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!