Fourteen years ago, if I could have returned my firstborn to the stork, I would have. He screamed, nonstop, from birth until very close to his first birthday. Exhausted and frustrated, I pored through the parenting books, desperate to find a way to get my baby to sleep. I was a loyal disciple of the then-famous expert, the "Baby Whisperer," and we lived by her book's strict infant schedule: eat, activity, sleep, and some fourth step I can't remember. I did exactly what she told me to do, and he still screamed.
One particularly trying evening, I slowed my sobbing enough to pick up the phone and call my parents for help. Dad had the misfortune of answering the phone, and through my hysteria he heard me say that I was following the book, exactly, but it wasn't working. He refrained from laughing and said, "The baby didn't read that book, so he didn't know what was expected of him. Put the book away and just do what works."
What? Just do what works? Was he delusional or simply patronizing me? If I knew what worked, I would have done it months ago. His advice infuriated me. But today, as I navigate teen and tween mothering, I think it was the best parenting wisdom I have ever received.
None of us knows if our kids will turn out ok. It's all just trial and error. When I finally figured that out, my firstborn and I had already suffered together for a long time and spent many sleepless and tearful nights while I tried to do the "right" thing. I was determined to follow the expert's advice, including forcing him to stay awake after eating, no matter how badly he wanted to sleep. The fear of doing it wrong was too powerful, and I went against my own instincts.
Today's parenting "experts" are worse, because they are relentless and inescapable. You can't look at a newsfeed without coming across a list of ways to guarantee happy, well-adjusted children.
The 5 Most Important Ways You Can Show Your Kids You Care
12 Ways to Raise a Confident Teen
10 Things Your Middle Schooler Needs to Be Happy
7 Ways You're Ruining Your Child's Life
Hey, Mom, You're Causing Irreparable Damage
I might have made up a couple of those, but they're not far off. For a while I tried to save a bunch of these listicles so I could reference them and become the world's greatest mother. If I could just put into action those 11,963 things then my kids will turn out ok.
These rules for teens are like the 2.0 version of the baby books that promised if we got our infants on a rigid schedule then all would be well. Today, if we take the internet experts' words as gospel, then our children will be happy and self-assured, and will have Harvard begging for their application.
The lists of rules are beyond overwhelming, and I figure I may as well give up. I can't even begin to wade through all of the advice, so apparently my kids are doomed to a life of failure and depression, and it will all be my fault. But, then I bring myself back from the mothering edge of insanity and I hear my dad's words: just do what works. It was true for the baby stages, and I have a sneaking suspicion that it will not fail me in the teen years.
We can exhaust ourselves studying ways to grow our kids' self-esteem, protect them from social media dangers, and get into the best college, and we still may come up short. Just when we think we have it all figured out, then either the experts change their minds or our kids outgrow that stage.
So far on this mothering journey, the biggest problems and failures took me completely by surprise. There was no list from the experts on how to prepare. On the other hand, the things I fear most, rarely materialize. It's like some sort of cosmic joke to keep moms on their toes.
Backing off feels scary and fear of missing out is oppressive. We try to control every step because we feel out of control. But the real goal should be to slow down and let ourselves fall into the natural rhythm of parenting. Sure, there will be mistakes and we will mess up and there will be consequences, but my gut tells me that the good will outweigh the bad. So I am giving myself a break from the lists and going back to trial and error, and it feels pretty good. Like a giant exhale.
Will my children become all the wonderful things the experts talk about? Or, will they spend their adult years unemployed and living in my basement? I don't know. But, guess what? Neither do the experts. The exhaustive quest for some imagined future greatness, that may or may not materialize, isn't worth destroying today's happiness. I want my kids to enjoy today instead of using it as a strategy for future security. When we live for tomorrow, all that happens is that we waste today.
I still don't know if my infant son had colic, reflux or was just rebelling against my novice mothering skills, but I did what I was told to do and it didn't work. The experts were wrong for us, and I made everyone miserable by chasing perfection. When I quit holding us to a made-up standard, things improved immensely. My mama-bear instincts were right when my kids were babies, and my gut tells me to not abandon those instincts now, when my kids might need it most. So far, so good.