Doing what works

I don’t believe in The Mommy Wars. The overwhelming majority of parents I’ve interacted with are generous, humble, and restrained in their assessment of other people’s parenting. There’s an unspoken code of conduct that you just don’t s**t on what people do differently from you because it’s so hard, no matter how you slice it. It took me a long time to learn that and it still takes mindfulness. I’m always impressed with people who are good at this without trying.

Even those of us who have to work at humility learn pretty fast once we are out of the newlywed stage of parenting–that heady moment around 2 months when they don’t poop at night anymore and you slept for 5 hours once, so you have a lot of advice to share. If you have a second kid, the pace of humility acquisition picks up noticeably. Lo and behold you are a different family, you have to do a million things differently because it turns out your first kid isn’t who you thought they’d be and you have to factor them into what you do with the next one. Your kids are totally different from each other. You remember the (maybe a smidge self righteous) advice you shared early on with other moms with such certainty, and cringe. Because those things worked on kid #1, and now they don’t.

That’s all just life. It’s not a war. Parents forgive each other for these universal sins of beginner’s hubris.

Even when folks are visibly taken aback by something about my parenting, I’ve never had anyone be mean. Yes, it happens, I don’t want to dismiss the bad experiences people have. That is real. But our own insecurities about parenting can create a thick filter through which we see judgment lurking behind every attempt to connect. I know I’ve carelessly said things that hurt people when I didn’t mean to (especially when caught off guard), so I try to assume that’s what’s happening when I feel judged.

This attempt to think well of others is not always successful. But I’m a perfectly mediocre parent in plenty of ways, and am still surprised at how positive I feel about the mamasphere at the end of the day. In fact, it’s the overwhelming generosity and support I usually feel from other parents–friends and strangers–that spurs me to be more mindful and less judgmental of others. The very best of paying it forward.

But if the internets are to be believed, parents are just being judged to death, left and right. And it’s not just a straw man so we can justify our feel-good blogs; parents do seem to feel constantly scrutinized. Yet how to reconcile this with the fact that most folks I know walk on egg shells around sensitive parenting topics and really believe different is ok?

Surely it’s a combination of all of us needing to practice mindfulness in how we treat others’ parenting choices (and unavoidable realities), as well as taking some responsibility for not interpreting everything as an attack. Since we can’t control other people’s behavior, the latter has always felt like a more realistic place to start.

So what’s the key to building an immunity to feeling judged? When I look back at the times this has worked best for me, it’s been when I was doing what worked for my family and was confident in my decision. When I’m most likely to feel judged it’s when I’m uncertain whether I’m doing the right thing. I’m not saying one can just flip a switch and feel confident about parenting. But as a sensitive person who worries a lot about social relationships, it was empowering to figure out I had something to say about how I felt.

So often we do what we think we are supposed to do without ever stopping to ask ourselves whether it works for our family. We disregard our own instincts because of what someone else said was required for good parenting, even if it makes our life miserable.

My 20 month old sleeps in the jogging stroller. It’s where he goes down for nap. It’s where he goes down for bed. He practically climbs in by himself, opens his mouth for daddy to brush his teeth, and conks out while we jiggle the stroller in the middle of the living room. He stays there until he gets squirmy. At nap time it’s usually 45 minutes. At bedtime more like 2 hours. I’d leave him there all night if he’d stay. It works.

It wasn’t always this way. Our house has three rooms total and one of them is dedicated to sleeping humans. Except this new, fourth human does not believe in sleeping and never has (especially not in a bed, that is for losers). There was the first year when he slept in a carrier perhaps half his total sleep hours. Neither of us remember anything of that year. It was a fog of utter and total exhaustion. Luckily the elder child just slept right through it all.

I remember a former neighbor commenting about our back yard “getting out of hand this past year.” My eyeballs rolled around as I tried to focus on what she was saying. I think I stuttered something about it having been a tough year. I couldn’t even fathom yard management being anywhere near the top of the list of things that weren’t getting done, but should be.

