Luckily, yet another childless person is willing to tell us how stupid we are! Thank goodness! Because, to be honest, it’d been almost ten minutes since the last time someone without children graced me with their opinion on how much better they are at parenting than I am.
Seemingly everyone has parenting opinions, so I hereby present mine, which are those of someone who isn’t in fact a parent and maybe has a valuable distance and objectivity as a result. Instead of the battle hymn of a tiger mother, it’s the baffled hymn of a cubless bystander, his thoughts turned toward children as the calendar reaches yet another holiday when we shower them with attention and chocolate.
While I have no kids of my own, I have many I can (and sometimes do) lease for the weekend: 11 actual nieces and nephews, whom I’ll be with this Easter Sunday, and perhaps twice that number of honorary ones. I have put in my time around tots and teens, and enjoy them. I have seen my share of parenting, and am not certain what to make of it.
His distance is very valuable! He has nieces and nephews, who give him as much–nay, more!–expertise on full-time parenting as he would get from actually being a parent! Because you see, things like 11, 1, 3, and 5 a.m. feedings, plus sudden inexplicable baby meltdowns and a lack of any local extended family to make sure the baby doesn’t kill herself while you go pee, leave parents very tired, and not very clearheaded or objective. Luckily, you don’t need that kind of intimate knowledge of children to know exactly how to parent!
Let me tell you my parenting story. Not that anyone will find it very useful, for I am but a clueless mother with a real-life child of my own, but since everyone knows that parents think they and their children are the center of the universe, you’ll understand my need to take up your valuable sight-space with my useless self-centered babbling.
A year ago, I was five months pregnant, and I had a whole lot of plans for how I was going to get parenting exactly right. I was considering not buying a stroller at all, because I was really taken with this whole babywearing trend. I’d read that babies who are worn cry less, so I figured I’d just wear my baby all the time. Obviously I was going to exclusively breastfeed. I would never have a screen turned on while my child was in the room, such a fantastic role model was I! I actually practiced temper tantrum responses, even though I wouldn’t need them for at least a year and a half. You know all those bad parents? The ones who let their babies watch TV and cry it out? That wasn’t going to be me, no sir!
Seven months ago today, I gave birth after six frenetic hours of very sudden labor. Breastfeeding was the first thing to go wrong–Zelda was born with a tongue-tie, which had me blistered and bleeding by the time we got it diagnosed, and the tongue-tie was followed by The Thrush That Wouldn’t Die, which meant that the first six weeks of her life were defined by constant pain all throughout my breasts and a low milk supply (caused, I think, by the constant pain). Babywearing was too painful to do. Then she got colic, which transitioned seamlessly into early teething. My husband worked nights, which is when colic usually hits its peak. I was diagnosed with PPD when, one morning, I kind of lost the ability to move.
We just had to stop breastfeeding. It was a loss. No one allowed me to mourn it, so I did, and still do, in private.
Four months ago, I went back to work. I love my job–I’m a librarian at an undergraduate library, and I get to work with creative writing students a lot. During the week, I only see Zelda for an hour in the morning and about half an hour at night, when I put her to bed. I miss her a ton during the week, but on the weekend, I find taking care of her exhausting. If you’ve never taken care of a baby full-time–by which I mean 24 hours a day for multiple days–you have no idea how tiring they can be. Every baby is different, of course; I know people with really easy babies, babies who sleep through the night at 2 months or put themselves back to sleep with no parental assistance. But that’s not my Z. If Zelda gets her binkie out of her mouth, she lets you know. If she’s bored, she lets you know. If she’s hungry? She is NOT going to wait for you to finish making your coffee before you sit down to feed her. My girl is opinionated.
What Frank Bruni perhaps doesn’t know is that, while he’s clucking his tongue at parents for coddling their kids too much, there is an equally big and loud faction shaking their heads at us for not coddling our kids enough. Have you noticed all the articles about how parents are on their smartphones too damn much? About how we’re all ignoring our poor children so that we can check our email over and over again? So, according to both factions, here are all the ways I’m a shitty parent:
- When Zelda had colic, I followed my psychiatrist’s advice and let her cry for twenty minutes a few times while I took a breath and rallied my strength. My doctor told me to put Zelda in the bedroom, shut the door, and turn on the TV so I wouldn’t hear her. Reader, that is what I did. And that’s the story of how I avoided throwing my baby out the window.
- Sometimes, when I’m exhausted from 40 hours of working and 10 cumulative hours of commuting (in LA, the concept of living near your job is kind of a joke), I turn on the TV and let it hypnotize Zelda for a few minutes while I decompress. I tell you, that glassy, vacant stare is a gift.
- Whenever Zelda reaches a milestone–first teeth, sitting up, standing–I shower her with praise. I tell her she is the smartest, most talented baby in the entire universe, because that’s exactly what she is, motherfucker, even though the experts say you’re not supposed to praise your children because it will make them drop out of high school and take up drag racing.
- I let her suck on her fingers and then touch things in public. If you’ve visited any business in K-town, you’ve probably touched Zelda’s spit. Whoopsie. Thing is, I don’t have ten eyes and twenty arms, nor do I have a miniature straightjacket for her, and touching things with her spit is basically all she ever wants to do when we’re in public, so sometimes she manages to sneak it in.
- You know that family with the screeching baby on the plane? That was us. It’s weird–we keep telling her that her ears will pop if she drinks from her bottle, but she just doesn’t listen! Even worse, we paged the flight attendant to ask for water with no ice for said bottle after she’d already taken drink orders!
- I do fret about my baby adoring me, Mr. Bruni, because guess what, most of the time I’m not in her life at all. I’ll never forget the day my husband texted me to tell me she’d rolled over for the first time. Whenever she so much as glances at me, I grin at her as if all the celestial spheres revolved around her, because they do. Sorry.
My point with all this is that the phrase “best-laid plans” is a well-trodden cliche when it comes to everything except parenting. People without kids look at parents and sniff, “I know what I would do with those kids.” No, you know what you would plan to do. What you don’t know is that those plans would quickly crumble as soon as those kids were actual organisms rather than abstract fantasies. You would trot out the authoritarian line you rehearsed in front of the mirror (“I’m going to count to three!”) and your kid wouldn’t respond like a deftly-coded computer program, and you would realize, shit, she called my bluff and I actually don’t have the energy to pack up all our stuff and go home. Or your kid would eat nothing but chicken fingers for six days straight and you could see them getting scurvy right in front of you and you told yourself you wouldn’t be one of those neurotic parents but now you would find yourself begging them to eat one bite of something green. Or you would spend the morning wrestling a stroller through thirteen crowded stores because guess what, you threw your back out again and you couldn’t carry a seventeen-pound squirming human being, not even with the Moby Wrap that you thought would solve all your problems, and you knew that since your vertebrae weren’t visibly jutting out of your skin, everyone would think that you just hadn’t heard the glad tidings about babywearing.
Look, if I wasn’t ridiculously in love with my baby, if I didn’t consider mothering her to be one of the most exciting and important things I’ve ever done, trashy op-eds like this one wouldn’t get under my skin. I know that the type of people who like those articles are the ones whose minds I’m never going to change. I guess my one hope is that Bruni will decide to have his own kids at one point, turn into the very parent that he thought he was too smart to become (as we all do), and look at this article and cringe.
But then, I’m too involved in parenting to know anything about parenting, so that probably won’t happen. He’ll probably get it exactly right.