This may seem an unusual post given my primary topic of late being losing my Dad. But during the past few months of struggling with my emotions whilst still trying to do a good job of raising my children I’ve never felt so aware of my constant feelings of inadequacy and failure. I think of Dad and how much he enjoyed us as kids, how he spoke of the choice we can make to be the parent we want to be… But day after day I would feel like the parent I wanted to be was so far out of my reach and I’d think, how did you do it Dad? Why am I struggling so much?
I read an interesting article today about parenting so I have decided to ‘go there’ on my blog. The main point of the article expressed what I feel to be a driving point for why parenting can be such a sensitive, volatile, sweat-inducing topic of discussion between parents in our culture and therefore why it feels risky to even talk about it from a personal viewpoint on my own blog, which is my space to write and you can take it or leave it. Often we can’t just take it or leave it, we feel judged, challenged, accused, uncomfortable and must defend our position and choices by either emphatically agreeing or doggedly disagreeing. An article posted on Facebook that may present new research or challenge a certain practice can really bring out some ugly. Why can’t we read it and learn, or graciously accept that we disagree and stand by the choices we have made for our child, ourselves and our family, and move on with our day?
“THAT WHICH IS MOST AMERICAN ABOUT US — OUR BELIEF THAT THE FUTURE IS UNWRIT — IS WHAT IS DRIVING US MAD AS PARENTS.” How cultures around the world think about parenting, http://www.ideas.ted.com. It is an American article about American culture but I feel applies more generally to Western society.
I have never felt so much self-doubt and angst over making decisions as I have done and do as a parent. This article has brought incredible revelation as to why… It describes the parenting practices of a few different nations of the world; Japan, Spain, Korea, Norway and how the whole nation seems to have accepted that that is how things are done. The article implies that in these other countries there aren’t parenting gurus or regular frantic googling but a simple hand-me-down of knowledge from generation to generation. This knowledge is seemingly unquestioned and adopted automatically.
When we visited our British friends when they were living in China we were enlightened to many of the parenting practices of the Chinese that were observed by our friends but also, they were pregnant with their first and had antenatal care there for the majority of the pregnancy. Actually, just walking around with our own child was revealing as the Chinese would come across so set in their ways and perplexed by ours. For example, they would pull down Barney’s trouser leg if any flesh was on display (if you saw a Chinese person walking down the street with a bundle of blankets and duvets, there was probably a baby in there). Yet, from no flesh to indecent exposure, social services would be on us big time if we let our toddler walk down the street with a large hole in the crotch of his trousers and no underwear to enable easy access for using the toilet. Kind of logical but with my British hat on I recoiled upon seeing a Chinese boy’s bottom as he pottered down the street ahead of us! Not long after a baby is born it would be immersed in a bath with a rubber ring around its neck to keep its head above water and then left to kick and wriggle around in the bath unsupported by an adult (though of course they would be standing close by watching for any danger or distress)… but suspended by their neck, you say aghast?? A newborn?? I don’t know about you but Chinese people seem to have perfectly normal necks, heads etc so it can’t be damaging (I have not researched this!). These are some examples of things we can be shocked by and immediately say are crazy, wrong, unsafe. But, are they? Or are they just different but still successful ways of raising children. I have been in conversations with people who are appalled by how the Chinese teach babies to urinate and open their bowels upon hearing a whistle and therefore babies are out of nappies way before they turn one. To me, that is not abhorrent. It is better for the environment, our wallets, nappy rash… I can imagine the Chinese feeling it abhorrent that our children sit in their own wee and poo every day until they’re two or three. I’m not saying we must adopt this practice, who knows we may do in the future, what I am saying is that we can have a mindset that we know best – that ultimately we CAN know best and we must keep striving to find out what that is.
‘In the U.S., we want to be Korean and Dutch and Japanese and Jewish and Norwegian and Spanish, all at once. “What is unique to us is the desire to be happy all the time and experience no discomfort and achieve,” says Mogel. “These are competing values.”’
