I knew, or thought I knew, before I became a parent, that parenthood would be a challenge. A scary but wonderful adventure. But I think that I also kinda thought that people were exaggerating; I don't think I really believed, until I became a parent, that's it's the hardest job there is. Or that it is often thankless and unacknowledged, with many, many stumbles along with way. But here's the truth: It really is the hardest job I've ever done, and it comes with few accolades and no money. Your kids do NOT always appreciate you or what you do, and they don't always abide by your rules. And it's damn competitive, and you don't even get to control all the variables to ensure that you come across as the "best" parent. There's a DARN lot of things you don't control that end up affecting the outcome of all your hard work. Shit. That just doesn't seem fair.
This all begins with pregnancy, something that has, in modern western culture, become a political act in and of itself. The "battle" between au naturale and the medical world is fierce, with the vast majority of women ending up somewhere in between (and being criticized by both sides). Midwife? Doctor? Home birth? Hospital? Free-standing birth center? Water birth? Medication? Episiotomy? Birth position? Am I a bad Mom because I WANT meds? Am I a bad mother because I did NOT find pregnancy and birth to be the pinnacle event of my life? Holy crap, no wonder many women find birth stressful. Planning the event is worse than planning a wedding. (Truth: you can only plan so much, so if you're pregnant now and reading this and starting to get worried, just try to relax and know that you'll have the baby no matter what and that he or she will probably be fine regardless of what choices you make about the labor and the delivery. The babe controls more already than you'll want to acknowledge. Perhaps that's the first lesson of parenthood: you're really not in control.) I learned that the secret to getting through labor lies in one word: surrender.
After you get through the birth you gotta make another series of hotly-debated choices. Which parenting style is the best? There is a startling array of advisors out there, and many of them disagree with each other. There are no clear answers, though the advocates of each approach present "evidence" that their approach is the only sensible one (and developmentally appropriate and bound to launch the kid to greatness). The reality is that a parent has to make choices, often against friends' or relatives' better judgement, based on her family's needs and beliefs, and her kid's personality and her own. I'll add, though any parent already knows this: The personality of your kid is not necessarily the one you would have hoped for, and parents' and kids' personalities do NOT necessarily gel well. I think the Goddess has a lot of fun up there, dealing out challenges to us all.
Should I sleep with my child? Or should he learn to fall asleep on his own, by himself, in a crib, in another room? Should I exclusively breastfeed? Or is it OK for somebody else to give him a bottle of pumped breastmilk? Or, can I even -- GASP -- allow the kid to have a little formula? Or -- bigger gasp -- can I get away with not breastfeeding at all? Should I let the baby use a swing? Or a Johnny-Jump-Up? Or an exersaucer? Or a pacifier? Should I only use cloth diapers? Should I toilet train at six months? Or two years? Or let him decide on his own, no matter how old that is? Do I use time-outs? If so, when and how? Can I use Desitin? Tylenol? What about vaccinations? TV -- never or a little? When do I introduce solid food? And should it only be organic? Or only organic and homemade? Is Gerber really the antichrist?
I could blog here on what my choices were -- but that doesn't really matter. The point is that parenting is, hands-down, the most political act most people commit. I say "political" because decisions are hotly debated among parents, pediatricians, health advocates, nutritionists, teachers, and parenting advocates. And parents often wonder (often to the point of obsession) about whether their particular choice was the right one. And if something DOES turn out to be wrong with junior, parents often point to themselves first to question if it's their fault. It doesn't even matter that, often, it's not; they will still wonder if it was. Parents are very hard on themselves. Perhaps if I hadn't let him cry himself to sleep. Perhaps if I hadn't tried to toilet train him that early. Perhaps if I were more patient. Perhaps if I'd used a different toothpaste. Perhaps if I hadn't taken that medication during pregnancy. Perhaps perhaps perhaps.
The bummer, in my humble opinion, is that the choices become more, not less, daunting as the kids grow older. After all, when they are tiny, you can keep yourself and your babe in something of a cocoon. You breast feed or bottle feed; you sleep with them or you don't; you use cloth diapers or you don't; you toilet train early or you don't; you vaccinate or you don't; you use daycare or a nanny or you don't. But as they enter school, the number of influences on them grows exponentially, and with those, the number of things that challenge your personal choices and your memory.
My kids brush their teeth every morning and every evening; but do they EVERY night use the flouride rinse, floss AND take their flouride pill as their dentist wishes? Uh, no. Honesty here. I make sure they eat fruit and vegetables every day, but do they ALWAYS eat as many servings as they should? Doubtful. I pack their lunches every day, and they hear (daily) about good nutrition and can tell you what that is. But do they eat junk every day? Yes. They buy it at school. (Even though schools have gotten MUCH better at serving healthy food, most of it is still animal-based foods, and crap like onion rings and popsicles are still available for purchase.) Kids will buy it if it's available. Mine do. And, every day without fail, the healthy stuff that I packed in their lunches returns home with them. The healthy stuff that they do eat is served at breakfast and dinner; lunch has become a meal I cannot control.
Lunch is perhaps simply a symbol of the fact that my kids are growing up, away from their childhood family and, little by little, into their own worlds. They're not there yet -- not by a long shot -- but their dietary choices and their choices of friends are increasingly their own. They're at that point in their lives where as their parent I have to hope that the messages they've received at home are somewhere in their heads, available to them for their own use when neither parent is nearby. And I hope that they know what they've been taught and that by their choices, they show us to have been "good" parents. If I didn't know fear before, I know it now. And it makes the choice of epidural-or-not seems enviable and far too simple.
- My interests include veganism and vegetarianism, health, ethics, politics and culture, media, and the environment. I have three kids; I teach college part-time, study piano and attempt to garden. I knit. I blog on just about anything, but many posts are related to my somewhat pathetic quest to eat better, be more mindful of the environment, and be a more responsible news consumer. Sometimes I write about parenting, but, like so many Mommy bloggers, my kids have recently told me not to. :) Thanks for reading.