As a mom, trust your instincts | parenting advice | instinctive parenting

Mom Knows Best

Don’t overload on “expert” advice; believe in yourself instead.

by Ada Calhoun

April 7, 2010

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t was a beautiful day at the park. My two-year-old son was running around a tree with one of his best friends. I was chatting with his friend’s mother. The sun was shining. The kids were giddy. I was comfortable – too comfortable.

“I’m the most traditional parent ever,” I joked. “Oliver is Ferberized, circumcised, baptized and vaccinated. Not a hip decision in the bunch.”

The mother said nothing, but I saw her go pale. She backed slowly away in horror.

I realized what an idiot I’d been to rattle those things off, each a bullet in a gun with which parents on the playground enjoy shooting each other. Her son was probably none of those things. She was a yoga teacher, for goodness sake. What was I thinking?

“Baptized?” she finally asked, stricken.

The thing is, our kids love each other. I really like her. But these days, parenting decisions carry an absurd weight. Whether you let your kid watch TV, how long you let your child use a pacifier, whether you weaned your nursing baby at three months or nine months or nine years – all of it identifies you as one kind of parent or another, and those seemingly insignificant decisions can prove more divisive than national politics.

We all want to do the best by our children, but now no one is entirely sure what “the best” is. Go online and Google “circumcision” or “vaccination” or “sleep-training” and see if you can find a consensus, a middle ground.

What you do find is opposing, entrenched camps, their tents pitched and their flags flying. The people who swear letting your child “cry it out” will scar him for life. The people who insist that not circumcising will automatically lead to STDs in your future daughter-in-law. The people who identify absolutely every item in your household as a trigger for autism.

Even in polite conversation, you are apt to discover that something innocuous you have done (opting not to use a baby monitor, choosing to go back to work when your baby was young, breastfeeding a toddler) is a form of child abuse by someone else’s standards. Often you will not be called a terrible parent on the spot. But you may well be told, “Oh, you’re so brave.” Or, “You’re so much more relaxed about parenting than I am.” Or, my favorite, “Wow! I could never do that!”

Even in their mock humility, these parents are certain of their rightness. And when faced with alternate viewpoints, many of these advocates for their parenting positions become surprisingly furious. Check out those overly intense comment threads on parenting message boards and note the burning eyes of people who argue about the pros or cons of pre-kindergarten.

What does it have to do with them how you raise your child, assuming you’re not doing anything cruel and unusual? Why can’t each parent just work it out for his or her own family? Why must they be so angry with people who do something else? Who is being served by this cult of perfection?

I suspect that it has to do with a collective loss of faith in our instinctive ability to raise our children in a way that keeps us, and our children, happy and fulfilled. Of course we can flip through some books. We can solicit help from our pediatrician, who has seen a lot more babies than us. We can ask (without our own agenda!) friends and parents and strangers what they did. Through trial and error, we can land on workable solutions for our own unique situations. Keeping a kid alive and reasonably well behaved and well adjusted until he’s eighteen isn’t rocket science, and our attempts to accomplish that simple goal shouldn’t be torture. Yes, parenting is hard, but it doesn’t have to be so complicated.

And yet, we’ve betrayed ourselves time and again by assuming we don’t know anything, and by trusting in supposedly higher powers, like the latest expert making their rounds on the morning shows, the loudest mother at the barbecue, or the most aggressive poster to a blog. There seems to be an evangelical cult around every little decision – about, say, when to start solid food – each with followers looking to convert you. The late-start camp will raise its eyebrows at anyone who breaks out the smooshed bananas at four months.

Plenty of things keep me up at night. There are days I feel completely overwhelmed. Being a parent sometimes still seems impossibly difficult. (Like, how do you not throttle a big kid on the playground who’s mean to your toddler? This I’m working on.) But I have gotten to the point where I don’t want to read any divisive books, watch any fear-mongering segments on TV, listen to any self-proclaimed experts telling me what I should be doing. I just don’t want to hear it.

And I’ve realized that pretty much every time I’ve passed judgment on a fellow parent, I’ve later come to find myself in their same shoes and not doing all that much better with the challenge. Of course it can be fun to talk smack on others. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the occasional gossip session with one parent about another. And yet, the truth is that, ultimately, there is almost no supposedly offbeat decision that I haven’t seen work out just fine for someone.

