How our need for a Right Way to Raise a Child is making us unhappy—and what we can do about it.
When people with older kids claim that their babies didn’t cry at night—when they toss off clichés like, “You’ve just got to be firm”—I’ve found that if you press them, they’ll admit that, well, no, it didn’t happen exactly like that. Sometimes their babies screamed all night, too. If we’re honest with ourselves, all baby-sleep methods work in theory, but there are no theoretical babies, only real ones, with idiosyncratic personalities and tics and problems.
And yet we often refuse to believe it.
We fall victim to the idea that a Right Way to Raise a Baby exists. We give and take advice as if there are only right and wrong answers. But the truth is there is no best method. How can there be? Every family’s situation is different. Attachment parenting works if you can afford to stay home with your child. The Ferber method works if you have the willpower to listen to your baby cry for hours—some people can’t do that. Why make them feel guilty? Or worse, morally inferior.
My own ideas about parenting are inextricable from my financial and career situation. My wife and I have flexible work schedules, childcare when necessary, and, as a result, the freedom to choose the parenting style that fits us best. Most people don’t have that luxury, not even the wealthy, let alone the parents—sometimes single moms and dads—who live in the small, shabby apartments down the street and who work night shifts to make ends meet.
I’d love to hear a parent at a playground say this: “Here’s how our living situation and careers have shaped our parenting choices.”
But those words are almost never spoken, mostly because we’re afraid. You spend all day listening to parents talk about their surefire methods, and then you go home and try those methods, but the baby keeps crying. You feel like a failure, and, what’s worse, you’re afraid to tell anyone because they may agree with your self-assessment: you’re a bad parent, a screw-up. When you think that everyone else has sleeping and eating and tantrums figured out, it’s only natural to keep your failures to yourself. We become the Jekyl and Hydes of the parenting world, smiling in public and suffering in private.
I’ve stood beside a sandbox at a park and listened to a grown man whisper to me, “Sometimes you feel so alone.”
Here is what I’d like to tell parents: No matter what techniques or strategies you use, you will make mistakes. You’ll feel like a failure. At some point, you’ll become so exhausted that you will not recognize yourself. Most of the time you’ll keep it together, and people will tell you things like, “You’re so Zen.” Or, “Your baby never cries.” But the truth will be that, in private, you’re an ugly mess, and what people are seeing is a hard-created façade. But one day, even that shell will dissolve. You will embarrass yourself in public, as I did when my son bit me at a restaurant playground and I reacted by almost—almost—body-slamming him to the ground.
When this happens, it will be hard to believe that you haven’t screwed up. After the kid is asleep, you will lie on your back on the floor and stare at the ceiling, and it will be hard to imagine not being exhausted, not yelling, not feeling sad and bitter and mean.
It’s important to know this. We’ve all been there, and we often react in similar ways. We find ourselves opening a bottle of wine every night once the kids fall asleep. We watch too much TV. Or we stare stupidly at Facebook until it’s time to climb into bed.
As parents, we don’t talk about these things, and we need to change that. We need to admit that we aren’t perfect, that our parenting strategies are not perfect, that sometimes we become so exhausted that we act in ways that make us feel deeply ashamed—and that’s okay. We should try to do better, of course, but failure in parenting is not moral failure. I’ve learned that I will lose my temper and that there are bad ways to lose it and less-bad ways, and when possible, I try to choose the latter.
Afterward, I apologize—to my wife, to my kids. I hope that my kids are paying attention, and since they’re already picking up my gestures and verbal tics, I’m pretty sure that they are. I want them to learn how to be fully human, which means knowing how to be angry and how to say you’re sorry.
I want them to know that momentary lapses of patience do not ruin a day, a year, or a life. Lately my oldest son has been asking, hours or days after an incident, if we’re still mad. I don’t want him to feel this way—and I don’t want to be a parent who makes him feel that way. Because the hard times do not last forever.
The kids will quit crying in their beds and screaming in the car and throwing food across the dining room. They’ll quit biting.
One day, your children will suddenly be fun and silly.
They’ll run and hop and spin around until they fall down. They’ll learn words that you didn’t teach them and think thoughts you’ve never had. They’ll call out at night, as my son does, because he has to poop, and so I go in and pick him up out of bed. I sit on the edge of the tub watching with bleary eyes as he tries to wipe his butt, and I discover—to my astonishment—that I have patience for this. He uses half a roll of toilet paper, and I don’t care. He’s learning, and such lessons are part of childhood. It’s my job to step back, to let him learn, and he does. He is learning. After I carry him back to bed, he reaches for my hand. He looks me right in the eye.
“I love you,” he says. “You’re my best friend.”
The hard times don’t last. I used to dream of four hours of uninterrupted sleep, and now I sleep through the night almost every night. When I wake up, I find two amazing kids. Sometimes they scream all through breakfast, and that’s fine, too. We’re figuring things out, learning to fail and then to pick ourselves back up. We’re learning to love each other.