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Taboo Topics

Parents are like everyone else -- sometimes they just don't see eye-to-eye, particularly when it comes to different aspects of parenting. Avoid the potholes with some expert advice.

When you become a mother you enter a minefield -- and I'm not talking about midnight feedings, poopy diapers, or endless runny noses. The explosives you're likely to stumble over are being called The Mommy Wars. The sensitive parenting subjects that can bust up a playgroup or spoil a budding friendship include but are not limited to:

  • Breast versus formula feeding

  • Whether you work outside the home

  • Where and how your baby goes to sleep

  • When kids hit milestones, such as sleeping through the night, self-feeding, or potty training

  • How you discipline your children -- or not

  • Home care (nanny) versus daycare

"We enter a culture of motherhood that has defined rigid differences in parenting styles,'' says Miriam Peskowitz, Philadelphia-based author of "The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars,'' and co-founder of MotherTalk (www.mother-talk.com). "The anxiety of getting parenting right runs so high that often parents, despite their best intentions, make judgments about each other.'' The issues on parenting raise hackles because we care so intensely about making solid decisions. It might be that it reassures us to believe that anyone who makes an opposite choice must be wrong.

But when these topics are considered "taboo," we miss an opportunity to gain insight into another approach to parenting -- and to possibly learn something.

"Mothers don't want to feel judged, especially by other mothers, but we do want to talk about how we parent. Many of us are intensely curious about how others parent and why,'' Peskowitz says. "It's important for us not to feel silenced on aspects of caring for our babies and caring for ourselves.''

Here's a simple primer to help steer you around some of the more common mines. Most of these fall under the heading of "Be tactful."

  • Even a seemingly innocuous conversation about the woes of cracked nipples can be painful to a mom who struggled with breast infections and had to wean her infant earlier than she wanted to.

  • Be careful how you bring up controversial topics in a group. First time mom, Grady, was in a baby group with her daughter, when one woman raised the question of letting a child cry it out (CIO) at night. The tension in the room rose, until one mom -- who opposed CIO -- changed the subject, and suggested not reopening it.

  • Don't assume that everyone is in the same situation as you. When you're thinking out loud about the ideal time to have a second child, the mom you're talking to might be struggling to conceive.

  • Recognize that first-time moms may feel especially sensitive and defensive about their choices, simply due to their lack of experience. Once the second or third child rolls along, moms are less likely to be offended or judgmental.

  • When you do broach a sensitive subject, ask questions in a very straightforward and nonjudgmental way, without tiptoeing around the issue. "That's the way to start a conversation and a friendship,'' Peskowitz says.
Grady used to wonder at the chaotic family life of a friend who worked full time outside the home. "It always seemed to me that it was such a busy, hectic life,'' she said.

But one day, her friend asked how she liked staying at home. That kicked off an eye-opening discussion about how fulfilled Grady's friend felt at work, and how her children loved their daycare. Until that point, Grady thought anyone who could stay at home with children would do so.

"That was definitely a light bulb,'' she said. "I've met a lot of people now who truly are much happier all around because they work outside of the home. Their kids are truly happy with the situation.''

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