Monday, May 9, 2011

During Jamie & Celia's maternity leave we asked a few of our favorite moms from around the internet if they would help fill the space with their wisdom. We asked for their thoughts on being a new mom, motherhood in general, or maybe something that really suprised them (no one told me that!). Please welcome Lisa!

Let's say you're pregnant. Or thinking, dreaming, of becoming so. You wonder about motherhood. You say to yourself, "Maybe I should study up a bit?" You read a book, some blogs, you are surprised. "Have we lost our minds? Shouldn't taking care of a baby be simple? Weren't we designed to do this?
Let us deconstruct. I've thought about this for years. My first child will be 24 in July. My second, and last, will be 21 in a few weeks.

Here's the root cause behind so much of today's parenting craziness.

  1. Babies need lots of nurture to stay alive.

  2. The requirements for said nurture, specifically feeding, mean at minimum severely interrupted sleep and, at worst, cracked nipples, milk duct infections, even defeat. Oh, and babies often prefer to be held all the time when they are awake. No lazy sitting around, they want you walking. That's more to do than any one or even two people can handle reasonably.

  3. Babies usually have only one mother and one father. With any luck, a grandmother or a few aunts can pitch in, but they often live elsewhere, and provide only occasional help.

  4. When, exhausted by providing said nurture, you ask for advice, read books, or blogs, in search of ways to make the task easier, the entire world will advise you. Unfortunately, they will say EITHER that you must respond to your baby's every quiver and fidget, OR that you must start immediately to structure and discipline your baby's life. That you will in fact wreck that baby via unlimited nurture.

  5. Not to mention Freud, and the legions of psychologists who followed.

What you learn, in the end, is that there's no such thing as culturally and emotionally unbiased advice.

In the first months of parenthood you make decisions that may have a huge impact on your child's well-being. Certainly they will affect your own. Or not. You don't know for sure. The problem is, sleep deprivation and hormones disrupt all your logical systems. Worse, there is no clear, reasoned, correct answer to most of your questions. Which is not to say there are no answers at all, to the contrary, there are millions. But an actual understanding, by anyone, of the true psychological impact of baby care choices? Rudimentary.
Sure, we know that very bad care is very bad for babies. But once you reach adequate, we don't know much about the different impact of sufficient versus deeply attached. We don't know for sure which matters more, responsiveness or structure. We just don't know.

People with different politics, or emotional backgrounds, favor different kinds of childcare. And everyone wants you to follow their path.

Some personal stories. My first baby, my daughter, had ear infections from the time she was 5 weeks old. Nowadays they know antibiotics aren't always required, but I didn't know it then. Homeopaths said don't use antibiotics, my old-school pediatrician said dose her or risk hearing loss. We used the medicine. We'd take a little syringe without a needle and shoot the pink liquid between her gums and cheek. She'd cry and throw up. Of course, when the ear infections came on she'd nurse and then throw up. Off and on for months, this happened.
When she was 4 months old, we went back East, and saw some old friends. They said, "Tell me, are you just SO in love with her?" "No," I said, "I'm mostly scared."

Conflicting advice, and the sense that if I only had more information I could do a better job, caused more distress than the problem itself.

But babies throwing up pink antibiotics wasn't wasn't half so difficult as sleep. Or lack thereof. I struggled so much with my children waking at night. I went to my daughter and nursed her every time she cried. Until she turned 2, and I got pregnant again.

By the time my son was about 11 months old, I'd been waking in the middle of the night for several years. I had tried nursing two children at the same time - tandem nursing they call it, what a term - and had come down with bronchitis and dropped 15 pounds. At my wit's end I decided to try the Let Him Cry It Out method. I regret it to this day.

I will never forget the sight of my son's beautiful chubby face, pressed up against his crib bars, as he knelt, sleeping, still sniffling from crying. His eyes were closed and his body was still crying.

I needed a more graceful way to degrade. I was exhausted, true, but I am too highly-strung to survive a little one crying alone. Most likely, my children share that hard-wiring. Most likely, my son took it harder than other babies, sons of tougher mothers. Had I trusted myself instead of a system, had I been able to withstand the peer pressure and anxiety of competing thought systems, I'd have made a different choice.

