Sunday, February 17, 2013

There is No Recipe

When I think of parenting, these days, I think of my husband in a kitchen with a whole host of ingredients and no cookbooks in sight.  Or, maybe a cookbook open to a recipe that he modifies (read: improves!) beyond all recognition.

See, when my husband cooks (which is, I must admit, wayyyy more than I do!), he doesn't need a recipe.  He can take several recipes and blend them, or just take the ingredients in the fridge (leftovers, some wilting parsley, a cup of beans, some rice) and make a gourmet 4-course dinner.  Seriously, this man can create gold out of stone.

What does this have to do with parenting?  Well, if you peruse the parenting section of the book store or browse any of the 1 bazillion parenting blogs, you will be surrounded by cookbooks of all varieties.  People love their recipes for parenting.  From Dr. Sears' attachment parenting to Magda Gerber's RIE, and even to Babywise, which I haven't even bothered looking into because every time it's mentioned, people make faces of horror.  And, even outside of these overarching philosophies, there are opinions on sleep training, feeding schedules, feeding techniques, bath routines...everything under the sun.

The problem with these parenting "recipes" is that the ingredients are always different.  No two babies will behave the same, even with the exact same recipe.  So, while it's nice to have some guidelines, no one (with the exception of your baby, maybe) can tell you exactly how to parent.  But certainly everyone tries to!  And the problem with that is that you will most often come up feeling short.  I do, anyway.

[EDIT: my very wise aunt, after reading this post, pointed out to me that babies aren't the only ingredient that differ from family to family.  Parents also come in all shapes and sizes, and no one parenting style will fit every parent and every lifestyle!  Each family dynamic is completely different from the next, so there is no "one size fits all."]

This past week, I've tried to be more like David (the loving husband) in his kitchen when I parent.  Take a few veggies from the fridge, some noodles I found in the back of the cupboard, add a special mix of my own spices, and some beans from the pantry (okay, I'm not a cook so you'll have to use your imagination here!) and VOILA, a perfect pasta.  Or, take a few things from this parenting recipe, a few from that one, and add my own special spice and VOILA, a good enough parent.  Note that I didn't say "a perfect parent," because there isn't one.  (this is where my own 'perfect parent' makes that "I told you so face," because she's been trying to make me believe this simple truth since before Ebba was born.  I got it, now.  I got it. :)

Anyway, as I was saying, these parenting recipes that claim (directly or indirectly) to make you into the perfect parent, or to show you a picture of perfect parenting without mentioning how unachievable it is just serve to make you get down on yourself.

For example, I totally buy into Attachment Parenting.  The tenets of AP are incredibly appealing in that most of them will make you be like "duh, don't all parents want to do that?"  However, beyond that, they have a fairly prescriptive view of how to achieve those tenets.  (Made all the more prescriptive by 'my way or the highway' critical mums who look down on others who 'do it wrong.'  But this is a topic for another post.)  For example, we'll take AP's "Respond with Sensitivity."  This no-brainer principle basically means "meet your child's needs and don't punish her for asking."  But, sometimes (both in AP literature and in what you hear from other AP parents/blogs) this translates to: if you're baby is crying, you're doing something wrong.  In the principle itself, you see this quote:
"High levels of stress, such as during prolonged crying, cause a baby to experience an unbalanced chemical state in the brain and can place him at risk for physical and emotional problems later in life."
While I know this probably is referring more to things like the Ferber method of sleep training, where parents are encouraged to leave their baby in the crib and not pick them up regardless of crying, it still makes me feel guilty on those days when Ebba cries and cries and doesn't seem to want to eat, need a diaper change, or be tired/hot/cold.  I feel helpless and don't know what to do to help her.  Am I raising her to be insecurely attached!?

And I am lucky.  I'm not sure Ebba has ever cried for more than 5 minute intervals (she's been fussier longer, yes, but full on crying for that long, no.)  If I were a parent with a colicky baby (knock on wood) or just a more sensitive baby, I would feel like everything was all my fault.  The truth is, if your baby cries for more than five minutes, you aren't a bad parent, and your child will still most likely develop secure attachment.

Babies are sometimes mysteries.  A friend of mine with twins warned me, "People will expect you to know what they want and need at all times."  She said that when the twins were new, people would always bring them to her when they cried, asking earnestly, "what do they need??"  And she would respond, "I don't fucking know!"  (Well, probably not in so many words. :) )

I recently read this blog post about what your baby needs.  One of the points talks about what to do when the baby cries.  In the point on crying ("Hear me, don't just fix me), she says
  "Sometimes I just want to cry in your arms and have it be okay with you. Relax. It feels comforting to have you here, calmly listening and trying to understand."  
I really liked the way this point focused on listening to the child's emotion, rather than scrambling to do everything you can to stop the crying, lest the child become "insecurely attached."  Granted, I know that this point, and that of Attachment Parenting are probably saying the same thing overall.  However, in the AP phrasing it seems to say that crying indicates something the parent is or isn't doing.

Another example from AP is with the feeding.  Yes, yes I am still on about mine and Ebba's feeding.  I have finally begun to accept that we will always always need to top up our 30-45 minute breastfeeds with a bottle.  My vision of being this (ahem, perfect) earth mama with vegetarian shoes, boob out, and dread locks until Ebba was in kindergarten or whatever has been shattered.  I've accepted that.

But, you know what made it hard to accept?  It seems like many AP supporters seem to think that if you aren't breastfeeding, you aren't really practicing AP and therefore aren't a good parent.  The fact that you fail at one part seems to indicate that you fail at all parts in their eyes.  I read an article in The Natural Parent (a magazine I, otherwise, love) recently that talked about bottle feeding in a more attached way.  After a lengthy introduction all about the millions of reasons breastfeeding is far superior to bottle feeding, the author went on to describe ways you can try and make your bottle feeding at least good enough.  Some of these were so outlandish I'm not sure any new parent could do it.  Things like trying to pump your fore milk and hind milk separately (or, if you don't have enough milk, getting a donor to do so), and practicing skin to skin all the time (what about if you're out?  Or if your baby is crying to eat so you don't want to waste time stripping her and you down, lest you let her cry so long she attaches insecurely!? :) ).  The whole article had the tone of talking down to bottle feeders, which I didn't find very fair.

Anyway, my point is that no one book or philosophy can tell anyone how to parent.  And, I'm slowly learning that it's totally okay to take things piecemeal from different philosophies to suit my own needs and those of my child.  So, while I might not breastfeed exclusively, and I might go out to dinner once without my infant strapped to my chest, I am still treating her with love and respect, and I (hopefully) am instilling her with secure attachment and all that mumbojumbo. :)

The main thing is this: Happy Mommy = Happy Baby.  And if mommy spends all her time trying to fit into a mold or cook a certain recipe, she ain't gonna be so happy.


  1. this is a great read. your Wise Aunt and your Perfect Parent should be proud :- )

  2. "Perfect Parent" is very proud! :-)