This constant push for mothers to do more and more and more is not the recipe for a sane and healthy life.
I read the occasional Internet article about parenting. If I scroll down to read the comments, I quickly become mired in the miserable, competitive aspect of parenting.
Everyone wants to feel good about their parenting choices. No one wants to believe by using disposable diapers they are destroying their planet. No one wants to believe that because their child wasn’t exclusively breastfed, they will end up loveless, unable to form a basic human relationship. Nor should parents believe those things.
But parenting zealots try to shame people. I make different choices than you; therefore I love my child more and am a better parent than you.
There are a lot of circumstances that can adversely affect children. And a lot of them aren’t always in control of a parent—poverty, domestic violence, contentious divorces, addiction in the family, no access to early childhood education, etc. There are a lot of negative things that are in a parent’s control—spanking, hitting, demeaning, excessive yelling, shaming, intolerance, gender-stereotyping, coercion to live out the parents’ dreams and so on. But I don’t think giving your child the occasional bottle of formula, feeding them some pre-made baby food, or strapping a disposable diaper on their butt is going to consign your offspring to lives of insecure, soul-sucking depression.
Though I had a flexible schedule, I worked full-time when my daughter Casandra was born. I had complications with her birth and she had a lot of trouble latching on to breastfeed. I was able to breastfeed, but never exclusively. I had to travel for business when she was about nine months old and when I came home, she had no interest in my boobs anymore and was happy with her bottle. She wore disposable diapers. She ate Gerber baby food and anything I was able to smush with my spoon. I didn’t own a food processor. Or a baby sling.
This is the part where I tout her accomplishments—to prove to you that I have parented successfully. One of the creepy things about these parenting wars is the way they reduce parenting to production. If I do X + Y + Z = I will produce an end product; a child who does me credit. As if there is only one way to parent or help foster the growth of another human being.
Casandra, now 18, has given me many things to brag about both academically and athletically. Her official paperwork just came through and she was named an Academic All-American by the National Swimming Coaches Association for participating in a varsity sport for four years while maintaining a 3.75 GPA or higher. But the accolade I hold closest to my heart is one her second grade teacher said, “Casandra is quiet and shy but she is one of the most well-adjusted children I have ever met.”
This constant push for mothers (and fathers are getting into it too now) to do more and more and more is not the recipe for a sane and healthy life. Parenting is hard work. Just the logistics of getting kids through their daily schedules, regardless of their ages, is exhausting, sometimes requiring a Herculean effort of daycare, grocery shopping, cooking, activities, homework, bath, bedtime, etc. To shove more and more onto mothers (without any community or legislative support, I might add) seems like a form of sadism.
When I say something like this, I often hear platitudes in response. Something like, “I LOVE my children. It doesn’t seem like work to spend time with them.” This response seems to come from people who take any attack on the current thinking that The Mother Must Be All Things as a personal one. I love my children, too. I love my children so much that I sacrificed my career for many years so that I didn’t have to be away from them for 35 to 50 hours a week.
My now 14-year-old son was not a good sleeper. When he was four months old, I took my daughter to her afternoon preschool, and prayed my son would take a nap so I could sleep too. I changed him, nursed him, and then laid him down drowsy in his crib. About 15 minutes later, he began to cry. I let him cry. He cried for about a half an hour and then was quiet. I fell asleep for two hours and I went to get my daughter from preschool feeling like a new person. I felt sane and happy to see him, and he was a lot less tired and cranky. (I can read the comments already. She should have checked on him. ANYTHING could have been wrong! What kind of person can let a FOUR-MONTH-OLD BABY SCREAM FOR A HALF AN HOUR? I could NEVER do that. HE COULD HAVE DIED. If they were both sleeping together, they would have awoke from a blissful haze of breast-feeding and co-sleeping and she never would have gotten this exhausted.)
I did not emotionally scar my child by letting him cry before a nap. We have a good relationship, he has a lot of good friends. He has a 3.98 GPA and a variety of interests including music, swimming, water polo, and gaming. I did not love him less by letting him cry so we could both get some sleep. And, this is what is so hard for judgmental people to understand, everyone’s circumstances are different. We did not have family in the area. We could not drop the kids off at grandma and grandpa’s for a break. None of our friends had children, so we couldn’t do a babysitting co-op, etc.
My husband and I did the best we could with the physical, emotional, and financial resources we had at the time. And we did pretty well. I didn’t wear my children, but we read together every single night. I sleep-trained them, but my husband gave them baths and washed their hair and brushed their teeth. I sucked at making baby food, but we rocked for hours, reading books, watching Blues Clues, playing Itsy Bitsy Spider and This Little Piggy. My kids wore disposable diapers, but I took them to swim lessons and music lessons. Casandra had formula, but as she got older, we baked cookies together and walked together and weeded our little vegetable garden together. I pushed my kids in the stroller and pulled them in our wagon. We went to parks and movies and on trips to visit family, and here we are 18 years later, still with more opportunities ahead of us.
Years ago, when I walked into my children’s elementary school classrooms to volunteer, I could never tell who had been breast-fed and who hadn’t. I couldn’t tell who had worn cloth diapers and who had been sleep-trained. I could tell who felt loved and respected at home. I could tell the kids who were confident and secure that someone had their back. And that joy and acceptance of your children, to many parents’ chagrin, is unquantifiable.
Telaina Eriksen is an essayist, poet, and a visiting assistant professor in creative writing for the Department of English at Michigan State University. She lives in East Lansing, Michigan, with her husband and her two teenage children (who have very good odds of becoming functional adults).