I’ve decided to take a summer vacation ... from myself. Specifically, from my overparenting, overworrying, overstressed self, the one who’s dealing with heart palpitations that are literally sending me to the doctor this week.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I’m so freaked about changing a dozen diapers a day that I’m on the brink of a breakdown. Nothing like that. But the other day I stumbled upon an old essay on what the writer termed "the overparenting crisis" and it struck a chord. Written by a well respected attachment parenting writer, the author’s angle was that we parents today might be taking our roles a tad too seriously. What got me was this little anecdote she used to make her point:
Last week, I was eating a meal with the parents of a lovely 1-year-old child, their first. As the very cute baby played with her food, I noticed she was managing to get quite a bit of her mashed peas into her rosebud mouth with her small spoon.
“Wow, she’s really getting the hang of that spoon,” I commented with a smile.
“Yes,” her mother replied, “I’ve been working really hard with her on it all week. It’s kept me pretty busy.”
Working really hard on teaching her to use a spoon? All week? Kept her pretty busy?
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Hearing this intelligent, accomplished woman with a master’s degree in biology tell me how consuming she’s found teaching her toddler to use a spoon is just one more example of our current culture of hysterical parenting. I mean, really, when did parenting become this difficult? When did the admirable quality of involved parenting become this?
While it’s one thing to be pleased — even proud — over baby’s ability to connect spoon with mouth, it’s quite another for her mother to become that invested in it, logistically or emotionally.
Reading that reminded me of how many times over the last several months a visitor to our home has complimented my son Kostyn on how good he is with a spoon, and my reply has almost always been, “Yeah, but he can’t use a fork yet at all.”
After a little self-reflection, I’ve decided I’m the lamest kind of “overparent” out there -- the kind who worries about all the things her kids are not yet doing or haven’t yet mastered, but doesn’t do a hell of a lot about it.
How many times have I lamented to Chris that Kostyn must be the only almost-2-year-old who isn’t at least helping to dress himself? Yet nearly every diaper change is accomplished by me, swiftly and pleasantly, without so much as a “Can you pull up your pants?”
And how many times have I laid my head on the pillow at night only to realize with shame that I forgot yet again to do Tummy Time with my 2-month-old, Evan, that day? Shame, people.
The fact that I haven’t been consistent with Evan’s neck muscle development isn’t what concerns me. What concerns me is the guilt and failure I feel over this small though important task. I mean, really. Do I think that if I don’t flip the boy onto his belly once a day and shake rattles around him to catch his attention, he’ll never learn how to raise his head and shoulders? Do I really believe I’ll be holding his head up for him when he’s 6 years old, or even 6 months old?
No, I don’t. So why do I beat myself up about it?
I think the Internet is partly to blame for this “overparenting crisis.” Our parents had Dr. Spock, their own mothers, and some trusted girlfriends to go to when they had a parenting question or were concerned about their child’s development. Today we have monthly e-newsletters about “Your 23-month-old’s Development,” with all the things your kid should have mastered by now sent directly to your email inbox. We have online message boards and social networking sites where you can learn to fear that your baby might be developmentally inferior to a whole host of mothers and babies you’ve never even met. And we have Google, the Parenting Handbook for the 21st Century, which gives us access to all kinds of parenting advice, much of it contradictory and some of it really quite bad.
For me, it isn’t BabyCenter’s ridiculous updates that keep me on my parental toes. It’s the choice I made to be a stay-at-home mom. I continually remind myself that I’m here all day long because I chose this, the act of raising two kids, to be my full-time day job. I don’t allow myself to sit and watch “Oprah” in the afternoon, and I don’t gab on the phone all day to my girlfriends. I am not a babysitter; I’m a parent. I’m here not just to wipe their butts and fill their bellies, but to nurture and challenge and love them.
While this is, I think, an admirable outlook, it can sometimes get exhausting. Because not every moment has to be a “teachable moment,” right? Right??
Here’s a typical scenario of how such angst overtakes me. Kostyn will be contentedly playing by himself on the living room floor, his basket of cars nearby and cars and trucks of various shapes and sizes strewn about. I’ll walk in from the kitchen, take in the scene, and begin to stress. Is it okay to just let him throw his Matchbox cars around the living room? Is that normal toddler play, or disturbing behavior? Should I be channeling that energy into something constructive, or giving him the creative freedom to use his cars however he sees fit? Is he bored? Is he happy? If I don’t step in and interact with him, am I basically being a babysitter?