We want to be good parents, we want happy children who are well-rounded and achieve AND we want to be happy ourselves and feel a sense of achievement about all we put our hands to. On a different subject but a similar cultural analysis, Tim Keller writes:
“In older cultures (and non-Western cultures today) suffering has been seen as an expected part of a coherent life story, a crucial way to live life well and to grow as a person and a soul. But the meaning of life in our Western society is individual freedom. There is no higher good than the right and freedom to decide for yourself what you think is good. Cultural institutions are supposed to be neutral and “value free” – not telling people what to live for, but only ensuring the freedom of every person to live as he or she finds most satisfying and fulfilling. But if the meaning of life is individual freedom and happiness, then suffering is of no possible “use”. In this worldview, the only thing to do with suffering is to avoid it at all costs, or, if it is unavoidable, manage and minimise the emotions of pain and discomfort as much as possible [my italics].’ Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering, Timothy Keller, p. 146-49 (kindle version).
How does this impact our parenting?
We strive to avoid our child experiencing pain or discomfort AND try to achieve this for ourselves at the same time.
Should we leave them to cry? No! But then I’m tired and can’t function and shout at them. I like sleep and I want it as much as I’ve always had it. Ok, yes let them cry. But then I saw that article pop up on Facebook about how this will lead to mental health problems and they’ll end up obese, or something? ARGH! What do I do? I’ll ask my friend Sheila… No, I’ll ask Super Nanny. We are filled with self-doubt. We think we CAN and WILL know the right answer, at all times to achieve ultimate parenting equilibrium. But here’s the thing, you CAN’T and NEVER WILL know the right answer at all times. I have not been a parent for long but heck, I already would do some things differently if I could go back to the start. What is the main thing I would change? Believe in myself more, trust my own instincts and if advice conflicts then graciously leave it at the door. Also, stop living life as a parent shocked by difficult days, bad behaviour, and a lack of ‘results’. I find myself trying some new strategy for managing a wilful three year old and then am flummoxed and angry immediately when it doesn’t result in at least one day without any conflict. Even as I write it I think, what planet are you on love? It is normal for a three year old to push boundaries and limits in order to test their own capabilities and independence. Joe and I have decided we don’t want children who are mindlessly obedient to anyone who tells them what to do (though we know they need confident leaders who are prepared to teach and impose boundaries where necessary). But deep down I still expect and hope for mindless obedience at times. Why? Because it lessens my discomfort and makes me feel I am achieving as a parent.
We tell each other what to do, even if we haven’t been asked for our help or advice.
I have learnt that every situation, family and child is different and this needs to be respected. Other parents need to be respected to be able to make their own choices. Let’s be humble here, Super Nanny may be super now… but in 100 years time things may look a whole lot different to how they do now. We may have found a way that ‘works’ for us but may not work for others and until someone shows me scientific research that is not disputed that tells me I will do harm by responding to my child when they cry at night, I am going to carry on. So far it’s working fine for us and our family. If you practice sleep training, that’s your choice, stand by it – but don’t tell others they ought to because, well why should they? Let’s be quicker to ask questions to struggling parents than we are to proclaim that we have all the answers. I hate the feeling that I can’t speak about my struggles with sleep deprivation without feeling like other parents are thinking, you’ve made a rod for your own back so I can’t possibly empathise with you. If you are finding sleep training difficult, tell me, I will empathise because we all have our choices and consequential struggles. If someone is struggling with breastfeeding and needing to top-up and asking for advice do you just encourage they stick at it and avoid formula at all costs or do you try to reassure them there is no shame in going to formula – you did it and your kids are happy and healthy so why not as it’s easier in so many ways?
How about we take time to ask more questions… What are your feeding goals? What do you really want? What is your child like? I personally want to help and encourage any parents I know to be the parent they want to be, not the one I or anyone else thinks they should be. Next time I give advice I will be checking myself, do I want this person to agree with me so I feel validated? Or am I trying to help them find their own way? Because deep down, they often know what they want to do.
How about we try to learn about other peoples’ choices rather than feel threatened by them?
We get type-cast.
