The Art of Accidental Parenting

The Baby Whisperer does not approve of what she terms “Accidental Parenting.” I do not approve of the Baby Whisperer.

I think there is a kind of beauty in the accidents of parenting. I became a parent on purpose, but it could just as easily have been a happy accident. I certainly make use of whatever works in parenting Owen. To get him to sleep, I’ve gone through phases of nursing him, of walking him up and down, of lulling him in the swing, of giving him a bottle, of reading him a story or three, of letting him cry, of going back to lay him down, or of picking him again up to calm him down. And I change what I am doing when it’s no longer working. (I am sad to report that the bedtime story routine that I was so proud of – Owen likes stories! Stories put him to sleep! – has failed for the past 3 days. He’s become squirmy, possibly because he’s figured out that storytime means bedtime. I am fighting this particular accident).

I think it’s natural to do what works – BECAUSE IT WORKS! – and just as natural to phase something out when it’s no longer right.

I had a horrific beginning to breastfeeding. I’m sure it was not as bad as some people’s, but it was bad enough that I winced in pain at the thought of Owen’s approaching mouth and once worried that I would squeeze his head too hard. I was that tense. But after the first 2 weeks, it got better (it only hurt a little!), and after the first couple of months, it was not painful at all, and after more months, it had become pleasant and convenient. My plan was to nurse Owen until he was one. I pumped once a day until he was nine months old so he could have breastmilk at daycare. At some point, though, this arrangement wasn’t working for me anymore. So I stopped. Then Owen got 2 ear infections and the second doctor we took him to suggested that it might be because I wasn’t breastfeeding. I had just stopped pumping the week before and was nursing him in the morning and at night. I was, after all, working full-time. I thought I was doing pretty well. But inevitably, guilt kicked in, and I eliminated formula on weekends, trying to make up for daycare. I lasted about 3 days. I couldn’t do it anymore. We were past that point, ear infections notwithstanding.

One day last week, at eleven months old, Owen refused the breast for the very first time. He pushed it away, grinning. He bit me. Twice. I put him to bed and I cried a little. I hadn’t decided whether or not that meant the end. The next day, he seemed to want it. So I fed him. And two more days after that. But my heart wasn’t in it anymore. So we stopped, and it felt right.

It was accidental, but mutual, like so much of our developing relationship. If it’s good for him, and good for me (and good for Duncan), then we proceed. If it’s not working, we try something else, until another accident becomes the solution. Individually and as a family, we’re trying things on to see if they fit. Sometimes they’re too big, sometimes they’re too small, but sometimes, they’re just right. At least until you outgrow them.

Fear

When I had Owen, the one thing I was not prepared for was the fear that something bad would happen to him. I guess I knew on an intellectual level that I would love him, but I did not realize how much his limbs would become an extension of my limbs, and that I would almost feel his pain in my body (or heart?). Not quite daily, but often, I find myself terrified that something will go wrong, and when things happen that could have been worse (like he falls down two stairs and cuts his lip, or I let go of the stroller and it almost rolls off the front porch), they run through my mind for days.

For example, last week I was mowing the lawn. We have a manual mower that can’t even cut through a twig (or a dandelion stem, if it’s at the wrong angle). And I had Owen standing at a bench with some toys on the other side of the lawn. He was smiling at me, and I said hi periodically, checking in with him to make sure he was OK. And I mowed that lawn! But then, for some reason, all evening long, I had visions of his limbs caught in lawnmower blades. I had to shut my brain off, but for days, this image kept creeping in.

Before we had Owen, Duncan and I both had our fair share of cynicism. We didn’t understand why children were presumed to be more important than adults. We would roll our eyes at certain (fictional) shows where children were always the victims of crimes (think: CSI Miami). And the bad guys were worse guys because they did bad things to children. OK – I can still muster an eye roll at that show, but I have also become one of those people who can no longer watch bad things happen to a child. I wasn’t before. It hurts me now to see a child separated from a parent. Last night, I was reading a wonderful book (small spoiler alert if you click on the link). And when the mother’s child is taken away from her, possibly forever,  I had to put the book down. I couldn’t go back to it until the next day. When I hear news reports of children who have gone missing, who have drowned, who have been hit by cars, I crumple inside. For me, having a child has opened up a connection with humanity. Owen has been an antidote to cynicism.

