Saturday, 7 January 2012

I Could See It In Her Eyes...

One of this things I detested, and still detest, about raising a child, is when other people state "I could see it in his eyes."  The first time this was actually used about my child, was when he'd been jumping on a couch, age 3.  A family member had asked him not to jump on the couch.  He'd never been asked not to jump on the couch before.  He was 3.  He carried on jumping on the couch.  When I came in, I took him aside and explained clearly that the rule in the house we were in, was that you didn't jump on the couch.  He looked at me and nodded, and didn't jump on the couch.

At home, I let him jump on the couch.  So he had been really confused by the request not to.

The family member who observed me discuss this with him, then lambasted me for being too soft.  When I explained to her that he hadn't actually understood what she meant, she laughed.  "He's much smarter than you think.  He understood everything I said.  He just knew he could ignore me.  I saw it in his eyes... "

This phrase "I saw it in her/his eyes..." haunted my childhood.  I well remember adults - parents, teachers, family members - berating me for something and seeing my response, in my eyes.  I was rebellious, cheeky, conniving, manipulative, lying... all could be discerned by the look in my eyes.  Confused, was never a feature.

I spent a lot of my childhood confused.  About arbitrary rules and dictates, unreliable rules and guidance and completely confusing messages.  My confusion was never mirrored by the adults, however.  They always knew what I was really thinking and feeling.  They would regularly inform me, they could "see it in my eyes..."

It's such a catch 22.  You can't defend against it, as you are saying the person looking at you is wrong.  And as you are rarely in a pleasant and easy place when this pronouncement has been made.  People rarely say "You are a lovely person, who understands what's going on so clearly, I can see it in your eyes... "  Such statements are usually reserved for the tense, awkward, accusatory silences.  For the moments of mis-communication between people.

For the moment when the other person, is imposing on us, their world view.

For when they speak, they speak what they fear you are thinking.  It's very, very rarely, what's actually going on.  It's that the face you are showing without speech... is being written upon by the other person.  They are writing out their own feelings,. and thoughts, and fear, on you.  Every school child knows this, when they are told to "wipe the smile off your face..."  It's a natural human instinct to smile in certain situations of fear and tension: to try and look innocent and nonthreatening.  How many times were you told to wipe the smile off your face, and to stop smirking, when you were shaking in your boots?  Me too.

The human propensity for reading meaning into an expressionless face has been well known for some time.  In the 1920s, Lev Kuleshov, a Soviet film maker, did a series of experiments that proved insight into this phenomenon.  He filmed human faces, in a bland, non-meaningful stance.  He then inter-cut the same image, on a montage, a sequence, of other objects.   A bowl of soup, a funeral casket etc.  Without exception, the audience raved about the emotional power of the actor.  The same face, inter-cut with different images, was applauded as the face that portrayed hunger, sadness, grief, anger, fear... the face image had not changed.  All that had changed, was the context that face was put in, by the images then put around the face.

The audience would take the clues, and read into the face, what they wanted to see.

The audience would do the work.  All the while, saying how wonderfully the actor had portrayed the emotions.

Truth, is in the eye of the beholder.  Especially when nothing is actually said.  Give a face, even a blank face, and do not speak... and the person looking at you, will say "I knew what that face was saying... I saw it in the eyes...."

Which brings us to this:

I see the breastfeeding mothers watching me as I rummage in my changing bag for the ready-made carton of formula. Those looks speak a thousand words, most of which boil down to, "How could you? We're doing the best for our baby, why aren't you?"
I feel as if they're judging me, looking at me as a lesser mother than they are just because I'm giving my baby formula. Do they feel superior to me? Certainly I feel that I have to defend my decision to bottle-feed, justify my choices so they'll accept me.
They sit at the postnatal groups with their beady eyes peeking over their breastfeeding aprons as my son gulps down his 5fl oz. But I can't help noticing how their looks change – a bit of envy maybe? – when I start to bottle-feed. My guess is they're thinking,"That looks a lot more efficient than breastfeeding." You're right, I want to tell them.
I can almost hear the deafening mental processing in those staid church halls: "She won't have cracked nipples, mastitis, thrush or leaking milk. And her partner probably helps with the night feeds."
But I don't want to fall into the trap of judging them too harshly, either. I'd like to have tried breastfeeding, but medical complications took the choice out of my hands. Now that I bottle-feed, I see the advantages. I'd even choose it again next time. It's really not so bad, I want to tell them, you should try it some time.
It's even anonymous!  How perfect.  A painful and self-contained rant about how those nasty breast-feeders condemn you with their eyes.

Not their mouths.  Not their words.  Not in their actions.  But by their eyes...

In a world where bottle feeding is the norm - the breast-feeder is condemning you.  In a world where breastfeeding support services are abysmal, the breast-feeder is automatically assuming you are a selfish cow, who didn't have any problems.  In a world where bottle feeding is normal, the breast-feeder is outraged you didn't do the thing the least amount of people do...

You know the thing that really drives me wild about this?  It's not the assumption that a woman who breastfeeds has never had any problems.  That they had a free pass on those leaking nipples, the mastitis and the night feeds.  (Note how breastfeeding is so much more work than bottle feeding.)  It's not that the breastfeeding mothers are looking over their aprons.. wtf?

It's not even the silence, as not one person has said one thing to this person.

What REALLY drives me wild about this.... is that the reality of a mother breast-feeding in a room with another mother who is bottle feeding... is far more likely to be...

"OMG, She's bottle feeding.  She's gonna call me a NAZI!"

Because in this world, we go on action, on words, on deeds, as opposed to silent thoughts that are written on faces... in the world of looking at actions/words/doing... we are not in a world where the breastfeeding mother is the oppressor.

She's the invader.  The abnormal one.  The freak.

And by goodness, do we let her know about it.  After all, we know what's she thinking... it's written in her eyes.

Those looks of absolute blankness do speak a thousand words.  They say "Don't hate me because I'm breastfeeding."

And, usually, the next thought is "Oh my gosh, I wonder if she had crap help at the hospital, and she's really upset about it all...."

And the third thought is usually "Oh gosh, I better look over to the door, and not look or smile at her, in case she has a go at me, and thinks I'm condemning her..."

Not to mention that for most of us, the thought would be "Thank goodness she knows to use ready made when out and about, that's fabulous."

And very often it's ... "Gosh, what a pretty baby, and isn't that a lovely top, wonder where she got it..?"

And quite often it's "I wonder if I paid the gas bill on time..."

Prejudice comes from words, actions, deeds.  Not telepathic reading of the eyes.  Of knowing 'what that look means'.

No matter how insecure you are feeling: you need to actually check out the reality you are in, without your fears at play.  And you certainly can't condemn everyone around you for the LOOK you are seeing in their eyes.

And I'm fed up apologising for breast-feeding.  I suspect you are too.  :-)

ps  Don't let the 3 year old jump on the couch.  The 6 year old will destroy it.  :-)