It’s spring break and I’ve started in on at least six entire, whole, non-stop, all-day-long days with both my children. I’m hoping Anthony will give me a break on Saturday, and then I’ll have two more full days before the kids go back to school. I’m taking prophylactic deep breaths every few minutes to keep myself from panicking.
Parenting books and websites will tell me to have fun activities lined up. Collect sticks and broken pavement, and make animal shapes with a hot glue gun! English cucumber caterpillars! Make flower cookies out of healthy quinoa and avocado gruel! yuuum. Make counting and adding games out of the rabbit pellets uncovered by the melting snow! Build a backyard fort made entirely out of the cleaning sticks that come in each case of yellow swiffers you buy at Costco, of which I’ve collected 200!
I don’t think so.
Parenting books will also tell me not to do the following things during spring break (or ever, for that matter), all of which I will definitely do:
1. Yell at the kids.
2. Let them watch too much TV (does it count if I put closed captions on so Jesse can read along?).
3. Let them play with electronic devices too much.
4. Ignore them while playing with my own electronic devices.
5. Let them eat unhealthy. (but the chocolate bar was fair trade sourced and had a sea otter on the wrapper, so does that count?)
6. Let them stay up late.
In fact, I’m going to do all of these things today. It’s Monday, after all. I told my spawn this morning that they’re the bosses and can do whatever they want. TV all day! Nick said. IPad! Jesse said. Done. If they change their minds, they’re the bosses and they can do something else. My guess is that, in a couple hours, they’ll spend some quality time in the massive pond that formed in the woods out back after last night’s heavy rains. For dinner, Nick wants oatmeal. Jesse wants hamburgers with homemade buns. Done.
Kids live under constant duress, in my opinion, bound to the whims of their parents and other grownups. It’s too much, and I’m not running a military academy. Once in a frequent while, I like to give mine a taste of total freedom. I no longer remember or care if any parenting book says this is good or bad, right or wrong.
When I was pregnant with Jesse, I bought a lot of parenting books. I read, I studied, I planned. Shortly after she was born, I bought a lot more parenting literature, because the books I had so far were of no use. Jesse broke all the rules. It was clear from day one that she wasn’t part of the 25th-to-75th percentile, or maybe even the 10th-to-90th percentile. But even the latter option left her in a category with 20 percent of infant humanity — that’s one in five babies, people! — so I felt sure that there had to be something out there for me.
I started with mainstream books, which were recommended to me by friends and relations, and then I moved on in a desperate hunt for the Holy Grail: a parenting manual that fixed everything that was wrong in my life. Some books I considered intensely but didn’t buy after investigating their authors and tactics (like Baby Wise). By the time I was done, my library of bought and borrowed books included at least the following, not including potty training books (I recommend that you read the names aloud really fast like a run-on sentence, or better yet just skip to the end of the list while thinking “blah blah blah”):
What to Expect When You’re Expecting
What to Expect the First Year
What’s Going on in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life
The Happiest Baby on the Block
The Happiest Toddler on the Block
Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child
The No-Cry Sleep Solution
The Baby Owner’s Manual: Operating Instructions, Trouble-Shooting Tips, and Advice on First-Year Maintenance
Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems, by the (in?)famous Richard Ferber
The Sleep Lady’s Good Night, Sleep Tight
The Sleepeasy Solution: The Exhausted Parent’s Guide to Getting Your Child to Sleep from Birth to Age 5
Baby Sign Language Basics
The Baby Whisperer Solves All Your Problems (really? You can do that?)
Super Baby Food
Breastfeeding Made Simple: Seven Natural Laws for Nursing Mothers
Ina May’s Guide to Breastfeeding
Raising Your Spirited Child
Last Child in the Woods
The Baby Book
It’s insane. I know I missed a lot, and more is published every year, but I was building my library almost a decade ago. The last book on my list above is by Sears, and I ended up buying every other parenting book he published as well. It turned out I wasn’t looking for a book to solve my parenting problems. I was actually just looking for a book that agreed with what Anthony and I already intuitively felt was right for us as a family. By reading a book like that, I could feel that I didn’t suck as bad. The books that made me feel like I didn’t suck the most were attachment parenting books, though I don’t like to be labeled that way. We didn’t do the attachment-parenting-thing because an attachment parenting book said we should. We did it because it was right for us. We naturally fell to co-sleeping with Jesse because that was the only way we got any sleep, and so we continued with Nick. Breastfeeding until the kids weaned themselves naturally felt right to us. It felt right to listen to our kids’ cues instead of driving them into narrow tunnels devised by some distant author without reference to their actual personalities and needs.
And that’s the rub with parenting books. The authors have never met you or your children. But their material sells best, like all advice material, when they can convince readers they’re universally right. As a result, I think parenting books tend to bring out the worst in humanity — a judgmental, my-way-is-the-only-right-way attitude that makes peeps pull each other down instead of lifting each other up. We’re not just talking about normal humanity either. These parenting books prey on one of the most vulnerable sub-sets of humanity — sleep-deprived, hormonally disrupted women. If our government wanted to implement some serious torture tactics, methods that will really mess with someone’s head and emotions, it would find a way to replicate the hormonal challenges of pregnancy and childbirth, coupled with the sleep and infant-interaction cycles of a new parent.
I’ve hung out with “attachment parents” who wear that label like a merit badge, but who act like the lifestyle is a ball-and-chain and busy themselves with criticizing anyone who doesn’t do it. I have no respect for that. I’ve hung out with parents who are sleep-training hard-asses, guilt-free and intense. They love their kids as much as I love mine. They’re doing what they think is right for them. I tend to look across the fence at them with a mix of longing and curiosity, and I hope I don’t judge them.
The only way to avoid this mess, in my opinion, is to read none of it or read it ALL. Or at least as much as you can stand. Then, with eyes wide open, you can either choose a path that’s right for you or accept the path you’re already on. I knew I had found that lead when I opened up Sears’s book and started reading. Instead of my brow furrowing and my jaw dropping, I found my head nodding in agreement. It was a good sign.