Our resident advice-giver-outer Jenny True provides shouty, full-hearted answers to your niggling questions about pregnancy and parenthood in her column Dear Jenny. 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 email@example.com.
I am about to be a parent. Great! Fantastic! Super! I have all the books and I get the general gist of looking after a baby (I'm already having panic dreams about how to correctly hold the baby when he comes, so that's locked). My Q is that while it was clear to me at the birth class and at prenatal yoga and just from talking to people, everyone has an idea of what kind of parent they're going to be — some are clearly going the hippie route, some are more the hyper-organized kind of mom, some are going gender neutral from birth, etc. — I know more what I don't want to do as a parent. My parents did a great job, but I also have some "notes" for them, i.e., there is a lot I would do differently!
Basically, I know that I don't want to parent how I was parented, but I don't have active ideas of how I do want to parent. And I'd like to figure this out before the baby arrives and I have to start making it up as I go along. So how do I pick a lane, what are the lanes anyway, etc.
Same Same But Different
A lot of new parents have some idea of how they're going to be, how they want to be (which may not be the same thing), or how they don't want to be: I'll be easygoing. I'll have rules. I'm going to breastfeed for two years. Bring on the formula. My kids will say please and thank you. Mine won't need to conform to society's rules about politeness. Etc.
We tend to think in terms of absolutes, especially if we were brought up by people who inspired us negatively or positively: I'm never going to do such-and-such. I'm always going to do such-and-such.
Why? Because we're living in La La Land, looking at the great unknown — parenting — and attempting to control fate by deciding — deciding — on the future.
Have you ever just decided what the future will be? Do you know anyone who has? Successfully? Repeatedly? Are you talking about people with children?
Neither have I. (People who say they did are forgetting the luck and privilege that helped them along.)
This is a direct quote from my husband: "Parenting will take you to the limits of your capabilities. Getting through college or having a really challenging career doesn't. If you're used to white-knuckling your way through the world, that's not going to work."
We're not robots, and we can't decide what kind of parent we're going to be. In most cases, we can't even decide what kind of person we're going to be. Every day I wake up and think, "Today, I will not be an asshole," and then I go in to work and it all falls apart (see: tersely worded emails, sh*t-talk on IM, forgetting to show up for lunch dates and coffees I arranged to celebrate other people, perpetually late to meetings, general self-righteousness, and angry, controlling defense of my little corner of the world).
This is not the same thing as setting ourselves up for the potential to make good choices.
That we can do.
Some of the kindest, most generous people came out of devastating circumstances, and plenty of people who had all the advantages — including parents who loved them and tried their best — go around hurting people.
You say you have some idea of what kind of parent you don't want to be. That's a great start. Why not attempt to achieve that goal the same way you might attempt any other? Write it down; be specific (I will never yell at my kid, or even, I will never yell near my kid). Ask yourself: Why is this important to me? Do I yell at people now? How will I achieve this goal? (When I feel like yelling, what stops me? When can I not seem to stop from yelling? What behavior will I attempt in place of yelling?)
And: How am I going to deal when I fail? (Hint: Compassion, acknowledgement, and a proper apology go a long way.)
What makes a good parent (as this seems to be your question) is an ever-changing concept. Witness trends in parenting and parenting methods. And there is no proof in the pudding: You can't look at a human being and tell whether or not they had "good parents." Some of the kindest, most generous people came out of devastating circumstances, and plenty of people who had all the advantages — including parents who loved them and tried their best — go around hurting people.
Like many parents, I read, and still read, a lot about parenting and child development, looking for advice that corroborates my instincts or for information or a perspective that enlightens me. I've found plenty that works for me: Sleeping with my kids is not an instinct I should suppress, not sleeping with my husband will not ruin my marriage, my job as a parent is to raise my kids to be functional adults, when my toddler wails and cries I should reflect his feelings (and, now, his vocalizations) earnestly and without sarcasm ("You're angry! You really want a cookie! You want it right now!") as much as I reflect his happiness, reminding my stepdaughter with one word ("Lunch!" or "Towel!" or "Silverware!") is more effective than a lecture, and when I screw up, I should name what I did and apologize for it.
This is, currently, how I am as a parent. Even as an advice columnist, I wouldn't think to instruct another parent to live the same way — especially since all of the above may change because I am evolving every day, because I am a human being going through life, where things happen and people come and go. And at the same time my kids (and my husband, and my relatives, and my friendships, and my job, and my neighborhood, and the world) are evolving, and going through life stages. Plus everybody is assaulted every day with hormones and chemical imbalances and external forces that can waylay even the best-laid plans.
Who you are as a person = who you will be as a parent.
One thing you don't yet know, because you haven't had your baby yet, is that although a lot will change in your life, a lot will stay the same. Technically, you become a parent overnight. And you will surprise yourself: I thought I was going to be a drill sergeant, but as it happens I would rather fall asleep in my son's bed at 8 p.m. rather than endure him crying, "Stay wif me, Mama!" and throwing his arms around my neck as I attempt to extract myself for some “me time.”
But the person you are now? In large part, that's who you'll be on the other side. So if you want to be a "good" parent, or parent the "right" way, you'll need to start loving and appreciating that person, and identifying, validating, and supporting her needs. Sure, read as much as you need to about how to handle certain situations. But who you are as a person = who you will be as a parent. And if you can respect and be compassionate toward yourself, you'll have a pretty good chance of respecting and being compassionate toward your kid. And really, that's the only lane you need.
YOU ARE A PIONEER BECAUSE NO ONE HAS EVER PARENTED YOUR KID BEFORE. YOU ARE GOING TO BE MAKING IT UP AS YOU GO ALONG THE WHOLE TIME, AND THERE WILL BE WINS AND THERE WILL BE LOSSES AND YOU MAY NOT RECOGNIZE THEM AS THEY HAPPEN OR YOU MAY EVEN MISTAKE ONE FOR THE OTHER. EVERYONE ELSE IS GOING THROUGH THE SAME THING. BE GENTLE WITH YOUR KIDS AND YOURSELF AND VALIDATE THEIR LIVED EXPERIENCE. YOU GOT THIS. REALLY. YOU GOT THIS.
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