Back in the early days of my psychology practice, I remember sitting in my office and listening to new mothers talk about feeling tired, about how they hadn't been as responsive to their children as they wanted to be, or about having their reactions colored by having been up all night. Still in my early twenties, I had an almost smug certainty that I understood what it meant to be a mother in your body, your soul, and your bones, and that I knew how these women should mother their children. Not until the birth of my son did I fully appreciate just how difficult the job of mothering is, what it calls on in oneself, and how it pulls on every single aspect of your emotional and physical life.
Back then, of course, there were plenty of opinions on how to care for a baby and raise a child--many coming from legitimate experts, though many not (your know-it-all cousin, your nosy neighbor). For a long time, the baby-raising bible was Baby and Childcare by Dr. Benjamin Spock, first published in 1946. With clear, frank advice designed to put new moms at ease (and reaffirm that they knew more than they thought they did) he paved the way for others--including T. Berry Brazelton, Penelope Leech, and Richard Ferber--to build on, agree with, and challenge his philosophies. But with the ever-growing wellspring of information--lots of it contradictory--parenting advice got confusing. Theories went in and out of style as definitively as hemlines. Here's an example: Traditional wisdom said that children had to be put to sleep on their stomachs. Later, research revealed that stomach sleeping is a possible factor in Sudden Infant Death Syndrome: If the child sleeps face down, he could suffocate and die. Two exactly opposite pieces of advice, separated by as little as a decade, with nothing short of your baby's life on the line.
These days though, it seems we have trouble doing anything without first getting an expert opinion. We want answers, and we want them instantly. This very American desire to seek out the absolute best wisdom--no matter that there are many definitions for "best"--has led to a boon in parenting experts, from baby nurses to parenting coaches. We call for help with breastfeeding, fussiness, and sleeping. Later, we call for input on everything from what chores to give our children (and when) to what constitutes a healthy dinner. Everyone's an expert on parenting--except, that is, for parents.
There's nothing wrong with seeking out help. Help is great, and for many of us, necessary. But at what point does all this help compromise our innate ability to parent? When does outside help cause us to question our own instincts?
When my son was an infant, the fashion was that a child had to be fed on demand. I was constantly nursing him. Fourteen years later for my daughter, I chose an elderly pediatrician who advised us to stick to a set feeding schedule so she would not become "milk dependent." Almost overnight, she went from being an extremely easy, calm, placid baby to crying nonstop. At first I thought it was colic. Then I didn't know what it was. When I called our pediatrician, he insisted that we stick to the schedule. And still she cried. One weekend, beside myself at the change in our happy baby, I called his office yet again. Thank God my doctor wasn't there. Instead, a woman pediatrician was taking his calls. "How much are you feeding her?" she asked when I told her about my daughter's nonstop wails. I told her about the schedule and the amounts she was fed. "That baby is hungry!" she exclaimed. "Give her more food."
Turns out I had based my good judgment on an authority who knew less about my baby than I did. The "expert advice" of this experienced elderly male pediatrician was wrong, yet I felt that my instinct as a mother was not quite right either, or else wouldn't I have ignored his advice? Like so many other mothers, I wound up trusting myself less and less.
Despite popularity and acclaim, most child-rearing experts don't account for different personalities, growth patterns, and situations. And that's their fatal flaw. You can find a recipe in a cookbook and expect that if you get the ingredients and follow the instructions, most likely you'll wind up with a decent dish. It's different with kids.
Confidence can be a rare commodity for first time mothers. Thankfully, confidence, like mothering, can be learned. After the incident with my daughter's pediatrician, I decided I was also done with book advice. I stopped taking advice from other mothers, too, including relatives (however well-meaning) and people on the street who'd spontaneously offer me "pointers" on how best to raise my child. I finally realized that, when it comes to mothering my own child, I am the expert. At the same time, I know that's not an easy position to hold, in a world where everybody is sure they know more about mothering your children than you do.
Four months after my son was born, I was chatting with an acquaintance about what I had been up to. I mentioned that I'd resumed work part-time. "How dare you?" she scolded. "Don't you know that you're hurting your child by not being at home with him?" The implication that I was more interested in my job or my career than my child was hurtful--and plain wrong. The fact is that a majority of us do go back to work after bearing children, and it's not a bad thing: Research has shown that work can raise a mother's self-esteem, and a mother's self-esteem is directly correlated to her child's.
But this isn't about fact, is it? It's about everybody and her sister having firm (and vocal) ideas about how to mother your child. Fourteen years later at a family get-together, a relative chided me for carrying my baby daughter over to see her. "Don't you know that you have to put her down?" she exclaimed. "She'll get spoiled." Excuse me? She was barely one year old!
Mothers are not immune to the criticism bug. Working mothers slander stay-at-home moms as settling for less than equality, and moms at home rant that working mothers are harming their progeny by being away from them for days at a time. There's always someone out there critiquing our parenting performance. It's important to remember that mothering simply isn't an exact science. And that--believe it or not--in most cases, the very best expert is you.