They fear that they are the cause of their child’s fussiness or that they must be doing something wrong if their baby isn’t sleeping.
They feel guilty, embarrassed, like failures.
I’ve also read the vicious, competitive and very public battles between mothers on issues ranging from breastfeeding to sleep training, and from strollers to carriers.
For all of the talk of babies – their needs, their habits, and their supposedly delicate psyches — virtually no one speaks out about or for the women who are parenting them.
Oh sure, lots of people chatter about ways of mothering, about parenting styles (as if parenting is an issue of style or trend), but who’s addressing the needs of individual women who had lives, careers, and passions before children came along and crashed the party.
A woman doesn’t just morph into a mother and shed her old skin. Yet, to read parenting books and magazines, you would be led to believe that’s exactly what happens.
She did things before, normal people things, expressions of individuality, beauty and creativity.
And, at the risk of offending someone in the “mothers are saintly” lot, I’ll throw caution to the wind and propose that having a baby is not an act of creativity except in the narrowest sense of the word. It’s procreation – survival of the species. Even bees do it.
As I promised in my last post, I’m going to address the first of three important truths I’ve come to learn over the four years that I’ve been a parent.
My first truth: We are not the roles we play, and women are being done a great social disservice by our relentless perpetuation of the current mothering narrative.
We are all individuals with such complex sets of traits, talents, skills, and emotions that we cannot possibly be summed up in words, let alone labels.
And yet we use labels everyday to categorize ourselves and each other (he’s a doctor, she’s a writer, Joe’s a plumber) .
“And what do you do Sarah?”
“Oh, I’m a stay-at-home Mom.”
And there it is, an entire person summed up in a sentence.
Sarah had better be a damned good mother and Joe had better be a good plumber. It’s seemingly all they’ve got to share with the world.
While there are many roles we all play at different times of our lives and in different situations, we still tend to place significant value on two seemingly primordial roles or archetypes: The man as provider (i.e., successful out there) and the woman as mother (i.e., successful at home).
In practice, we may have evolved beyond such limiting roles. But when it comes to how we value ourselves and each other, they still hold significant sway.
It’s why Julie often blamed herself for Chloe’s colic and sleep issues, even when she knew this wasn’t reasonable.
She would ask me several times a day if we were doing something wrong, if we were missing something. And I would answer, “no of course not. It’s just her. She’ll grow out of it eventually. Why on earth would you think it’s our fault?”
The way each of us viewed Chloe’s temperament, her colic, her sleep issues was completely different.
I believed that there was no way we could have had anything to do with our daughter’s fussiness. She was 6 weeks old, for heaven sakes.
We couldn’t have screwed her up that quickly.
But for Julie, the assumptions she’d been led to believe about children and her supposedly natural abilities as a mother convinced her that she must have been doing something wrong.
She wasn’t living up to the role of she’d assigned herself.
Men perceive high-intensity parenting as a stage we have to get through.
This is an important distinction. We weren’t born and groomed for this role. We’re waiting to get on with our lives. Children are a part of what we bring to and receive from this world, not the entirety.
For many women, no matter how successful they may be in virtually every aspect of their lives, if they see themselves as inadequate parents, the rest simply doesn’t much matter.
It’s why mothers try too hard, and why they’re often too hard on themselves.
The irony, of course, is that to be a good parent, they don’t need to be anything special. There’s no magical formula, no “style” required.
It’s not a competition or a trendy diet. It’s the most normal and possibly the most transcendent growth experience any of us can ever hope for.
I recently read Eckhart Tolle’s “A New Earth,” and one section in particular resonated strongly with me. I’d like to share some of it:
“Part of the necessary function of being a parent is looking after the needs of the child, preventing the child from getting into danger… When being a parent becomes an identity, however, when your sense of self is entirely or largely derived from it, the function easily becomes overemphasized, exaggerated, and takes you over.“
And Tolle adds that this overemphasis is detrimental to the child. It usually leads to over-responsiveness, over-protectiveness, and over-disciplining.
