My cousin, the author Rachel Vail, has a family rule called "plums are not a one-bite food."
I like this picture going around FB, even though the quote is sloganny and simplistic.
My firstborn is a boy, and was an only child for 6 years. During that time, I noticed some patterns in what “boys’ moms” tended to say and what “girls’ moms” tended to say, and one of them was: moms of daughters frequently described their girls as “bossy.” I think I noticed it initially because I never thought of my son as bossy. Then, when I thought about this more, I realized I never heard a mother of a son call him “bossy.” But it was common hear among mothers of girls. I immediately wondered: if I had a daughter, would she seem bossy to me?
And I noticed that almost always, the girl being described didn’t seem bossy to me at all. Granted, I had a distance on this because I had only a son, but I was often surprised when “bossy” was handed out because mostly the girl seemed to be acting opinionated, charismatic, enthusiastic, but not “bossy” in the sense that “bossy” also involves a real failure of empathy, an inability to “get” when it is time to keep your opinion to yourself, listen and follow.
Or — sometimes her grabby, want-to-get-my-way, inconsiderate routine was really unempathic and truly out of line, but even then, typically, I’d think, well, that’s annoying, but it’s actually just “childish” behavior. And this person is a child.
Meanwhile, the boys also did the grabby, want-to-get-my-way, inconsiderate routine, the very same routine, and it was equally annoying from them, and all too often the adults around them didn’t call them names, but also didn’t teach them how to do it any better. All too often, when boys got “bossy”, their grown-ups expressed pride in the young tyke’s cojones, or else apologetically explained that he couldn’t help it because that’s how boys are.
I think it’s worth being careful with our language. It’s important for all kids to learn to express their opinions with a little charisma and a good sense of audience. They’ll all mangle it for a while – some will be too hesitant to express opinions until they find their voice, and others will steamroll over everyone else’s opinions until they learn some moderation. In the end, helping them learn this is important because these are leadership skills. We owe it to a daughter not to suggest that venturing an opinion (and risking doing it boorishly) is so horrible that we’ll call her names for having a personality. It’s exactly in the low-stakes world of the playground that she should learn to do that stuff with our help. And we owe it to a son to do right by him, too, to be sure that when we admire and encourage budding “leadership,” we’re also teaching him to be mindful of his audience. Acting like he’s not capable of basic empathy is treating him like an idiot. It’s not fair to boys or to girls if we give up on them.
Sometime over the weekend folks circulated an essay titled something like, “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” – I’m not linking to it because I’m not sure I want to generate more traffic for her. The post described a mother’s fear and sense of helplessness in the face of her son’s violence and mental illness. The suggestion was that Adam Lanza’s mother may also have felt this same overwhelm, and that the “real” problem is our nation’s inability to properly attend to mental illness.
Then, there was a second round of sharing – this time another blogger’s criticism of the first, accusing that writer of being cray-cray herself and pimping her child out for media attention.
Then people shared counter arguments and rebuttals, and so on – the Internet OCD of Refresh and Comment, which has become our culture’s response to tragedy.
I found the whole thing disturbing, as a mother and as someone who works with mothers. On the one hand, I felt, and feel compassion for any mother whose beloved child is so ill that she simply cannot cope with him, especially when there aren’t resources to meet his needs and protect the rest of the world she’s brought him into. Yes, yes yes yes yes, we need to do much better, as a country, when it comes to mental illness. Yes.
But what really bothered me was how many people shared the original link not just to say “we have a broken system and people like Adam Lanza can fall through the cracks!” (which is true). I felt, reading all the “shares” and the comments that went with them, that too many people seemed to identify with this woman’s plight, as though they were saying, “my kid (or my friend’s kid) scares me too and I relate to how frightening it would be to be the mother of a mass murderer!”
I bet that Adam Lanza’s mother was afraid of him, sure. But – what mother – ever, anywhere – hasn’t ever feared her child? Being a parent is frightening. At first, it’s frightening because babies are entirely helpless. Later it’s frightening because they aren’t helpless – they’re smart and savvy, and ultimately, you realize, they’ll be able to overpower you mentally, physically, emotionally … and what if they do?! Fear is a sign you’re paying attention, not a sign that you are raising a murderer. Statistically, whoever your kids are, they are so much more likely to be killed by gun violence than to be mass murderers.
