Thursday, 14 June 2007

Parenting Styles

I read a post from The Process of Becoming Dr. Jenny G in which she discusses her way of parenting and comments she has had that imply she does 'too much' and is letting her relationship with her husband and her time for herself go while she baby tends (to excess). I did not think it appropriate to put this huge lump of discussion into her comments, so I'm posting what is, in effect, an answer to her question (Do you find my parenting style self-sacrificing to the point of bizarre?)

It's a subject that I've thought about a lot, both while I was baby wrangling and for many years afterward, observing my friends and my nieces and then my daughter deal with their babies. The thing about overdoing it is not confined to baby tending, either. When my mother was dying, demented and in pain, the kindly folk in the hospital placement department kept urging me to take a step back, to take time for myself, to remember that I had other family who needed me, yada yada. In a way it was my 'parenting' that they were critiquing, as my poor mother was about two years old mentally at that time. She needed to see me beside her so that she could feel safe and so I was sleeping on the floor beside her bed with a lamp shining on me. Pretty equivalent to co-sleeping and not letting them cry it out.

I was a pretty clueless mother with my firstborn. The only babies I had observed being brought up were my cousins and my mother and her sisters believed in doing it by the book and they advocated scheduled feeding right from the start -- in fact, scheduled everything right from the start, (this is still with us) and letting the baby cry it out in her crib so that she would learn to sleep alone. And I did do some of that, in spite of my gut feeling that it was not working. I remember pacing the floor with a yowling newborn, watching the clock. Luckily the Elder Daughter was a champion sleeper, going six or seven hours at night right from the first, or I would probably have gone right over the edge. Did it buy me time for myself? Not hardly.

When I had Younger Daughter fifteen months later, I had learned enough to grab on to a new program at the hospital called 'Rooming In' where you kept the baby with you instead of having her delivered from the nursery at four hour intervals. I got a baby sling and then a carrier and she went with me everywhere. She did not do naps, but she was also a champion night sleeper once I managed to persuade her that her long sleep should take place at night. I spent a lot of time nursing her with her sister sitting on my lap at the same time and being read to. It worked a lot better.

Parenting by the clock is not, I think, 'less work' that your way of doing things (babywear/breastfeed/co-sleep/comfort them when sick at night/nurse at night/play with them all day/ and so on). I can't imagine not listening for an infant to wake up. A toddler in a playpen, left to get on with amusing herself, can generate a deafening level of noise when she gets bored. A free range toddler is scary as hell -- when the noise stops, a sensible parent had better find out why. ('no, no, sweetie, do not chew on the light cord!) Easier to play with them. There is no way to get 'more time for yourself' in the first few years other than to leave the kid with someone else. Bless the man, but I would be astounded to learn that Rafael had ever tried these strategies you and he discussed. (letting them "learn to self-soothe" when they are sick or whatever and that I would, then, have more "time for myself" and the kids would still be fine.)

I did carve out time 'for myself'. Daddy babysat and I did course work at the neighbouring university. The ED, age 5 months, howled when I left for the first few lectures and sulked at me when I got back. She got over it. They both got deposited with grandparents and babysitters and friends so that their father and I could go out on a date. They slept in their cribs. If they were sick and miserable, I sat by the crib or rocked them in the nursery rocker. When they both took naps (non negotiable, although the YD had to be literally held in place until she conked out) I napped with them. I ran out of milk for the ED at the six month mark (feeding with solids by the clock does not help the milk supply) and so she and her bottles could be left with her aunt while Daddy and I went on a short holiday. And, as your husband says, they were fine.

I have gone into all this detail to demonstrate that I do not think the 'babywear etc.' parenting style is either 'too self sacrificing' or 'bizarre'. 'Bizarre' is crawling around on the floor after the kid, bowl and spoon in hand begging the little tyrant to have 'just one more bite'; bringing her toy after toy as she rejects the first few offered; refusing to let anyone else take over for a few hours because she may get upset; padding every hard surface in the house as she learns to walk. These kids are not 'fine', and when they are catered to like this they may become impossibly demanding as they get older.

My husband and I could have been called selfish about the way we dealt with our kids when they got older. We had a life style and their activities had to fit into it. Their lessons and clubs and activities had to be fit into the week because every weekend we left the city for a weekend (winterized) cabin 'in the bush', with no TV. They had a boat that we let them use themselves. They had several hundred acres on which to roam. Evenings were devoted to activities like books and board games and cooking experiments. Since they have grown up, they have said that they learned to value the two days of peace and family time. And I think they have turned out pretty well.


  1. "There is no way to get 'more time for yourself' in the first few years other than to leave the kid with someone else."

    Well, Amen to that.

    I generally try to live and let live with parenting styles. I nursed on demand, did extended breastfeeding (18 months with my second born) but refused to co-sleep. My problem with the experts in all various realms is their seeming desire to play on the easily experienced guilt of mothers. If you don't babywear, you won't have a well-adjusted secure child. If you don't sleep train, you'll have a spoiled brat in bed with you until 18 years of age.

    Go with your gut is the easiest method. Problem is, husbands, family, friends...everyone has a different opinion.

    ('s not easy, huh?)

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful post, Mary G! That was my sense of it - that the "other way" of parenting was NOT buying the "other parents" more time. In fact, part of my reason for continuing the same path with child #2 is because babywearing, cosleeping while nursing, and the rest actually make life easier, I think. The baby in the sling is less fussy and so I can go about my day with the toddler. At night, the baby wiggles around next to me and I roll over to offer the breast, with neither of us fully waking up.

