Sunday, November 10, 2013

Parents These Days

What would you think if you saw a kid dressed like this in thirty degree weather? What assumptions would you make about her parents?

This morning my daughter picked out her own outfit. That’s not really that unusual in our house, but this morning she insisted she wear a light summery dress, despite the fact that it was in the 30’s outside. We were able to get her into tights and a long-sleeve t-shirt under the dress, but she refused to wear a jacket. It was late in the morning, and I did not feel great. My baby, Sam, woke up every two hours to breastfeed, so I felt depleted and ravenous. Additionally, I had a sore throat and the sniffles. I really just wanted to get out the door, go to breakfast, and down a bunch of OJ. I didn’t have it in me to give a time-out or really go over the merits of wearing a coat. So I let me daughter leave the house in her outfit. I figured maybe the only thing that would teach her was experience.

Dave, Sam, and I were bundled up in coats and scarves, and there was my pitiful daughter in her crazy light outfit. We walked ten minutes to the local greasy spoon, the wind whipping around us. I knew that at least some people would look at us and whisper. Some people would judge us. Some people would roll their eyes about “those parents.” None of them would stop to think about the special situation that brought us to this moment.

It seems no matter what choices modern parents make, we’re always judged. Our own parents often have a lot to say – whether it’s that we’re too soft (“A little crying won’t hurt that baby”), that we are shameless (“Are you sure you should breastfeed where everyone can see you?”), or that we’re too strict about diets (“Why can’t she have another piece of candy – she’s only had 15 so far”). That last one was my mom. (Hee hee - hi Mom!)
Parent peers judge us, too. Many modern parents adhere strictly to a parenting label these days, feeling totally alienated from anyone who doesn’t parent as they do. Some “Attachment Parents” might be horrified by a parent who sleep-trains, some “Intactivists” call people who circumcise child abusers, some “Lactivists” look down their noses at formula feeders, some “Traditional Parents” consider anyone who doesn’t spank to be contributing to the breakdown of society. The internet bears witness to the aftermath of these horrid “Mommy Wars.” (I hate that term, by the way.)*

Often times, though, it is those of our peers who have no children – either by choice or by circumstance – who can be the most cruel. This point in history is unique. There has never been another time when so many people in their thirties and forties and beyond are childless. I am nothing but happy about this. I’m proud to live in a time when most of us are supportive of individuals’ rights to either wait until later to have kids (like I did) or choose not to have them at all. It can only be a good thing for our society for the vast majority of kids to be raised by parents who had kids exactly when they wanted to - whether in their twenties, thirties, forties or even later - were nothing but ecstatic to have them, and for all adults, whether parents or childless, to feel fulfilled in their lifestyles and choices. And I am empathetic enough to know that being a childless adult has its own slew of challenges and judgment. I’m sure there’s only so many times you can hear people ask you why you don’t have kids or when will you have kids or, worse, make dumb assumptions about all the glorious free time you must enjoy because you don’t have kids. I’m sure there are times when people’s ignorance or judgmental natures or unwanted advice can make you scream. 

I was childless until I was 33. Thirty-one of those years were by choice. Two were not. Either way, I had some strong opinions about children. I used to roll my eyes at kids who threw fits in the grocery store. I’d see women breastfeeding at a table near me and think, “Why can’t she do that at home?” I’d read about women obsessed with unmedicated birth and think, “Well, gee, doesn’t she deserve a cookie?” I made plans for how I’d never bring my kid to a place that served alcohol, that my kid would eat the most exotic foods known to man from the time she ate solids, that my baby would sleep through the night early on because we wouldn’t shelter her from noises. I was wrong about every single one of those assumptions. I am now the woman that I used to roll my eyes at.

Why? Because life. Life teaches you and transforms your views. Kids throw fits, especially at certain ages. And you can give into the fits by buying a toy or candy, or stand firm. Standing firm is the better decision, in my mind, but it can lead to unhappy and LOUD kids. Breastfeeding is normal and natural and should be done anywhere a kid is hungry. To imagine that you would never leave the house or feed your kid in a filthy toilet or force him to get hot and uncomfortable under a blanket might seem suddenly ridiculous. Unmedicated birth has a whole slew of benefits for both mom and baby that you wouldn’t know about unless you do some research, because it’s not mainstream. Women who choose to go that route often have to fight hard for their decisions and are usually so ecstatic and empowered when it’s over that they become zealots. Sometimes you want to grab a beer with a friend and have no childcare, and you find yourself thinking about European cultures where such behavior is normal, and you think, “Dammit, I’m going to go get that beer, baby in tow.” You can try to get your kid to be a good eater by breastfeeding, practice baby-led weaning (giving your kid table foods in chunks – not baby food), and might even have a toddler who craves spinach and tomatoes, yet still end up with a preschooler who only eats beige food. You might follow all the advice in the books about getting your kid to sleep, yet have a kid with sensory processing disorder who screams every time the floor creaks and doesn’t begin to sleep through the night until she’s 16 months old. And, yes, I might be describing my personal experience with Stella here. 

