Four or five months after my son was born -- this was years ago now -- I was down at the park chatting with a neighbor about what I had been up to. I mentioned that I'd gone back to work part-time. I was surprised by her reaction, immediate and not a little insolent. "How dare you?" she scolded. "Don't you know that you're hurting your child by not being at home with him?"
The implication that I was more interested in my job or my career than my child was hurtful -- and plain wrong. The fact is that many women go back to work after bearing children, and it's not a bad thing: Research has shown that work can raise a mother's self-esteem, and a mother's self-esteem is directly correlated to her child's. But this wasn't about fact. This was about my neighbor's need to tell me what I was doing wrong, how I could do it better, and, in no uncertain terms, how to mother my child.
Many years later, that need has only escalated. The past few years especially have seen a tremendous uprising of parenting experts, including baby nurses, parenting coaches and, of course, mommy bloggers. Everyone has a different opinion, and there are endless outlets through which to voice that opinion. All day long, mothers engage in heated online debates over everything from whether or not to breastfeed to how to handle a fussy baby to what it means if the child is not talking by age two (and what could have, and should have, been done about it earlier). Later, parents call for input on how to get kids to be more active, how to get kids to calm down, how to get them to eat more, or less or better. The need (real or perceived) for experts is greater than ever before, which is why the numbers of experts are, too. These days, everyone's a pro on parenting -- except, that is, for parents.
Parenting experts are not new, of course, and I'm not only talking about the overzealous aunts or hyper-opinionated neighbors who have existed since the dawn of time. Back when I had my first child, there were plenty of professional advice givers voicing their thoughts on how to care for an infant and raise a child: First published in 1946, Dr. Benjamin Spock's baby-raising bible, Baby and Childcare, issued clear, frank advice designed to put new mothers at ease, and reinforce the idea that they knew more than they thought they knew. It also aimed to teach parents to understand their child's behavior rather than simply control it. Spock's brand of advice opened the floodgates of parenting advice, inspiring others, like Penelope Leech, T. Berry Brazelton and Richard Ferber, to issue their own screeds that built on or challenged his original philosophies.
The more information the better, right? Maybe, maybe not. With the ever-growing profusion of information, much of it contradictory, people began to get confused. Theories went in and out of style like fashion trends. When my first child was born, for example, the thought was that a child had to be fed on demand. Fourteen years later for my second child, I was advised to stick to a set feeding schedule so she would not become "milk dependent." While traditional wisdom that says children should be put to sleep on their stomachs, later research revealed that stomach sleeping is a possible factor in Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. In both cases, two exactly opposite pieces of advice, separated by as little as a decade.
Which may be one reason why, these days, it seems parents have trouble doing anything without first getting expert input. There is an element of fear, and a lack of trust in one's own instincts. There's always a latest way of looking at something. Also coming into play is the particularly American desire to seek out the absolute "best" wisdom -- though who defines "best" is unclear.
Miranda was at her wit's end with 2-year-old Olivia. Olivia refused to sleep more than a few hours at a time, and had lately insisted on sleeping in the bed with Miranda and her husband, too. Refusal to comply would result in a tantrum of epic proportions. Miranda was inclined to ignore Olivia -- insist she sleep in her own bed and stay there all night long, whether she actually slept or not -- but none of the advice she had lately read, or was given, seemed to validate this idea. Instead, mommy blogs advised her to change Olivia's diet: organic-only, and gluten-free, too. One book told her to let Olivia choose where she wanted to sleep. Her neighbor suggested she buy Olivia a particular stuffed animal. "I was so confused and overwhelmed that I ended up doing nothing," Miranda told me. "And eventually, Olivia did just as I'd wanted her to: exhausted herself, accepted her fate and went to sleep. Just like that."
There's nothing wrong with seeking out help. Help is great, and for many parents, necessary. But at what point does all this help compromise our innate ability to parent? When does outside help cause us to question our own instincts? When does it matter that most child-rearing experts don't account for different personalities, growth patterns and situations? You can find a recipe in a cookbook and expect that if you use the right ingredients and follow the instructions, most likely you'll wind up with a decent dish. It's different with kids.
Jessica's one-year-old son, Micah, was almost always upset. She knew something was physically wrong, and told her pediatrician so. "He told me that Micah was just having tantrums and that I needed to take control and decide not to allow them," Jessica said. Taking advice she read about online, she cut out junk food. She monitored Micah constantly to identify triggers that set him off. She disciplined, she placated, she set up play dates, she isolated him. Nothing got better. Eventually, she took him to a different pediatrician for a second opinion. "Turns out, he had a chronic gastrointestinal issue," she said. "He was upset all the time, because he was in pain all the time!"
The "expert advice" Jessica was given was wrong -- and though she knew it from the start, she'd decided to ignore her own instincts. Afterwards, instead of realizing that she needed to trust herself more, Jessica ended up trusting herself even less. "After all, my instincts couldn't be that great, or else wouldn't I have ignored all the bad advice?" she said. "Wouldn't I have gotten a second opinion sooner?"
Confidence can be a rare commodity for first time mothers, especially when there's always someone out there critiquing parenting performance. Thankfully, confidence, like parenting, can be learned. Eventually, Jessica stopped reading online and book advice. She stopped taking advice from other mothers, too, even her own. Mothering, she realized, isn't an exact science, and in many cases, there is no single answer to any predicament. But that when it came to caring for her own child, there was no one more qualified than she was.