Sunday, November 18, 2012


A few weeks ago, Andrew and I were having dinner with some friends who recently had a baby. Along the way, we got to discussing different parenting styles. Our friends mentioned some other friends who have a very spontaneous approach to parenting and have already taken their months-old baby on several camping trips and vacations.

"I just can't imagine doing that," my friend said, "Don't they ever worry about nap times? I know they'd  go crazy if they had to be tied down to a schedule, but I'd go crazy if I didn't have one!"

I know both moms. They're both wonderful women, and my friends. They both have beautiful, healthy, happy children. But they're different people, with different personalities, and they have different limits.

I think sometimes we'd like to believe that we base all our parenting decisions on philosophical or moral grounds, on what we believe is best for our children. And really, for the most part, this is probably true. But when it comes down to it, we're human. And part of being human means we have unique personalities, and that means quirks, pet peeves, inabilities, intolerances, and physical limitations. A lot of our parenting, for better or worse, is a result of those things.

Selflessness is glorified in motherhood. As well it should be, because it's necessary. I know of few other roles that require such constant setting-aside of ourselves and our desires, except, perhaps, marriage. But sometimes I think mother-sacrifice is put on such a very high pedestal that we feel incredibly guilty at the thought of making any parenting decision based on ourselves or our personalities or preferences. It's much easier to defend our decisions philosophically. It's a lot healthier though, I think, to cultivate a knowledge of our own limits and to be okay with letting them dictate some of our parenting choices. There's a lot of difference between selfishness and simply counting oneself as a valid element of the equation.

So let's talk co-sleeping. I could tell you any number of reasons why I don't usually co-sleep. I could tell you it contributes to unnecessary night-waking, that it is unsafe, that it makes transition to a child's own bed difficult, that it interrupts and complicates a couples' sex life. And I could find any number of testimonials and expert opinions and probably even valid research to prove these things. But those aren't the reasons I don't co-sleep (And I don't actually believe them anyway-- I know co-sleeping can be done (very) safely; I know plenty of families sleep better because they co-sleep; I know that many children make the bed transition easily; I know people have sex in places other than bed.)

I don't co-sleep because I can't co-sleep.

As a rule, I sleep extremely well, and I always have. Typically, I put in about nine hours a night, and before I had Peregrine, I slept, dead out, all night long. I've learned to sleep through all my roommates' various late-night or early-morning habits (including alarms), and it took me only a few weeks of being married to Andrew before I could sleep through his multiple middle-of-the-night bathroom trips.

But if I have any reason to worry about my sleeping so deeply, I won't sleep at all. I have a hard time sharing a bed with people I don't know extremely well, for fear that I'll kick them or steal their covers or pillow in my sleep. If I have an alarm set for a different time than normal, I'll wake up hours before I'm supposed to, in case I don't hear it. And if there's a baby in my bed, I'm terrified I'll forget he's there, and either roll over on top of him, or push him out in my sleep. (And trust me, I've done both to cats. Sorry, cats. But did I ever indicate you were welcome in my bed? No, no I didn't.)

I've read a lot about co-sleeping, and I know these are fears a lot of women have when considering it as an option. And I've read plenty of reassurances explaining that mamas have sixth senses when it comes to their babies, that babies are very different from cats, and that most mothers who decide to co-sleep don't ever worry about rolling over on the baby because they just know they wouldn't. I'm sure this is true for most women who co-sleep. But for me, I'm either sleeping or I'm not.

Once, back when Peregrine was a newborn, I had nursed him in the middle of the night and dozed off while doing it. I woke up, dazed and confused, wondering why I was lying in bed with a baby asleep on my stomach. I checked the clock and two hours had passed. Two hours, and I had no memory of stopping nursing, unlatching Peregrine, or lying down (on the edge of the bed no less). Another time, I started going to sleep as I was putting Peregrine back in his bassinet. I lost my hold on him and he fell. All of six inches, and into his soft little bed, but still, it terrified me. Both incidents terrified me. Mostly because I realized I didn't have the sixth sense. I had no sense when it came to that strange world between sleeping and awake. And so I resolved that, when Peregrine was in my arms, I would always be fully awake, and I would keep myself that way, no matter what it took.

