parenting with a partner

"When Mother Knows Best"

Here's an interesting piece over at Scary Mommy about what sounds like a vicious cycle:  a child is born and her mom is eager and enthusiastic and perhaps a bit worried about getting “everything right.”  She googles and reads about Everything, and, with a lot of work, becomes, eventually, more confident and super competent!  She has lists and Techniques and Methods and they work.  Yay, right?  She’s a little controlling about it, but oh well, whatever, right?  

Except that, according to Melissa Lawrence,years later, she ends up with her life like this on a typical Saturday: 

Time to head out? Mommy crouches down tying all the shoe laces while Daddy catches up on the iPad because Daddy doesn’t get the kids ready because he doesn’t know all the ins and outs.  Mommy hands Daddy the bag with the change of clothes, lunch and the water bottles.  The kids are firing questions at Mommy and she’s fielding them like a catcher during bating practice.  “Can I do this?”  “Why did he get that?” It’s only 9 a.m. and you’re so drained from the excess of planning, details and decision-making that you’re ready to head back to bed. 

She’s basically imprisoned in kid-minutiae, alone with it, because, as Melissa puts it, she has “trained [her partner] not to make any decision whatsoever regarding the kids.” 

Well, crap.

But before you’re like, “damned if I do and damned if I don’t” about it, I think there’s a lot more to it.  

First, there are a lot of different ways women grow into motherhood — not everyone has the same experience.  Melissa advises that to prevent this scenario, moms should,

Get the hell away from that baby and let Daddy do his messy, sloppy, imperfect, thing.

But:  For some women, even people who are usually pretty easygoing, part of the learning curve is a period where she simply is … how to put it gently?  … impelled to do everything and Extremely Controlling. It makes sense, when you think about it — the baby is a bunch of mysteries at first. For many of us, every little mystery that is resolved is like a hard-won, intoxicating gift — if doing something results in a sleeping baby, or a baby who stops crying, damn right you’re going to do it every time.  And you probably should, for now, because your sanity is a major ingredient in your family’s well-being.  

And if you’re, perhaps, be a smudge curmudgeonly when someone else starts to do it wrong?  You know, we’re all human.  Try not to be obnoxious, really do try.  But honestly, you’re entitled to a few grumpy moments when you’re getting used to your life being turned on its ear. 

This Controlling Thing isn’t a “problem,” it’s normal for lots of new parents, especially while the kid is still a baby. Many, many new moms get enormous satisfaction and pride out of being the one who “can” respond to the baby!  And for others, they may simply find it very satisfying or irresistible, for now, to “do everything.”  If this is where you are, it’s right for you for now, even if it’s unlikely you’ll love or need this much control in a few years. (BTW, if you are handling everything and *not* finding it satisfying or irresistible, but are, instead, annoyed/resentful, then foist some of that shizzle upon your partner (see below)!  But for now, I’m talking about moms who find it, temporarily, OK).

I don’t think you grow out of the temporary new mom desire to Control by being told that it’s going to ruin your life later if it goes on and on.  You know what does help you grow out of it?  

  • Time.  In time, you notice that if someone forgets to pack wipes in your diaper bag, you can pick some up while you’re out and it’s a hassle, but it’s not the apocalypse. Try to notice this stuff.  Then you start to ease up. And likewise,
  • Experimentation.  (Here Melissa and I agree) — when you can, let others take a turn, even if you know it will make a mess, take longer or potentially disrupt your balance.  This is how others learn why you do what you do, and it’s how you find new things that also work, and it’s how you learn you don’t have to do everything.  This is important; you should do it.  But do it when you can.  Don’t experiment when you’re not ready just because you’re afraid that five years from now your life will be bad.  Don’t experiment on a day where you’re already in tears mid-morning about how chaotic life is.  And if every day feels too chaotic to experiment with anything, though, you probably also need:
  • Company, friendship, fresh air, and food.  If you’re being well taken care of, there are a whole host of things that will bother you a million times less and you will be able to play with this more.  I promise. And, relatedly
  • A Partner who shows you he or she wants to be in there with you however works for your family now (more about this below).

