The Italian countryside had been a sweet refuge when I was pregnant, but now that I had a baby, I wanted to live in a place where my parenting choices were understood, if not supported. So we moved home to California when Maia was 3 months old.
The first thing I saw when I walked into my parents' house was a pile of parenting manuals on the dining room table. After I nursed Maia to sleep during the wee hours, I grabbed a few of the thicker books and dove right in. It was awesome. I'd had questions about this baby for months, and no one had been available to answer them (at least not in English). How do you clip those tiny toenails? (Gently.) Can an infant really subsist on breast milk alone? (Yes.) I read until I fell asleep, and in the morning I woke before the baby and read some more.
But as I delved deeper into parenting lore, the answers to my questions were less clear-cut. I read that if I put an infant on a rigid feeding schedule, I could induce sleep; I read that a rigid feeding schedule would lead to a messed-up kid. I read that in some cultures a woman's postpartum figure is considered sacred; I read that 50 sit-ups, 50 push-ups, 50 jumping jacks, and a lap around the block between diaper changes would go a long way to making my body sacred. I read a hundred pieces of advice, but the clearest, most consistent message was this: Withhold your own intuition, Mom, and follow my rules. And of course I wanted to do all the right things, so I tried to pay attention.
Soon, my parents' house was aswirl with friends and relations, culminating in a christening two weeks after our arrival. A hundred people gathered 'round, and all of them knew even better than the books just what I should do. Cloth diapers; disposable diapers; nurse on demand; only nurse at scheduled times; hold the baby this way; no, this way; let her sleep; wake her up so she'll get over the jet lag (do infants get jet lag?); put the red hat on her; you'll need a baby monitor; don't be manipulated by her cries; go to her whenever she fusses; let her sleep in your bed; if you let her sleep in your bed, you'll crush her; feed her this rice cereal; don't feed her that rice cereal. It was dizzying.
I felt overwhelmed and took refuge in the kitchen. An old friend of my mother's was there, making a fruit salad without the help of a cookbook. I sat down on a stool with Maia, who was crying softly, stressed by all the stimulation. "Do you think I should nurse her?" I asked. The woman didn't look up at me. She squeezed lemon juice on her fruit salad and added a few pinches of sugar. "We all love you," she finally said. "But don't worry about hurting people's feelings by not doing what they say. It's your baby. Do what seems right."
What seemed right? I hadn't had to ask myself that question since I'd been home. In Italy I'd felt isolated and unsupported, but confident in my own decisions. Now I was surrounded by pages of instructions and crowds of people who wanted to help, and I had no idea what to do.
Too Much AdviceSitting there at the kitchen table, nibbling on fruit salad and nursing Maia to sleep, I began to realize that there's no such thing as too much support and no such thing as too much information, but maybe there is such a thing as too much advice. I was swimming in it now, and it wasn't helping. I shelved the parenting manuals then, vowing to consult them only when I had a medical question. As for the friends and relations, I began to learn the art of listening to their advice, taking what I needed (support, some wisdom), and then doing what worked for me. After all, mothers raise good kids all over the planet, and if the advice they get varies as much as the stuff I got, then advice must be a matter of opinion and fashion, and mothering an art rather than a science.
In the weeks that followed, I learned, slowly at first, not to worry so much about hurting people's feelings, and to sit quietly with myself for a moment before I decided to follow someone else's plan. I was fairly polite, but I did what I felt good about doing, and I didn't apologize for it. I horrified my grandmother by nursing in public, but turned slightly away from her so as not to completely offend. I slept with the baby in my bed, trading a thick comforter for a soft and safer blanket. I certainly never crushed her, but she did once fall to the floor. She cried long and hard, but no lasting damage was done (from then on we slept with a few pillows next to the bed just in case). I used earth-friendly cloth diapers for a few months, then switched to mom-friendly disposables. I used homeopathic remedies for minor ailments, and I rushed to the emergency room more than once over nothing. I did what seemed right to me as a mom. I made mistakes, but confidence is borne of trial and error.
Maia is 12 years old now, and she's beginning to venture out into the world on her own. I advise her on this and that: safety tips, social etiquette. But the best advice I can give her isn't very different from the advice my mom's friend gave me in the kitchen that morning over fruit salad, the advice I had to work hard to follow in mothering my baby: We love you. If you need help or advice, ask for it, but don't worry too much about hurting people's feelings by not doing what they say. If your gut says no, trust it. Do what seems right.
Ariel Gore is the founding editor of HipMama.com and the author of, most recently, The Mother Trip (Seal Press).