The other day, we were out walking with Owen (in his big, fancy, expensive stroller) and a teenager came up to us to ask first for a cigarette (we don’t smoke) and then for some change (we’d left the house without our wallets). The boy could have been anywhere from 14-19. He was slight, had sores on his face, and looked like he was having a really rough time. I realized then, as I’ve acknowledged so many times since Owen was born, that we need so much from our parents, from society, and from life. Owen is so so lucky to be loved and held and laughed with. When he was just starting to smile, I remember thinking: what would happen to a baby who didn’t get a smile back? What would happen if a baby kept flashing toothless grins and no one was there to mirror those smiles? I know that people can surmount all kinds of difficulties, and I’m certainly not trying to draw any easy conclusions here. I don’t know how long our lucky streak will last. And I can’t keep Owen from hurt. Life is full of hurts, small and big.

So all I can do is hug him and love him and smile back … and hope we stay lucky. I am so scared of the alternative.

The Ungracious Host; Or, sometimes it’s nice to be alone

My mother-in-law was here last weekend, and she is a wonderful guest: generous (she arrived with a suitcase of presents); helpful (she made dinner, including one of the best rhubarb crisps I have ever had); and respectful (she almost never offers unsolicited advice). I know! She’s like a dream-mother-in-law… And yet? in the brief 4 days of her visit, I realized how much I craved my alone time. And I don’t even mean time alone with Duncan – I mean A-L-O-N-E all-by-myself time.

A year ago today, I was just over 8 months pregnant, and it was starting to get a little ugly. Well, I felt a little ugly. I told Duncan he had to tell me, periodically, that I was beautiful  – “but not now because then I’ll know you’re just saying it to placate me!” – It never worked. I always suspected him of following orders after that…

And I had heartburn (maxing out on the recommended daily dose of antacids for pregnant women). And my hips ached. And my pelvis felt like it was cracking/had cracked. I had a really easy pregnancy – these above represent the sum total of my complaints, and they really only kicked in in month 7. But while I was creaking and groaning and Owen was scratching my insides (“where nae men should be!”)* – scritch, scratch – people who had had babies were telling me that I’d miss being pregnant. That I should enjoy my peace and quiet while it lasted.

But I kind of disagree.

I wasn’t the most gracious host. I resented the bloat and the discomfort. An hour or two after Owen’s birth, yes, I was marvelling that we had a son, I was also so extraordinarily joyous NOT to be pregnant anymore.

“I’m not pregnant!” I said, jubilantly, as soon as Duncan and I were alone with Owen. I seriously think the “now we have a baby” part might have been second on my mind.

People talk about getting your body back after pregnancy – and they mean losing the baby weight – but seriously? What was WAY MORE IMPORTANT was having myself to myself. And even though the first several weeks were sleep-deprived, my hips stopped aching, my heartburn went away, and my pelvis knit itself back together. And I could take naps BY MYSELF.

I’d like to do the pregnancy thing one more time, and I’ll consider myself lucky if I get there again. But I so vastly prefer having a child on the outside than on the inside.

*A quote from Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Cranford, referring to a band of housebreaking men. It’s a great book, about spinsters!

Screaming at the Baby Whisperer

Warning: This may turn into a rant.

There is a whole lot of desperation in the early days of motherhood, when owning a book with “secrets” and “baby” in the title sounds like exactly what you need. But Tracy Hogg’s Secrets of the Baby Whisperer is an evil book because it tells you to trust your instincts, as long as your instincts follow a predictable pattern that she has set out for you: the (in)famous E.A.S.Y. (Eat, Activity, Sleep, You). Because there should be time for massages and pedicures in the life of every mother of every newborn.

There are some lovely ideas in The Baby Whisperer. I loved Hogg’s insistence on communicating with your baby from the first moment, giving your baby a tour of the house, explaining what you are doing when you’re changing a diaper or putting the baby down for a nap. I think she’s right that as awkward as it seems to talk to a newborn, you never know what the baby will understand and when. Also, your baby won’t really be talking back for at least a year, so you might as well get used to chatting with your alternately silent, cooing, and whining child.

