April 14, 2012
Today is your last day of work before you go out on maternity leave, and I would say a few words to you about parenting as you prepare to embark on a new era in your life.
We have parking spots right next to each other and each morning I look at the infant seat already installed in your car, awaiting a baby that will arrive soon enough. So each morning I walk by your car on the way to my classroom and think to myself, “What would you say to her, if you could?”
A month or two earlier I would have told you I had no advice whatsoever to give on parenting. If asked, I would have made some Socrates-esque statement that parenting had forced me to admit the only thing I knew was that I knew nothing about parenting. Five years into parenting, I have done nothing so humbling and exhausting. The job is so overwhelming and all-encompassing that where would one start in terms of advice? And what might work for me and my family might be totally wrong for you and yours.
Still, I would repeat this one piece of infamous advice from Dr. Spock: “Trust yourself, you know more than you think you do.”
Now, let me be clear. I remember reading that as a nervous parent-to-be and wondering incredulously, “Easy for you to say! I don’t even know enough to trust what I think I might know!” And in thinking this, I was not far from the truth.
I really did know next to nothing about babies and parenting.
You probably find yourself in much the same situation. But you will learn. With time you will learn. Painfully, you will learn.
My wife and I read dozens of books in preparing for parenthood. This was our way to prepare emotionally for what we knew would a life-changing event: we read about it. We would invest our nervous energy into thinking we were preparing by devouring book after book about pregnancy, infants, and parenting. I learned about a thousand things that did not help me at all when I became a parent. I look back and reflect that I learned next to nothing from all those books that really helped.
We had a very difficult baby who endured never-ending series of painful ear infections and suffered from a severe case of colic. After hour after hour of crying and then more crying, I read this book and then that book by experts. They gave me almost opposite advice on what to do to stop or reduce the crying. Who to believe? What to do? Then I went online and read secondary comments —
— by parents on the primary sources, and my head hurt and I was more confused than before. “They might cry for hours and hours and that can be normal,” the authorities said, “and they might hardly cry at all and that can be normal, too.” Well, thank you for the help! Each child is different and there are so few fast and hard rules anyone can offer a parent. And then just when you think you have the little bugger or their behavior figured out, they enter a new developmental phase and you are back to square one.
But over the months you will learn. Despite the fact your daughter lived and grew inside of you for nine months, after she emerges and nests in your arms you are basically strangers to one another. But over months and then an entire year, and then two and three years of close acquaintance, that will change. You will come to know your child’s temperament, and will be even be able to shape it, to an extent. You will come to have your “sea legs,” so to speak, and the ground underneath you will seem more solid. Please keep this in mind in these panicky first months. Have faith – people have been doing this for a long time.
But clearly to be a parent means to suffer. It may mean many other things, too, but there is no getting around the suffering. Recently I asked my father (a parent for 45 years) what was his definition of “patience” as a father. He replied grimly, “Patience means biting down on your lip until it bleeds to keep from saying what you really think.” He tries to respect the sovereignty of his adult children’s choices, even when he vehemently disagrees. But you can never really know if your parental choices — and you make thousands of them large and small on a routine basis — are really the right ones. And there are plenty out there who will second guess a parent.
I have noticed nowadays American women engage in “mommy wars.” They clash loudly and aggressively over whether breast feeding or using a bottle is better – or to “co-sleep” with baby or to use a crib? And is it better to be a stay at home mother or to go back to work? Then there is the “attachment” versus the “free-range” parenting philosophies. Similarly, I have read with detached interest mothers argue over the “Tiger Mom” Asian (re. Amy Chua) and “Baby to Bebé” French parenting styles re. (Pamela Druckerman), and whether they produce superior children when compared to “American” parenting.” A child will thrive if loved consistently and give structure and support, whether she be breast or bottle fed. A child will do just fine if he is disciplined by “time out” or the occasional spanking, if the other more important factors (love, security, consistency) are present. I have personally seen mothers tear themselves up over the question of whether they’re doing a good enough job, and I suspect little good comes from this. Parenting is hard enough without we making it even harder for ourselves.
As you have learned to have classroom management and develop lesson plans and curriculum in a way that reflects who you are as a teacher, so that will happen in your parenting. “Trust thyself: Every heart vibrates to that iron string,” says Ralph Waldo Emerson. Trust that with time parenting will come to feel more natural – that with experience you will gain confidence. Parenting is as much an art as a science. Nobody, least of all your child, is expecting perfection. I suspect strongly that in 18 years your daughter, if she could, would reach back in time and say to you, “Relax, Mom! You were a wonderful mother!”
Easy for her to say! She is not laying there with a screaming infant in her arms, scared shitless. (Although one day she might be!) I would not attempt to downplay the effects of stress and sleep-deprivation on a new parent. Perhaps we do nothing as stressful, demanding, and unremitting in our lives. Again, to be a parent is to suffer.
But the flip side is equally true: we might do nothing as beautiful and fulfilling. In the sturm und drang of coping with your new arrival, in all the wondering whether to do this or that, even when she throws up on you or ruins a Thanksgiving dinner with her willfulness, don’t lose sight of the minor miracle of the whole thing. Don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees. Don’t let overthinking and second-guessing turn a healthy desire to learn and be a good parent into neuroticism and incessant, unproductive worry. Don’t lose sight even in the worst most sleep-deprived moments that you are lucky to be a parent. Do not be so absorbed in the minutiae of never-ending feeding, diapering, bathing, and wiping up after that you fail to appreciate the magic that is this intense but relatively brief period of time.
The days are long with young children, but the months they fly by. Blink too long, and you might miss it.
Very Truly Yours,
P.S. If you have not already noticed, I write this letter as much for myself as for you.
A baby seat awaits the arrival of baby.