Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Why It's Good to Shun Parenting Books: A Case Study

I don't read parenting books or magazines. There is a shelf in Henry's room filled with books that I refuse to pick up, because every time I do, they teach me something pointless to worry about.

Febrile convulsions? If Henry starts convulsing, I'm not going to leaf through the index of a book... F... F... F... Feet, FemCap, Fenugreek, Ferberizing, Fertility Awareness, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, Fever - convulsions during. Honey, I found it!

No. I'm going to call my doctor. Immediately. So why read about these things in advance and get worked up about the possibility of something that is unlikely to happen? There are enough actual things to worry about.

But thanks to my Italian-American upbringing, my brain is a steel trap for fear-tchotchkes. Once I know that febrile convulsions are a reality, I can't un-know it. It will rattle around in the back of my head. And the next time Henry has a fever, I will secretly look to see if he is shaking.

Not. Helpful.

Or, two books say the exact opposite thing:
If you have a family history of peanut--or other--allergies, it's probably wise to avoid peanuts and foods that contain them while breastfeeding. Research has found that peanut allergens may be passed through breast milk from the mother to the nursing baby. Heidi Murkoff, What to Expect the First Year, p97
...delaying the introduction [of peanuts] makes no difference; he'll develop the reaction no matter how old he is when he first tastes a peanut. Michel Cohen, MD, The New Basics, p232
Don't make me hurt you, books.

For the record, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says here:
The AAP has concluded that at this time, there is no evidence that dietary restrictions in a nursing mother can play a significant role in preventing allergic diseases such as eczema, food allergy, or asthma.
Plus, I find the "milestones" these books and magazines offer generally unconstructive. Henry will be eight months next week and is still completely toothless. (It's kinda cute.) I met a baby in swim class this week who is a day younger and just got his sixth tooth. Clearly there is a range of normal. I can't pull a tooth out of my baby's gums. When they are ready, they'll come out.

I do, however, receive the Babycenter's weekly "development" emails, whose updates are short and innocuous. No cautionary tales about iron deficiency due to snubbing fortified cereal (What to Expect the First Year, p363).

But the other day, I received Your 7-Month Old's Development: Week 4. The lede was disconcerting, because it wasn't about the baby. It was about the parent.
[E]ven though your baby's just beginning to learn about her emotions, she's picking things up from you. Over the many months (and years) to come, your baby will likely copy the way she sees you treat people. 
See, now, this is the problem. It's not like I roam the streets of Brooklyn pushing old ladies down and kicking kittens. But I do, once in a while, you know, tell someone I'd like to rip his face off. Not behavior I want to model per se.

"What do I do?" I wrote to Rayne on gchat. "I'm not a nice person!"

"You're a nice person. You're just a meany sometimes," he replied.

Not. Helpful.

When I recounted this to a friend, she nodded. "Yeah," she said. "My [three-year-old] daughter is kind of bossy, and I think it's because she sees me bossing my husband around."

Not! Helpful!

I've been a relatively calm parent. I let Henry cry a little before I pick him up; I try to follow a schedule but I'm not a slave to it; if he doesn't want to finish his spinach-peas-pears puree, I don't force it down his throat; if he falls and bangs his little noggin, I smile (or laugh, but only when it's funny) and help him back up. To be fair, Henry makes it easy -- he is a good-natured little guy.

But what about those moments when I am not actively parenting? The swear words, the temper tantrums, the shoving an entire chocolate bar into my mouth in ten minutes flat? I can strain to be a sanitized version of myself around my children. But I can't change who I am entirely.

Do I go back to a full-time job, giving Henry different role models to emulate? Or will the stress of career-plus-parenting make me unbearable? Do I stay home and try to make a career of writing? Or will being home so much backfire?

Did my parents do this? Did they sit around wondering how not to rub off on me and my sister? I don't think so. They had me in their mid-twenties. At that age, the navel-gazing quotient for their generation was low.

I know. I'll go eat a bowl of cereal.