When it comes to parenting, especially the first time, I assume most people make it up as they go along. We read a few “What to Expect…” books, stock up on baby essentials and listen to advice from other dads, mothers and friends who’ve been there. But for the most part, parenting is one of those experiences we’re never really prepared for.
An infant changes everything, and while preparation is comforting, no one can predict how they will react until the moment arrives. Generally, after a few of showerless days and sleepless nights, good intentions and the best laid plans are shelved. Survival becomes the goal. Forget normalcy. Sooner than later we realize that life à trios will not be the fantasy concocted during ‘Expecting Mommy’ classes and dreamy late night conversations with our wives over baby-naming books.
We stand at a precipice — exhausted, dazed and confused — with only a couple of clear choices. For some, it means a personal surrender and a profound change of consciousness. This is often the jumping off place to adulthood. Others struggle to preserve elements of their carefree pre-natal lives. This can mean trying to train the infant to adapt to their lifestyle – the way it was before the blessed event – by adjusting sleep and eating schedules to accommodate adult social events; or abandoning their child to a bi-lingual, CPR-trained, background-checked stranger to sneak off to Baja for a long weekend.
Me, I took the plunge, opted for surrender.
An infant’s needs are simple (albeit persistent and all-consuming), but we are products of a self-possessed, what-about-me? culture. It’s how we were raised — to do our own thing, take it easy, protect our space, get what’s ours and, above all, be happy (an entirely American obsession, by the way. Most of the world does not spend a whole lot of time wondering ‘Am I happy?’). But when an infant needs us – for anything and everything to survive – well, he needs us. It doesn’t matter how we feel at that moment, or whether it’s convenient, or that we’re tired or haven’t been to the gym in three weeks. And it sucks when we can’t watch Letterman in bed because the wife’s nursing. What about me?
So, this sudden, relentless demand for self-sacrifice (and the self-pity and resentment it spawns) is an unfamiliar and oppressive experience. And we all handle it differently. But I only learned just how demanding real parenting can be when my wife (that would be Janet) embraced the philosophy and practice of Infant Educaring.
Initially, it meant spending more time (my time) accomplishing duties I could have whipped off in seconds, like a bath or changing a diaper. I learned that these chores constituted ‘valuable, intimate, together time’. We weren’t finished until my infant decided we were finished, and I would receive a non-verbal cue when it was time to move on. And, low and behold…
As my first daughter got older and slept less, parenting meant sacrificing still more time – observing her mostly — just being present. At first, these new demands tested my patience. I had work to do, places to go, people to see. Again, total surrender was the key, and eventually I looked forward to these otherwise mundane moments together and found joy in the pure connection I was making as a father.
But as our daughter became a toddler, and we met other couples who parented according to the whims of conventional wisdom and personal convenience, it turned out my real test as a parent was one of strength. Obviously, I’m not talking about mere physical strength. No, this is the real stuff — the strength not to gag my daughter with a pacifier when she cried; not to put her on slides or swings before she was physically capable of doing it herself; not to let her sit in front of the TV with friends when the parents wanted some grow-up time; and the strength to step in the way of a well-meaning adult to say “no, thank you” or “please, don’t”.
This policy of infant/toddler protectionism does not endear you to other parents no matter how gently or pleasantly you present your case. Your friends feel judged because you decline invitations to certain activities (like a John Carpenter Film Festival for five-year olds), and strangers might judge you to be cruel. Imagine: you’re at the playground, and there is a line-up of parents lifting their toddlers onto a slide. Your child is standing by watching, pointing to the top of the slide. The other parents are confused, some dumbfounded as you kneel beside your daughter in the dirt and calmly acknowledge her desire without fulfilling it. (BTW, if the reader is confused by this behavior, please see Janet’s post, Don’t Stand Me Up, for explanation.)
I have been there, and I can tell you it does take backbone to endure the judgmental stares of other parents, especially if you have any doubts that what you’re doing (or not doing) is best for your child. I mean, it’s a slide, right? What’s the harm?
And how do you ask a friend or relative to please not grab your child and tickle her without her permission? Or convince the doctor that your 4-year old understands the mechanics of a check-up, that she doesn’t need to be distracted by baby-talk or a stand-up comedy routine.
I could go on, but you get the point: this parenting thing – especially the RIE method of parenting – is not just a collection of philosophical talking points. It needs to be practiced in the real world with extreme conviction, follow-through and consistency by both parents. So, it is not for sissies.
I was lucky to have an in-house role model who was strong enough to lead when I didn’t have the stomach to make waves. I was more apt to go with the flow, rationalizing that if the So-and-So’s were doing it, it must be okay. Janet showed a single-minded strength of purpose that at first made me queasy, but which I came to admire more than she will ever know. Her early efforts on behalf of our kids – a lone voice advocating and practicing respect for our children (and others) — were nothing less than heroic. Gradually, through Janet’s modeling, I have absorbed much of the Educaring philosophy and became less squeamish about asserting myself against the pressures of conventional parenting practices. Ultimately, I have found my own strength in the pure truths of Magda Gerber’s teaching. I finally developed a parenting backbone.
Please share your comments with Mike.