Parenting Without a Map, Part 1

My friends and I have this conversation often. The gist is something like this:

I want to parent differently from the way I was parented, but I don’t know how. I know what I don’t want to do, but I don’t always know what I want to do. Even when I know what to do, I find myself slipping back into the patterns of behavior that I observed growing up.

While it’s comforting to know that I’m not alone in feeling a bit lost (sometimes completely lost) in my parenting, it doesn’t really supply me with practical solutions for the everyday parenting issues that arise.

My friends and I agree: we know what we don’t want to do. No spanking, no hitting, no yelling, no guilt, no punishments, no rewards, no bribes, no ignoring our children’s emotional needs, no coercion.

But most of us we were raised with one or more of these methods as the cornerstone of our parents’ style. How do we find models for what we want to do?

Among my friends, we look to books and we look to each other.

Visit my Gentle Parenting Bibliography for some of the parenting books the parents in my circle have found enlightening.

Each of these books holds a tiny piece of the puzzle. When I read one, I think, “Yes! This is what I want to do! This is how I want to parent!” I usually do my reading at night when the children are asleep. I go to bed excited to try out the new techniques the next morning. Inevitably, using the new techniques feels clumsy and false. My kids look at me like I’m nuts, and I just want to say, “Hey, guys. Please cut me some slack. I’m trying to be a better mom here.” Sometimes I do say that. It never works.

I’ve found lots of families with similar parenting philosophies through La Leche League. While nursing isn’t imperative to attachment parenting, I think it helps set the stage for the kind of close and loving bond that goes along with a gentle style of parenting. Being in a circle of moms committed to gentle parenting helps normalize the behavior and helps us feel supported when problems arise. I also found a great deal of support through the parent education portion of the co-op preschool my daughter and I were in in Palo Alto, the second year especially. I still speak about once a week with a friend from that class as we navigate the rocky terrain of school-aged parenting. This is also one of the few places I’ve found where dads can go to talk about gentle parenting. (On a  related topic, what on earth do stay-at-home dads do for support? It’s hard enough as a stay-at-home mom, but at least there’s some amount of infrastructure for us.)

I have, over time, made a list of things I want to do. I want to help my children become aware of their own emotions. I want to be empathetic towards them and teach them to be empathetic towards others. I want to show by my example that while we’re always going to make mistakes, we can also always learn from our mistakes. I want them to feel safe and comfortable coming to me and my husband with anything, even (or perhaps especially) things that go against my values. I want our family to be a cooperative group, not a dictatorship or a hierarchy, with parents reigning supreme and the kids down at the bottom with no say in any of the matters in their lives. I want them to have close relationships with other loving adults

If you notice, the things I don’t want to do are quite a bit more specific than the things I do want to do.

When my daughter was born, I was surprised by just how difficult the parenting thing was. She was colicky and had multiple food sensitivities. She didn’t sleep longer than a 4-hour stretch until she was two years old. She cried. A lot. Inconsolably. Every step along the way, I would think, “Things will be better when…” When we get breastfeeding down, when she starts solid foods, when she starts walking, when she turns one, when she finishes getting in all of her baby teeth, when she turns three.

I was shocked to discover that, at every stage, while some things do get easier, others get much, much harder. I didn’t realize how easy a newborn was to care for until I had a five-year-old. A five-year-old and an infant at the same time just about broke me, or so I felt at the time.

After her brother was born, my daughter turned into someone I couldn’t recognize. She was physically aggressive with her brother and other children and actively defiant with me and my husband. She had never been a big tantrum-thrower, but she started throwing some epic, screaming, 45-minute-long in-public tantrums. “I just look at her and think, ‘this is not my daughter,'” I told my friend, bursting into tears.

I needed more help than my friends and my books could offer. I started seeking professionals.

Tune in tomorrow for Part 2 of Parenting Without a Map

7 Comments

  1. To this day, my eleven-year old despises her nine-year old sister, and it breaks my heart, yet they both adore their six-year old sister. I now think that they are in constant competition, and wonder if it would have played out differently if it was just the two of them. My biggest wish is for my oldest two to become friends, and I would love to know if I can somehow influence this in a more effective way.
    Children are tricky, sibling relationships trickier.

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  2. I’m a huge gentle parenting book and blog reader, as well. I certainly was not raised this way (no disrespect to my single mom) and I feel like I need to read everything I can to drill it into my head and hope that some of it will stick when I need it. Like how “connect before you correct” pops into my head the split second before I’m about to reprimand.

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  3. Looking forward to reading the rest! Kevin has become a totally different child in many ways since Serena was born. I blame a lot of it on giving up naps at the same time. I think he’s chronically overtired. Still, I can’t remember him ever having a “tantrum” before she was born, and now we have multiples per day.

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    1. For you, Lynn, this post could be titled, “Parenting Without a Nap.” (Although my daughter wasn’t napping at this time, either, so it would be true for both of our families.)

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  4. I was shocked to discover that, at every stage, while some things do get easier, others get much, much harder. I didn’t realize how easy a newborn was to care for until I had a five-year-old.

    YES! This! The newborn stage feels so insurmountable but from afar, all their needs seem so simple. Very little negotiation: eating, holding, clean bottom. Sigh.

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      1. I really think that’s true. Luckily, I am wise enough to know that it’s not that simple later on. Those darn babies have a habit of becoming kids.

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