The stroller was a discovery of necessity because our one year old weighed as much as a 3 year old and my partner was developing back problems from wearing him in the carrier so much. At first we took him on uncomfortable walks in the dark and all kinds of bad weather. Then one muggy, mosquito ridden day I tried just circling the porch. Then just jiggling. Then just jiggling inside. It sounds ridiculous, but it worked. It’s been working for 6 months. Heaven help us when it stops working, as someday it surely will.

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I wouldn’t hawk this as as a stroke of parenting genius, but it gets as close to getting the job done as anything right now.

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my kids would die without cheese. In 5 lb blocks.

Then there’s our nearly six year old who eats cheese toast for breakfast, cucumbers and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch, and pesto cheesy rice for dinner. Pretty much every day. Breakfast and lunch have shifted at various moments, but this is the dinner he’s been eating for about 8 months now. It became his go-to when he figured out he could meet my criteria for a green vegetable without having to eat something separate from the rest of his meal.

Yes, I know about the French and how their kids eat whatever is put before them. That doesn’t work for us and I really don’t care. He doesn’t want to eat what we are eating and I don’t want to eat the boring thing he wants to eat.

I look at the big picture and ask myself what my deep priorities are for his health. What I care about is that he get two greens a day and some good protein; that his diet primarily be real, whole foods without chemical nast and added sugar. On that, we are golden. He thinks a protein bar is a fancy treat. Does it matter if there’s very little variation right now? Not to me. Someday there will be. All of a sudden one day he asked for my hard boiled egg and now occasionally he eats one.

We fight about important things like tooth brushing. This was not worth a fight. I made a thousand pounds of pesto from my own garlic and basil last summer and froze it in ice cube trays. I make vast mounds of rice cooked in bone broth and freeze it. If one wants to consider the assembly process “cooking multiple separate meals” to appease a whiny kid, so be it. I love to cook and make delightfully creative meals that the rest of us eat–including the toddler (for now). This is what works for our family. We will run out of pesto in about a week and there won’t be any more until May. Soon something else will have to start working. C’est la vie.

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When I realized we were about to run out of pesto I started experimenting with winter greens in the garden. Dandelion chickweed pesto was not a hit with anyone.

But here’s the rub with all this. After seeing a silly video of my toddler double fisting his brother’s leftover pesto cheesy rice, a friend of mine asked what he was eating. When I told her, she wondered wistfully how I get my kids to eat such healthy food. I almost snorted my beer because it was so ridiculous, given that this one food is the only food he’ll eat. But she didn’t know that. Her kids eat carrots and tomatoes and sweet peppers. Mine only eats pesto cheesy rice.

If we all knew everyone else’s ridiculousness, our kids would inevitably seem more well-rounded. But who cares? This works for my family. Any time I find myself feeling envious of someone else’s seemingly perfect family, I think of all the times I’ve been shocked at someone who can only see 2% of my life saying something like that about my family.

Why not just do what works for ourselves, be inspired to try new things when we see others doing something different that we think might be better, and hold on to the reality that no one has it all figured out.

I’m not advocating laissez faire parenting. I’m sure some people think beating the crap out of their kids “works” for them. I hope it’s obvious that’s not what I mean. I know what empirical evidence actually shows to be the range of things that are healthy, safe, and normal. So do a lot of parents. It’s a big range, even if you have strong feelings about particular aspects of parenting (which most of us do).  But all that information is far less definitive than we like to think it is. The reason it’s easy to get conflicting messages is because most of it isn’t all that certain. Admitting uncertainty is not the academe‘s strong suite, so that can be your starting point the next time someone tells you “the experts all say…”. Except climate change and the superiority of Swedish social democracy, those are settled ;).

When we are confident in our own critical thinking skills, our own judgment about what is best for us, our own wisdom about our own families …if we can get to that place, then all the perceived judgment just starts to run down like water off a duck’s back.

