I Don't Know What I'm Doing As A Parent — And All The Expert Advice Isn't Helping
Our resident advice-giver-outer Jenny True provides shouty, full-hearted answers to your niggling questions about pregnancy and parenthood in her column What The Actual. Warning: This is not a baby-and-me singalong, this is about yelling into the cosmos and actually hearing something back, sometimes in the form of an all-caps swear. Jenny isn't an ~expert~, but she has a lot of experience being outraged on your behalf. To submit your questions to Jenny, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
When I got pregnant, I immersed myself in books about pregnancy and childbirth. I knew all the details about what was happening with little blueberry as his cells divided and multiplied. I was able to keep my husband informed of the developmental milestones as we progressed through the pregnancy ("He can open his eyes now!") and the first months of his life ("Did you know babies can't breathe through their mouths!?").
But once my son was out of the womb, my ability to keep up my studies on child development went out the door. It's all about survival now. And with my lack of research, my confidence in my parenting choices has also waned. As I scan the online moms' groups I am a part of, I see references to parenting methods and philosophies I've never even heard of. Friends of mine, people I respect, are using parenting jargon that is completely foreign to me. I am filled with anxiety about whether I am messing up my kid. My husband and I both work full-time and don't have time to read all these books or research all the various parenting methods out there. I feel like I'm on autopilot, likely parenting in many ways like my own parents did. I want to be an informed parent and intentional about how I support my son's development. I also hate feeling like my lack of knowledge about the most current research and parenting methods is negatively affecting my son.
Jenny, how do I keep up?
Too Tired To Read
Dear Too Tired To Read,
IF YOU'RE TOO TIRED TO RESEARCH PARENTING METHODS, YOU SHOULDN'T HAVE KIDS IN THE FIRST PLACE.
Just kidding! RELAX.
The worst part about not knowing parenting jargon is missing out on the delirious fun of shaming other parents (and arguing in Facebook comments by linking to more and more obscure parenting articles). Because some days, it feels like parenting methods, and parenting jargon, were conceived solely to shame parents, especially moms (for example, this recent nonsense that looked only at moms' behavior and then blamed it for negative outcomes in their children).
The problem is, different parenting methods give conflicting advice, based on conflicting research, on EVERYTHING. Thou shalt not show screens to kids under age 2; well, maybe you can. Warning your kids they're about to hurt themselves disrespects the child and the child's autonomy; letting your kids hurt themselves is neglect. A frown is the most effective form of discipline; positive reinforcement is a breeding ground for mediocrity and depression.
Take the issue of sleeping with your baby. HOO BOY SLEEPING WITH YOUR BABY.
This is a selection of conflicting advice on sleeping with your baby from three of the most well-known parenting books — all, ostensibly, written by experts on child development:
The Baby Book (by William and Martha Sears, founders of attachment parenting) doesn't see the issue in sleeping with your baby at. all. "Is it alright to let your baby sleep in your bed? Yes! We are astonished how many baby books flatly put thumbs down on this most time-tested universal sleeping arrangement. Are they also against motherhood and apple pie?" (KIM JONG-UN'S MOTHER DIDN'T SLEEP WITH HER BABY AND THEN IN 2014 HE RULED THAT ALL UNIVERSITY STUDENTS HAD TO GET HIS HAIRCUT ONLY A FASCIST CAN RAISE A FASCIST.) The book continues, "What a beautiful memory it is for a child to recall how he was parented to sleep in the arms of his mother or father or to recall how he awakened in the mornings surrounded by people he loved rather than in his private room in a wooden cage, peering out through bars."
