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“Do what’s right for your baby/family”…even if it’s conventional

It’s not common in parenting circles to brag about formula-feeding, disposable diapers, and sleep training, but: yep, we do those things (at least in part).  And, hopefully I can save some new parents out there a lot of grief by assuring: yep, it’s totally okay for you to do them too, if that’s what works for you.

For context, I find there to be a big trend in hip-and/or-middle-class-parenting of pushing back against the “modern” parenting practices of our parents’ generation.  By way of example, this article chastising the very question of “how’s your baby sleeping?” is what prompts my rant of the moment:

I’m going to start charging anybody who asks the parents of one of my patients “is your baby sleeping through the night yet?  The answer to the question, while it seems polite enough, often leads to a judgment of how we’re doing as a new parent.  We have enough judges. Plus, the answer is almost always “no” and physiologically, that’s the right answer. Most children don’t sleep through the night because they are built that way. 

The “let them cry it out, is the nursery ready, put that baby down you’re spoiling him” culture can also undermine our parenting efforts.  Our culture encourages independence from a very young age and says that normal babies were never meant to be held all the time, and were meant to sleep all by themselves. 

I see things like this shared around by way of saying, “Hey, it’s okay–just because grandma thinks you need to do something a particular way with your baby doesn’t mean that’s your only choice.” (Or your co-workers, or Babies R Us, or random passerby on the street, or your pediatrician…) These pieces then tend to go into detail about (for example) the science of sleep cycles and brain activity, some evolutionary psychology theories, and discussions of indigenous/traditional cultures’ practices in order to illustrate the fact that today’s standard parenting practice is not the one and only way to do things.

And I’ve come to the realization that I’m not the target audience for this.  The target audience is the parents who were themselves raised on day care, cartoons, formula, Huggies, and cribs, and who need every detail of the alternatives spelled out for them in order to get basic familiarity and comfort with trying it out. I and my younger siblings, though, were breastfed, cloth diap’ed, and no-“screen timed” by our at-home mom, so, yeah, sure, these things are totally within my experience.

And, further, I’ve kind of got a giant chip on my shoulder at this point about it. Something about a pair of type-A perfectionists trying to parent twins “right” and reading things like this while short half our brain capacities from sleep deprivation led us to absorb a lot of guilt out of this: the detail and justification and assertiveness that’s calibrated for chipping away at Western cultural norms to create an openness to new ideas has an entirely different effect on somebody who already holds those views, and is now being waterboarded with them in conjunction with chronic sleep deprivation.

The inevitable conclusion of these advice pieces–that “only you really know what’s best for your child and family”–is intended as a shield against nosy normative interlopers, to say, “Hey, look, those cultural norms may be totally fine for some babies, but if they’re not working for your baby, it’s really okay to try something else. Unfortunately, the level of hammering home of their points that most of these writers do has the effect of implying, “(…and what’s best for your baby is clearly this stuff, not the conventional stuff.  How can you read all that stuff about millions of years of human evolution and tens of thousands of years of traditional practices, and possibly believe that suddenly after World War II we struck on something better?)”

Some of the more zealous writers out there intentionally play on this emotional vulnerability, rather than making any pretense of simply laying out options, for example, 

Likewise, why do sleep-trained babies stop calling out? Perhaps because it is futile for them to continue crying. Why cry when nobody comes?  This knowledge hurts your soul when you consider that a baby’s cry is their first attempt at communicating. Through it, the baby establishes his status as someone who deserves something. When the communication is answered, the baby’s sense of positive entitlement as a person becomes stronger. However when their cry is ignored, this sends the opposite message – that they are not worthwhile.

I fell for this parenting terrorism for quite a while, up until about the third or fourth incident of nearly drowsing off and driving into a bridge abutment on my way home from work, when I decided, you know what?  Daddy making a trip to the morgue probably isn’t “what’s best for your baby.”

For others struggling with the same, I’ll offer up a bit of an antidote: when you’re feeling guilt about not co-sleeping, or not exclusively breastfeeding, or not holding your baby 24/7, open up the Dr. Sears Baby Book and find an anecdote of traditional societies’ practices of childrearing. Then grab Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies? to the section on childrearing practices, and wonder at how different the two accounts are.  Then remember that one of these two writers has spend 50 years doing field work in places like New Guinea, while the other charges tens of thousands of dollars for speaking engagements to tell parents how to feel good about themselves, after using his books to riddle them with guilt.

Then use that comparison to feel okay about ignoring the oh-so-clear-cut Right Way that Sears offers, and make your own decisions.  Even if those decisions involve formula.

4 thoughts on ““Do what’s right for your baby/family”…even if it’s conventional

  1. Daniel ONeil on said:

    Everybody thinks they’re a terrible parent. the objective of these articles you describe is not to help them feel better, but to give them a set of benchmarks of effort that will allow them to feel better about all the other parents who suck more.

  2. Daniel ONeil on said:

    And in that regard you’re exactly the target audience, regardless of what your mom did. I would suggest that these things are often not about a baby’s welfare per se, but about who can work hardest to show how much better able they are to take care of their baby.

    The fact that almost every baby care strategy described by folks who go down this work involve more work or more effort (although I would argue that cloth diapers and breast feeding are, in the long run, much much easier and cheaper) is indicative of what’s really going on.

    Don’t get me started on screen time. ohhh man.

  3. murph. on said:

    Another part of my recovery was seeing the “who can work the hardest?” standard of “good” parenting named by others. Once I started looking for critiques, I found a lot that called out Sears especially for outright misogyny: a standard that explicitly holds mothers accountable for 24/7 care and physical contact of their child and dismisses concerns of how much you can take with “don’t worry–no child is still doing these things at the time they leave for college!”

  4. Pingback:Diapering: earth destroyer, or crazy hippie? | Common Monkeyflower

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