Running up against our limits is hard. Especially when other people don't seem to have them. If it's just basic mother instinct that causes mothers to just feel the presence of their babies in their sleep, what kind of mother am I that I don't have it? And it gets muddier, messier, when the idea of sacrifice comes into the picture. Shouldn't I always put my baby's needs above my own? If I choose not to do something because I have a really hard time with it, isn't that just being selfish? Couldn't I just set my own interests aside, sleep with my baby, and deal with the sleep deprivation like the grownup I am?

But what babies (and older children!) need most are present, engaged, loving parents. Which means that sometimes, parents have to take their own needs, and even preferences, into consideration. Sacrifice that makes us less functional as people isn't meeting our children's needs. It's burning out. Burning out, in the long run, benefits no one. We have to know our own limits and be truthful about them. And we have to be okay with factoring them into our parenting decisions.

Every one of us, without exception, has limits. But we also have strengths. I may not be able to co-sleep with an infant. But I'm a pretty patient person. I'm perfectly willing to let a job take five times as long as it should so that Peregrine can "help" me with it. I don't mind narrating each and every article of clothing I put onto Peregrine or take off of him. I can answer the same question many, many times in a row. I don't get easily touched out. And I compose pretty awesome songs about various aspects of hygiene and safety. Not all mothers can do these things, even the ones that can co-sleep just fine and then be fully awake and functional the next day.

And you know why? Because we're human. None of us is perfect. None of us can give absolutely everything to our children. And that's okay. I think the most important is giving what we can, even when it comes with imperfection. And knowing when we can't give something, and being okay admitting it.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

15 Months!

His joy grows with him. Just when I think he can't possibly get more excited, more passionate, more intense about living, he does it. This child lives life well.

He greets Andrew--"Morning! Morning!"--when he goes to get him out of bed. He insists on saying hi to strangers. He's learned to go for old ladies and people in wheelchairs. I guess they're the most likely to respond.

He doesn't miss a beat, this kid. Not one. He hears, and sees, everything. Especially animal noises. And trucks. And sirens. And he listens for his favorite words: dinosaur, morning, water.

He says "three!!!!" any time he wants some extra adrenaline in his life, which is pretty much always. Because Andrew always counts to three and then throws him, or swings him, or hangs him upside down.

He snuggles, but on his own terms. Occasionally he will hug me and pat me on the back (actually, it's more like beating, but hey, the kid never does anything halfway). More often he comes and buries himself in my lap, shrieking with glee, for about 1 1/2 seconds. Then he's on his way again.

I'm pretty sure he can walk. He just doesn't know it. And mister Fastest Crawl in the West has no real motivation to adopt a (for now) slower mode of transportation.

He still eats like a horse. We went to the restaurant in the Space Needle the other day and the kid downed two cheese sticks, a whole baby-food can of squash, a fair bit of avocado and egg off my salad, tons of other people's french fries, and a huge kid's meal consisting of about half an entire filet of salmon. I debated ordering him a kid's meal, but he did it justice.

He's learning all about body parts. Noses are his favorite. He had a lightbulb moment the other night when he realized everyone in the restaurant had a nose! His world got so much more exciting. If you sing "Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes" really, really slowly, he tries to keep up.

He recently discovered the joy of slides. Head first. At top speed.

Favorite foods: grapes, hummus, beans of any kind, string cheese, whipped cream. Also, chocolate. Though I deal out caffeine very, very sparingly to this particular child.

Favorite toys/games: his ride-on dinosaur, his block pounding tower, drums, balls, tunnels

Favorite books: Animal Sounds, The Very Busy Spider, Where is Your Nose

Latest obsessions: facial features (especially noses), water bottles (nothing new there), helping with the laundry and dishwasher, baths (yes, he finally likes them!), shoes and socks

Learning: standing on his own, climbing, finding his own pacifiers at night, all sorts of different animal noises

Challenges: molar teething, learning to actually stop doing something when mom or dad says no, transitioning between two and one naps, napping anywhere but at home.

I love you, little one. You fill my life with joy.

Friday, November 9, 2012

On Being a Parenting Mutt, Part 2

When we were in college, Andrew and I and some of our friends discovered a card game called Munchkin. It's basically a spoof of fantasy role-playing games. Your cards have different identities, and they spend the game trying to fight various tongue-in-cheek monsters (like the Potted Plant) with various tongue-in-cheek weapons (like the Pantyhose of Giant Strength). It's an absolutely hilarious game and Andrew and I may or may not still play it pretty much every time we get together with our best friends from college who live, unfortunately, across the country.