And from What to Expect the First Year (part of the vast What to Expect series), an acknowledgement that this is a personal decision but don't make the wrong decision! "[T]he decision of whether to have your baby join you in bed … is a very personal one. And it's a choice best made … with your eyes wide open to the following considerations: Baby's safety." (IT'S JUST A COINCIDENCE THAT THE FIRST THING WE LIST IS SAFETY WE MAINTAIN WE HAVE NO OPINION ON THE MATTER.) … "A report by the Consumer Product Safety Commission linked the family bed … to numerous infant deaths." (NOTHING TO SEE HERE WE ARE PRESENTING A WELL-BALANCED COLLECTION OF FACTS). … Family feelings. … Keep in mind … that if you co-sleep, you'll need to make other arrangements for intimacy, or three could quickly become a crowd that compromises your 'two's company.'" (DOGGIE-STYLE OVER THE SIDE OF THE BED WORKS FOR A FEW REASONS BUT WE CAN'T SAY THAT HERE BECAUSE WE CAN'T EVEN SAY SEX).
Then there is the pragmatism of Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems (by Richard Ferber, M.D.): "Sleeping together with a parent … not only increases the risk of entrapment against the parent but also adds the danger of 'overlying,' where the sleeping parent rolls on top of the infant." (I THOUGHT OVERLYING MEANT LYING A LITTLE TOO MUCH.) … The choice is yours (IT'S UP TO YOU WHETHER YOU WANT TO KILL YOUR CHILD), but when you begin co-sleeping, you should have a plan in mind of how and when you will stop (BUT REALLY IT'S UP TO YOU)." … A child who still needs to sleep with his parents by the start of school faces embarrassment, sometimes even shame, because almost all of his peers will be sleeping in their own beds." (THE IMPLICATION BEING THAT SLEEP-TRAINED CHILDREN WILL BULLY CHILDREN WHO SLEEP WITH THEIR PARENTS AND INSTEAD OF ADDRESSING BULLYING YOU SHOULD CONFORM TO A PERCEIVED NORM.)
Your job as a parent is not to do everything 'right' or even well; it's to help your kid become a functional adult.
I'm not here to guide you on sleep (I just don't sleep; that's my answer), but here's the thing: Some parenting methods, or parts of them, work really well for some families and kids. I've certainly been shocked into changing my behavior after reading parenting advice based in research. And unbiased research about child development — what your child is capable of, and is trying to do, at certain ages — can help you understand what otherwise seems like a mercurial, self-centered despot who lacks empathy and has a very short fuse. Understanding your kids can help you make decisions about how to parent them.
But all that information takes time to collect, and fact-check, and process. And if you don't have time for that, enter anxiety, guilt, and shame. WHO HAS TIME FOR THAT.
Fortunately, Too Tired To Read, your job as a parent is not to do everything "right" or even well; it's to help your kid become a functional adult. If you find yourself overwhelmed and in a research vacuum, the single thing to remember is that kids are just small people. What are your basic needs? I'm going to guess healthy food, plenty of sleep, comfort, love, respect, regular time in the outdoors, and something interesting to do. Understanding and providing for these needs, according to your instincts, values, and resources, will lead you in the right direction. Also, you might be ahead of the game: It's possible that less information rather than more will help reduce your fear and anxiety.
Also, it's good to remember that kids, especially young kids, are doing the best they can with extremely limited resources (sound like being a parent?). It may be hard to believe, but unless your children are psychopaths (WHICH THEY MAY BE NEVER RULE THAT OUT), they're not trying to, for example, make you angry, annoy you, frustrate you, or disrespect you. You're the gravy train, after all, not only for food and shelter but comfort and safety.
Also: You're probably doing the best you can, too, so cut yourself a little slack.
THINK OF YOURSELF AS BEING ON A JOURNEY WITH YOUR KID. THEY'RE LEARNING HOW TO BE A FUNCTIONAL HUMAN, AND SO ARE YOU. TOGETHER YOU'LL GET THERE. AND IF YOU REALLY F*CK IT UP, THEY CAN GET THERAPY LATER, JUST LIKE YOU DID. YOU GOT THIS.
Are you currently asking yourself What The Actual about a parenting sitch? Send a question to Jenny by emailing email@example.com.