On the Pressure to “Do It Right” & Having the Equanimity to Tell Yourself to Chillax, Already, Sheesh

I’m learning that parenting practices can be very touchy subjects.  I recently posted a status update on Facebook about how humorous I found swaddling because of how closely it resembles straightjacketing (while being careful to note that I wasn’t knocking the practice, I was just sayin’).  While nobody jumped on me or anything, I did get a response about how it’s really good for babies and how they love it, which gave me the sense that just making that observation was enough to put at least one parent on the defensive.

I am aware that everybody and their bachelor brother these days has a very strong opinion about how children should properly be brought up.  Homebirth, hospital, vaccinations, breast feeding, formula, daycare, attachment parenting, crying it out, tiger mothers, organic homemade baby food, homeschooling, private Christian school, Montessori, Waldorf, free range children, etc., etc., etc. It’s clearly bloody endless, the vast array of opinions, each of which is held with militant certainty by the hardliners of their respective contingencies, who have read the books, bought the gear, and attend every conference with religious zeal (sometimes literally).  And the message of at least some of these opinions is that if you don’t raise your children like this, then you are clearly screwing up this whole parenting thing and your children will become sociopaths/be emotionally crippled for life/never get into the right university/leave your faith.

I recently read a book (because I am a nerd and my response to any life change is to read a book-length study on it) called Motherload: Making It All Better in Insecure Times by Ana Villalobos.  It’s the product of Villalobos’ qualitative study of the variety of effects on mothers (rather than their children) created by their approach to motherhood, specifically their expectations regarding the security-producing powers of the mother-child relationship (emotional security and/or security from physical safety risks).  The conclusion was that mothers who unrealistically expected their mothering to supply enough security to fill all of their or their child’s security needs in whichever arena was most salient to them psychologically experienced motherhood as an exhausting struggle (in the terminology of the book, they had a very heavy motherload).  Those who had more realistic expectations, by and large, did not (carried a light motherload).

The really interesting thing was that these unrealistic expectations were not correlated to any particular approach to parenting.  She interviewed heavily-involved (like, almost-never-put-their-children-down-before-the-age-of-two levels of involvement) attachment parents with both light and heavy motherloads.  Parents that emphasized independence and the development of resilience could likewise either carry a heavy or a light motherload.  A better predictor of whether a mother would be burdened by a motherhood with high security expectations was whether or not she had a rigid view of how parenting should be done. Those who went into childrearing with more flexible wait-and-see approaches tended to not overburden themselves with high expectations of what they could give their children or get personally out of the experience of being a mother.  These mothers might ultimately end up in one camp or another, but they weren’t necessarily signed on prebirth, come what may, this is the only way this will work, everybody needs to do it like this, what’s wrong with all these lazy, selfish parents who don’t do it like this, this is what’s wrong with America!  They instead were willing to respond to circumstances and the needs of themselves, their partners, and their children as individuals with what would work for them.

I’m really glad I read this before the birth of my first child, because I’m one of those individuals that talks a loud talk about not letting others pressure me into being or doing a certain way but is, in reality, highly sensitive to social guilt.  In the absence of real social guilt from others, I will in fact produce my own!  Plus, my default mode is to assume that every decision is high stakes, no turning back. I’m terrified that these internal and external pressures of having a baby will turn me against my will into a miserable, terrible, stressed-out beast of a creature who takes no joy in mothering and as a result has nothing positive to give to her husband, her child, or herself.  Although that concern is still with me, the knowledge that relaxing responsively rather than charging reflexively into the role of parent can actually yield perfectly good results frees me from the most potent element of my fear: that I will have no other option than to become miserable and stressed because stress about the details is what you have to do if you want to be a good parent. My ironically prescriptive takeaway from the book (although Villalobos goes to lengths to be empathetic and non-prescriptive) is that a good parent will at least occasionally ignore all the advice, social guilt, and internal pressure to be everything to one’s child and do everything perfectly all the time.  (Actually, although talking to and examining effects of parenting strategy and weight of motherload on the children of these parents was not part of the study, Villalobos mentions that ALL these mothers’ children seemed happy, normal, and well-adjusted at the time of her last home visits, regardless of which tack their parents took in their childrearing or whether or not their mothers were enjoying mothering or not,so that “good parent” thing is really not justified.)

Some of us need an excuse from others before we’ll take care of ourselves.  I consider this my excuse to try to at least occasionally chillax and not let mother-pressure kill all the life out of me.

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