Saturday, September 22, 2012

Common Advice, Amended

I've gotten quite a bit of parenting advice since I became a parent. It has ranged from the life-changing to the absurd, from the practical to the laughable, from the that's-a-good-idea-in-theory to the who-knew-that-would-work. But I've been thinking lately of pieces of advice I've given, over and over and over again, and that I see given to practically every new mom. They've never sat exactly right with me, so I've decided to pick them apart a bit, and amend them to make more sense in my mind.

1. Don't Watch The Clock

Why it's good at its core: Babies don't come out of the womb understanding clocks the way adults have been conditioned to. It would be amazing if they slept 12-hour nights and ate three meals a day from the get-go, but they don't. And that can be very, very frustrating. No matter how well you know that your schedule is going to be blown to pieces with a baby's arrival, it still comes as a shock. And sometimes, the best way to cope with it is to just kick clocks out of your life for awhile. Ignorance can be bliss when you've been awake for hours nursing and rocking and diagnosing your baby's lack of sleepiness. Or at least it's more bliss than knowing that you woke up at 1:15, it's now 5:47, and usually you're asleep during those hours. Going with the flow, catching sleep when you can, feeding the baby when he's hungry and not stressing about how long (or short) it's been since his last feeding, can save your sanity and help keep your expectations realistic.

Why it doesn't quite work for me: Well, first of all, I had a baby who preferred eating his hands to nursing. So, right from the start, I had to watch the clock. But, in the long run, here's what I found out. My baby, and most babies I think, do eventually fall into rhythms. And observing those rhythms, and figuring out what they are and what clock-times they usually correspond with, can make for a much, much more peaceful household. I was told many, many times to just watch my baby's cues and meet his needs as he expressed them. But here's the deal: sometimes I just didn't know. Sometimes I thought Peregrine was hungry, and would feed and feed and feed, and wonder why on earth he was still hungry, and then realize he had been tired, exhausted in fact, all along. I think this happens to most parents. Reading a baby's cues isn't always as simple as it sounds. And I found that watching the clock--not stressing about the clock, just watching it--helped me predict what needs he would have when. Since I knew he often became tired about an hour and a half after waking up, for instance, I could predict that time and put him to bed before he became miserably over-tired. Far from tying me to clock-time and making me ignore my baby's needs, watching the clock actually helped me anticipate Peregrine's needs and meet them before he became desperate.

So here's what I would say: Don't stress about the clock. Ignore it when your baby is new. But as life starts to develop some rhythms, use it to watch them. Always be flexible. But use clock-time to help you figure out when, generally, your baby tends to get hungry or tired.

2. No One Ever Regretted Holding Their Baby Too Much

Why it's good at its core: I've heard this one a lot from grandmas and from people whose kids are grown. And I've heard it as a response to the whole "you'll spoil your newborn by holding him!" position. The truth is, you can't spoil a baby, or child, or person, by showing them genuine love. Lavishing children with love, or being spontaneously extravagant, or stopping your work just to play and laugh and be silly--odds are, you won't  regret doing those things. Odds are, your children will remember them and love you for them. And it's always helpful to remember that your newborn just emerged from a uterus, where she was warm and snuggled 24/7. No, you won't spoil her by holding her. Even if you hold her a lot.

Why it doesn't quite work for me: I don't actually think many people of my generation believe they can spoil babies by holding them. In fact, I think the opposite is true; I think a lot of us believe we can hurt our babies, emotionally or otherwise, by not lavishing them with constant attention and closeness. I think there has been a definite swing for the better in terms of baby-raising philosophies, but, like any philosophy, I think it is unwise to take it to an extreme. No, I don't think anyone regrets showing love to their children. But I think people do regret not caring for their own emotional and physical health. Feeling as though you must, at all times, be engaged with your baby (or older children!), can lead to a lot of false guilt and burnout and be incredibly unhealthy for your family.