I read someone complaining on an attachment parenting website about how it was a disaster for them because they got a terrible back from constant baby-wearing, they got no sleep whatsoever, they could never have sex and their relationship suffered, they breastfed 24/7 for 26 years, their walls were covered in food from baby-led weaning (I have made half of that up but that was the gist – it was dramatic life-falling-apart-at-the-seams stuff)…I thought, how sad. You’ve missed the point. But this is what we can create; parenting gangs that huddle together for moral support to aid with the self-doubt. To be in this gang you have to do everything that is required. If your back can’t handle baby wearing – well suck it up and do it anyway. If your two-year old wants feeding every half an hour and you want to throw them against the wall for the entire time they’re nursing – well suck it up and do it anyway. I want to be a Whitchurch-family parent (not attachment, new-age, Gina Ford – though we may take and apply aspects of all these and other approaches), more specifically, a Barnaby-and-Edith-Whitchurch parent. Only two people are qualified for that job and as a team we will do the best to uphold our most important parenting values: love, respect and discipline (training). I also want to be a godly-parent, I try to make my first port of call prayer, not google, or Sheila.
We are missing out on encouragement and support by thinking our choices must define and therefore, at times, alienate us. I will always hope that our culture will embrace breastfeeding more (based on advice from NHS and WHO) and more knowledge and support will be available. But I will always be grateful for the invention of formula that enabled my friend with kidney disease to feed her babies, that enables poorly babies in neonatal care with poorly Mummies to have nourishment, that enables Mums who can’t cope mentally to share the feeding, feeds babies who have had complicated births and struggle to latch and lose weight, and also Mum’s who have to go back to work sooner than they would like for financial reasons. Joe and I have always been drawn to less intervention, less tech, less stuff, as it feels more akin to what humans have done over the centuries and were built to do. But if that’s not your bag that’s nothing to feel ashamed about. We can stand by what we believe to be best for our family without making others feel inadequate about their priorities and choices. I don’t think I’ll be letting my kids self-wean fully and I shan’t be feeling bad about it. I will feel proud for achieving my goals and sticking with it through the tough times without comparing myself to anyone else who has done less or more breastfeeding.
The article talks about how the Spanish are always shocked by how our children are in bed by 6.30pm when to them, the family are together and children are an integral part of their social culture. They just do life together. This really challenged me and I think was the key to helping me find breakthrough in my struggle to thrive as a mother, which has just been heightened by a difficult time (more of which will come)… I think this cultural legacy of personal freedom and desire for achievement can make me feel like I’m trapped as a mother. We joke about our inability to sleep, to do what we want, to have nice homes. Those are truths but are they a problem because we want to add parenting onto our current or previous existence rather than embrace a whole new existence? If I want to get some jobs done and do some of my hobbies this week while my kids are around, I will tell them I need this time and expect them to entertain themselves, sometimes it will work, sometimes I can involve them, sometimes I may opt for an hour of TV, but if we talk about it together and I recognise my own needs as well as theirs and work out a balance along with realistic expectations I can already feel the Sunday night feeling dissipating and I can take joy in my current life, as it is, children in tow. When I give myself a break from achieving parent of the year award, I can actually be more like that parent of the year that I want to be.
Tonight, we are going to do a bit of Spanish parenting and show our kids a sunset, have a BBQ and keep them up for a bit (unless they don’t want to)… because, why not? Life is too short to get our knickers in a twist about what we should and shouldn’t be doing at the cost of living and experiencing joy in our family life.
One day I was walking along the seafront and I felt God encourage me, ‘you are a great Mother’… I then felt indignant and nearly said out loud, ‘YES! I AM a good Mother.’ how dare anyone, least of all myself (the most frequent offender), make me feel otherwise. A special thing my Dad said to me while he was unwell was that I am doing a great job and my kids are wonderful. I would give anything to have his involvement and advice so make the most of your parents too, if they are around.
Now have a laugh and read this… If you can be bothered to read anymore!
Please can I ask that no one tries to argue any standpoint on the aspects of parenting described in their comments – if you do you’ve missed what I’m saying and I don’t want my blog to be a forum for that. This is me describing my revelation, you may not even relate but I hope, if you do, you might feel encouraged by it to make your choices based on your family’s needs not anyone else’s opinion.