If your baby is still basically a blob, and you’re basically doing everything and that’s working for you for now, take it easy on yourself. 

Second, though, and here’s what really bothers me about the article.  Can we just, collectively as a world decide not to use the word “trained” to describe what goes on in human relationships (except if we’re really joking or reading like Fifty Shades or something)?  Yes, we all respond to praise and try to avoid chastisement, but I hope there is more to your relationship with your partner than just a carrot stick situation.  

The truth is that a parent who wants to get in there, get his hands dirty and be, truly, a co-parent will do it, even if the other parent is a Bossy Beeyotch for years, even if her inherent personality is very controlling.  

I say this not just as someone who has seen it professionally but as a Bossy Beeyotch myself.  From a long line of Bossy Beeyotches (my mother calls us a “Family of Generals”; my cousin literally has a post-it on her computer with a little message reminding her to “Ease the Fuck UP!” which has, alas, not transformed her character).  Bossy Beeyotches, all, we nevertheless all have partners who are full parents.  I did not say “perfect” parents or “perfect” marriages. But all of our kids know that Dad can pack a lunch, arrange a playdate or hold your head when you’re barfing, even if he and Mom don’t do it the same way.  Why?  Because (a) it’s not fucking rocket science to do those things and (b) they wanted in.  Not in the same way, not on the same timetable, not like clones of us, and it wasn’t always beautiful or easy to negotiate.  But they got in there because they wanted to.

My point is this:  if you’ve got a bunch of kids and you’ve been doing the parenting thing for a while now, and Dad is taking a pass on all the daily crap of involvement, this is not because “mom is too controlling” and certainly not because she went through the normal new-mom controlling Thing.  It is because Dad isn’t trying to work with her.  

If he’s saying,  to himself, “she’s controlling, moody, difficult,” perhaps these are all true, and she ought to work on her tone.  Really, she should.  But it doesn’t end there.  Concluding that he ought to retreat into the Ipad and not bother to figure out how to make the kids’ lunch because Mom can be difficult? That is not the logical conclusion.  This is the person you’re sharing your life and raising children with.  If you want a relationship with your partner, you work with her.  If you want a relationship with your children as a full parent, you get in there and find something you can do.  

Being in the game can mean finding something the mom needs less control of and taking that on — because you want to do this.  Or it can be the simple statement, “I want to watch you and learn even if you’re doing it for now.”   

Even if it’s the early months and mom simply wants (or needs!) to handle many things herself, the simple expression, “I want to understand; I want to be in it” is so important and such a show that you are part of a growing family.  And from mom:  even the simplest expression that “I value your opinion and perspective” is team playing.

It’s not a woman’s responsibility to train her husband, for good or for bad.  He’s a dude, not a dog, and you are partners. No relationship is easy.  But that’s why we do this as adults.  

Go for it w/ your partner.  When you’re working together — whatever form that takes for now in your parenting adventure — it feels good.

Why Do We Read Parenting Books That Make Moms Feel Like Crap?

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!

How to Treat Your MIL

In the New MOMs group, we often spend a session talking about mothers-in-law.    It’s a famous thing to joke about the woman who raised your child’s other parent, right? She’s unappreciative?  Clueless?  Finds you inadequate?  Brags about all the things she did that made your partner turn out so awesome?  Expects you to cater to her?  Doesn’t really like you?  Thinks you’re not quite good enough for her precious child?  Wants to see the baby too much, or not enough?  Doesn’t see how weird and idiosyncratic and demanding she is?  Doesn’t do things the way *your* family does?

OK, friends, check it out:  One day you may well be someone’s mother in law.  

Put that thought into your waffle iron and toast it while you make your next set of plans to see your partner’s mom.  What kind of mother in law would you be?  

