Tuesday, May 17, 2011

On Labels and Boxes and Trusting Your Gut

I've read a lot of blog posts lately about avoiding labels and not wanting to be labeled. These posts are mostly coming from the perspective of not identifying with being labeled as THIS or THAT kind of parent or subscribing to THIS or THAT parenting philosophy. For some reason or another, these posts really get me fired-up, so here's my perspective:

I don't have a problem with labeling myself. I don't feel limited by the labels that I put on myself. I also think that avoiding labels is almost impossible in our current state of evolution as a human species. Here's why:

Our brains are limited. To a certain extent, we have to put people into "boxes" (label them) in our brains so that we can make sense of the world. I am totally fine with other people putting (some) labels on me, and I'm comfortable with putting some labels on myself. I am fine with that because I think it helps us to understand each other better. While we can't ever really know what another person is thinking or feeling, we can try. I feel like labels are a part of that process.

For example, I am comfortable with the labels "woman" and "female." This may seem like a very obvious thing to say, but that is because gender identity is often assumed and taken for granted by (cisgendered) people. The fact is, someone labeled me "girl" when I was born with the parts I have, and I have always been comfortable with that label. I did not choose it, but I identify with it. I feel it describes me accurately. I welcome others to choose how they would or would not like to be labeled in the context of gender.

What does gender identity have to do with types of parenting?

I used the subject of gender because I wanted to give a very obvious and easily-relatable example of how labels are a pervasive part of our culture (and, I might even argue, humanity as a whole). If you want to reject all labels, I'm cool with that, and I will absolutely try my hardest to respect your choice with the way I use language. I can't, however, turn off that part of my brain that naturally needs to categorize things to help them make sense.

I get it: you don't want to label yourself because you don't want to be put in a box/the box doesn't fit/you don't want others to expect things of you that you're not going to deliver on. At the same time, I'm not less highly-evolved than you because I do feel comfortable with labeling myself. Rejecting labels or accepting labels does not make one of us superior to the other. It just means we're different. (Though, if you think about it, even the act of rejecting labels is an form of labeling in and of itself.)

What disturbs me the most about the whole discussion about labeling is this recurring theme of mothers saying "I don't want to identify as X type of parent, because the other X parents will judge me for not being X enough." First, since when is it OK to tell another parent how to parent their kids? I realize that the dolling-out of unsolicited advice is a condition that lots of people suffer from, but I don't think we should just accept that without a fight.

Second, why are people judging each other in the first place for differences in parenting styles? And since when is there only one right way to parent? We're all unique and precious individuals, with equally unique and precious children who came into our lives. Every parent is different and every child is different. Even individual children in the same family unit need to be parented differently.

Third, and maybe most importantly, when did we hand our power over to other people? When did we all lose our spines?

(Jack likes his box just fine.)
As humans, we are limited in our ability to understand each other, and labels help us to comprehend where someone is coming from. Are they inadequate? Absolutely. Do they have to be limiting? I don't think so.

I'm comfortable with saying, "My parenting style happens to agree with the principles of Attachment Parenting." I'm happy to say, "I had an unmedicated home birth and it was awesome." I feel proud to say, "We've been cloth diapering since Daniel was six days old." But those things don't mean that if at some point we want to use a disposable diaper (which we do, of course, sometimes) that I have to feel bad and feel that I've outright failed as a "natural," "attachment," or whatever type of parent. And furthermore, it certainly does not mean that I think you should choose to be exactly the same kind of parent I'm choosing to be, or that I think I am better than you are because I chose (the correct choice) X instead of (inferior) Y.

I feel totally confident saying I agree with AP, and still not want to (and more importantly, do not) sleep in the same bed with my child all the time. I can say I'm a natural parent and eat processed foods, watch television, and someday send my kid out of the home for his schooling needs. I can call myself an "attachment parent" and give my kid a pacifier, use a stroller, and selectively vaccinate. Does that make me less of a good parent than someone who doesn't do those things? Nope. Does it make me less "natural" or less "AP"? I believe that it does not. 

Let's start trusting ourselves and our instincts about what we should do as parents instead of judging ourselves for not fitting perfectly into a box or judging others for choosing a different kind of box. Let's just parent our kids the best we know how, instead of spending so much time competing with each other. And seriously, let's get rid of all the guilt! We're all doing our best, and parenting is plenty hard enough without having to feel guilty on top of everything else.