I worry that in imagining and then identifying with Adam Lanza’s mother, we are taking the normal fears that mothers have in raising regular, or even unusually difficult children, and equating them with something that’s not just more intense but categorically different. The goal isn’t to never feel afraid, it’s to learn some tools that help you cope with fear and raise your kid well.
However, if you are overwhelmed by your child and fear that he may be violent or that you can’t handle him – whether this is just part of the normal range or because your child is mentally ill in some way: apart from whatever else you do, you should not have guns. Because if you do not have them, he can’t use yours.
And because there are evidently people who don’t have the judgment to grasp that, we need better laws to protect the rest of us.
The shelves of bookstores sag under the weight of varied parenting advice books proclaiming different methods for you to get it all right, but this one piece at Huffington Post pretty much nails it. The writer is a reasonable mom of two who sums up her parenting “philosophy” as:
I try not to be a dick to my kids, but it’s okay if sometimes they’re inconvenienced by my needing to be a human in addition to being a mother.
You really don’t need more than this very basic concept to be a good mother, or good at any relationship I think.
She also points out that childbirth itself is basically just “one really rough day,” that in the first couple years of motherhood, “you may lose your mind” (and if so, get help), that it’s worth joining a nurturing non-judgy mothers’ group, and that it’s worth fighting the urge to be controlling (it’s the hyper-controlling attitude, not motherhood itself, she wisely notes, that makes people lose their sanity, sleep and sex lives.)
I like this piece because it’s refreshingly cavalier without demeaning the way many moms experience motherhood as awesome and profound. She’s not saying that you ought not care, that you shouldn’t be really deeply invested, or that your children should be trained to comply like little French Automotons. She is saying, take it easy.
So, do that.
It is 3 am and you are changing your newborn’s diaper and looking at the glob of scab that will ultimately become her belly-button and suddenly, you are possessed of a certainty that you are supposed to *do* something to it, but you can’t remember what. Wash it? Swab with a q-tip? Ointment? Rubbing alcohol?
Depending on how tired you are, this resolves one of two ways:
1. Say to self, “well, I’ll look it up in the morning, but whatever the right thing is, there is no way this baby is dying even if I get it wrong in the middle of the night.”
2. New-mom-meltdown where you become more and more anxious, not just about what the right answer is, but about the fact that you don’t know it, and whether this is a sign that you are basically a shitty mother. I so hope this isn’t where it goes, but I know that for all of us, sometimes this is exactly where it goes.
Also, if you took a good prenatal class, this thought process is generally also accompanied by:
"Crap, we talked about it in that newborn care class, but I can’t remember what she said to do???"
Look, most of these late-night (and mid-day, and morning, and afternoon) freakouts are just the ordinary course of new parent development, and if you’ve got lots of loving people around you who take good care of you, they’ll help you figure out what to do. Even more important, they’ll help you remember that freakouts are almost always over things that are low stakes and the “answer” doesn’t matter that much. (And if those people don’t do that stuff, you need some other people in your life to help you get that!)
Still, in a pinch, it’s so helpful to have someone who can tell you the detailed answer, right?
You can email me, of course, but I am generally asleep at 3 am (and one day you will be, too, I promise), so you won’t get a response till morning.
So, at those moments, your best bet is an awesome resource called www.birth360.com The website is a series of great, short videos by renowned educator and author Erica Lyon (author of The Big Book of Birth). You click on a topic (like, umbilical cord care! ) and there she is, reminding you exactly what you learned in your newborn care class.
It’s more than that, though. Great prenatal classes don’t just teach you “how”; they address the way that having a baby is a life experience that involves your body, your mind, your identity. Having a baby isn’t just learning to change diapers and give a bath, it’s adjusting to the way that living with a newborn is weird and new. It’s coping with uncertainty and doubt as you grow into the role. It’s learning how to communicate with someone who can’t talk, and learning who you turn out to be now that you’re a mother.
