Thursday, July 26, 2007

the *right* way to parent

When Frances was first born several things became quite clear to me, one of which is that there is no “right” way to do things with a baby. Sleep schedules, feeding routines, whether or not to co-sleep or baby-wear or offer a pacifier. It differs for each baby, for each family, for each combination of personalities and situations into which this individual baby is born. I believed this strongly. I didn’t judge any other mother for her decisions, including ones I was sure I wouldn’t have made for my baby.

But in the last nine months I’d forgotten some of that.

Which is why, I believe, I felt so guilty about the breastfeeding thing. I’d come to believe that there’s one way, and that way is to breastfeed, at least for me. While I may have remembered that things differ for other mothers, I’d forgotten that I too needed to be flexible and adjust to this baby’s personality. Now I need to remember again.

What brought this thought on just now is a book my friend Anna gave me to read: Momfidence. It’s a fun read, and insists that these days we moms are way too wrapped up in being superheroes that we forget to enjoy being a mom all together. I’d argue that it is the Boomer Generation that created this view of moming, the generation that in the 80s first suctioned ‘Baby on Board’ signs to the inside of their minivan windows. It’s the generation that instituted laws for car seats, created an industry of childproofing, and coined the term SoccerMom. It’s the generation that created the Just Say No campaign and Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, that censored rock lyrics and insisted on school testing. So how does my generation respond to this when it’s our turn to be parents? The standards have been set… This is what it looks like to be a good mom.

And this generation is still in control to a large degree, due to the opportunities of fertility treatments. The Boom Generation now has children in their 30s, but it also has John and Elizabeth Edwards and their preschoolers.

The question all of this raises is: what kind of mom do I want to be? I’m not sure I fully know the answer yet, but I currently see that as a good thing, something I’ll feel my way through as I go along. My friend Erynn will buy books but not video games, which is interesting because one of her kids loves to read and the other loves electronics. She says maybe it’s unreasonable but that’s the way it is. I don’t see it as unreasonable at all… Seems to me it embodies the ideal of putting your values into action.

When I was in Seattle we had to drop by the Target to get some pacifiers because I’d managed to lose the ones I’d brought. I had Frances in her sling, and in the pacifier/bottle/bib/booster seat aisle there were a pregnant woman and her mom, the two of them picking out things for the baby registry. When I had chosen my pacifier color, the mom asked me how I liked my sling. (Did you know, by the way, that they are now selling Hotslings at Target?? I’ve been wondering when one of the baby carrier companies was going to get on that wagon—seems to me someone needs to get Mei Tais in mainstream stores as well.) So I chatted for a while about slings and carriers in general (I can go on for a good bit about that subject) and then she said, “I see you have pacifiers in your hand. How do you feel about those?” To which I said, “I am a big fan of the pacifier.” Later it occurred to me that in their eyes, it was possibly confusing, or at least contradictory, that I was baby-wearing but pacifier-using. This seems funny to me now—it probably wouldn’t have before Frances was born. But these norms, these ideas of what kind of parent you are (that if you baby wear you won’t like pacifiers, or if you use the infant carseat as a carrier you don’t sleep with your baby, etc.) are clearly for those who don’t actually have kids. I suppose there are some folks who have very stringent ideas about how to parent and really stick to one “style” or another, but my guess is these are few. When it comes down to actually being a parent, you do all kinds of things you thought before you had kids you’d never do. And it’s not a compromise, or a forfeit, but an acknowledgement of reality. Yes, kids do get flat heads from spending too much time in the carseat, and I do believe that the invention of this convenience has created a problem for the children of some unknowledgeable folks. But a child carried in a carseat might also spend time in a sling—it's had to judge. Just because you have your kid in the carseat on top of the shopping cart, this doesn’t mean your kid spends 80% of her time there. It’s okay.

I also believe it’s my job as a parent to prepare my child for the actual world. Not for constant success in the world, because that’s not the real world—that’s some fantasy. There’s something to be said for the experiences of fear and failure as blessings. We need to teach them that it’s okay to be afraid, it’s okay to fail; these don’t mean they are failures as people. The kids I teach at Elon University are so unused to failing at anything, even when they aren’t particularly good at it. They at least “gave it their best shot” or “had a good attitude.” How on earth are these kids going to fare as adults? We’re setting them up… Sometimes trying doesn’t help one succeed, and what we need to teach our children is that this is okay. What we are inadvertently teaching them instead is that if they don’t succeed, or aren’t the best, they are failures in full—which just isn’t true. The reality is that they don’t have to be good at everything; they don’t have to always win. They are still of value. What I want Frances to know most is that not only is she of value when she fails or when she wins, but that her essential value doesn’t depend on these things at all; her essential value is constant. It is her experience of the world that fluctuates, and this depends not on her success, but on believing in who she is, on acting in ways that she believes to be right, on walking in the light and telling the truth.

3 comments: said...

What a sweet, loving...and correct...view of parenting. You do what you have to do to keep your sanity. A child has no appreciation of her parent's politically correct values regarding car seats, pacifiers, etc. She just wants to be comfortable...and so do you.

Two anecdotes about success:

I was playing golf with two friends, Bob and Dick. Dick hit a tee shot that went no more than 50 yards and barely cleared the ladies' tee just ahead. Dick was clearly distraught and Bob said to him, "Now Dick...hitting a shot like that doesn't make you a bad person." It's interesting that we're 65 years old and still learning that lesson.

In another context, some years ago I was a Deacon in a Presbyterian church. A number of members of the Board of Deacons were expressing dismay at how ineffectual they feel when trying to help others deal with seemingly intractable problems of life. The Director of Visitation, a wise elderly lady who was an advisor to the Board of Deacond replied, "God has not called you to be successful. He has called you to be faithful." If we are faithful to our children, and they are faithful to themselves (and to God), that should be all they need to develop true self esteem, irrespective of actual success. Of course child-rearing is much more complex than that, and is accomplished in tiny steps, but it seems to me you're pointed in the right direction. Teach them to be competitive, but also to be gracious and sportsmanlike in loss as well as in victory.

Good luck with Frances and your next baby.

erynn said...

heh. you bought *earplugs* for the people around you on the plane ?! she's the best baby ever.....

Anonymous said...

I like your perspectives / musings here. I think that not being able to breastfeed very long and going to bottles/ formula when Una was 7 mos. really brought forward in my life as well some of the points you make. I would feel self concious about giving her a bottle in certain places.. how ridiculous really. Also we are going to a camp in Virgina in a couple weeks where I know I will probably be the only Mom bottle/formula feeding (which brings up logistical issues due to camping and makes it stick out even more). My new feelings however (lately) are a defiance against the way we judge each other as Moms. I dont' want to be a part of that anymore! I really feel OK about doing bottles , (REALLY ) I think I kinda thought maybe I should feel badly about it or something for a while, but its been a real relief for me and a great choice for us. I told my sister, I bet some hippie mama is going to say something to me at camp when I explain why I'm bottlefeeding like "oh, thats too bad,", or "that's sad" or something. We decided a good comeback would be "no, its sad that you're so judgemental, and sad also that my baby is cuter than yours".
OK, just kidding on the second part! But it would be great to see the reaction!