That's how I live my life. Though I may care about you, fellow parent/mother/woman/human being, I don't care what decisions you make; I'm not going to put you down for making them. If you ask my opinion about some parenting issue, I will give it to you and then you are (obviously) free to make whatever decision you want. And if I'm talking excitedly about how much I loved giving birth at home or how I think breastfeeding is wonderful (when you have chosen differently), please please know that I'm not passive-aggressively trying to tell you that I think you made the wrong decision. I promise, I'm not! We can still be friends (and our kids can still be friends) if you choose not to do what I would do.

I don't feel limited or "boxed-in" by the labels I identify with. I hope you, also, will not feel limited by my labels.


  1. I love this. I linked it
    Thank you!

  2. [p.s. here, on www.vosefamily.blogspot.com, I know my profile's not public so I can sometimes be hard to find]

  3. It's always about our own perceptions and feelings, what we choose to allow to bother us or not. Nicely said. We should all take a lesson from your cat. Or maybe not since I bet he doesn't clean out his own litter box... :)

  4. This is an amazing post. Thank you.

    I have to admit that I have shared information regarding labels in the past.

    I'm glad that you pointed out how we tend to place a negative connotation on labels/labeling... but it is inevitable in the human mind's understanding of it's environment. We catergorize/itemize/label etc.

    The weight should be placed on what we choose do with those labels. If we choose to condemn or celebrate.

    Thank you for this!!

  5. So true. And always, someone on one side is going to think you're too X, while someone else is thinking you're not X enough. Or maybe it's just your own fears making you assume so.

    An example that springs to my mind with regard to labeling is "shy," because I've heard a lot, in parenting circles, about not labeling your kid as shy, since it supposedly has negative connotations. I've been labeled shy since I was a wee (shy) thing, and I'm actually totally comfortable with that. It gives me a measure of security (that I'm not defective, just not all that outgoing) and also a convenient way for me to signal to others how they can expect me to behave.

    It seems to me that labeling yourself with a particular parenting style is along the same lines — that you identify with that, not that you perfectly embody it at every moment (in the same way that, sometimes, I am very talkative with strangers without having to turn in my shy card), and that you find it an easy shorthand to give to others as to what to expect.

    Or, at least, that's as clearly as I can think right now, dealing with a poopy-pants child. ;) Anyway, the point is, I really appreciated your thinking through this — thank you.

  6. Thanks for putting into words what I've been ruminating over for months!

  7. Love it! I hate when people think that you are attacking their choices by having different ones! I don't care what other people do, or how they raise their kids, that's nothing to do with me :S

  8. For fun: Another picture of Jack in the Box! You gave me a lot to think about as have the comments you have received.

  9. Amen! I was actually just contemplating this yesterday - that even though I (enter attachment terms here: breastfeed, cloth diaper, etc) that maybe I'm not "allowed" to have that label because I shop at Whole Foods, or use a stroller occasionally, or put clothes from China on my child. And boy did I ever get torn up about my (now 1yr old and crib loving) son HATING co-sleeping - I thought I was doomed as an attachment parent ;)

    Thanks for sharing! <3

  10. Funny how we want our children to be able to sort and label as they're learning about the world, but we shy away from it as adults. I totally agree with your assessment here. I label myself as a lactivist because I advocate for breastfeeding and because I enjoy a good play on words. And that's ok!

  11. One word kept creeping into my mind... non-conformist. Because non-conformists are still conforming to something! (As you stated, non-labeling is still a label.)

    Anyway, I just thought you might get a kick out of that. :-)

  12. Great post, Amy. In college, I went to see a professional about a black cloud that had been over my head for years. He said something really profound that has stuck with me. He said, "I could tell you that you have an anxiety disorder, if that label would give you something concrete to hang your hat on; otherwise I'll just tell you that you are anxious. So go with whichever way of thinking is more helpful for you, but the main point is, let's do something about this anxiety, whether we label it or not!"

    I think the same can apply to parenting or lots of other things. If a certain label makes sense for you, feel free to embrace it! If you feel that that particular label doesn't encompass several key ideals of yours, don't use it for yourself. But, if much of that label DOES apply to you, don't feel too offended or limited if someone innocently uses it on you. ha ha. That happens to me a lot, I feel.

    Anyway, good thoughts. Thanks for sharing.

  13. Very well said, Amy - really enjoyed reading this post. :)

  14. Great post. I totally agree with you that rejecting labels outright can be just as dangerous as blindly adhering to them. This is an unfortunately too-rare perspective, especially in my circles, so it's very heartening to read such an honest, enlightened post here.

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