My point being, all those preconceived notions are usual pretty off. Parenting is incredible and difficult and all-consuming. Most people are nothing like the parents they thought they would be. And usually that’s for the best.

Are modern parents different? Yes. Of course. And I don’t always agree with what’s becoming the new norm. I personally don’t agree with sports leagues that don’t keep score and give every kid a trophy. I understand that that’s what some parents want, but I think kids need to practice coping with disappointment in those safe settings as kids so they’re prepared later as adults. I do believe in structure and discipline, because adults have to deal with structure and discipline at their jobs, and we don’t want that to be a complete shock for kids. I don’t believe in kids running around like crazy in public establishments. It’s important to learn cultural norms, besides the fact that that kind of behavior is dangerous for everyone.

But overall, I’m proud to be part of a generation of parents who rear our children gently. Folks may think we’re letting our kids get away with murder, that we should do as our parents did, but let’s analyze that a moment. I know our parents’ generation was just doing what they thought was best, but do you really think I should spank my kid with a hairbrush? Scream at her in a public place? Shame her and make her feel bad about herself when she screws up? Those were all specific examples of how friends of mine told me they were disciplined during a recent conversation. And did it work? Well, sure, we behaved OK most of the time. Out of fear. And we grew up to test all those same rules the minute we left the house because we never learned the WHY of why we shouldn’t scream in a restaurant or hit someone or not do our homework. We only knew that it would lead to bad things for us. And many of us grew up to be adults with eating disorders or substance abuse issues or depression or, worst of all, violence and rage toward others. I have no clue if these destructive behaviors are a result of how we were parented and I’m the first to defend my own mom and praise her many strengths, but on the off-chance that forceful, authoritative discipline was part of the problem, isn’t it nice to think the next generation might be just a little bit less messed up? And if we’re totally wrong about that, at least we can say we tried, right?

And yes, I get that my kids are everyone’s business. They are the next generation, and you don’t want them to be spoiled. But you cannot expect them – or me – to be perfect. Just as I often wonder what a childless person’s life is like – sometimes fantasizing about the freedom, sometimes praying and hoping for my friends who want to be parents, sometimes defending my childless by choice parents from those who strangely worry about their lifestyles – I just ask that those of you who are not parents take the time to think about the parents’ lives that you are about to criticize. That mom whose kid acted like a nut on the bus – maybe she’s afraid that if she really gets after her kid the way she’d like to in front of a crowd, people will think she’s too harsh or possibly even abusive. Or maybe she’s dealing with some heavy stuff (like a death in the family) and has to put discipline on the back burner. Or maybe she’s ignoring her daughter until she behaves properly (a tactic that actually works very well with my little girl). Don’t assume she doesn’t work with her child to make her a better person, don’t assume it’s her fault the kid is acting out (something they do when they’re tired or hungry or upset), and please don’t go and rant and rave about her on the internet like she’s a lazy moron. Try to sympathize with her, even if her child is making you want to pull all your hair out, the way you want people to sympathize with you.

Trust that we are doing our best with what is, in my experience, the toughest job in the world. (But also the best.)

*Because this is the internet, I’m fully expecting people to be offended by this paragraph. Let me cut you off. I know that not all people who identify with a parenting label are defensive and harsh. My parenting style would most likely be defined as “attachment,” but I do not look down on people who sleep train. I’d consider myself a “lactivist,” but I understand the many reasons why formula feeding is necessary and would never make a mom feel bad about it. I’m not a traditional parent, but my traditional friends never give me a hard time about not spanking. But on the internet, everything is extreme, and I have seen some serious bashing of others because they do not parent in the same style. So please, don’t jump down my throat about being mean toward your style. I promise that the only label I use on myself is “Intuitive Parenting,” a term I coined to describe the fact that parents have to make decisions based on what works for them as adults and their individual children. I may not always understand those choices, but as long as nobody’s getting hurt and everything is done with love, I couldn’t care less if your parenting style looks totally different than mine.

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