I know parents who planned to “do” attachment parenting and their identity as parents was very tied up in this plan. But it turned out that it didn’t work for them. Whether because breastfeeding didn’t work the way they had hoped, their careers didn’t cooperate the way they thought they would, their support network turned out to be not that supportive, or they just weren’t the same person as a parent that they’d been before…it just didn’t work. They felt everyone was telling them that was how you had to parent to be a good parent. Mostly they judged themselves. But there are a million ways to deeply love and bond with your kid. You have to do what works for your family.

I know just as many parents who never planned to parent “intensively,” but once in it found it to be, quite simply, what worked for them. Often they had no support at all–be it cosleeping, breastfeeding, or wanting to stay home and not put their kid in daycare–sometimes even from their partner, which is the toughest and loneliest divide.

I am inspired by the parents who take their reality and perform an acrobatic combination of figuring out how to cope with what is and pushing through on what is central to who they are, even if it seems too hard. That process is never pretty and is often what we judge so carelessly from the outside.

Because we live in a country with zero public policy support for most families to have true freedom to choose “what works,” just focusing on ourselves is only part of the story. You never know what someone else is going through. The majority of parents in this country struggle to have room for choice, so these Mommy Wars are like an elite sparring match with no applicability to the lives of those parents struggling the most.

Judging and feeling judged are interconnected.

At the end of the day I find that thinking the best of others, taking different approaches as inspiration and food for thought (rather than comparison), and tending my own nest in the way that works for me has made me better at being generous and understanding of others. It’s a work in progress, but it’s what works.

Leading with your head

The toddler looks like he’s been in a bar fight. He has a huge black bruise on one cheek where he fell down onto the 2×2 piece of kindling he was carrying around the yard. Then, he insisted on accompanying me to do yard work, and I accidentally hit him in the face with a dead pokeberry branch. So opposite the black bruise he has two bloody claw scratches that look like he got in a fight with a two-toed cat. Then somehow he got some scratches on top of the kindling bruise. And then when his big brother was swinging him around, per his request, his mouth somehow ran into his brother’s knee and is now bleeding. He points to it “bum.” This is what he says when he gets hurt. Unfazed, like he’s commenting on the weather. The kid is a rock. In the day it took me to tap out these lines, we’ve added a quasi-black eye. After an hour and a half running in the yard with no mishaps, he tripped on his wheel barrow on the way inside and the edge hit him under the eye.

My mother the retired pediatrician tells me no, no one will think I am abusing my kid. At least no professionals. They learn what to look for. Like that time I caught him by the arm when he was about to fall out of the carseat? That one looked like child abuse, she explains. Thanks.

This never happened with our elder child (except the time when he was 4 and tried to run and jump teeth first onto a pillow on our concrete floor and missed, which was dramatic). But the toddler leads with his head. The number of busted lips, broken glasses, and near concussions my partner and I have suffered at his hands–well head–are too many to count.

All parenting hubris comes back to bite you in the tuchus, people. I would coo in wonder at how our active (by active I mean barely-containable-nuclear-reaction level energy) first child never seemed to get injured. Well, he was so wild I always harped at him about being careful. As far as I can tell my words are now like the muted buzzing of a bee in his ear, but he had some instinct of his own for spacial awareness. Neither the toddler nor the 5 year old get parented that way much anymore. The elder because keeping the toddler alive means I’m just not paying much attention. The toddler because he’s a second child and did I really used to worry about a little blood? The human race would not survive a world of only children (and not just for the obvious reason).

I’m pretty sure my parenting makes little sense to the casual observer. I let my kids take what the American mamasphere probably considers excessive personal risk. My toddler in particular causes gasps of disapproval on a regular basis. I take my cues from him now and find he’s more aware and in control of his experience than I ever would have expected. But stray into the world of respect for the personhood of others (or the cat) or consent around physical space and I’m a regular helicopter mom of the first degree. Because I’m raising some unavoidably privileged white boys. Sure, they are just kids. But when he answers your inquiry as to why he didn’t stop whatever it was when he could tell his sibling was hurt with “I stopped once he started screaming”…well. It’s normal, yes, and it also needs to be met with a consistent message about what is and isn’t ok, and how it would feel to be on the other end of it.

