It always surprises me anew.) I am a new mother and only beginning to think about these issues, and I’m sure many have written about this already (Mary Douglas? Purity and Danger? I don’t remember, but I wasn’t a mother when I read it a long time ago), but it’s fascinating to consider the things we find disgusting through cultural conditioning. Even my self-described feminist mother in law surprised me a few months ago when I suggested that I donate some of my breastmilk — I was overproducing at the time — to a milk bank (as it turned out, Toronto doesn’t have such a bank, though one is apparently in the works). My mother in law had a visceral negative reaction to my suggestion; after she thought about it, she said that she felt milk was such a personal thing, not to be shared with others. I was so perplexed by her reaction.

    Sorry for the long, rambling comment. Really, I just wanted to say, thank you for such a thought-provoking and beautifully-written blog.

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