Monday, July 9, 2012

Silence Is Golden

I nodded in sad agreement while reading the excellent post by Sarah Ann Noel on Circle of Moms entitled "When Other Moms Judge." What struck me about the post was not its originality but its seeming universality. We have all been there. Who doesn't have a story about a well meaning stranger, an envious co-worker or an overwhelmed playground mommy who offered unsolicited -- and sometimes condescending or just plain mean -- advice about how we were raising our children?

And lest we throw stones in glass houses, who among us hasn't thought, "Wow, my kids are never going to act like that" when we see a child out of control in the airport, or "I can't believe she's feeding him that"?

Frankly, we are plenty judgmental in the rest of our lives, too. We judge what someone is wearing or her choice of spouse; we swear we would never live in a particular city or paint our kitchen chartreuse. The difference is that, more often than not, we keep our trap shut in those other scenarios. In contrast, why does it feel like open season on parenting?

I have a theory that, deep down, we feel like we should already know how to do this child-rearing thing. Humans have been raising young since the beginning of our species, for Pete’s sake. Shouldn’t it be “natural” and “intuitive”? For all my education, shouldn’t I be at least as competent in raising my child as, say, the first generation of Homo sapiens? Ironically, this self-deprecating hunch is reinforced by book after nauseating book on the new/old/modern/surprising “rules” for sleeping, eating, pooping and playing by book authors whom we have never even met.

The truth is, with families more spread out and more nuclear than ever, we no longer have a strong network of hand-me-down wisdom on which to rely. Most of us don’t bring up our five younger siblings and ten younger cousins anymore. We don’t have our mothers and aunts around to show us how to bathe a baby. Our first brush with the reality of a human baby is often with our own, after we have been unceremoniously discharged from a hospital just two or three days after giving birth.

This loss of collective wisdom seems to have caused a level of anxiety that splits our seams. We feel as though we have been left to fend for ourselves. A pediatrician I know told me a story about a woman who called in the middle of the night asking if she should wake her infant to change her poopy diaper. That is how alone we feel.

So we glom on to whatever works for us and feel compelled either to a) publicly justify our every decision in the face of others’ different methods, or b) share our hard-earned wisdom with anyone who, in our narrow view, is having a problem.

In addition, let's face it: We are all experts in over-generalizing based on our own experiences. And because everyone has either parented or, at the very least, been parented, we are chock full of anecdotal evidence to support our specious claims. We actually believe we are qualified to critique your mothering.

But who on earth can drink from the fire hose of advice shooting out from every corner? You need to read this book the Baby Whisperer. Ferberize him! Dr. Sears. No, Dr. Spock! NO, DR. OZ!! La Leche League would not approve. The new basics. The old basics. Have you tried ear plugs?

In my experience, the only other area of life where people seem to question so brazenly or "educate" so ardently is dieting. Have you tried the Paleo diet? What about Atkins? Does anyone remember the Suzanne Somers diet? Low-fat is the way to go. Dr. Oz again! You should really try a juice fast. My cousin's best friend lost 50 pounds on the Jared Subway diet. Smoothies! Slim Fast. Eat raw. Eat cooked. Try the cartwheel diet!

Ack! Shut. Up. All of you.

Not surprisingly, diet and parenting proselytizing share a few traits. Because we, as human beings, have been eating since the origin of our species, it seems like it should be intuitive. And because we all eat, we have a lifetime of anecdotal evidence about how food should and should not be consumed.

But in the melting pot of the American Dream, we have lost the cultural rules around eating that formed over thousands of years in order to make sure we actually, you know, survived. With our modern diet chronically imbalanced, we pore over books, clinging to whatever seems to work for us. Then, we are so excited that we’ve figured it out that we have to share it with the world. Sound familiar?

Alas, there is one more thing that both eating and parenting have in common, something that we always forget along the way: both are incredibly idiosyncratic. Just as different diets work for different bodies and metabolisms, different parenting techniques work for different children, families and circumstances.

So if you see me on the street doing something with Henry that you would never do, please don’t take it personally. In these times of anxiety and perpetual chatter, sometimes silence is golden.