My parenting makes sense to me, and seems to work pretty well most of the time. So when faced with an actual emergency situation yesterday (tornadoes, in February, in North Carolina), and having to hang out in a bathroom (with the cat litter, but no tub) with a 5 year old and 20 month old for nearly an hour, several things took me by surprise.

First, I thought I would be more together, since I’m a pretty together person and actual odds of us getting hurt seemed low. But that was before the wind was throwing down branches and the news showed actual tornadoes close to us. I am pretty good with blood and staying calm when something bad happens, but my adrenals were pumping and I did not feel ok. I started down the rabbit hole…”how can I protect them both at once? ” What if…what if…I had cushions to cover our heads, shoes to cover our feet, and blankets for shelter from breaking glass. I tried to keep it light.

But as soon as everyone was in there they were hungry. Like some visceral evolutionary response to danger. Like they thought maybe there would be no more food soon. I had to ask my elder child to hold on to the toddler while I quickly went out to get pirate’s booty and bananas as branches crashed on our roof. It’s very dramatic on a tin roof, where the daily squirrel circus sounds like machine gun fire. I hadn’t brought in food, hadn’t brought a flashlight. I called my husband who, because his office wasn’t in the warning zone had received no alerts and didn’t even know what was happening. I was even more at loose ends realizing how big the gap was between how prepared I had thought I was and the reality of the moment. And I thought being in an emergency would make me not disgusted watching my children eat sitting next to the kitty litter, but no. And then, what kind of mother is thinking about cat poop at a time like this?

Second, for some bizarre reason I thought my children would be different people in an emergency. I am betting this is a common mistake. At least I hope it’s not just me. So you think your headstrong 5 year old who never does anything you ask without questioning it and won’t do it at all if it doesn’t suit him will behave differently if you declare it an emergency? Buahahahahhahaaa. Wait, let me get my breath.

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“Honey, if your brother wants to hide under the blanket with you, this is a time where we have to share.” And doesn’t everyone need an abacus in an emergency? It’s the only toy I brought in. It just seemed right.

We read all the preparatory instructions the day before so that he’d be ready to help and cooperate when the time came. He promised he would cooperate. When the time came, we were outside playing in the yard and my sister in law’s phone bleeped an alert. Mine didn’t. Why didn’t my phone do its job? Clearly I am deficient. We headed inside to seek cover and I asked my dawdling child to please move just a tad quicker. He ignored me. He did announce that he was scared, but he still moved at a snail’s pace, while the toddler got fidgety in my arms as I waited for his older brother to catch up. It was the very first post-emergency-declaration-request I had made and I was 0 for 1. Surely it wouldn’t continue this way?

Basically, it was just like our normal life. He listens half the time but because he so thoroughly disregards me the rest, I feel like he didn’t listen at all. He was thrilled to be put in charge of his brother a couple of times, which I never do, and that went about as well as could be expected. And I tell you what, when there are no good windows and you can’t see, it’s really hard to judge outside conditions for yourself. And no, you can’t sneak out to look out the window because there is no way they will let you walk away from them.

My lesson from all this was that preparing for a natural disaster means assuming that my children will be their normal selves and I will not be. I may think I am an organized and capable mama who leads with her head, but that’s for the day to day of normal routine. My gut was in charge today and it was not nearly as well prepared as I had hoped. Luckily everyone is fine, not just here but in our community. I would kindly request that there be no more tornadoes until my children are older, thanks.

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“But why doesn’t anything happen when I swipe?” Enjoying the play by play at Grandma and Grandpa’s house while mommy decompresses.