So here's what I would say: Hold your baby as much as you want to; you won't spoil her. But if you feel consistently trapped by having to hold her, don't just consider it a necessary sacrifice. Go to the bathroom, take a shower, run an errand. Give her to your husband, or mother, or a neighbor you trust. Put her down. She will be okay, even if she cries a little. Even a small break can clear your mind and make you much healthier overall.

3. Sleep When The Baby Sleeps

Why it's good at its core: Having a baby knocks most of your priorities around, and makes it virtually impossible to do all the things you used to do. And since newborns  often don't sleep when you are used to sleeping, you end up losing a lot of sleep that you desperately need. I also know a lot of new moms (myself included) who feel the need to use the baby's sleeping hours (or minutes!) to catch up on all the housework that hasn't been done. It's tempting, because it's the only peaceful time you get. But when you spend the baby's waking hours caring for the baby, and the baby's sleeping hours caring for your neglected work, you can burn out pretty quickly. It's good to remember to slow down and shift priorities toward caring for yourself and maintaining your basic physical health.

 Why it doesn't quite work for me: Well, for one, I can't nap on command. In Peregrine's first few weeks, I was so exhausted I could. But usually, I just don't nap. I didn't, even when I was pregnant. And if I do nap, I am out cold for hours. Cat-napping for twenty or thirty minutes just doesn't refresh me at all. It's exceedingly frustrating to settle myself down for a nap, only to be woken up twenty minutes later by a needy baby. I'd rather just not try. Also, this isn't very practical advice for anyone who works, or who has other children (especially toddlers!). And finally, I feel like this is often marketed as the end-all for having a peaceful relationship with a baby, when in reality it's a lot more complicated than that. It can help, sure, but you're still going to be tired. And that tiredness is not your fault, or the result of you not being flexible enough to just sleep when your baby sleeps.

So here's what I would say: Use the baby's sleeping hours to refresh yourself, whatever that means. Take a nap, read a book, play quietly with another child, even clean your house if a few minutes/hours of quiet cleaning do actually refresh your soul and make your life more peaceful. Try to do things you can't do when your baby is awake (I could always put Peregrine in a carrier and wash the dishes; I couldn't sit and read). Also, take time for sleep in whatever way works for you. Go to bed early. Sleep in if you can. Or, if it works, nap when the baby naps.

4. Trust Your Instincts

Why it's good at its core: Mothers know their babies better than anyone else in the world. We spend more time with them than anyone else and even in the first few weeks, come to be experts on their various cries, facial expressions, and body language. Besides, maternal instinct is a powerful thing. It's ingrained in us to know our children. And when other experts (doctors, mothers, mothers-in-law, friends, etc) give us advice, however well-guided by knowledge, experience, and science; the fact remains that they still don't have to live with our specific babies 24/7. Sometimes it's easy for both us and our advisers to forget that.

Why it doesn't quite work for me: I have two problems with this one. The first is that I have almost always encountered this piece of advice in conjunction with other pieces of advice. As in, say, an article  urging mothers to co-sleep, and telling them to trust their instincts and ignore the people who are telling them their babies need their own beds. It doesn't matter what the advice-giver wants people to do (not picking on co-sleeping, it's a wonderful thing!); the message is that whatever it is ought to be instinctual. That of course all mothers, if they could just blot out The Other Voices, would be doing it without a second thought. I feel like it's often used more as an emotional argument than a reassurance. And secondly, I don't always trust my instincts. Sometimes my instincts are misinformed. Sometimes they do odd things simply from habit. Sometimes they tend toward absurd paranoia. Of course my basic maternal instinct is a good thing. But it's not a perfect thing. It needs information, and assistance, and reality checks, from other reliable sources.

So here's what I would say: You know your child better than anyone else, and you (and your household) are the only ones who have to live with him day in and day out. Don't forget that when others are giving you advice, even if they are well-informed. Surround yourself with people, and sources, that you trust. Allow your natural, wonderful maternal instinct to be influenced and guided by them. (And please trust an actual doctor instead of Dr. Google!)

Well, there it is. I'm sure the people giving these pieces of advice probably don't read this much into them. But since they are so ubiquitous, I thought it was worth amending them a little. Take my amendments for what they're worth.

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