The mother or father is parenting to affirm the role of parent, and not to guide the child.
As a father, I’ve had to make peace with the reality that despite my best efforts, I take a backseat to Mom. It’s just the way it is with small children. They have every reason to identify with Mom first. But I didn’t accept this easily. I was hurt each time one of my girls pushed me away or ignored me.
I recognize now that in some strange way I felt that since I was stepping up to the plate as a father, my kids should demonstrate their appreciation.
For a long time I tried really hard, with jokes and games and unnatural enthusiasm. It didn’t work. In fact it pushed them away.
Julie used to tell me that I was trying too hard and should just give them space. She was right of course. And it was only once I could accept how things were and not how I expected them to be, that I could relax and appreciate the beauty of what I had already.
Once I cast aside my expectations, the bond with my girls flourished.
I’ve often heard mothers of fussy babies express that what they found hardest was that they had all these expectations of what mothering would be and what their baby would be like.
They pictured the sweet smell of a healthy, happy, breastfed infant, the radiant glow of new motherhood, a feeling of bliss because they’d finally found their true purpose.
Of course, these expectations could never have been met no matter how great the actual experience turned out to be.
It’s like picturing Venice without the tourists and the smelly canals.
But for the mother of a fussy baby, the fantasy isn’t just diminished with the arrival of bebe, it’s broken with a bucket of cold reality.
Julie has often told me how she feels that she was robbed of the wonderful time she was supposed to have with her new baby.
But who said it was supposed to be wonderful?
And if you have a whole lot of unreasonable expectations that are constantly being dashed, how can you make room in your mind to see the wonder?
As I wrote in a previous post, if you’re the mother of a fussy baby, let go of the expectations now and accept your fussy baby. See her as a person first and a baby second. Then you’ll really start to see her again.
The wonder is there. You just have to be ready to receive it.
Here’s a call to action for all parents, but directed especially to mothers of fussy babies: Admit to yourself and your baby that you don’t know what you’re doing and that that’s o.k.
You’re learning. You don’t know how to be an air force pilot just because your mother was one, even if you’ve heard a few of the war stories.
Tell yourself that your baby has a unique personality and that you are not responsible for her disposition.
are responsible for your function as a parent, for creating a physical, social and intellectual environment in which your child can flourish (in my mind this means a warm and safe house, food and water, loving and engaged parents, and a few interesting toys or other sensory objects around the house).
Your baby will do his learning and you’ll do yours. And you’ll help to guide each other.
The world has created a role for you that is unrealistic and unfair. The archetype of the naturally born mother is a narrative, a myth, a legend. It always has been. And like most legends, it has no more than a grain of truth to it.
If you try to live up to it, you’ll probably fail, because it’s not a fair standard, and it’s not yours. It’s a cultural image imposed on you.
Here are a couple of examples of the myth in practice:
A mother believes that breastfeeding should come naturally, with little effort – that a brand new baby will naturally latch on and feed. It’s what she’s always believed. She’s a mother after all. The baby and she will know what to do.
But when baby doesn’t know what to do, her heart sinks. She becomes discouraged and confused.
Why isn’t it happening as it’s supposed to? What is she doing wrong?
Unless someone explains to her, convincingly, that it doesn’t actually work like that, that there are techniques skills, that it’s hard work, then she’ll eventually give up. And she’ll blame herself.
A mother thinks that a happy baby should generally be calm and comfortable, and that’s it’s her job to calm him. When her baby develops colic and screams day and night, she gets very discouraged.
She thinks she’s doing something wrong. She thinks that she should know what to do to make him happy. She thinks that she’s responsible for how her baby’s mood, so the baby’s temperament becomes a reflection of her ability as a parent.
It doesn’t occur to her that he might just be like that for now, because she sees him primarily as a baby, not a unique person with his own personality.
