As if becoming a parent for the first time isn’t terrifying enough, we have to sift through too many “dos” and “don’ts” about child rearing, through the fuzzy vision of uncertainty and very often under a cloud of raging hormones and sleep deprivation. Between articles, books and well meaning friends and relatives, we receive advice ranging from “this is the only way” to “don’t listen to anyone, just follow your instincts.” To new parents, either one can feel confusing and frightening. The problem with dogmatic advice is that there is an abundance of it, making much of it contradictory. As for instincts, this can create a different kind of anxiety, as many of us starting out are not even sure that we have them.
As a fifty-six year old mother of four and new grandmother, I am seeing new parenting through the eyes of my son and daughter-in-law. I am reminded of old anxieties, because while strollers have changed, worrying about parenting hasn’t. I have been through more parenting trends than I can remember and I can say with certainty that the only thing that is absolutely certain, is that trends change. You only have to have lived through the variations of how to put babies down to sleep, to know what I mean. So how do new parents filter the information they get from different directions and what and where are these instincts we’re supposed to have?
It is not the plethora of opinions about all things parenting that I object to, it’s the prescriptive delivery of these opinions that irks, because it limits a potentially beautiful experience, with parents very often feeling that they are falling short and sometimes falling apart. I think I became a better parent (and by that I mean more relaxed and self-reliant) with each child because I learnt to look at my child as the most important variable, in collaboration with any advice I was being given. My children became a part of the overall equation and an important part of why I chose to do something (or not to). I developed antennae for phrases that began with “you must” or “you have to.” I also realized over the years that parenting is never about extremes and to be very wary of such advice. I heard recently that parents should never let their child (under the age of two) watch TV. Really? That half-hour of Teletubbies was a lifesaver for me, giving me some brief respite from exhaustion and overwhelm. Did I put them in front of the TV ten hours a day? – Of course not, but that half an hour gave me time to take a breath and be a better parent the rest of the day. This worked for me and I’m not suggesting it’s the answer for all parents but let it be a choice unencumbered by guilt – an emotion detrimental to the parenting process, and to life itself. It is not possible to have a “one size fits all” approach to parenting when children and parents are so different.
Don’t get me wrong, I pay close attention to new ideas and if I was a new parent today, I would put my child to sleep on their back (until new research emerged that told me differently) but I assess how I feel about the megabytes of information and look at how it fits in with my parenting style and my child’s personality.
One of my big problems with the phrase “follow your instincts” as it relates to parenting is that it is used too broadly. I believe that there are some instincts about children that most of us have, usually involving love and protection, however, whether they should know the alphabet by the end of JK is not something we can find in this reservoir. In this regard, I would do away with the word “instinct” altogether and look rather at how you feel about something and how you think it would work for your child. If you’re going to follow anything, follow your child’s lead. Parenting becomes much simpler when you learn how to do this.
Parenting is a relationship, not an education. Parents have to find ways to connect their own unique personalities with that of their child’s, so that they create a loving and harmonious environment – the only place where growth and creativity can flourish.
My advice to new parents would not be to ignore all advice. Talking with friends and learning from the wisdom of experienced parents helped me enormously on my parenting journey. I would simply caution against “know-it-alls” who believe that their way is the only way. They don’t know your child – you do.