Until you end up with a helpless infant on your hands, the seriousness of first-time parents looks ridiculous. Once there, you quickly grasp the problem. Your child could be hurt in any of 2.3 million ways, 1.9 million of which are your fault. It could even die, an unlikely prospect which will occur to you more than once a day. On the other hand, you could die and it could live. If you think you have little control now, wait till you’re dead. Should both of you survive, the seeds you plant with your early parenting will shape its entire future psyche, so if it turns out to be a criminal, a tyrant, a public disgrace, or just a miserable person, you will be Dina Lohan. Indeed, there are grounds for concern. The question is how to translate that anxiety into action.
I became a mother in my late twenties, which was in the late ’80s. I lived in Austin, Texas, where I had fallen in with an enclave of New Age earth-mother vigilantes. We labored without drugs, breastfed for 18 months minimum, used only cotton diapers and made baby food from scratch. My older son Hayes had no sugar until after his first birthday, and I never left him with a babysitter until then. If babies were not allowed at an event, I didn’t go either. No way, baby-haters.
Hayes’s room, his toys, his stroller, his car seat: everything was chosen with consideration. Every decision, from immunizations to nap schedule to toddler disciplinary style, was the result of research and discussion. Television — NO! Black and white geometric mobiles — YES! Weaning and toilet training were studied like epistemology and calculus. And take it from me: You’ll never run out of conversation with friends and strangers alike if your child uses a pacifier, as Hayes did. This is something people really, really want to give their two cents on, whether they see it as a moral failing, a developmental problem, or a gateway addiction. As a writer, I had a whole cottage industry going with pacifier-related articles and radio broadcasts.
When Vince was born two years after his brother — at home on tie-dyed sheets, with a midwife who took the placenta away in a yogurt container — I raised him approximately the same way. By this time, however, I had furtively acknowledged the usefulness of Pampers, TV, and even baby formula in certain situations. As time went on, privileges long awaited by his older brother came early to Vince, starting with late bedtimes and PG-13 movies (PG-9, it turns out) and continuing through cell phones and unsupervised girlfriend visits. (Put a box of condoms in the bathroom and get an unlimited text-messaging plan.)
By the time of text messages, however, my righteous parenting had long been blown off the map when the boys’ dad died of AIDS when they were four and six. Though I did see a counselor a few times and may have speed-read an article about children and grief, this was not the kind of challenge you face by consulting Parenting magazine. I trusted my gut on how to proceed. Though I had a lot of scary fantasies about how the boys would deal with their loss, I soon observed something I didn’t expect: their natural momentum and healing power. I let them show me. And though the truth was messy and complicated, I told them as much of it as they could handle at any time. I worked hard as a mom but I also took shortcuts. Thank you, Burger King. Thank you, Kraft. Thank you, Kendall-Jackson.
At the advanced age of 42, I ended up back in the ugly white bra with Velcro-closing cups, thanks to my baby-freak second husband, who didn’t think his two and my two were enough.
Nursing was about the only way Jane’s babyhood resembled that of her older brothers. Breast pump, no way. Cloth diapers, ha ha. I’m not exactly certain when she started solid food, as her siblings were giving her French fries even as they taught her to play Grand Theft Auto on the PlayStation. She designed her own nap schedule; I left weaning and toilet training to her as well.
Then what happened? Oh, you know, the usual idyllic childhood, including substance abuse, delinquency and felony charges among the family members (cemetery desecration, car chases, ski trips gone bad), followed by marital war and divorce. Not quite as cataclysmic as her brothers’ dead father script, but not what you wish on your five-year-old.
Now Jane, 11, and I live more or less as roommates in our sweet little house in North Baltimore. To be sure, only one of us has a driver’s license and does most of the cooking and cleaning. That one sometime pulls rank and bosses the other around, forcing her to reach into her exquisite preteen diva toolkit to get revenge. Still, we have a pretty good time here, watching “Glee,” planning parties, taking dinner to the neighborhood pool, practicing her lines from the summer camp musical before we go to sleep with our miniature dachshund curled up between us. We will soon be able to share shoes.
Without a doubt Jane has a Leftover Mom — lazy, lax, full of excuses and in her mid-fifties for God’s sake. But with exhaustion has come a certain wisdom. I have observed children born of super-strict parents, helicopter parents, soccer moms, NASCAR dads, potheads, churchgoers and people who have staff members perform 75 percent of their parental duties. I have seen enough mental effort to solve the serious troubles of the human race poured into minor child-rearing decisions. And for those who decide differently: ostracism! scorn! jihad!
I do not deny that there are certain minimum requirements for safety, nutrition, health and hygiene. But very few styles of parenting actually blow it in this respect. The bigger problem is that there are too many unhappy, stressed out, exhausted parents who get little pleasure from parenting and are, in fact, about to snap. This snapping can go in many different directions and none of them is good.
The thing that gets undervalued in the quest to do everything right is the need to take some of the pressure off. You have got to trust that you are the parent your child needs — like Bruno Bettelheim told ’em 25 years ago, Good Enough. Not that you don’t worry or you don’t care. But no matter how hard you try, you’re going to have bad days, you’ll make mistakes, and the best thing you can do is forgive yourself and move on. The reason anyone gets through major hell like my kids and I have faced is because we let it go. The reason anyone gets through a day that starts with whining, backtalk, shouting, curses, something wrong with these eggs, go live with your father, worst mother in the world, don’t touch me, don’t talk to me, cracked juice glass, awful radio station, enslavement to utter bitch, slammed door, silence and welcome to Tuesday! is because they let it go.
Jane and I usually rely on a simple hand on the knee to say it all.
Your inner peace and strength are your child’s greatest resource. This is not bullshit. When you’re okay, they’re okay. All the parenting micro-management in the world doesn’t change the thing that has the biggest effect on your kids: who you really are, in your heart and soul. That is the sky. Everything else is just the weather, the passing clouds.
No-Sweat Chicken Soup
Bring about an inch and a half of water to a boil in a small saucepan, adding two sliced carrots, two sliced celery stalks, and a cup of cubed tofu. After about five minutes, add dried-up square of ramen noodles. When noodles are soft, flavor with the “chicken” packet they came with or some more healthful bouillon you bought at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. Add chopped cilantro and a drizzle of sriracha sauce and serve to husband as well.
Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl.