When my sister and I had our first babies, we’d compare notes about how much or how little they ate and slept and wonder how the burden of child rearing — really, the weight of the world — had so squarely and quickly fallen on our shoulders.
We needed each other for community and reassurance, but those conversations actually put a strain on our relationship. Our mother had been dead almost a decade by that point, so we couldn’t ask her for advice, and each decision regarding our babies and toddlers felt foreign and monumental.
So we read books and websites.
I remember lamenting to her that my son wouldn’t sleep, even though we were doing “everything right.” She resented my statement of “rightness,” because her approach was entirely different. Her son slept in her bed.
The articles she read supported her way, while mine supported mine.
When I let my baby pull all the books off the bookshelf in the name of exploration, she was not impressed, and she wondered why I was ready to stop nursing at one year. I was judgmental that she bought her little one fast food, while she worried that I underfed mine. When it came time for school, she felt like my choice of private education was a mistake and that I coddled my quirky son. Because of our desire to do everything right, we found others’ choices in parenting to be an affront to our own. The possibility that there could be more than one way of doing things put little cracks in the walls of safety, success and achievement we were trying to build up around our kids.
Many years have passed, my sister and I are extremely close and now I get to do it all over, in my mid-40s, with a new baby boy.
People ask me how parenting is different, now vs. then.
Today, as I sat in the bleachers of our local high school, I saw a parade of 15- to 18-year-olds I had known since their births. There was the sweet boy who was breast-fed until he was 3. And near him, the girl who was bottle-fed from Day 1. My son’s buddy, whose mom would snuggle with him every night until he fell asleep. Another girl who put ketchup on all of her food, including pancakes, until age 6.
Yet you wouldn’t know any of this by looking at these kids. The decisions that seemed so monumental at the time didn’t seem to make a whole lot of difference in getting these teens to the high school bleachers today.
Instead of thinking in terms of right and wrong, what if we were able to recognize our decisions for what they really are — a melding of philosophies from our families of origin, current research and what seems like a good fit for our particular child and home?
When you have the gift of perspective, it’s easier to see things in terms of “style” and family culture vs. “right and wrong.” It enables us to tell ourselves, “This is what works for our family, but something else may work for that one.”
You can’t run out and buy perspective or try to foist it on someone you think could really use some.
New mothers will continue to roll their eyes at their own mothers, mothers-in-law and veteran moms like me, who try to say, “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” or, “It goes by so quickly!” Our perspective comes across as ill-informed, clueless or even careless.
That’s OK. Mothers will keep trying to get it exactly “right” because we love our kids mightily.
So how have I changed as a mother with this late-in-life baby boy? I do some things differently. He slept next to our bed for the first six months because the pediatricians recommended it and it was easier for us. I weaned him earlier than my other two so my husband could help more in the night, even though I wouldn’t have considered that before. Instead of being screen-free like his older brother and sister were, I hooked an iPad up in the car so he wouldn’t cry while being dragged along to his teenage sister’s activities. Yet much of what I’m doing is the same. I hear nursery rhymes, unsung for over a dozen years, come out of my mouth, and the same reassurances and words of encouragement. We’re having fun with baby sign language again. And even though I was afraid I’d forgotten everything, soothing a baby after more than 15 years came right back, like muscle memory.
As tired as I am, the perspective I’ve gained is helping me this time around by taking a bit of the pressure off every single decision, every single day.
I want my baby to nap, I really do. I want that precious time for myself, and I want him to be less cranky. I know that there are babies out there who take beautiful, two-hour naps. But because of perspective, instead of beating myself up for what I’m doing “wrong,” I remember this, too, shall pass.
And if I need more of a reminder that it will be OK, I can always look up at the bleachers and see my teenage daughter laughing with her friends. She didn’t nap, either, but she seems to be doing pretty well now.
Whiston-Donaldson is a speaker and the author of the best-selling memoir, “Rare Bird: A Memoir of Loss and Love.” In it, she describes dealing with grief after losing her 12-year-old son in a freak flood. She is the mother of Jack, daughter Margaret, and baby Andrew. You can follow her on the blog An Inch of Gray.