Anyhow, one of the rules of this game is that you're limited by the dimensions of a normal human body; for instance, you can only carry one weapon per hand. You can wear one helmet, one suit of armor, and one pair of footgear. And that's it. So, if you draw the Dagger of Treachery, but you're already holding the Rapier of Unfairness and the Huge Rock, you have to decide which you want to keep and which you want to discard. (Unless, that is, you draw the Cheat card, which allows you to break any game rule, your choice.)

I think sometimes we see parenting as sort of a game of Munchkin, only with (obviously) higher stakes.

Do you breast or bottle feed?

Do you co-sleep or does she sleep in a crib?

Do you babywear or use a stroller?

Do you use cloth or disposable diapers?

Because apparently, in Parenting Munchkin, you can only carry one Feeding card, one Sleep card, one Baby Transportation card, one Diaper card, and so on.

I don't honestly know why there seems to be so much pressure in the parenting world to choose a side. I don't know why it seems so important to us, as mothers, to identify ourselves by which of these cards we hold. Because most of these things are not mutually exclusive. Some choices (a very, very few) are all-or-nothing choices. But most are not.
This absolutely melts my heart. So does his sweet little nursing face.
I've both breast and bottle fed Peregrine. I started pumping bottles for him when he was about a month old because his hungriest times of the day never seemed to sync with my highest production times. When I went back to work, I continued pumping bottles for him. I consistently struggled with low supply, and when I ran out of my meager freezer stash, my sister-in-law started pumping bottles for Peregrine as well. She also breast-fed him sometimes on the days she took care of him. When he started solids, I began occasionally supplementing with formula as well.
The pillow is mandatory. The bed? There have been a lot of them (he's even slept in a laundry basket).
Peregrine has slept all over the place. He's spent most of his sleeping hours in a bassinet or pack-n-play next to Andrew's and my bed. He took his naps in the sling or Moby until I went back to work; then he started napping in his crib. Usually, when he was small, Andrew or I snuggled him to sleep in our bed while we read aloud (our long-standing nightly tradition!), and then transferred him to his bassinet. When he got old enough to be woken up by our reading, we put him to bed in his room, in his crib, and then brought him into our room when he woke up to nurse. Eventually that was too distracting for him, so I started getting up and nursing him in his room and then putting him back to sleep in his crib. And on difficult nights, or when he wants to wake up too early, we co-sleep (and by we I most definitely mean Andrew; I can't sleep with a baby, and we made a pact early on that if Peregrine is in the bed he's Andrew's responsibility).
All the comfort and security of the womb, right here. Including the head-down part.
I wear Peregrine when we both feel like it, or when he's clingy or sad or sick and I need to get something done. I've also used, at various times, his bassinet, the Bumbo, the swing, or a blanket on the floor. If I'm walking on a trail, I wear him; if I'm on the road, I usually use a stroller.
Admittedly, much cuter than the Costco diapers that he also wears.
I have a lovely set of cloth diapers, and I use them most of the time. I started Peregrine in them much later than I'd planned, primarily because his umbilical area took literally months to stop oozing. Apparently that's quite normal, but the midwife told me to hold off on the cloth diapers and to use those belly button cut-out ones as long as possible. Now I use cloth when I'm at home, or when I forget to change him out of them. I use disposables when I'm out, at night, and occasionally when I know he's going to poop and I want to just throw the nastiness away (sorry, environment). A note on cloth diapering, though: you have to use cloth enough to wash a load at least once a week or so. Otherwise, especially if you live in a humid place, you end up with disgusting mold in your diapers (not that I know this from experience or anything). So in that sense, you do have a bit of a commitment to make.
Me and my breast-fed, bottle-fed, breast-fed by other people, donated-milk fed, formula-fed, crib-sleeping, room-sharing, co-sleeping, laundry-basket-sleeping, sling-worn, suitcase-worn, stroller-riding, cloth diapered, disposable diapered child. And that's only a fraction of the all the various parenting choices I've made with him!

And I'm only one person. Each person's combination will look different. And will look different from one child to the next and from one stage of development to the next.

And you know what? It's also fine not to mix and match. There's nothing wrong with only co-sleeping, or only disposable diapering. It's just that, in most cases, you don't have to "only" anything. You really, really don't.

