A recent “motherhood challenge” on Facebook had women posting pictures of happy moments with their kids and tagging other “great moms.” One writer slammed the game for being “simply another way to measure women and find them wanting.” Beneath our cultural saddle is the burr-like question, “What does it mean to be a good mother?”
In many ways, we modern American moms have it easy. No more hand-washing every single cloth diaper. No more urban outbreaks of polio or cholera. Yet, as new moms just buying their first infant sleep books discover, it is difficult for most of us to avoid the polarized insecurity of our era.
Our unease is so strong that chatter about celebrities becomes clickbait if it can be interpreted as judgement upon their mothering choices. It is, for instance, a news item when Chrissy Teigen receives criticism about choosing to go out to dinner a week after giving birth or Jill Dillard (neé Duggar) is scolded for posting a picture of her baby in front of an outlet that doesn’t have a safety cover.
To compound our feelings about motherhood, a constant stream of headlines proclaim that according to this or that study, most common parenting practices harm children. It is as if we have a self-reinforcing, contradictory narrative that on the one hand, we have a public duty to keep an eye on other people’s kiddos, and on the other hand, we should never have to deal with being judged by others for our own parenting choices.
I feel the insecurity too. I know I hold a frightening amount of power over the lives and emotional well-being of these small humans I love. When I wander into the parenting section of the library or find myself reading parenting advice on the Internet, it is easy to believe that parenting must be overwhelmingly difficult. Why else would it require enough written material to crush a herd of elephants to death?
A few click-throughs on parenting blogs can leave me thinking, “It says here that iron deficiencies are far more common than people realize, and lead to speech and learning delays; and oh dear, my kid doesn’t talk clearly yet and he doesn’t eat much meat so maybe I’ve ruined his brain should I panic now—augh!”
Sane mommies are good for kids. How are we to avoid being driven crazy by all the angst, mommy wars, and parenting books out there? Here are eight things that we should remember in our quest to remain sane.
One: Parenting Books are Full of Lies
A popular potty-training book warns moms that if kids aren’t potty-trained by 30 months, they may suffer desiccated bladder muscles. A book about introducing one’s child to solids gives the impression that if you ever place food in your baby’s mouth, you will mess up his ability to understand self-feeding. He will also be obese because he won’t learn to self-regulate.
Oh, and sleep books—if you don’t do it their way, you and your child are obviously doomed. Like weight-loss books, parenting manuals overstate their case because they must justify their cover price. Helpful as the rest of their information might be, they ignore the amazing resilience and adaptability of small children. Do not listen to people who manipulate your fear of being a horrible mother. They will make you crazy.
Read some really old parenting manuals. You can crack up over the parts that now sound addled, while also filing away information that is still helpful. It will remind you that some of our own “must-do’s” will amuse and horrify our grandchildren. Take in foreign wisdom, too. American moms are told by every nurse at the hospital that they must put their baby to bed on his back in an empty crib, yet current Australian advice videos explain that safe sleep involves a properly tucked-in blanket. As far as I know, Australian babies survive just fine.
Two: You Are a Spy
Observe parents whose children are older than yours, and ask them about their philosophies and methods. You will see things you want to emulate and things you hope to avoid. This is very useful. Realizing that you can’t stand five-year-olds who whine for treats will motivate you not to reward whining in your toddler.
The best part about learning from other parents is that, because you can see their flaws, you are unlikely to be as awed and frightened by their advice as if they were the mysterious authors of a book. You can utilize their excellent advice on one subject while steering clear of the way they do something else.
Don’t forget to talk to older moms whose kids are grown up, too. If you are really brave, and you admire the way their kids turned out, you can ask them if they have any feedback on the way you parent.
Three: Moms are Lifelong Learners
Somehow, we moms seem to think we are supposed to know what we are doing. No doubt our dogmatism about parenting choices is related to our quest for the feeling of competence. However, we will never be at peace until we realize that we cannot be equally good at all aspects of parenting, and we will probably be very weak at others. We would hardly be surprised, upon starting a new job, to realize that our coworkers’ strengths are different from our own. Why should we feel defensive if other moms happen to currently be better at getting their babies to sleep, teaching their children to obey, entertaining toddlers, or inculcating a love of salad?
At the same time, we needn’t fall into the equally crazy extreme of giving up. Don’t be the mom who decides that luck controls whether children learn respect, obedience, or compassion for others. No one wants to deal with the results of that in 18 years. Instead, let’s embrace a lifetime of learning how to do our job.
Four: Children Have Natures of Their Own
Back when most people believed that children were born with a sinful human nature, a child’s natural naughtiness was easily explained. Now, thanks to secularism, it must be the fault of his mother’s management system. Don’t listen to secularism. Your child will be naughty no matter what you do. It is your job to teach her to behave, of course, but don’t take on the burden of believing you can manage her into perfection.
Five: You Can Stop Doing Things that Aren’t Working
If you Google a phrase like, “How attachment parenting ruined my life,” you will find stories from mothers who followed some sort of parenting doctrine religiously even when it clearly didn’t suit their circumstances or personality. If your baby hates babywearing, say, or if bedsharing is turning you into a raving lunatic, just stop. Doctor Sears will never know.
Six: The Real Priorities are Intangible
Modern parenting obsessions are ironic. At the same time as moms cede greater and greater moral authorities to their children, we amp up control on things like genetically modified snacks or use of sticks on the playground. I have actually heard a mom tell her preschool-aged son that he could not play with a stick because sticks are too dangerous. She seemed safety-obsessed, yet I doubt that as he grows up she will also warn him against dangers like premarital sex.
If we no longer see our primary role as one of teaching our kids right from wrong, it can feel that their character lies in the lap of fate, and so we fuss around the edges, trying to control little things that could tip fate’s balance. It is liberating to realize that what will really matter in the long-term is not so much what we do in all the micro moments, but who we are. Our job is to live with our children and show them by example what is good.
Let’s let go of the sticks and focus our attention on learning about what is good, true, and beautiful. Let us go to church, pray, and read good books. We will need to provide our children with explanations and instruction too, of course, but that is secondary.
Seven: Watch This Video
Moms need to laugh, because otherwise, chasing people and making them sit on the potty will turn us crazy even if all the other stuff does not.
Eight: Do Not Fear What You Are
We modern Americans wouldn’t tie ourselves into such intricate knots about motherhood if it did not cause us so much cognitive dissonance. We love individualism; but motherhood requires a family to be dependent on each other and to give up personal freedom in service to others. We love to point to measurable life-achievements as a measure of self-worth, but motherhood isn’t quantifiable. We love the idea that gender means very little, but motherhood is a blatant demonstration of a woman’s unique role.
Embrace being a woman. Embrace being one who serves. Embrace giving without knowing how much it is worth, and embrace being a mom. It is a beautiful thing.
Remember, Motherhood Does Not Need to be Justified
When motherhood is no longer treated as something that naturally occurs in the lives of most women, we feel the need to justify our choice—our risky, dangerous choice—by being awesome at what we do, or at least by trying to convince everyone else that we are working way harder than the rest of the world.
Relax. There is no need to justify yourself to anyone for receiving the gift of children. You do not even need to justify it to yourself. Affirmation in your vocation is nice, but seeking it in the thick of childcare is like seeking affirmation as a student in the middle of exam week. It’s a great way to lose your mind.
There is no need to go crazy. It is enough to know that motherhood, like love, life, and sacrifice, is good. Let us wipe the snot off these little people’s noses. Someday, our children will undoubtedly point out the things we could have done better. When the time comes, we can say, as my mother always did, “If God wanted you to have a perfect mom, he would have given you one.”