When I was hugely pregnant with my son, Oliver, and then when I was nursing a newborn, I enjoyed flipping through books for week-by-week pictures of babies in utero or for little bits of applicable wisdom. “My baby is the size of a lime!” I would remark, looking in wonder from my belly to the book. “He is getting foremilk, and then hindmilk!” I would observe, as I looked approvingly from the book to my nursing newborn.

And yet, I began to notice that none of this information ever really helped. Some of it was cool, sure, and fun to read, but none of it made my life easier. In fact, it often confused me or made me doubt my instincts. When my son threw his arms out to his sides just as he was falling asleep, I could smugly tell my husband, Neal, “That’s the Moro Reflex. He feels like he’s falling. That’s why babies usually prefer sleeping on their stomachs, because then they don’t get that.”

“So let’s put him on his stomach,” Neal suggested, reasonably.

“No! We’re not allowed. Babies have to sleep on their backs. We could swaddle him to prevent him from flailing.”

“But he hates being swaddled.”

“True.”

So really it turned out to be useless reading those books. Plus, one night it almost wound up getting us divorced.

In those first weeks, my husband sweetly got up each night for the three a.m. feeding and gave the baby a bottle. One night, I woke up a little and heard him go to the fridge and warm up a bottle and feed it to our son. Then I heard him lay our son in his cradle by our bed.

“The key to good parenting is focusing on the few things that matter and then doing whatever you want with the rest.”

I couldn’t help it; I had to look at Oliver’s sweet, sated, sleeping face, so I rolled over and looked into the cradle. There he was, eyes open and sucking away at a bottle propped up in front of him on a blanket.

I completely freaked out. I started yelling at my husband about “pair bonds” and “associating food with comfort.” I snatched Oliver up into my arms and held him extra tight to make up for the minutes of contact-free eating.

See, I had just read a chapter in one of the more aggressive attachment parenting books about how if babies are not cuddled while being fed they grow up to be sociopaths – at least that was how I’d remembered it. Probably I was exaggerating exactly how horrible the author thought the propped bottle was, but I don’t think by much. He definitely thought it was a huge mistake.

My husband was, rightly, furious at my accusation that he had done something bad when in fact he was doing something lovely – giving the baby nourishment in the middle of the night so I could get a break from breastfeeding every few hours and get a decent chunk of sleep. Palpably angry, he took the baby from me, continued feeding him, and said, “I had to go to the bathroom. I was away from the baby for five minutes tops. You need to throw those books away.”

He was right. The passage about the dreaded propped bottle had made me into a fanatic opponent of something about what was, upon further reflection, a very practical solution to a very normal problem: needing to accomplish two things at once.

What should Neal have done instead? Woken me up? Not gone to the bathroom no matter how desperate he became? Tried to pee while balancing a weeks-old baby and a bottle in his arms? He picked the most logical option. I got to keep sleeping (or I would have if I hadn’t been so crazy). The baby got to eat. Neal got to relieve himself. We had a happy baby, a happy household. It wasn’t “perfect,” but it was good. And that made me think there was something wrong with the experts’ notion of perfection. Thank you, night of the evil propped bottle, for you showed me the light!

I’m convinced that the key is focusing on the very few things that matter (making sure you are raising a kind person and making that person feel loved) and then doing whatever the hell you want about the rest (bedtime, schooling, feeding, social life, friends, housing – everything else, really). Parenting is so much simpler and so much more fun than squabbles over the “right” way to wean, to dress your child, to hold him, make it seem.

My son’s friend’s yoga teacher mother has been able to overlook all the apparently crazy conservative things I’ve done with my kid, because we are still friendly. I even watched her son while she recovered from delivering his sister in an un-medicated home birth in her apartment. Her kid and mine ate hot dogs, drank chocolate milk and watched The Backyardigans. We all had a wonderful time.

This is an excerpt from Instinctive Parenting: Trusting Ourselves to Raise Good Kids, just out from Simon & Schuster’s Gallery Books. To buy the book, click here.

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