"What happens if that snake bites me?" my 4-year-old daughter asked as her sticky little fingers rested on the plexiglass that separated her from a viper, a viper with a mouse-sized lump in its gullet.
I winced and answered as cooly as I could, "Uh, you could die." I prepared myself for the possibility that I'd irreparably damaged my child, but my girl blithely nodded and moved on to gawk at the next slithering kid-killer. However, a woman next to us gasped and quickly pushed her baby's stroller away from me, the crazy lady talking about death on a sunny weekday afternoon at the zoo.
Now, I could argue that the correct way to raise children is to answer kids' questions honestly and frankly no matter what. Then I could lay down a battery of studies to "prove" that kids who are offered brutal honesty fare better in life. But what's the point? I think my daughter responds better to honesty most of the time -- I mean, she was noticeably relieved when I told her that Chuck E. Cheese is a person in a suit and not really a humongous cheese-starved monster mouse crashing kids' birthday parties -- but I'm hardly an expert on my own kids, let alone everyone else's.
Already, four years into this mom gig, I've soured on anyone claiming official expertise on parenting. After all, for most of human history, parenting experts went by the name of "Grandma," and it's only because of the decrease of multigenerational households that this new class of self-appointed experts was able to rise and inform parents of the ideal way to rear children. Unfortunately, a consensus has not yet been found among said experts, leaving new parents with a gauntlet of conflicting commands.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, I tore through Amazon looking for the perfect parenting books to comprise my Welcome Home Baby Reference Shelf. I was hoping to find books that felt right, even though I wasn't entirely sure what that meant. When nothing felt perfect, I settled on the books that bothered me the least. But then, not all that long after she was born, I tired of thumbing through indexes or Googling whenever I was confused, mostly because I was confused by everything and it's hard to read when you have a screaming baby in your arms.
My first impulse was to return to the days of yore and consult my own mother on best practices. My childhood was basically fine. If I learned one thing from the friends I kept in my 20s, it's that there are worse things that can happen to a child than still-married parents who are equally obsessed with long-distance running, jet skis and Lynyrd Skynyrd. So, the first time my mom visited after my daughter's birth, I pounced on her with questions and concerns, mostly about sleep because as a new mom, it was something with which I was quite justifiably obsessed.
I asked my mom if she sleep trained me or my older sisters. She thought for a second and answered, "I think you slept through the night in your room as soon as I took you home from the hospital." She paused, took a sip of her wine, then concluded, "Yeah, you were the good baby." I reminded her that in our old house she couldn't have heard me crying in my bedroom from either our living room or her bedroom. Maybe she used a baby monitor? "Nah," she answered. "They didn't have those then." I was born in 1980. There were baby monitors then, but that pronouncement was less galling than her earlier assertion that strollers didn't exist when my sisters were born in the mid-70s and she could only go places with them if she carried one under each arm. I asked her if she was concerned that I was crying in my room and she couldn't hear me. "Eh," she shrugged, "you lived."
I don't want to get too lofty about my parenting goals, but I'm shooting for more than survival for my children. Though my mother was a lovely mother -- and she's recently learned how to use the Internet, so hi, Mom! -- she's never been one to second-guess herself. Her decisions all come with a no backsies/no apologies clause, so even if her methods of tackling baby sleep were flawed, she would never see it that way.
Still needing answers, I took my questions about baby sleep to each of the two weekly new mom groups that my baby and I attended. Most of the other women were as unsure as I was, but, as is often the case in mom groups, each had their resident zealot. At the first, I was the recipient of a lecture on exactly which sleep training books to buy and told with ironclad certainty that not sleep training causes babies to be poor sleepers as adults. At the second, I was sternly informed that children who are made to cry it out lose IQ points and that parents who sleep train are just being lazy.
The Internet -- unsurprisingly -- was just as fraught with contradictory information. In forum after forum, the zealots from each side fought it out, all citing opposing statistics and attempting to convert the other side. The certainty of each camp unsettled me, that is, until it hit me: What I'd like to do differently from my mother, the outspoken ladies from my playgroups and participants in Internet flame wars is to have less confidence. Yes, less. I'd like to have less confidence.
By surrendering to insecurity, I'm finally free of the worry that other people are judging me because I know that they are. And that's fine! And sometimes they might even be right! Once, when my oldest was approaching 1, I admitted to another mom group that I hadn't started brushing her teeth yet because, you know, she was gonna lose all those teeth anyway. The other women recoiled in such a way that -- once I got over being offended at not being offered unwavering support for my "choice" -- I finally realized that maybe I needed to run into Target for a baby toothbrush on the way home. Not all judgment is baseless. Sometimes I need horrified onlookers to make me realize that I could be doing better.
Which brings me back to the zoo. I was miffed by the judgment I thought that other mom was heaping on me. However, I took her response as potentially valuable feedback, reconsidered my bluntness about death and then, in that case, I decided that the hard truth was right for my particular child in this particular circumstance. I often take my daughter hiking in the hills above where rattlesnakes have been known to roam. A healthy fear of snakes could possibly save her life and she's thick-skinned enough to take such information in without it keeping her up at night. But I'm probably going to have to take a different approach with her younger brother, as at age 2, he's already developed a fear of butterflies.
Off the top of my head, I can think of at least a dozen occasions on which I was totally confident in my parenting when I shouldn't have been. Like, this one time I got super-mad at a mom group that was all judgy about my willingness to let my daughter's baby teeth rot out of her head. Whoops! And that's the problem with confidence. I'm sure of that. But certainly there's a scenario in which unquestioning confidence makes sense? Nah, I'm not sure.