The Tao of Parenting

My previous post led me to reread Billy Collins’ poem First Reader, where I found new resonance in the line “we were forgetting how to look, learning how to read.”

Once Felix was born we wondered what books we should be reading. I don’t have to enumerate the many subjects baby books cover—I’m sure everyone’s seen the bookstore end caps or caught a talk show segment about some recently published new finding, something parents just have to know about, detailed in some expert’s (or so-called expert’s) book. Many of the book jackets flaunt their authors’ doctorates and medical degrees, and justify their existence with scary studies that prove how well-functioning, normally developed children must start with the proper infant care. Reading these blurbs bring me back to grade school: parenting is a high stakes test that—unless I buy the right guides and do a lot of homework—I’m sure to fail.

But just as commercials for prescription drugs create a need for the products they advertise—who doesn’t feel nervous in certain social situations, and think that Zoloft might be right for them?—so parenting books encourage a new mom and dad’s insecurities by establishing a “norm” that every baby should measure up against, from the number of times a baby should feed, to motor skill development, to the amount and colors of poops. A lot of this information, culled from a variety of subjects, will never exactly match what my son does on a day-by-day basis; yet reading about it automatically starts my monkey mind comparing him.

Take our obsession with Felix’s sleep, for example. The little guy sleeps great through the night, and has since the womb. But during the day he’s an excitable, wakeful baby whose patterns don’t match the well-defined blocks of naps and activity mapped out by sleep guides. Yet except for some bad days (some of which I’ve documented here), he’s a happy, healthy baby, and we’re functioning parents. So why should we worry?

Yet we have. Observing, talking about, and fretting over the little guy’s daytime sleep has become our new hobby. When his eyes are closed we wonder when he’s going to open them, or how deep he’s down, or when his next nap ought to be, or what his nighttime sleep is going to be like. When he’s awake we count the minutes till we think we should to start lulling him back to dreamland.

When we were growing up, S and I were both the hard-working, over-achieving type. Turns out we’re both still susceptible to the teacher-knows-best voice of authority most parenting books are written in, many of which deliver their advice in the form of hard and fast rules. Never do this, always do that. One I read gave credence to its laws by giving voice to the baby, insisting that the reason parents should abide is because that’s what their infant would tell them if he could talk. Now, how the hell would anyone know that?

The same attitude is sometimes adopted by the parents who adhere to these books, who share their tips and tricks in the form of absolutes. “You do what? Don’t.” As if what worked for their baby will work for ours, will indeed work for everyone’s.

I’m tired of it. I have nothing against turning to those who have gone before us for ideas and inspiration, but it drives me crazy when experts talk as if there’s only one way to raise a child. Do I even need to write that there isn’t? Shouldn’t we all know and accept this by now? Obviously not. Some believe in higher, spiritual truths and some in testable, scientific ones, but the majority of us want absolutes.

From the beginning of fatherhood, I’ve had little faith in books, because of how Felix’s birth went down. Before he was born, S and I pored over labor guides like The Birth Partner and the Bradley method, hoping to prepare ourselves for what was to come. They got us thinking and talking about our expectations and fears—which was great—and contained fascinating specifics about the biology of birth.

But the birth scenarios the books described proved entirely unhelpful in the heat of labor–-S’s didn’t fit the mold. What got us through those difficult hours was our ability to communicate and our strength and calm under pressure, as well as the guidance of an experienced medical team who responded to S’s needs as an individual. In retrospect, the hours of reading, note taking, and studying were wasted.

We’ve found this to be true of baby books as well. They can provide helpful information and serve as a starting point for a conversation, but that’s about as far as their usefulness goes. The best guide to parenting is using our eyes and ears to pick up on Felix’s patterns, being sensitive to his needs, and resolute—though gentle—in encouraging habits that we appreciate, like napping.

For the past couple of weeks, for example, S has kept a detailed log of his activity cycle, which we then inputted into a program our neighbor suggested when she heard we were still worrying about sleep. The program showed that even though Felix naps erratically and in short bursts, he’s actually getting more shut eye than we thought. He even likes sleeping at certain times of the day, almost everyday. So while he’s not matching up with the statistically average baby—and how many babies would?—he’s got his own rhythms and routines, and there’s no need for us to agonize over him.

Back when Felix was in the NICU, I became adept at reading his monitoring machines, and would sometimes focus more on them than I would on him. “Stop looking at that, Daddy,” a nurse told me one day. “You won’t have the machines at home. Pay attention to your baby. He’ll tell you what he needs.”

Those machines described Felix without actually seeing him, which S and I sometimes do ourselves, when we filter his behavior through the lens of those damn books. Like Billy Collins’ poem suggests, there’s something reductive about using books to make sense of the world, instead of opening your senses to experiencing it.

From now on I’m going to try and resist delving into our childcare library, and instead open my eyes more. Felix knows what he’s doing, and we have wonderful people around us to share their real life experiences. Even more importantly, S and my parental instincts have served us well enough so far.

If only I could write that last bit without knocking on wood.

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