by Katie E. Boyle, MPH
Over the public radio waves earlier this year, I heard John Dankosky heatedly interviewing Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy about the state budget. They seemed to disagree. However, despite disagreeing, they discussed. They respected each other, the role each serves for the public, and had an honest conversation about the budget. I remarked to myself that I learned a whole lot about two sides of this issue and heard a great example of putting emotions aside to discuss a polarizing topic.
Now, imagine yourself coming upon a social media post in your newsfeed, from any source, about any topic. You click. You read. You read the comments. You agree, disagree, or care less. Or, according to Facebook at time of publishing, you can like it, love it, laugh at it, make a surprise face at it, an angry face at it, or cry at it. When you wholeheartedly disagree with the opinion espoused in said post, and that post comes from a friend, what do you do next? Coming from a family not afraid to interject, my first inclination when disagreeing is to say, “Are ya serious with that?” or, “Ummm….yea. None of that is true.” Or I would least offer a friendly, well thought out and well researched rebuttal.
The post in question was from a dermatologist's blog. The writer explained how the media and other outlets such as the Environmental Working Group (EWG) are using scare tactics and ‘bad science’ to scare us into not using sunscreen. Wait. What? (More on that later.)
Of course, here is the public health tie in if you were wondering.
Other write-ups, such as the one picked up by Huffington Post, NBC/TODAY and ABC, rail against the barrage of warnings about chemicals in various products and general parenting advice/instruction spouted at moms at every turn. And it’s getting personal, as the author, Sarah Kallies, writes, “We are all just out there slogging it out. Doing our best to raise our kids. To keep them safe. To protect them from the big bad world. But what happens when the world tells you that you are the problem? That you’re not being careful enough. Aware enough. Diligent enough.”
To add the absolute worst insult to injury, apparently the world’s reaction to Kallies’ post included some massively negative reactions, such as death threats and assertions that she should have aborted her twins. What!? Just: on behalf of humanity and having a soul, I apologize for that happening. I still start to tear up when I think of what people can do when keyboard muscles are running the show.
The War of the Mommies
Sadly, I was reticent to admit, it seems the newest Mommy Wars’ front, after vaccinations and staying-at-home vs. working, is toxic ingredients in our children’s personal care products. EWG churns out what I estimate to be great direction on this topic. And then there are the lone mommies out there like me who have decided to offer up their ideas to any takers. Given the GRAND quantities of information out there, I guess this idea has popped up that the existence and sharing of this information infers that those who don't follow it are careless. Oh man, in all seriousness, that was the last thing I wanted to see happen.
I am an ardent supporter of education for myself and the public about the risks associated with chemical exposures, and I definitely steer clear of companies that have no regard for the safety profile of chemicals in their products…..that is, unless I’m in the grocery store with my two and four year-olds in complete berserk mode. Seriously, my youngest can damage ear drums in a 20-foot radius without even trying (I do hear ringing when it’s quiet), at which point I’m tossing Hail-Mary passes of the $1.00 shampoos and conditioners into my cart. But, as with any topic I learn about, there’s information out there from good and not-so-good sources that I can choose to read, research, incorporate, respond to, or simply let lie.
So yes, the post from my friend that I encountered in the middle of my work day, was, I felt, uninformed and inflammatory. No one, I repeat, no one is saying we shouldn’t use sunscreen. Somehow linking EWG to an argument against using sunscreen, is for me, a complete distortion. With regard to EWG’s methodology, described on the site, it is completely true that their product scores are limited by the research done to date on each ingredient. However, not having safety data about a chemical is not ‘bad science;’ it’s ‘not having safety data about a chemical.’ Remember, there is no requirement for chemical producers to test chemicals before putting them on the market. No law = no testing = no safety data available to the public. Progress on this issue has historically been meager or nil, but, more companies are being proactive, and initiatives such as the fabulous Chemical Footprint Project, which has so many companies, including Walmart, voluntarily opting to inventory the chemicals their suppliers use and pledge to do better. There is even progress gasp legislatively. Congress actually passed the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, which gives the EPA more authority and requires safety testing of new and existing chemicals, with enforceable deadlines.
Taking it Personally
After reading that post I disagreed with, a trusted colleague and I walked across the campus of the university where we work. I asked her, “How do you typically handle a fundamental disagreement with one of your friends? Like, an issue that is fundamental to you, that you believe in and are passionate about?” She asked me whether I had read the book, The Four Agreements. I responded affirmatively, and instantly knew she recommended taking the proverbial ‘high road.’ She said, “I think, trying not to take it personally has always helped me in disagreements,” and I totally agreed. It was good, good advice.
There are four fundamental principles in life, says Don Miguel Ruiz in his 1997 book, The Four Agreements. Be impeccable with your word. Don’t take anything personally. Don’t make assumptions. Always do your best.1
Brilliant. With all this as a backdrop, away I go, concluding:
Am I defending this effort to educate? Yes. Am I defensive about it? Really, really trying not to be. I’m human, after all. By trying to educate on this topic, I’m not inferring that moms who use conventional products (me included) aren’t careful, aware or diligent…. If someone is saying that, they are up on a high horse. My take is: We have choices. We are spending the money on sunscreen, right? So armed with more information, why not choose one with no chemicals? That’s all it is, really. And it’s completely and totally every person’s choice; no judgments about it.
The feeling that moms are overwhelmed and don’t need another ‘rule’ making their lives harder is not new and is completely and totally justified! I am in that boat too. So I pick and choose where my energy goes and let the rest just BE.
Might it be that humans have a natural tendency to take things personally, that clouds their ability to argue fair, allowing defensiveness to creep in? Maybe so.
Let’s Make a Pact: The Mommy Agreement
Despite disagreeing with the content of my friend’s post and despite how invested I am in this, I decided not to comment. I am doing my thing, trying to educate, and that’s all. I had no interest in starting an online war in the middle of my workday. It was easy for me to make that choice because this person is my friend. When the post is from not a friend but a stranger, and when it's not an academic subject matter but an emotional one (such as recent horrific accidents where children were killed), the anger, hate and blame toward the parents cruelly and callously flows in the comments section.
So let’s make a pact to hold back on our commentary, and, as Sarah Kallies put it, “…stop shaming each other. Whatever our beliefs are. However we choose to raise our children. Let’s be about supporting each other.” If you disagree, agree to disagree. Leave the emotion for real life, not online life. It can be damaging, and in the case of teens bullying each other, catastrophic.
One thing I have learned is that defending your side doesn’t have to mean defending your self. Let's fight fair.
We all love our children with every thread of our being (by the way, also don't tell me I can't use "thread of our being" because it's lame; I'm fully aware this phrase belongs in a romance novel and I proceed with its use). We can try our best to follow The Four Agreements, but we all have a specific amount of energy to use up on the efforts of our days, after which, if we are lucky, each.and.every.mom.out.there (don’t you try to hide) crashes with a glass of wine and binge-watches Blue Bloods.
So, moms out there (and everyone else for that matter), let’s make a pact to refrain from judging each other. Let's choose not to waste our fleeting bursts of energy on that.
The Mommy Agreement: “When I disagree with something online, from this day forward, I pledge to either (1) continue on with my day without typing my opinion, making a judgement or spreading any hate, or (2) recognize how the post makes me feel, and then type a message of support. I'll subscribe to that! If you wish to sign The Mommy Agreement, sign your name in the comments below.
1. Ruiz, Miguel. The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom. San Rafael, CA: Amber-Allen Publishing, 1997. Print.