    The other side of "too much" that you allude to - the fitting your life into your child's schedules - is something that I do not do, nor plan to. My kids don't go to Mommy and Me or Gymboree. (I would take them to those things if they made my life easier, but they don't, so I don't). And I imagine that later in life, Rafael and I are going to continue our "selfish" pursuits, intellectual, creative, and personal.

    I do think that Tere's comments on the original post get to something: the idea that "the other way of parenting", while perhaps not giving the parents more personal TIME, do give parents more emotional space in the form of being less in tune with the baby's rhythms. Her thought that some parents actively distance themselves emotionally from their babies to avoid being "engulfed" is an interesting one.

    What do you think?

  3. I also agree with Kelly. What I told my dad's wife after thinking about our conversation was that parenting styles are largely determined by the parents' personalities. I am not an organized person and I hate schedules. So scheduling my baby would be my definition of hell. But other, more orderly moms, may find my more "emergent" way of parenting so unstructured that they feel totally out of control - their version of hell.

    But is there ever reason to believe that one way or another is actually better for the baby? Or might we conclude that what is better for the baby is having a sane mommy and so, what is best for mommy is best for baby? And, in that sense, is there a limit to that? Like say, the moms depicted in "The Nanny Diaries"?

  4. I think the key is how the baby's personality meshes with the mother's personality. Slouching Mom has a totally wonderful list of things to ponder over at
    that speaks to this.
    And yes, Tere's, comment about the parents 'not getting' the kids is apt. Some people cannot empathize, or imagine how the other person feels. It must be really difficult to be the child of such a parent.
    One of the things Slouching Mom says is that the second child is easier, parents having learned some things from the first round. I think this is true, if the parents are capable of learning. Again, some people are so locked into their skulls that they can't.
    Up above, Kelly says 'Problem is, husbands, family, friends...everyone has a different opinion.
    ('s not easy, huh?)

    Took me a while to stiffen up the backbone and say to myself, 'I know as much as they do'. Good for you, Kelly.

  5. Funny, my mother really appreciates the way the hubs and I are raising our boys; she marvels at the time we spend with them, and she thinks that it shows in their behavior (of course, she's a biased grandma).

    But my MIL does not like how we are raising the boys at all; she often says things like, "Well, we just let our kids run around by themselves all day; we weren't on top of them so much."

    Everyone's got an opinion. Still, I'm going to parent the way it feels right to me.

  6. We spend lots of time with our kids playing and bonding, but I also encourage them to entertain them selves or each other at some points in the day. This has led my MIL to kind of look at me like I am BAD mother, like I don't do enough with them (opposite of sm's MIL!). S

  7. ah. i definitely think we all need to find the groove that works for us. we leave M once in a while and go on vacation - and some people think that's wrong, but you know, I don't, and it works for us.

    good thinky post.

  8. I'm not really sure how one can judge another's parenting---you know, assuming all is reasonably well---based on one's own experience and preferences. Just the differences in my two kids tells me it's a vast array out there of "what works."

    I don't see any style (again, excluding the dangerous and negligent) getting any parent off easy, actually.

    I suppose some might find some methods bizarre. I remember being shocked at a friend who said, "You just have to let them cry until they learn to stop it. They might even vomit, but you must not go to them!"

    At the end of the day, though, the question is: how is everyone doing? Fine?

    The conversation ends with: great, any recent photos?

  9. Julie, I think that's what I am trying to say. Hard as it is, shut your ears to the mothers, MILs, friends, etc. and do your thing. I learned so much with my elder daugher of what didn't work, and yes, the next kid had a totally different personality. And a different environment, as each child changes so many factors.

    I had friends who swore by a book or style of parenting, friends who denied they had any style or had ever read a book. What we all shared was an inability to shrug off adverse comments. Maybe by the dozenth kid, a mother can be confident. But I doubt it.

  10. I completely agree with you that it depends on how the parents' personalities mesh with the baby's. I considered myself far too lazy to do the whole attachment parenting thing, but you do what works and it worked for my oldest. He was happiest in a sling or sleeping with me - meaning *I* got more sleep that way. My second was a bit different and a bit more independent (at least as an infant), so we adjusted.

    The problem is, you learn more with each child but just when you think you've figured out this whole mom thing, the kids change the rules. Darn it!

  11. It's funny how the words "easy" and "difficult" get so loaded in conversations about motherhood - and in such different ways.

    In many conversations I've been a part of (especially online, on Babycenter and such), "easier" equates very quickly to "lazier" and "more neglectful." More than once I've encountered the view that the hardest path is usually the right one, and therefore we should seek out the most demanding parenting style we can find, if we want to do right by our babies.

    In the blogosphere, I'm more likely to see the reverse argument articulated: that parenting manuals (especially attachment parenting manuals) place an oppressive load upon mothers, holding them to unrealistic standards and inculcating a parenting style that effectively disempowers them. I haven't clicked over yet to read Jenny's post (on my way!) but it sounds as if perhaps this conversation is a response to that critique.

    I've been thinking lately about how important it is to me to have physical space from my children. I can give them my attention, my emotional energy - but I find the pure physicality of the infant stage very draining. I don't think that means that I'm not attuned to my children's rhythms - but the co-sleeping, baby-wearing route was definitely not for me.