A very expectant mom has a plan. Bed by 7:30 p.m. so there can be adult time. No fast food. And kids who will really listen. After all, we've been watching -- and judging -- other moms all of our lives, pursing our lips as rampaging toddlers shoot past us in the grocery store and shaking our heads at the minivans cruising down the highway, entertainment systems glowing, purple dinosaurs dancing in the darkness. We could do better.
I knew my child wouldn't need a DVD player in the car. He'd eat what was put in front of him, play quietly with attractive wooden toys, and never, ever disturb other diners, other shoppers, other passengers. Similarly, my cousin Jenni declared that her kids would always be neatly dressed before they left the house. My friend Kendall swore she wouldn't subject her friends to those awful half-conversations ("I think Social Security reform is -- Trevor, don't put that in your mouth -- it's really -- Trevor, no -- if only we'd -- just a minute, can I call you back?").
This is what you think before the baby comes: You will be in control. This is what you learn two minutes after you carry your baby through the front door: You were wrong. And this is only the beginning.
No one wants the new baby to cry. Crying means you're doing something wrong, doesn't it? Will anything make her stop? Will anything pacify her? Ohh...first vow out the window. Did I really say I'd never use a paci? Then, of course, you just want baby to sleep. And eat. The details -- sleep location, type of food -- are unimportant.
Co-sleeping. "My sister-in-law used to lecture me about having the baby in my bed," says a woman in Brooklyn, New York, who begged me to not use her name for fear of family reprisals. "She knew that when she had a baby, she would keep the marital bed sacrosanct. I tried to explain that we didn't mean to co-sleep with Jane, but when you're nursing, it just happens. She didn't believe me -- until she had her baby. Then she apologized for being judgmental and delusional."
Using the car seat as a bed. "We tried the bassinet and all Emily did was grunt and snort and wriggle. I'd put her in her car seat, and she'd sleep for hours," says Laura Perras, of Norwich, Vermont. "At about 8 weeks, I started putting her in the car seat at night too. She was happy, she was sleeping, I wasn't about to mess with it." Emily has graduated to a crib now, but, Laura jokes, "If they made a bigger portable car seat, she'd still be in there!"
Long-term nursing. "If you'd asked me about nursing a toddler in my pre-baby days, I'd have given an allover shudder and said 'you must be joking.' Of course, I ended up nursing my kids until they could walk, talk, and, in one case, ride a bike," says Elizabeth Crane, of San Francisco. "I'm a card-carrying, breast-baring, La Leche Leaguer."
Serving typical kid food. "I used to roll my eyes when I would see my nephew eating chicken nuggets," says Carole Newton, also from San Francisco. "I thought good nutrition was as simple as putting fresh fruits and vegetables in front of my child. But of course, my kid likes no fruit or vegetables, except apples. So now I know what it's like to be at the point where you just want your child to eat something -- anything!"
Back to my cousin Jenni. Her daughter, Avery, believes that she's perfectly dressed when she leaves the house, exactly as her mother had planned. Avery's charmed by the three shirts she's pulled on, the mismatched pants worn backward, and the pink boots. "I choose my battles," Jenni sighs. "I tell people, 'She dressed herself today,' though the ones with kids already know."
Love those flashy shoes. I swore I'd never buy those hideous, irritating, and obnoxious shoes with lights that flash with every step the child makes. Now my son has a pair of light-up sneakers that fill him with so much pride, I could never take them away. And why should I? They're his shoes.
The flashy toys too. The junky toys you used to smirk at keep accumulating -- everywhere. I do know one person with a sunny playroom full of beautiful wooden playthings that never, ever migrate into the rest of her house -- exactly the scenario that most of us dreamed of as we held one hand protectively across our bulging bellies. But she lives at the top of a mountain and we never drop by unexpectedly, so there may be hanky-panky going on before we arrive. What I have -- and what most everyone else I know has -- is a house full of noisy plastic objects whose small parts make trails through every room, as though one of the children was afraid that without these clues, she would not be able to find her way back to the train table.
