Well, I survived yesterday, and so did everyone else in my house.  This last part turned out to be a bit of a miracle, given how in my sleep-deprived state I served salmonella for dinner.  I mean, I didn’t actually, but I both undercooked the chicken and got the bright idea to add the leftover butter I’d basted the chicken with to the mashed potatoes.  I didn’t realize what I’d done until Mike and I went to bed.  He doesn’t often think I’m an idiot, but I think he had to question it after that. But the good news is no one got sick and no one will eat any more of those potatoes.

I slept through the night last night.  Lil guy didn’t wake me up this time, since I gave him all the Prevacid he needed and made him sleep sitting up.  Yay no acid attacks!

So those are my happy updates of the day.  But now I’d like to veer a little off-topic and write about something that I’ve wanted to write about for a while but didn’t really have the words.  I asked in a previous post about why mothers seem to get blamed for absolutely everything wrong with their children, with society, etc.  And I think I have gotten sort of a handle on why that is.  But I think that a big part of why this is such an issue is that fact that there are two competing and mutually exclusive theories currently in play regarding infant behavior and the appropriate parental response to it.

You know what I’m talking about.  I’m going to try to avoid using labels, as those can be unhelpful.  But generally speaking, there is the old fashioned school of thought in which the infant is seen as wanting everything in the world and wanting it right now, and the job of the mother is to teach the child which of his needs will be responded to and to generally manage and set up expectations regarding how frequently he will get his way.  This view held sway for a long time in our culture and I suspect is how my parents’ generation was raised as well as mine.  People just “knew” that if you responded to your baby’s cries, your baby would just cry more.  If you tried to give him attention every time he sought it, you would never have any peace and your poor child would grow up expecting other people to do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted it.  These children would be moving out into a cold, cruel world unable to provide their own basic needs, entertain themselves, learn independence, and so on.  Parenting was (and still is) a high-stakes game and so I think society as a whole really came down on anyone who questioned this orthodoxy.  What really frustrated me about people who hold this belief system (and all of my extended family and in-laws fall into that category) is that they would tell me to leave Liam to cry and see if he went back to sleep when I knew durn well he wasn’t going to.  And there were tons of situations where people would basically tell me (not usually in the exact words but) that I was causing all his problems by spoiling him.  There was a low point when my MIL was looking after him and I heard him start crying and got up to see about him and she told me, “Babies just cry.”  She didn’t say “for no reason,” but that was clearly what she meant.

Anyway, most Americans alive now were probably raised by folks who were afraid of spoiling them and quite a few of us turned into productive members of society, right?  My Mom was fond of telling me that this was how she reared me (with the clear implication that that must be good enough for Liam as well).   I just wanted to tell her how very unloved I felt as a child and pretend it had something to do with parenting style.  Duh.  We had abuse issues and she had depression issues and what was wrong in my home life when I was little is not really related to this at all.  It frustrated me to be told that now that I had a kid, I really didn’t know anything about taking care of him.  I felt defensive because I felt like my choices were always being questioned and it made me feel like I needed to be really careful about whom I spoke with about what because I needed support rather than judgement.  Plus, this just got between me and my friends and family, and I never wanted anything to come between us.

I actually planned on being one of those parents myself.  I was a good psychology student and found my Behavioral Psychology professor very compelling.  Also, I spoke only of my extended family on my mother’s side.  My father’s side of the family adheres to a quite different idea about parenting.  They use the language of attachment or natural parenting, but insist on not having any set rules for the child.  They actually go to the opposite extreme and expect children to understand their own needs rationally and act on them.  Then there’s the abuse, but that’s not parenting style.   Of course babies don’t really know what they need.  Of course experienced parents could figure it out.  Of course a crying baby is usually not an emergency.  I planned to have a healthy, happy baby that hardly ever cried.

Then reality struck when Liam was actually born and then shortly thereafter developed acid reflux.  I found that I could not tell my baby he was not hungry.  I could not tell my baby to nurse longer at a time.  I tried supplementing my baby with formula, just to try to get some rest, which is a really, really bad idea when your baby can’t tolerate cow’s milk.  I just tried telling him to stop crying.  You get the picture.  It didn’t take long to determine that there was something WRONG with him and that he needed medical help.  Which we got, but docs treat babies conservatively and in the end, my child ended up screaming either unconsolably or he could only be consoled with a tremendous amount of effort on my part.  I had to rethink everything I’d been taught about caring for my child.  He was not crying because he was bad or spoiled or even because he wanted stuff all the time.  He was crying because he was in pain and needed someone to at least TRY to make him feel better.  He couldn’t sleep unless someone was holding him or he was sitting up in something.  He couldn’t stay asleep long after he went to sleep.  Sleeping was just not happening for either of us really.

But there was always another school of parenting thought.  It’s a developmental psychology thing, and it comes from Erikson’s stage theory of development.  The idea is that an infant is learning whether or not he can trust his care providers.  At some point, the child will master this stage and move on to developing some independence.  Of course I’d read some Dr. Sears while I was pregnant, and it had made an impression on me for sure, but he takes a very highly emotional approach to talking about it.  And I don’t think we’re well-served by anyone heating up the emotionality of a parenting debate.  Anyway, the basic idea behind this newer way of thinking is that as a parent, you should respond promptly to your child’s crying to try to figure out what they need so that they can see you are trying to help them.  The idea being that you are attempting to build the child’s trust in your relationship, rather than manage expectations, as in the older style.  People who believe in this say that children become more independent when they are not pushed into it prematurely.  And of course, who doesn’t want to have a good relationship with their child?

The reality is that children are generally resilient and you can make mistakes with them and nobody really has scientific data that can tell you exactly how you should parent because there is just no way anyone could design a study that could actually do that.  We all just believe one or the other of the two basic theories out there and try to behave accordingly.  It isn’t a matter of some of us raising brats and some of us not caring about our children’s feelings or our relationships with them.  The choices we make at this juncture really are not a matter of child abuse vs good child care.  Let’s let some of the air out of this one. It really does come down to a judgement call of what do you think and what tradeoffs are you willing to make, by which I mean which mistakes are you willing to make?  If you insist that you know why your child is crying and whether they really “need” attention, you will be wrong some of the time and may err on the side of not helping your child when he or she really needs it.  When my child cried, I went to him to try to make him feel better because I realized I never really “knew” why he was crying and didn’t feel comfortable with the possibility that I might leave him to cry when he was hurting.  It’s a choice we get to make and the only “right” answer is the one that works for you and your family.

I think that we as a society are still looking at things as though there is one “right” way to parent and whatever we choose is the right choice for everyone.  Every parenting book I’ve looked in so far has predicted bad things for people who fail to follow it’s advice, and that even goes for Dr. Sears.  But children are all individuals and what works for one may not work for another.  Why can’t we just set aside the emotional hostage-taking and let each one of us make her own decisions?  You are the world’s-leading-expert on your own child or children.  You deserve respect as such.

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