A friend expecting his first baby actually asked me for parenting advice. After I picked myself up off the floor (most of us, before we have children, know everything about parenting. Everything. Sigh. I miss that time), I gave him a big email smooch and hug. Even when childless, he thought our kids were super-cool and all the whacky stuff we were doing with them made total sense for him. He wanted me to spell it out for him in anticipation of his own journey. Here’s what I wrote. (Language warning for the sensitive of eye and ear: we’re university friends, he and I, and the way we talked about politics, education and philosophy back in the day contained a lot of four letter words. When it came to talking to babies and being a parent… well, old habits and all that.)
2008… As for baby advice, one day I plan to write a book, and in the meantime, my short-hand advice is this: no child should be raised by the book (not even my book). We’ve consciously parented off the beaten path, centering our practices and behaviours around the self-evident truth that children are human beings and should be treated and respected as such. Many of the things we’ve done are “attachment parenting” (watered down mainstream guru of approach is one Dr. William Sears, widely published) principles—baby wearing, sleep sharing, extended breastfeeding—but really it’s not what you do that’s important, it’s who you are as a parent. As a person, really. Now that our kids are older, I absolutely think the most critical part of the parenting journey is maintaining that focus on fostering attachment and bonding between parents and children and siblings, and casting anything other people call “discipline” within that context.
That means, among other things, that we don’t punish our children. Not by withdrawing privileges, not by disguising punishment by consequences, not by trading negative stuff for excessive positive reinforcement and rewards. Doesn’t mean we don’t periodically get angry, frustrated and yell. It doesn’t mean we don’t correct undesirable behaviour—but we don’t time out, send to room, cancel plans etc. But I’m jumping ahead: we can talk about all that when you have a toddler or preschooler.
First, you’re going to have a baby, and that means your focus for the next year is going to be all about keeping that teeny weeny creature alive, healthy and happy, and you’ll find a way to do it. You want to know what the real secret of parenting is? Ready? Here it is: humans have done it for fucking millennia. It’s not that hard. Actually, it’s not hard at all. One of the things that makes it hardest is the legion of self-proclaimed experts preying on the insecurities on new parents in order to sell books of dubious value.
What makes it hard, also, is that so many of the structures and rhythms of life today don’t fit children or families. That’s the biggest adjustment, I think, of post-baby life. We don’t socialize or live as families—we do so as age-segregated units of peers. Why are parents so focused on getting babies to sleep through the night? Two reasons: 1) because the parents need a good night’s sleep wake up at 7 a.m. in the morning and go to work for 10 hours. But even before that, 2) because they want “their life”—time to do adult only things.
Well, surprise: once you have a child, you transform from a couple into a family, and the predominant mode of life should be family life. I believe that’s one of the self-inflicted stresses of post-partum, people wailing “When do I get my life back?” You don’t. You’ve got a brand new life now, with a brand new person in it—and you can move forward and create patterns that work for the three of you, or wail and rant and make all three of you unhappy and estranged.
Everyone wails a little bit.
When that adjustment stage gets tough for you, meditate on this secret: humans have had families and found a way to make things work for fucking millennia. You’ll find a way. (Ours is dramatically different from that of our peers—we’re both working from home, for example, and we take our children with us to virtually everything. Flora’s thrown up on many a Bay Street suit, and there is Cinder pee on the carpet of most of my editors/clients. But I don’t advocate that as the only way—it’s our way and right for us, right? You’ll find your own—but do think in terms of creating new patterns and rhythms, instead of biding time until you can go back to the old ones.)
… When revisiting the past, it’s always interesting to see how one’s perspective has changed. I cringed throughout my re-read of that infamous “Why isn’t it natural” post. In this case, no cringing. I would still give the same advice again. The secret of parenthood: humans have done it for millennia. Addendum: no child should be raised by the book.