I won’t even get into the fact that the book’s co-writer decided on a conversational style in which the Yorkshire-born Hogg addresses the reader as “ducky.” How alternately tacky and condescending. But I said I wouldn’t get into that.

My real issue with Hogg is that she makes you feel guilty for feeding your baby.

My son Owen was born hungry. He emerged from the womb ravenous, as though I had been starving him for 9 months, though his birth weight was a healthy 7 pounds, 15 ounces. Within hours of his birth my nipples were black and blue. Within days of his birth they were cracked and bleeding. I half-joked that my son could survive in the wild – that he would latch on to the teat of a she-wolf and find sustenance somehow. At the hospital, I asked one of the nurses how it was possible that I was supposed to feed him every three hours when he ate for 2 hours in a row. When we got home, my husband’s finger stood in for me as I tried to sleep between feeds:

And while I was feeding Owen, with my one free hand (the other was supporting the “latch”), I would hold The Baby Whisperer and read about the secrets of raising an E.A.S.Y. baby. And I realized that what I was doing was all wrong. Feeding your baby to sleep will teach him bad habits and prevent him from being able to fall asleep on his own! Only one kind of cry meant that he was hungry, and good, attentive parents learned to interpret their babies’ cries! If I didn’t learn to interpret Owen’s cries quickly, he would stop differentiating between his staccato cries with hiccups and his long wailing cries and soon there would be no pattern to follow and I would be lost! After several weeks of this, I actually threw the book across the room, walked downstairs, and said to my wide-eyed husband “The baby whisperer is full of s***.” I eventually talked myself into putting the book away and following my instincts (without the pattern). And yet … though I haven’t opened it in months … it still beckons.

I do believe that in time, you will develop a routine with your baby. I do believe that by the time your baby is 6 months old (maybe), you can tell if he’s crying because he’s tired or because he’s hungry. But when he’s 2 weeks? 2 months? Crying is crying. Even when your baby isn’t crying you hear echoes of the last cries. Out for a walk without the baby I heard him crying. Alone in the house I heard him crying. I still do and he’s over ten months old. It took me months to get over the guilt that Tracy Hogg instilled in me. And I don’t think any new mother needs any more guilt than she is already feeling.

For a satirical send-up of Hogg, check out: : http://www.lets-panic.com/parenthood/newborns/interpreting-your-babys-cries/

P.S. I am sure the baby whisperer has worked for some people. I am not one of those people.

A Womb Welcome

A couple of days ago, I was using google as a calculator. You can do anything on google. I typed in 26 and the search engine supplied “26 weeks pregnant.” Immediately, I had a flashback to myself, a little over a year ago, as I looked up the stage of my pregnancy week by week … by week. I really did google every week of my pregnancy, and I often skipped ahead, marvelling at the inner and outer diagrams of my and my baby’s growing bodies. I was curious about the mystery growing inside of me – an actual person who would emerge and develop his own perspective on the world – but I was also nervous about my own transformation into a mother.

I read books (lots of books) to try to prepare myself for this momentous change. What I noticed right away was how very certain about their own messages (yet how contradictory!) these books were. Everyone agrees what a fetus looks like at 26 weeks gestation, but no one agrees on how to get a baby to sleep through the night. This certainty, while it might sell books, can be really demoralising for a newly-minted, bleary-eyed mother. So I sought out some specific narratives of pregnancy and parenting from friends and from a couple of blogs. I have found their variety of experience infinitely more reassuring than any published prescriptions for happy babies.

My son Owen is now (already!) 10 1/2 months old, and I have been feeling more and more like I have things to say about my experience of parenting (and about babies, who I actually gush over now). Not that I claim to know what I’m doing, because I still have all kinds of doubts and am really just muddling through, but because I want to share my ideas and hopefully, eventually, get feedback. Parenting can be a very lonely state full of self doubt, especially in our current social environments, where an ideal model often seems to involve a mother alone in the house with a baby. I think that the internet can actually function as a kind of community where we can share our ideas and feel a little less isolated. So I’m adding my thoughts to the fray, and if you’d like to read along, welcome.