Today I was reading a humor piece on Huffington Post by a woman with a five year old son, looking ahead to a time when she’s the mother in law, full of demands and expectations of her son’s future wife.  

I don’t think I’ve ever known a mother to obsess over her infant daughter's future spouse, but it's a thing I've seen often among mothers of sons.  Just the other day, I was talking to a group of new moms about their feelings about their babies' gender.  Of course everyone starts out saying, “I'm just happy to have a healthy baby,” but beyond that, many of us also do have some feelings about raising a boy or raising a girl.  And sure enough, one point that is often raised by mothers of sons is:  ”One day he'll marry someone and his wife won't like me and she'll want him to do all the holidays with her family and they'll move away and I'll be left all alone!  Whereas if I had a girl, she'd stay with me forever.”

There are many assumptions here that make me really uncomfortable — hetero-normative, sexist and marriage-normative.  (Maybe your son will be with a guy!  Maybe your son will marry someone who has two dads and you’ll be the only grandma! Maybe your son won’t get married! and so on).  But let’s get away from all that stuff and talk about what else is going on here?

Because assumptions aside, it sure is common for women married to men to incorporate their own family traditions, not in a 50-50 balance with their husband’s family’s traditions, but in a way that prioritizes her family’s access.  In many hetero marriages, the bride’s mother “gets” family holidays and access to grandbabies in a way that the groom’s mother doesn’t.  

Sometimes the new moms I work with who have sons, are already anticipating this imbalance and worrying about being the excluded Mother-In-Law, even when their babies are still in diapers.  This feeling is summed up in the HuffPost piece, which parodies a “prenup” the author wants her five year old son’s future wife to sign — a contract which puts mom at the center of her son’s life forever.

It’s meant to be a joke of course, but it’s not exactly a joke — it’s also an expression of this anxious feeling that one day your son will leave you after all the earnest love you’ve poured into him for these long months and years.  Those feelings, and the anticipation, are normal, and worth exploring.  Who doesn’t feel the bittersweet of a child’s eventual independence?

But you can do more than fret about this.  There’s actually something you can do:  be nice to your own mother in law.  And encourage your baby’s dad to be loving and expressive about how much he digs her, too.  Because your baby learns, more than anything, by watching what you do.  You want him to be good to you when you’re the mother in law?  Give him an example.  

I wondered, reading the HuffPost piece, how the writer treats her precious son’s grandma on dad’s side.  Does she follow the rules she hopes a future daughter in law would?   Does she include her and love her and consider her an equal grandma to her own mother?  Does she encourage her husband to be generous and loving and expressive about how much he loves his mama?  When you do these things — and holyOMFG they sometimes require a LOT of character on your part! — but when you do them, the message your son gets is:  grown-ups are good to their mothers; it has nothing to do with being a boy or a girl.  

Being good to your mother in law doesn’t mean taking away from your own mother.  Likewise, when your husband is good to, and loyal to, and enthusiastic about his mom, it doesn’t mean he is picking her over you.  There’s enough love to go around.  That’s what family is about.

But maybe your MIL is whack!  Recently a student of mine confided that her mother in law had just said something like, “Well, you’re better at being a mother than I would have guessed!  Even though you can’t cook.”  

Sometimes your partner’s mother is so freaking difficult that you absolutely marvel that she created him.  But honestly, your future child-in-law may think just the same about you, right?  So — don’t you think you ought to teach your kid how to behave in case you turn out whack yourself?

It is hard to turn the other cheek.  And I am absolutely NOT saying you should lie down and passively accept anything abusive from any family member!  It is vital to set good boundaries with parents and in-laws who can’t play nicely.

But I think only good can come of a lifetime of showing your child that when it’s family, you try to look for the best in someone, try to focus on what might make a positive relationship, and try to find ways to lovingly connect — because that’s how we take care of our family.