I imagine some of you are thinking, "Wow, she was one of those crazy moms. I will never try so hard (care so much fret worry agonize) like that." The funny thing is, after the early years, I became a fairly relaxed mother. Not one to lose my temper, forbid sugar, require total obedience, or lose sleep over a little dirt. Now, I never stopped thinking, or trying to figure out the best approach, that's who I am. But, simply put, once I'd gathered enough data I settled in and started to feel like an expert of sorts. An expert on my children and my way of mothering.
As I look back, I could have trusted biology more. I think the word instinct is misused. We live in a world far beyond instinct. But your hunches, and your deep feelings, those you can follow. In other words, my babies had soft hearts, high sensitivity, and a strong will in their heritage. I could have gone with my gut, because my babies shared that gut, in many ways. If I'd adopted, I would have trusted in my observations more. What you see before you is always more valuable than what you read.
I also wish I'd done more research, not on child care, but on infant development. For those of us who think a lot, having a good conceptual framework helps carry us to a place of gut-trust. For example, I found it deeply comforting to know what the greats of child psychology and animal behavior believe. Some facts.

  • You can't spoil a child before 6 months. (I'd say more like 11-18 months, but for that I have no proof.)

  • The number of mother-child interactions over time is so huge that no one thing you do will determine the nature of your relationship or your child's psychology.

  • There is such thing as temperament and some traits are genetic, shyness for example, and response to authority. That baby is not a blank slate.

Finally, here's what I came to believe, even though I can't prove truth.

  • It's worth trying as hard as you can to provide pre-civilized nurture. Perhaps they call it 'Paleo Mothering,' these days. I don't know. I believe that civilization is alienating, albeit necessary.

  • However, in modern society, this will prove at some point to be just about impossible. The trick is to know when you've done all you can, and switch to a different strategy before you collapse, resent, ignore, or damage anyone. Yourself included. Degrade gracefully.

  • Do set up some structure early on, designed primarily to support your own sanity. Days can be long, confusing, and boring. Having some idea of what happens next can be comforting.

  • Once you have your structure, your day pattern, be prepared to tear it down. Babies keep changing their minds. So you build and tear down, build and tear down. You aren't supposed to know what to do automatically, or immediately. You are supposed to work with your baby. The two of you figure it out together. What a great way to learn about relationships. Humans are an interdependent species, one that relies on communication. It makes sense that good mothering is more about a shared understanding than any one right way.

  • I had a friend who would lay her baby down, look into his face and say, "Hello. You are a baby. Hello baby." I always found that very useful, and comforting.

  • There's no such thing as a bad baby. Some are easy, some are difficult. That's it.

  • A difficult baby is not necessarily going to be a difficult toddler, or a difficult teen. The converse is also true. Easy babies may enter their teen years and become veritable hellions. At which point those of us with more demanding babies get to laugh, demonically.

  • Start imposing limits for the sake of your child - later. At let's say, 18 months. If you haven't imposed any by the time your kid is three and half, you'll regret it. Be sure to pick your battles. They've got some strong little wills, those kidlets.

  • Find yourself a like-minded community in which to raise your children. Since there are no answers, you may as well get opinions from people with whom you share values. I highly advise finding a newborn mother's group.

You will continue to learn.

The first year after my daughter was born, I wrote a long letter to two pregnant friends, I concluded by saying you can only be as good of a parent as you are a person. I was wrong. I am a better person for having loved my children as I do, for having nurtured them as I have. I did anything but a perfect job, but tried every day to do better.

Your baby, oddly, is your Buddha. The effort to do better is worth it. But make the effort with as much peace in your heart as you can find.

One day, maybe three months after giving birth, you put your baby in the car seat, and walk around to get into the driver's seat, only to realize she's watching you. She knows you are the mother. Then, a few years later, in that same car, or maybe a new one, you're driving home and your toddler starts to sing the lullaby you put her to sleep with at night. Only she uses different words,

"Lullaby, and goodnight, go to sleep now darling mommy." And you're sunk. If you weren't already.

Me and my daughter, a couple of hours after she was born.

My daughter, at 3 weeks, over the the space of 5 minutes.

That chubby, apparently dark-haired creature, is now a tall slender redhead. As I said, they surprise you.


  1. This post is like poetry. You read it once to take in the beauty, you read it a second time to deconstruct the meaning and then you read it a hundred more times just because it's exactly what your heart and soul need.

  2. Exacty what Cara said. A thousand times. Thank you.

  3. "Easy babies may enter their teen years and become veritable hellions. At which point those of us with more demanding babies get to laugh, demonically."

    i REALLY needed to hear that. difficult pregnancy AND difficult baby means i've got to get a break at some point, RIGHT?

  4. Thanks guys. And yes, Celia, yes, of course. Hang in there. Her genius is on the rise:).

  5. Wonderfully articulated, Lisa. Although I've never worked to process, organize, my thinking about raising babies and children -- nor would I be this beautifully lucid about it even with work -- what you say resonates so fully with me. Over the past couple of years I've had the joy of watching my daughter becoming a confident mother, after what she felt were some difficult early months. Seeing her mothering journey layered overtop the memories of my own makes the interplay of nature and nurture even clearer.
    To all you new moms reading Lisa's words as you struggle with your blessed and difficult new responsibilities, may you find strength and confidence and supporting family and friends . . . and sleep, healing sleep. And to all the rest of us, if you get a chance to help a new family find two hours of sleep for mom, do step up. That paleo-mothering Lisa describes was never such a solo act, I'm sure. . .