What helps you grow into all this is community and support, so that you are free to voice your fears and ideas and explorations in a safe environment, as you get the hang of it. But when it’s 3 am and your Moms’ Group isn’t till tomorrow afternoon, you may also find yourself hanging on Erica’s words in some of the other birth360 videos, where she talks about maternal sanity, or doing “just one thing per day.”
One of my favorites is this clip, called "Where are the Professionals?!" about how many new parents feel, initially, when they’re booted from the hospital, baby in tow, feeling like imposters. She injects a much-needed bit of humor into all this stuff, which dispels some of the horrible solemnity we can all slide into when we do something new.
I have known Erica for many years, and her classes are some of the best out there. She’s an awesome resource and the site is a great help for many new parents; check it out.
So, OK, but one more thing. Erica says, at the end of that last clip, “it takes a little while for the part of you who is a mom to feel like a mom.” I can’t overstate how true this is. And so, when you’re freaking out in the middle of the night, as you’re clicking over to birth360, try to remember that one sentence, OK? Because a lot of the anxiety and self doubt comes from just not being used to the role yet. It will come, it just doesn’t come, for everyone, right away. It comes in spurts, I think, and some people “feel the part” within the first few weeks, and others not for many months to come, or even over a year.
It’s a big transition. Be gentle with yourself.
Maurice Sendak has died, at age 83. Above* is a clip of my daughter, then age 2, singing Alligators All Around.
He was one of my favorite parenting writers.
Wait, you thought his books were for kids?
Chicken Soup With Rice is a brilliant “Playful Parenting" approach to living with a picky eater.
Pierre is one of the best descriptions I’ve read on how (not) to deal with defiant behavior. (I have read it aloud, front to back, to a roomful of adults taking my parenting workshops).
Where The Wild Things Are shows us how children’s destructive impulses can find a home in fantasy, and lets us see an example of how you can both send your child to bed without supper and also make sure he gets fed.
Bears — oh how many of us have been in that frantic search for the all-important stuffed animal who’s gone missing again! That book is like a tiny treatise on how to play with separation anxiety and loss.
Each book is like a nugget of wisdom, showing us playful ways to cope with all that’s weird and challenging and complex when you live with little ones. You close each one with a new idea of how to proceed. Even poet Rita Dove famously used Sendak as an inspiration in a beautiful poem about mothers and daughters and body talk.
I love when children’s books are also for the parents. Because reading is like nursing: you hold your child close, you use your body and your mind to offer to your child a multi-sensory experience essential to his growth and development. You use intimacy, touch, rhythm and warmth, to expose him of the best that the world has to offer. It is so, so important to your child that you hold him and read to him.
And all too often, just like nursing, we look at reading as though it’s *only* beneficial for your child, as though it’s not equally profound for mom. But that’s wrong. When it works, it’s for both of you — the content of the books, the experience of holding each other and sharing the art of the written word. You’re in the milk and the milk’s in you. He’s in the milk and the milk’s in him. There you are, learning the world together.
Read good books with your child.
I like this blog post. It reminds me of a really wonderful, honest woman I worked with many years ago who sat down with me at our first visit and laid down two books and said, “I like a lot of things in both these books and I want you to help me weave them together to make something that is true to me.”
The two books? Ezzo’s Baby Wise and Sears’ The Baby Book.
I had to stifle a giggle at first, because the two books hold to nearly opposite ideals of parenting. But I deeply respected my client’s desire to combine a natural touch with a modicum of control, and we worked together to find a path that suited her and her family.
Don’t get me wrong, you should absolutely not give your money to that nutbar Ezzo.
But the bigger point is that even those of us who are instinctively high-touch and low-tech, through cluster feedings and colic and night-wakings — even for those moms, an urge to have some control over it all is not at all wrong.
In fact, as long as you don’t imagine you can transform a normal, needy baby/toddler into a pet robot, it’s completely appropriate to look for the things you can control. You must not imagine that a “good” mother is the one who erases herself to her baby’s existence. Babies are needy and your job is to meet those needs. But they are not so fragile that they can’t handle living with real, human mothers, who need a some efficacy over their lives and a sense of self.
It’s the balance that’s hard — figuring out what would help you feel a little control and learning what your baby’s needs are. That’s where help, support, and friendship can be so useful. Help helps.
