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Don't Listen to the "Shoulds"

Each time I watch Phoebe, my 10-year-old daughter, soar down the soccer field, I wonder: Is it possible it's been a decade since we first brought her home, that chubby-cheeked human doll in a hat? Ten years since I had my first panic attack about how to wash her sweet little head and diaper her tiny red butt?

When I think back to those early days of Phoebe's existence, along with the joy and the exhaustion, I remember feeling a whole lot of stress about whether I was doing things "right." From the What to Expect guide exhorting me to eat bran and broccoli when I could barely keep down ice chips, to the mothers in my baby group who'd already signed up their infants for music classes, I found myself swirling in advice and anxiety about what I "should" do. Ah, to have known then that most of those seemingly huge musts I tortured myself about would feel so minor in a few years. Allow me to elaborate:

You should have a natural childbirth.
While pregnant with Phoebe, I dutifully signed on with a reputable team of midwives. Over the months that followed, I made a few feeble pleas to them to indulge me in an epidural "if I need one"  -- always feeling wimpy and ashamed afterward. Let's face it, planned epidurals aren't the midwife way. And if others could survive 75 hours of unmedicated childbirth for the supposed benefit of their baby, why shouldn't I? Here's why: Because I ended up giving birth by c-section, when my daughter's head (big) couldn't fit through my pelvis (small). I experienced the, um, joy of unmedicated labor and dilation, followed by the joy  -- ha!  -- of the last-second epidural as I was rushed into emergency surgery.

Not to knock midwives (I liked and respected mine) or to disparage a plan to give birth without meds. But with my second delivery  -- my son, Nathaniel, now 7  -- I opted for a doctor, since I hoped to try for a VBAC and I wanted an epidural, like, the second I went into labor. This time, I confidently made that clear from the start. In the end, the VBAC went fine, but my request for drugs proved moot because an irregularity in my blood work kept me from getting my epidural until it cleared up, at  -- you guessed it  -- ten centimeters dilated.

So here's the moral of my tale: Your labor and delivery depends a lot on simple fate. And guess what? Whether born "natural" or to mothers on epidurals or via c-section, babies  -- like their mothers  -- almost always end up fine. Out there on the soccer field, you can't tell which is which.

Cathi Hanauer's second novel, Sweet Ruin, will be published this spring. She is also the author of My Sister's Bones and the editor of The Bitch in the House.

You should breastfeed  -- no matter what.

Well, of course you "should" breastfeed. For one thing, think of the bottles you won't have to wash! Seriously, we've all heard the reasons why breast is best for the baby. What we don't often hear is that breast, for some women, is not a preferable option.

Naturally, I was one of those people. (Would I have mentioned it otherwise?) Breastfeeding my daughter was painful for me from day one. With a voracity that serves her nicely at age 10, Phoebe latched on to my nipples and pulled, sending tears streaming down my face. What's more, within weeks I developed a breast infection, which turned everything from sleeping to holding my baby into an excruciating event. By the time I stopped nursing  -- at the advice of a breast surgeon and my pediatrician  -- I'd spent ten potentially joyful weeks feeling not one bit overjoyed. I switched Phoebe to formula and we both thrived. At last I could focus on my baby daughter rather than on my aching breasts!

The surprise was that with Nathaniel, breastfeeding was the polar opposite. Perhaps it was because of his personality, or the shape of his mouth, that I felt more relaxed with Kid Two, or that there was no c-section this time around. Whatever the reason, the problems were nil, and I nursed him for longer than two years.

Today? Both kids are healthy as hogs. (Bulletin: So am I, at age 42  -- and I was fed formula from the get-go.) So when it comes to nourishing your newborn, do with pride what works for you, and be thankful you have options.

You should never use a pacifier.

Oh boy. Where to start? What I've found is that some babies might as well be catfish for how desperately they need to suck, and others couldn't care less. Parents have little control over this. My daughter found her thumb at 8 weeks or so, despite, I confess, having had a pacifier in her vicinity at most times since birth. (I had been at first horrified, and then relieved, when the hospital nurses brought her to me, contentedly plugged in.) My son, in contrast, made a paci of his lower lip, but not until well into his twos, when he was weaned from the breast. As soon as he had no suckable presented to him, he created his own  -- and one that was a lot more difficult for me to regulate. (You can prohibit them from taking their Binky or your breast to preschool, but not, alas, their thumb or their lips.)

I'm not advocating pacifiers. Who needs another thing to buy, clean, keep track of, and eventually do away with, not to mention elicit disapproval from old ladies on buses? I am saying that in those chaotic early days, if you have to stopper the kid to get out for a walk  -- or to get some sleep  -- toss the guilt with the next dirty diaper.

You should have your baby on a firm sleeping schedule.

Babies are all kinds of sleepers. Some conk out at the drop of a light switch; others take hours of screaming, nursing, being rocked and read poetry. Some sleep deeply and heavily; others wake up hourly like little cuckoo clocks. My daughter was a kid you could stick under the table at a restaurant (yes, we did it  -- so kill me), and within minutes she was happily snoozing, baguette crumbs falling on her head. Other parents looked on with awe while we gloated over having "raised" such a sleeper. Then came my son, who preferred to stay up. At 10 and 7, they're still this way. Phoebe loves bedtime and sleeps fast and long; Nat resists, calling for water or another kiss, then he's up again in three hours for something else.

If it serves your needs and your baby's, let the little bugger stay up till all hours watching The Apprentice with his dad  -- and don't let your mother-in-law tell you you'll "ruin him" unless you force him to bed at seven to scream for four hours before he zonks out.

At some point, you'll probably want to coax your baby toward a schedule, if only for your own sanity. It doesn't take Ferber to tell you that if your 9-month-old knows you'll come every time he calls in the night, he will call. But let your own needs and comfort level guide you  -- not your guilty conscience.

You should give him veggies every day.

Babies, like their parents, come with at-times-unyielding wills that decide what they like and don't like to eat. It's your job to present appropriate and healthy foods, but whether your baby chooses to swallow them or spew them down at the cat is something you don't have much say about. As long as she's drinking breast milk or formula, as long as he's experiencing the feel of food in his mouth, as long as the doctor isn't concerned, do yourself a favor and let go of the myth that the kid should eat "right" at every meal. Most children don't  -- not in infancy and not beyond.

Go into any lunchroom full of 6-year-olds and you'll see: One consumes nothing but banana Go-GURT, another lives on PB&J, another eats only plain pasta and Cheese Puffs. And I can guarantee that not all of them chomped down their stewed yams as babies. Such is life.

After a decade as a mom  -- a decade, as you'll find, in which moments can seem like forever, but ten years is fleeting, then gone  -- one of the larger pearls of wisdom I've been fortunate to pluck is that I'm allowed to lighten up, on my kids and on myself. After all, what's the point of having children if you can't enjoy them because you're so neurotic? As you watch your daughter score her first soccer goal or your son play his first tune on the piano, your baby-yam memories will be hazy and distant ones. Trust me on that.

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