  6. Mothering is wrought with feelings of inadequacy,
    thoughts and concerns for the safety and well being of the child can expand to fill up those rare sleep deprived moments of quiet.

    I think you've covered a wide range of these here.

    Babies do love to be held and wouldn't we all like to feel this loved and safe snuggled next to the breast that sustains and nourishes us?

    Motherhood was my most challenging role but it also is the most rewarding one.

    My only wish looking back would have been to accept more help and not try to do everything myself.

  7. I always knew I liked you. Reading this, I believe I now understand more of "why" Beautifully put.

  8. Lisa - I followed you over from Privilege -

    My kids are 10 and 8. First a girl, then a boy, like yours.

    The one bit of of this beautiful writing that resonates most deeply with me is your advice that "babies are not blank slates."

    The more I get to know my children, the more amazing it is to me that so much of their personalities and expressions and likes and dislikes are inherited - nature, not nurture.

    There is no other explanation for why my son moves his hands and mouth the same way my dad did, when my dad died several years before my son was born.

    And you're right - difficult babies don't necessarily turn out to be difficult older children. My daughter was a 24/7 colicky baby for her first very very long three months of life.

    And now she's my easy child.

    (I hold my breath wondering whether she'll be a teenage hellion, but all indications are not.)

    Lastly, I love those baby expressions on your daugther! So cute and funny!

  9. this is AMAZING. as a mama to a 7 month old, this post completely resonated with me. esp: Your baby, oddly, is your Buddha. The effort to do better is worth it. But make the effort with as much peace in your heart as you can find.

    thank you...

  10. Great post and all so true.

  11. Wonderful post, Lisa. After two boys and several years of never sleeping more than three consecutive hours, I found myself expecting number three. I was terrified of re-living all that exhaustion. I ignored all the past advice I'd followed and focused on survival. My husband moved a bed into the nursery, and I nursed her and then she slept beside me through the night. In four weeks she was sleeping five hours straight, and soon through the night. She's 12 now, with absolutely no sleep or security issues, which everyone warned about.

  12. Awwwww! Lisa, you make me so excited for motherhood! I just know you were a fabulous mother! Lucky kidlets you have.

  13. When my firstborn was a newborn I tried so hard to do everything right. At about 4 months I grabbed all the baby books (bar one very sensible one written by an older nurse/mother which basically said do whatever suits you) and literally threw them into the garden (I was having a very bad day). After that I just aimed for survival, followed my baby and we did fine. I did get accused of spoiling him with excessive cuddles and rocking etc. But someone said to me "you can't spoil a good thing" He is now an adorable, thoughtful six year old.

    My second baby just sort of fitted in from day one - again probably too many cuddles and rocking, dummies etc. But again we did OK and she too is a gorgeous, energetic four year old.

    I agree with Lisa so much on gaining the confidence to do things your own way. Some days I still feel like I have no idea what to do - I just do whatever feels right and hope for the best.

  14. One more thing - I received an excellent piece of advice from an old country doctor who also had three daughters. I was discussing the baby books with him and he laughed and said to me

    "You know the problem with those books? The baby hasn't read them."

  15. Lovely post Lisa. I second Mater's suggestion of offering to help a new Mom get some sleep. It makes such a huge difference.

  16. At 40 weeks pregnant, I cherish every word. And may go so far as to print out your well thought out advice! Thank you for sharing.

  17. Well, first of all, you look extremely gorgeous for having just given birth in that first pic. Hair I would kill for. And, secondly, you were doing a grand job of reeling me in but, all sympathy went wooosh out the window when you got to the part mentioning the 15lb weight loss. Pshaw! Sounds to me like God sent you angels ;)

  18. LOVE LOVE LOVE this post! It's beautiful and resonated so much with me. I have a two year old daughter and could relate to so much of what you shared. Thank you :)

  19. I will have to come back and savor this a few more times, but ironically, this is the phrase that sticks out to me most: "What you see before you is always more valuable than what you read." Oh, the tears and agony I could have spared myself had I heeded this...

    Well done, as always.

  20. Okay, fine, I can have babies now.

  21. Lisa, you are awesome and I love what you bring to our little community. Thank you.

  22. Wonderful, wonderful post Lisa. You're so right, how similar our approach is.

    I'm so glad I got to Internet know you. x