Told you I need a summer vacation from myself.
A couple weeks ago I sent my sister a frantic e-mail asking for craft and activity ideas I could do with Kostyn. I said I was feeling like a “bad parent” because he’d mastered all his puzzles and seemed bored of his toys and I felt like I was already out of my league when it came to entertaining and educating him.
A bad parent? Already out of my league? With a 2-year-old? Yikes.
Kostyn has a little friend, Josh, with whom we have semi-regular play dates. Josh is 22 months old and doesn’t say a word. Zero vocabulary. Not a word. His comprehension is just fine, he’s a bright little boy, he just doesn’t speak yet. His mother just got him evaluated and began speech therapy about a month ago.
After the first session she told me the therapist had asked her to start doing some simple sign language with Josh as a way for him to begin some nonverbal communication. But Josh’s mother refused.
“I said, ‘Look, I’m gonna be honest with you ... I’m not going to do it,’” she told me. “I just don’t have the time. I’ve got two other kids to take care of too, I’m a Brownie leader for my daughter’s troop, my son is in two different soccer leagues, we’ve got a lot going on and I just can’t take on one more thing.”
I was sort of incredulous to this outright refusal to do something I considered to be pretty simple — and beneficial — to the child’s speech development. So I challenged her, quite politely, about her decision.
“Robyn, Josh is going to talk. He’s a smart kid, and he’s happy, and he isn’t throwing fits because we don’t understand him or anything. It’s just a matter of time,” she said. “It’s not like he’s never going to speak.”
At the time I thought it was appalling, this utter lack of effort on her part to help her youngest child’s development along. But maybe her perspective has more merit than I previously thought. Maybe with three kids she has gained the wisdom that allows her to see The Big Picture. This picture, to me, is still in puzzle form, and I am constantly struggling to match two tiny little pieces. Haven’t even finished the border. So who am I to judge?
The other night I was sitting by Kostyn’s bed at bedtime and I told him to pick some books for us to read. He walked over and rifled through his collection, pulling out a book, inspecting it, then wedging it back into the row when he decided he didn’t want that one. He did this for a minute or so without saying a word, until he turned with a smile and handed me a small stack. As he did he said, “Here mama, three books.”
He’d counted them in his head! He’d never done that before. His counting had always been out loud, with finger pointing: “One .... two ... three!” I hadn't even asked for three books.
Counting in one’s head might be a perfectly normal developmental milestone for 23-month-olds, but I was proud, and awed. It made me realize how much the child has and will learn to do all on his own, despite my over-worrying and well-intentioned interference. Thank God. It also made me realize that perhaps to foster this development, I should just back the F off and let him, ya know, play. Throw his cars around the living room. Count stuff in his head.
So until further notice I’m off on Summer Vacation. I’m channeling that magical time from our youth when we weren’t really supposed to learn or study or achieve anything but the perfect underwater handstand. Except we always did learn stuff, didn’t we? Important stuff. I learned I could swim 4 and a half lengths of the pool underwater before taking a breath. I learned how bad it felt to realize that the neighbor boy I had a crush on liked my sister and not me. I learned how much I loved to read and write for fun, not just because I had to.
Confidence, relationships, identity — these were powerful lessons, all learned without a bookbag or Trapper Keeper. This summer, I’m hoping to learn more about what it means to be a good parent, not just a competent one or an involved one or one that tries really really hard. Starting right now I officially don’t give a damn that Kostyn doesn’t dress himself, that he’s never climbed on anything without using his little stool for help, or that he can’t seem to figure out how to use his Sit’n’Spin.
Because there’s so much that he can do already. He’s mastered the alphabet, knows his numbers, and can spell his name and his brother’s name. He reads his books from memory, loves to sing, and runs like the wind.
He counts things in his head.
Plus, in the grand scheme of things he’s still just a baby. MY baby. And I don’t want to rush us out of that. So if you need us we’ll be outside playing, collecting freckles and bugs and memories, learning as we go. All while holding up Evan’s weak neck.
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