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Far Trek: A Stay-at-Home Dad Responds to Dr. Spock

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Reading the 9th edition of Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care has me time-traveling, and not just because it was originally published in 1945.  The baby care section catapulted me back to the year 2000, when I was entering stay-at-home parenthood and my anxiety over nonstop childcare dwarfed any post-Y2K fears. New parents are vulnerable to a host of challenges, but perhaps the most dreaded are all those parenting myths. I felt especially susceptible to misinformation because I was thrown into full-time stay-at-home parenthood quickly. Even though I was fortunate enough to choose to stay home, our firstborn came early, just after I quit my job but before I had time to educate myself. Almost immediately, I realized I had underestimated the task before me.

In fact, although Dr. Spock's famous opening to "Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do" is supposed to be comforting, the opposite was true for me. Growing up as the youngest of six children, I had never babysat, had never seen a stay-at-home dad, and had only "cared" for our family cat, who was an indoor/outdoor-wayward-teenager-with-no-curfew type, so that didn't help much. Given my panic at the time, I probably would have responded more to a book that began "Don't trust yourself. You know even less than you think you do. Now start reading." (Which, by the way, seems to be the implied message; otherwise, why is such a self-trust message followed by over 1,000 pages of information?!)

Reading Dr. Spock now, I am most intrigued by those points where the book time travels via revising and updating various parenting myths (or at least misinformation) for readers in 2012. Some people call these myths "old wives' tales," but I know plenty of young husbands who have echoed them over the years. One example would be that a good parent learns to decipher all the various reasons a baby cries. Instead, Dr. Spock (along with co-author Dr. Robert Needlman) reveals that "we used to think that mothers could learn to recognize their baby's different cries. In reality, even excellent parents generally can't tell cries apart by their sounds. Instead, they figure out the cause by trying different things." Thank you! I remember feeling inadequate when my firstborn's cries all sounded the same. The mistaken notion that maybe it was due to my gender added to my self-doubt and needless guilt.

A second updated myth in the book requires an embarrassing confession: For a brief period in those early days of parenthood, I began using flash cards to teach my baby to read. I know--it's ridiculous! But let that be exhibit A of my obsessive cluelessness as a new stay-at-home father. Even my wife mocked my plan, which helped me end the experiment quickly. As Dr. Spock states, "Flash cards really have no place at all in an infant's education." Instead, "Simple materials and human interactions are what truly nurture infant learning."

A third area of updated information that caught my attention is the section on involved fatherhood and stay-at-home dads, though I have a quibble. Overall, I applaud the book for declaring without reservation that "other than breast-feeding, fathers can care for their children as well as mothers and contribute equally to their children's security and development. . . At its best, parenting occurs in the spirit of equal partnership. . . This is what sons and daughters need to see in action if they are to grow up with equal respect for the abilities and roles of men and women." I was also pleased with the acknowledgment that children in families with a stay-at-home father "grow up just as emotionally and mentally healthy as children reared in more traditional families."

This seeming endorsement of the stay-at-home father model, however, is followed by an odd observation: "Fears that boys in such families will somehow grow up as sissies or that girls will grow up unfeminine have no basis in fact." Perhaps I'm defensive, but haven't these so-called "fears" been eradicated for decades now? If anyone needs additional reassurance, my two daughters have a dresser full of wigs, scarves, and scrunchies to help prove it. And while I don't have a son, my male dog does not seem to be on the way to "sissyhood" (though I did have to veto my wife's desire to give him a "manly" bow. Even a stay-at-home dad has to draw the line somewhere.) The point is that the book undercuts its seemingly progressive outlook with this slip that suggests lingering anxiety about stay-at-home fatherhood, at least to this reader. At such a moment, the book's time travel from 1945 to 2012 gets stuck somewhere back in the twentieth century.

Despite this glitch, I appreciate how the book updates a wealth of misinformation. And regarding the "trust yourself" opening, the growing involvement of contemporary fathers in childcare has sped up the learning curve for new dads (another form of time travel.) Certainly there are exceptions, but it seems men in general are making vast progress toward more engaged parenting, which in turn will hone their parental instincts, even when it comes to babycare. Hence, I realize now that I could have trusted myself more back then, and new fathers should today as well. (But then they should still read the book.)

So let's time travel together. Take yourself on that "far trek" (or "short trek") back to your early days of parenthood: What myths did you buy into? Which bothered you the most? (My wife especially hated all the breastfeeding ones--e.g. she was once told her "nervous milk" caused our baby's colic.) How did you overcome or learn to reject the myth? Do you still believe in any? Anyone care to defend flash cards?