I think it's helpful to think of parenting less like a game of Munchkin, and more like a giant chest of tools. Owning one sleep tool, or feeding tool, doesn't keep you from owning another (or two, or three, or four). Sure, maybe you can't use them at the exact same time (you can't co-sleep and crib-sleep simultaneously, unless, I guess, you all sleep in a giant crib). Some tools may not work at all for the particular job you need to get done. And maybe you know that you absolutely can't (or don't want to) use certain tools. That's fine. But you're not limited in what you can use. (Choosing a night, or a season, of co-sleeping, for instance, doesn't mean you can never use a crib.) And if one tool doesn't work, you can use another. Without having to give up the old one forever.

Because in the end, it isn't about the tools.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

My Career as a Composer

Never underestimate the power of stupid songs as a parenting tool.

Seriously. They're amazing.

I've spent many years of my life in various childcare and education roles, and it's always baffled and amused me how much power songs have over children. Children who would otherwise throw screaming tantrums at having to leave the playground will cheerfully sing "Goodbye, swing set!" (think  Good Night, Ladies) and then hop into line with the rest of the class. As long as a class is younger than third grade, I can always restore my students to order by singing a song they know. It cracks me up. No matter how dead set they are on running around and ignoring me, they can't not sing when they recognize my tune. This saves my butt almost daily as a music teacher.

I doubted that I would start using stupid songs in my parenting till I had a preschooler, but one day, in desperation, the Zipping Song and I discovered each other. Peregrine inherited most of his clothes from his older cousin, and the seasons were slightly off, meaning most of his last winter's clothes were actually summer clothes with sweatshirts over them. For some reason, Peregrine really hated the necessary zipping/snapping of the sweatshirts. I think it had to do with the fact that I would sit him up to put his arms through the sleeves and then I would lay him back down for the zipping part. All his hopes of being picked up were cruelly dashed, I guess. No matter how engaging I was, no matter how quickly I tried to go, he always cried and fussed. And one day, without even thinking about it, I started singing about zipping to the random tune I had stuck in my head.

He loved it. He stopped crying. He remembered it the next time. Zipping and snapping suddenly didn't phase him anymore. I sang that song for months. It was stupid, but it totally worked.

Next up was the Diaper Song. At some point in time Peregrine started resenting the fact that I pulled him away from his exciting discoveries to stick him up on a table and change his diaper. Quite by accident one day, I started singing about diapers ("DIA-per, diaper! To the tune of the Hallelujah Chorus. You're welcome.) He loved it. He still loves it. It baffles me completely. No matter how invested he is in whatever he's doing, the opening lines of the Diaper Song send him off at full speed to his changing table.

That's when I started doing it intentionally. Pretty much every time I notice that Peregrine consistently has difficulty with a transition, I invent a stupid song to go with it. Due to my background in classical music, I have a wealth of sophisticated-sounding tunes in my head to draw upon and then pair with lyrics about seat belts or bibs or waiting while I go get a wash cloth. And it works every time! Like a charm. Plus I get to feel like a rockstar, as my one fan starts grinning, dancing, and singing along to all of my lovely original creations.

I know a day will come when Peregrine will call my bluff and will realize that singing the Seatbelt Song doesn't at all negate the fact that he still has to put on his seatbelt. A later day will come when he realizes I'm actually kind of terribly uncool for making up songs about hygiene and safety and singing them in public. But I'll bask in his gullibility and admiration while I have it.

However, I'm afraid there is perhaps an unfortunate side effect to the success of my songs. The other day, I was absentmindedly humming the Hallelujah Chorus to myself in the car, and I heard Peregrine start bouncing up and down and hyperventilating with excitement because he knew that one! And the next thing I knew, he was singing along--"Bopper! Bopper!"

There goes my child's classical music education.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

On Being a Parenting Mutt

I once ran across a comment by another mom, lamenting the fact that she never felt like she fit in with other mothers. I believe her words were, "I'm too mainstream to be crunchy, and too crunchy to be mainstream."