The other day, I was finishing a childbirth education series, and one of the students voiced something I think many pregnant folks think about. Now that we’d come to the end of our childbirth class, she said, she was less worried about the birth. But with some of those questions answered, she was beginning to think about what would come after. And when she thought about that, she was more wary:
"It’s really weird, and kind of intimidating, that after I actually have the baby, they’re just going to send me home with him, as though I know what I’m doing!"
When you’re new to parenting, not knowing what you’re doing is pretty par for the course (actually, that lasts — my son is nearly eleven and I still have no idea what I’m doing, but I think you get more and more tolerant of that feeling), but I still thought it was a brave thing for my student to admit. No one likes to feel like they don’t know what they’re doing.
What helps, I think, is to build some community. A supportive community means that you have helpers around after the birth so that you can get some rest and get fed and told you are awesome, which you are.
It also means you have some knowledgeable people around, whose opinion and guidance you trust — those people teach you, and boost your confidence.
And a supportive community also means you have some peers who help you see that what you’re going through is normal, even when it’s really unsettling. You learn from your peers by watching them, with their struggles, and joys, and seeing your own fears and concerns and pride and successes reflected in theirs.
Support is a combination of creature comforts, love, and guidance. Everyone needs it.
But the thing is, for lots of people, the only thing worse than not knowing what to do is the possibility that someone might find out you don’t know what to do. And so lots of people don’t reach out for the kind of community that helps boost confidence. Instead, they buy parenting books.
I’m not opposed to parenting books and I own a ton of them. But they don’t replace the kind of support and guidance you can get from real people in your life. A book might tell you about a generic baby and mother, but the author doesn’t know you.
Still, people buy the books, looking for guidance and handholding, and expertise. But too often, the books make the parents feel worse, not better. A recent English study looked at parents’ reactions to a variety of books by parenting “experts” over the past half century, and found that
although the advice from these experts changed over the decades, the one thing that didn’t change was the way it was delivered. Whatever the message for mothers, it was given as an order with a threat of dire consequences if mother or child failed to behave as expected.
I see this way too often. It’s so disheartening when a mom comes to the MOMs’ group worried that she’s ruined her baby because she can’t meet the standards set forth in the parenting books she’s been reading. So, just to get this out of the way — if you are following your gut, and trying to respond to your baby (your baby, not a generic baby in some book) and your baby doesn’t behave the way the book says she will,
Or if you’re using a combination of common sense and heart, and trying to get to know your baby, but it turns out you don’t feel the way a book says you ought to feel,
Or, if you’re reading a “trusted” guide about parenting, but the philosophy it describes sounds horrible to you, or just illogical or untrue, or you can’t imagine how you’ll ever do the things the book describes,
That’s all totally normal and not a sign that there is something wrong with you.
And when you give up on following that book, it is not baby-ruinous.
Babies aren’t generic. Their fates are not sealed in whether you did what was written on page 302 of that book on your nighttable. Parents aren’t generic. They have legitimately different ideals and values and feelings about how to go about their lives.
Raising children does not require parenting “experts.” It requires patience, attention, a lot of creativity, willingness to play a little, to experiment … lots of things.
It helps to have a decent knowledge of infant development, and you may need someone to teach you that, so you’re not exhausting yourself trying to get your 2 week old baby to walk. And if you have a clinical question about your child’s medical care, yes, you need a doctor. And clinical breastfeeding questions should be answered by an Internationally Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC). And many many people find it helpful to read or learn about a variety of different parenting styles and philosophies in general.
But for day-to-day parenting decisions? You don’t need an expert. You need real people who really know the real you and your real baby, and can help you find your way until you’re confident that you’re the expert.
So buy the books, if you like, but try not to take them as mandates. And when you’re reading something that makes you feel lousy, you need to stop and ask yourself why you put yourself through that. Isn’t your life hard enough now, without some obnoxious author’s voice in your head undermining your confidence when he doesn’t even know you and your baby?
Or skip the books entirely. One of the moms in my MOMs group this week told us she doesn’t read the parenting books at all; she found them too stressful. ”So what are you reading?” I asked.
“Fifty Shades of Grey" came the reply. Giggles all around.
That’s a much more entertaining way to spend your time!