There’s so much we don’t know. In that realm, there is a good portion of knowledge that we recognize we don’t know but that is attainable if we so desire. For instance, I know that I do not know how to build a rocket and send it into space. I also know I will never know how to do that. Even though it can be learned, I will not be going to school to become an aeronautic engineer in this lifetime. Then there is that knowledge that is unattainable. I can never learn how to spin a web. I think a spider is a lower life form than humans, but I will never be able to produce one thread of gossamer from my being.
Then there is a great big category of what we think we know but don’t. Nowhere is this more evident than in parenting. The road to parenthood requires no special skills. Any man and woman can accomplish it–no special education necessary. Recognizably, taking care of children is a low intelligence skill. The most primitive of the species managed to keep their young alive. This entry-level, no skills required job gives all parents a false sense of knowledge and expertise. Make no mistake, EVERY PARENT DOES IT!
Every expectant parent observes other families with watchful criticism, creating their own perfect formula for raising idyllic children right out of 50s television. They say to each other after familial gatherings or outings with friends who have kids, “Our kids are not watching Barney!” “We aren’t using pacifiers, they cause nipple confusion,” “You can’t let babies cry like that, they’ll feel neglected,” “Did you see that rash?” “If she doesn’t set that baby down, he’ll be spoiled,” “I will breastfeed for a full year,” “My child will be flexible and will take a nap wherever I say,” “My child will sleep through the night—I read the Ferber book,” “If our child ever talks back, he is getting more than a time out,” “Our child will have better manners than that,” “Our child won’t be bossy—it just won’t be tolerated,” “My child is only getting organic fruits and vegetables and no white flour or sugar,” and so on.
How do I know? I said some of the same things and some were said to me. Ha! Ninety percent of that planning and imagining goes out the window once you have that baby. I know what you are thinking. You are saying, “Nah-uh! I did everything I said I would!” That just means one of the following things: 1) you didn’t say too much when you were an expectant parent; 2) you might be totally self-absorbed and oblivious to other parents; 3) you were sick the whole time you were expecting and only went to pregnancy web sites poring over statistics to find out when you might feel better; or 4) you are a complete control freak and your children are going to rebel the moment they can.
I say 90 percent because if you were firm in your beliefs about a few things, you clung to those so you didn’t feel like a total indulgent parent. One of the things that we held firm on with both kids was that we would not have a family bed. I know that works for some, but we knew it would not work for us. Sure there were times in the early months when my daughters were in bed with us between feedings, but it was not a regular occurrence and we did not allow them to become dependent on a cuddle to put them to sleep. For you it might be organic baby food, or no TV.
Why does all this knowledge you amassed and opinions you created go out the window? Because parenting is one of those things you have to experience to understand. Like a kiss, or the taste of chocolate, or the weightless feeling in your gut you feel going down a hill on a rollercoaster. People can tell you all about it but the narrative just cannot convey the indelible effects a child has on your life or the way the reality of parenting alters your judgment.
New parents usually reside in that mythical land for 6-9 months, sometimes longer. Some parents, usually parents of an only child, can stay there forever. In the first few months, if a child does not have colic, sleeps longer at night than during the day, and takes well to feedings, then new parents pat themselves on their backs for a job well done. “This is easy! I don’t know what all the fuss is about.” Then personalities emerge and independent movement kicks in and new parents start to see how boundaries become blurry, how Barney and other TV characters can become your friends, and how barricades and toys that contain children are helpful. Saucers, bouncers, swings and playpens are necessities. Kids start to scoot, crawl, climb, walk. They learn to throw, to do razzberries with their lips when you are introducing a new food like spinach or green beans. They put objects in receptacles—remote controls in toilets, watches in baby food, dog food in their own mouths. They pull your hair, bite your shoulders, and throw up or even pee on you. But they are your children, you love them and you still think they are cute and wonderful. You are blinded by their very existence and are convinced that everything they do signals high intelligence and exceptional agility. The grandparents lead the march, so it must be true!
You might have a child that is very docile and not very strong-willed. Good for you but don’t get too haughty if you think it has anything to do with you. This is often realized upon the arrival of the second child who is rarely like the first one. A whole new game emerges. Some things you are more lax about—eating macaroni and cheese three meals in a row—and some things you are more strict about—we don’t talk to mommy during quiet time. Beyond the rules you enforce which are mostly consistent from one child to the next, it becomes abundantly clear that children have their own journeys and their own lessons to learn beyond what parents enforce. When you discover this, your pre-parenting opinions and judgments are even more humorous.
My friends who have three or more children are the most open and non-judgmental parents. They compare their children to others of the same age and laugh at their developmental differences. They aren’t paralyzed by their expectations that have been galvanized by reading too many parenting books that present everything in absolutes. They aren’t embarrassed if their child rolls over “late” or climbs “early.”
With my first child, I compared like crazy. I was constantly trying to make sure she wasn’t missing some milestone and that as a stay-at-home mom I was doing all the prescribed educational exercises and exposing her to all the right things. It was new territory for me and I needed some reassurance I was on the right track. After the first year of her life, I started to realize that comparisons were okay as a means to make sure my child was normal. That’s important. If you aren’t looking at any other children it might never occur to you that your child’s lack of responsiveness may be signaling a problem that you need to mention to your pediatrician. What’s less than flattering is to use comparisons to measure your parenting aptitude, which is what I was doing.
When my first child began to exhibit characteristics that could not have been learned in her environment I knew that she was her own person on her own path with her own pace, regardless of what I imagined her to be or could “make” her do or learn. With baby number two, I was able to sit back and enjoy what I could not control anyway. It was very freeing and allowed me to give much better advice with the perspective that parenting is a unique experience. It didn’t hurt that my children are quite different. It proved to me that I was a bystander of their physical ability and personality. Keeping them safe and modeling responsible behavior is enough of a job to keep me occupied.
People who want kids and don’t have them are by far the most critical of other parents that I have seen. They comment on parents’ responsiveness to their children’s whims, unresponsiveness to mild spills, smothering affection, or total absence of comfort. I understand that they are qualifying themselves with the stork. They are pleading their parental case with nature. I get that and I empathize with that. I also know they are in for a big surprise when they realize just how much they don’t know. Take my word for it!