She withdraws, embarrassed, afraid to admit to other parents that her baby never stops screaming, because she thinks it’s something she’s doing, and knows that others will think so too.
It’s hard enough for a parent to deal with a lack of sleep, a fussy baby, and a complete lack of experience with babies and children.
I was there. I found it traumatic and I relive the awful experience every time I hear a baby cry. But I rarely lacked confidence or doubted my abilities as a parent. I had no expectations other than that I’d learn as I went.
So what is parenting? For me, it’s learning, teaching and growing together.
As new parents, we don’t know a darn thing about raising a child. How could we? We’ve never done it.
But we’ll learn along the way. And teaching your child that you still have lots to learn is an important lesson. And it puts you both on a more equal footing.
When Chloe was just a day old in the hospital, I was trying to change her diaper and doing a terrible job of it. She was clearly annoyed and crying. In a moment of early surrender I told her, “It’s o.k. Chloe. Daddy’s not very good at this yet. But he’ll get better.”
It was a moment of complete acceptance of the fact that I didn’t really know what I was doing. It was also an acknowledgment that we were in this together.
Being a parent is also recognizing that parenting is just one aspect of who you are, an important one, but not all consuming.
Children learn best by imitating. And who do they imitate more than their parents?
Teach your children balance by leading a balanced life. And start when they’re babies.
Little by little, as you’re able, get in the habit of making other important aspects of your life a priority, so that by the time your children are old enough to notice, you making time for yourself is completely natural and expected.
If you’re dealing with a fussy baby, put her down from time to time. Get a breather from the screaming. Just tell her that you need some time.
She won’t understand your words, but she might understand your reassuring tone. And she’ll definitely come to realize that she’s o.k. when you put her down for a bit. You always come back.
If you’re dealing with a baby who won’t sleep, who constantly wants your attention, wait a minute or two before going into him.
I won’t enter into the crazy battle over “cry it out.” How you handle sleep is a matter of individual need and choice.
But I will share something interesting on the subject. In France, parents apparently don’t even know about “cry it out” techniques. And they’re surprised to hear that it’s practiced in North America. Their kids generally don’t scream for hours at sleep time, but they aren’t picked up constantly either, and they usually sleep through the night much earlier than North American kids.
What’s the secret?
According to Pamela Druckerman, author of “Bringing up Bebe,” they don’t rush in to them.
From just a few days old, they wait a minute before going to their crying baby, to see if he’ll sooth himself. It’s natural for them. They don’t have parenting styles to make them fret about damaged psyches or rigid sleep training. They just listen to their baby, and try to figure out whether he actually needs them. If he’s actually upset, they go in. But often he puts himself back to sleep.
Of course if you’re baby’s older or has colic, this isn’t going to be a magic bullet. Chloe was 5 months old by the time her colic was completely over and we tried to “sleep train” her.
By then she was a mess, and waiting a minute certainly wasn’t going to be of much help. Her colic was largely responsible for her sleep situation. And we know there was nothing we could have done about that.
But looking back, we know we also spent more time trying to fix Chloe and fretting about how we were doing as parents than we did actually listening to her or allowing her to learn how to adjust to her environment.
The concept of listening and waiting, of teaching your child to be patient and to find solutions to her own situation is an important one.
We use it all the time now with Chloe and Emily. They can get what they want most of the time, but not at the expense of our most basic comforts – like sitting down to a meal without constantly getting up to fetch things, for example, or of being able to drink a warm coffee in peace in the morning.
By teaching our children to make room for our needs, we teach them patience, empathy, self-sufficiency and resourcefulness. We teach them delayed gratification.
In other words, they have an awful lot to gain from us putting our needs first and ensuring we remain complete, balanced, individuals.
They won’t always be babies and you won’t always be parents. Show your children that you are individuals first, and parents second, just as they are individuals first, and children second.
Sean Sutton lives in Ottawa, Canada with his wife and two children, Chloe and Emily. He spent much of this year on paternity leave following Emily’s birth and started a blog to document his experience.
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