I kind of wanted to hug her. And then be her friend. And then hang out with her all the time and eat farmers' market beet greens for dinner and Safeway Select ice cream for dessert, and go on walks with our woven baby slings and Target-bought strollers, and wash out our cloth diapers and sterilize our bottle parts. Because I knew exactly what she meant. I can so relate.
This is my beautiful little hippie child, eating homegrown kale by the handful.
Same child, eating a non-organic baseball cap while waiting for food (probably French fries) at a restaurant in Texas.  
Let's set aside the fact that I am not a huge fan of the idea that the entire world of mothers is divided into the two halves of "crunchy" and "mainstream" (actually, I kind of absolutely loathe this idea, but, moving on). There's a lot more to this issue, really. I think it really comes down to this: parenting, at its core, is about a lot more than categories.

When I was probably, I don't know, about 30 weeks pregnant with Peregrine, I opened my weekly email newsletter (you know, the ones that tell you what type of fruit your child most closely resembles that week), and found myself confronted with an article telling me it was time to choose my parenting style. I don't even remember what my options were. The link suggested three or four, explaining their basic principles and the different strategies and choices each employed. I was kind of floored.

On the one hand, I get that it's important to think carefully about parenting. As much as a lot of parenting is flying by the seat of your pants, that doesn't negate the importance of knowledge. But I was a bit baffled by the thought of choosing a "style" (before I'd even had a baby no less!), and then sticking to it. Like I was choosing a club to belong to.

Even when Peregrine was in utero, I focused on eating healthy organic fruits and veggies...
...and queso dip made with Velveeta. Welcome to rural Texas. (That's my dad's cousin on the right).
I think there's a certain amount of confidence that comes with any label or name. If I agree with the vast majority of what a particular author or doctor or researcher says, it's easy to just start considering myself   That Type of parent, whatever it is. And suddenly, I start thinking that whatever That Person endorses is something I ought to be doing.

Let's take, for instance, one of my favorites: Free Range Parenting and author Lenore Skenazy. The basic philosophy behind this movement is that we give our children far too little freedom and that we tend to parent out of fear of what might happen instead of allowing our children to take risks and grow on their own without always monitoring them. Overall, I love this philosophy. It syncs with a lot of what I believe about raising healthy children. I love that there are parents out there who are starting to let their kids walk to school, and play in the dirt, and bike to the store on their own, because of Skenazy's blog and the book she wrote. But it is so, so easy to get sucked into the label. It's so easy for me to say, "Okay, because I agree with so much of what Free Range Parenting has to offer the world, I'll buy it. I'll buy the label, get my membership card, and voila! I'm a Free Range Parent."
The dirt. It's good.
But then, for some odd reason, I then feel like I should think like she thinks. When I have to decide whether or not to let Peregrine play in the freezing muddy creek, or ride his little "car" on the driveway near the (quiet, carless) street, instead of weighing my pros and cons and making a decision based on all the circumstances, I'll find myself wondering "What would a Free Range Parent do?" Like I would somehow have to turn in my Free Range Parent card if I made the wrong decision. But the truth is, I'm not a Free Range Parent. I'm a parent. Who happened to read (and agreed with a lot of) the Free Range blog.

I think it's something about human nature to try to find a category that fits us. But the truth is, when it comes to parenting, there is none. Each one of us has a unique personality, a unique spouse, a unique set of children. Not to mention a unique extended family, a unique set of friends, a unique community. Those are the things that will determine our parenting, which will in turn be unique.
This. It's mine. 
I don't know how many times, both before and after giving birth to Peregrine, I've run into questions like this:

"Can I be an Attachment Parent and still use a crib? What about sleep training?"

"Would a Waldorf Parent use plastic Fisher-Price-style toys?"

"Can I be a Babywise Parent and nurse on demand sometimes?"

And while I know that most people asking these questions are generally concerned about how different practices fit in with certain principles, I still think it can be very confusing, both for moms-to-be and moms-who-already-are. Because it's not about categories. Can you be an Attachment Parent and still sleep train? Maybe, maybe not. I don't know. But can you be the parent of your child, who agrees with the majority of attachment parenting principles and also believes in training a baby to have good sleep habits? Yes, you absolutely can. It's okay to pick and choose. It's okay take only most of a style, or only part of it. Adhering to a style is not near as important as adhering to the quirks of your particular family.

And you know what? Some of us will end up looking like poster children for certain parenting styles, because that's what works for our families. I know plenty of people like that, and they do it well. But for a lot of us (most of us, probably), we'll end up looking like parenting mutts. And that's okay, too.