Electronic babysitting. It may be that the kids of yore played quietly on the floor with their corncob dolls while their mothers took their once-a-week bath. More likely, the kids pulled on the washtub the entire time, trying to eat the lye soap and shrieking demands for gruel. Today, we have a choice. Many a new mom has discovered that if a DVD means half an hour to shower in peace, she'll take it, no matter what sarcastic comments she may have made about Baby Mozart during pregnancy.
I had -- and have -- very high standards for public behavior for my children. They're not to bother anyone else. Of course, if the sight of children eating mini marshmallows while we wait for our dinner at a restaurant, lying down in the restaurant booth, or emptying out all the sugar packets on the table bothers you, you might want to look away.
Restaurant high jinks. "I used to be horrified by parents who let their kids stand on the benches at restaurants. But standing on the booth is the only way my daughter can see out the bagel store's window," says my friend Kathy, from Cambridge, Massachusetts. "If she can see out the window, then bagels can get eaten in peace."
Ah, how naive you can be before you actually try taking children out to eat. "We used to watch kids running around the tables in restaurants and tell each other we'd never, ever let our kids leave the table until the end of the meal," says Jon Forstadt, a New York City dad. "Of course, that assumed we could even get them to sit at the table."
Distractions that are distracting. "It always drove me crazy seeing children happily munching on snacks during church or pulling toy after toy out of Mom's bag, but now I'll do anything to keep them entertained," my cousin Jenni admits. "Grandpa goofed one Sunday and put an interactive book in the bag, and Avery waited until the church was silent to make the lion roar."
And then, the plane. "I swore I would not have kids who were bothersome on airplanes," says Betsy Danes, of Mattawan, Michigan. "But I let George kick the guy in front of him on the way back from Italy last year. I thought that the pain of one was better than the entire plane suffering, listening to him scream." While you need to teach kids right from wrong, when they're under 2, they do not have self-control, no matter what your mother says about her own childhood.
Sitting in an airport with Sam, I looked up to see that familiar, vacant, red-faced stare cross his face, and I leaped over our suitcase to grab him. "Don't you dare poop in your pants!" I shrieked at the top of my lungs. My vocabulary has long since retreated to a 6-year-old level.
Bodily functions. "I never thought I'd be discussing poop and pee with adults I know, let alone strangers," says Jessica Mann Gutteridge, of Port Washington, New York. But get parents of 3-year-olds together, and it won't be two minutes before they're swapping potty training stories in graphic terms.
Were you talking to me? As for Kendall, who was never going to subject her friends to disjointed mommy-speak? She just shrugs, while catching a water glass that her toddler has sent flying off the table. Then she says, "Make your point in one minute or less, because the next crisis will erase my brain."
Sometimes we cave to save our sanity. Other times we give in -- or, let's say, alter our thinking -- for a different reason. Who would have guessed how much joy that big purple dinosaur could bring a kid in the midst of a rough day? Sometimes we eat our words because making our kids happy is more important than living up to ourselves. They're our rules, after all. We get to break them.
Why do we set ourselves up for failure -- or at least self-mockery -- by imposing impossible parenting goals? In a culture where people give you advice on preschools when you're still holding the pregnancy test in your hand, it can be hard not to, say Devra Renner and Aviva Pflock, coauthors of Mommy Guilt: Learn to Worry Less, Focus on What Matters Most, and Raise Happier Kids (AMACOM) and cofounders of parentopia.net. "It's a way to deal with the pressure," says Renner. "We feel like if we don't have the answers ready, we might fail."
"We forget that most learning comes from experience," adds Pflock. "It's great to be well informed and ready, but every child is different and needs different things." So be prepared to cut yourself some slack. "Before I had kids, I decided that no one was going to eat in my brand-new car," Renner says. Pflock interjects: "But when you're stuck in traffic and your kid is screaming and hungry, you just have to say to yourself, well, that was a dumb rule." "I changed my mind," shrugs Renner. "That's okay."
KJ Dell'Antonia is a writer in New Hampshire. She recently coauthored Reading with Babies, Toddlers, and Twos (Sourcebooks).
Originally published in American Baby magazine, June 2006.
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