This weekend I met a woman who has a one-year-old daughter. We were both running the Mudder, and chatting on our car ride. She told me that her mom was watching her lil, but was making her feel badly that she might not get home in time for bedtime. Another one of my girlfriends begins all complaints about her child with, "I love him so much but..." Two of my girlfriends who don't know each other want to do all of the parenting because they aren't sure their (very trustworthy responsible) husbands can manage to do what they do. Listserves are filled with people calling each other bad parents if they don't (insert parenting tactic here: breastfeed, stay at home, use daycare, don't use daycare, get a nanny, circumcise don't circumcise, lose their baby weight, don't lose their baby weight, do bilingual preschool, do charter school, do private school, do public school, co-sleep, make their own baby food, etc etc etc etc). I’ve given this a lot of thought in the past few weeks, and I just finished a book called, Why Have Kids that also broaches some of these issues. I also read The Conflict and Bringing Up Bebe, and a few other books that explore the topic of motherhood from a theoretical perspective. What I keep coming back to is a few things. I had to wait to write this until I was in a place of calm, because a lot of what I see and hear is really upsetting, but not for the reasons that are most commonly mentioned.
First, guilt seems to be an overwhelming part of motherhood. Notice I don’t say fatherhood, as I never see anything written about this. More about that later. Most women will easily say that they feel guilty for some decision they make. In fact I’m not sure I can think of a mom I know who doesn’t use this phrase – well, okay, I don’t. I have to wonder if all of these moms really feel guilty or if they think they are supposed to feel guilty. I also wonder who is making them feel guilty – is it reading these message boards? Other family members? Friends? Like I tell my younger staffers, don’t apologize unless you are really sorry. I almost feel left out because I can genuinely say I don’t feel any guilt over any of my decisions yet. This may change, but right now, I am satisfied.
Well, that’s not entirely true – I decided to stop breastfeeding around 6 months, which was my goal from the start, and for a bit I did feel like maybe I wasn’t doing the right thing. I was concerned that because I had a pretty easy time of breastfeeding that I should continue, and maybe I should do it longer. But when I really thought about it, and how it worked with our family, I know that I made the right choice for us. T didn’t care if he was eating the overpriced formula or breast milk out of the bottle. He liked nursing a lot, but he didn’t seem to particularly notice that I had stopped slowly. And for me, I was ready to give up the pumping, the contestant arranging of my day around this stupid machine. I saw friends who were done with this phase and were happy, and I saw others that continue to breastfeed and that seems to work for them. The bottom line is that when I thought about why I was feeling guilt – it was mostly peer pressure that may or may not actually exist. I weaned slowly, quitting pumping little by little, and I really enjoyed the last times I nursed, and then like that, it was over. And I’m glad that we did this and I’m glad that it’s over.
Secondly, the other factor I find so prevalent in parenting is fear. I think people, if allowed to admit it, are afraid of their child. They are afraid they are doing the wrong thing, that somehow they are going to mess up this perfect little person. Babies are a blank slate – I realized this as we started introducing foods. T had never ever tasted an avocado, squash, corn, beans. Every taste was brand new and was the first time. Often first times are not notable (unless you are a weird purity person) as an adult, and many of our firsts go uncelebrated, so offering something for the first time to this brand new being is exhilarating and can be a little scary. Am I introducing something for which he could be allergic? But then on a more grand scale, we are offering everything brand new to this child, and I think we all worry about how this will shape our child. I believe this spans across every socioeconomic level for every parent of a child at some point you marvel at this child – and fear you will mess them up. Well, I would like to end the suspense. Of COURSE you are going to mess them up. You are going to do something “wrong.” We are people after all, not superheroes, no matter how hard we try. But I think this fear also comes from the same place as the guilt.
I’d like to blame Dr. Sears and attachment parenting for setting up these new, nearly impossible to reach standards, but, as I have not read a word he has written and I only know that he approves of the rice mush I purchase, I’m not sure I can place all of the blame with him. Attachment parenting might be the biggest culprit, but I have other targets as well, and it includes government policy, social media, Dr. Google, other parents, celebrities, listserves, magazine articles and more.
So in the grand style of Bill Maher, her are my New Rules for Parenting
Number One: You weren’t always a parent. I think this is really important. I’ve only been a mom for seven months, but I’ve been an adult woman for 16 years, I’ve been a political hack for 12 years, I’ve been a partner for 9 years. I knit, I run, I cook, I’m a friend, a sister, a daughter, a neighbor, a Democrat. I’m all kinds of stuff. While being a parent to my lil is important, it isn’t the only thing that defines me, nor will I let it. Framed this way, for me, takes a lot of the pressure off to be perfect.
Number Two: You are just a parent, not a superhero. There is so much pressure on moms that half of them I know obsess constantly about their child to the detriment of their own time and identities. I honestly believe that all of this focus on a new infant is not healthy for mom or for baby. Let your baby fit into your life instead of trying to fit into hers. It just seems like this flip of philosophy makes it easier to figure out what you really want. You will make mistakes, you will mess up, you will drop F bombs in front of your kid or not get rid of dust bunnies, or let your kid watch TV or whatever it is that you think you aren’t supposed to do but do anyway. Rebel. Do it your way. You are just a parent.
Number Three. Where is dad in all of this? Parenting guilt and theories are aimed directly at new moms, never dads. (I’m being hetero-centric right now, but I’m not sure how babies of two moms experience messages of guilt for being a mom). I take at least one night off each week to do whatever I want. I work late, I get drinks with friends, and tonight I might just get a glass of wine alone and knit. Not only does this allow me to be the me I was pre-baby, but it allows L to be the dad, and we think this is incredibly important. If I did all of the parenting, it would be detrimental to the relationship between L and baby. Taking a step back, men need to be allowed to parent and be involved. As long as there are more men holding elected office, we need them to know what it’s like to be very involved with their children, and to remember this when they legislate. You always hear elected officials trumpeting about how the most important role is “being a mom” but if it’s so damn important, why aren’t all the men clamoring to be the mom too. Let’s start by letting the dads do a lot of the parenting too.
Number Three. You're all pretty. Seriously, we don't all dress alike, work in the same jobs, keep the same schedules, travel, and live in the same places, why would we all parent the same? Stop attacking other women for the way they parent. Just stop it. Breast may be best, but formula babies aren’t destined to be axe murders. Every last decision does not need to be a heavy lift, a life or death moment. Some are important, many are not, but regardless, we have to allow each other the space to figure it out.
Yes, you love your baby. Does that make parenting perfect? Does that make every moment of it amazing? Of course it doesn't. Sometimes it's messy. Sometimes you are covered in bodily fluids. Sometimes you don't sleep more than three hours. Sometimes you can't read an entire newspaper article. Sometimes it is just boring. Sometimes it is amazing. Sometimes it is hilarious. Be honest about that – all of that. This does not make you a bad parent; it makes you a person. Nothing is awesome all the time. You aren't awesome all the time. But you don’t have to be a martyr either. Be gentle with yourself. I’m no parenting expert – like I said, I’ve only been doing it for about seven months, but I do know that once I made the decision to not feel guilty or afraid of my baby, I enjoyed all of it a whole lot more.