Our evolving toddler TV policy, part III

I have a confession to make: Little Boy’s been watching more TV.  Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood and Curious George have permanently joined Sesame Street (still his favorite) in rotation, with an occasional smattering of Mighty Machines and Reading Rainbow.  There are two main drivers of this increased screen time.

The first reason is that Little Boy has been sick a lot.  And I mean A Lot.  Just this week, for example: he came down with pink eye on Tuesday and is running a fever today.  Books and friends warned us that the first year of daycare would be bad, but we didn’t realize just quite how much illness it would involve.  I’ve been hoping that it would taper off as cold and flu season ended, but no such luck yet.

Anyway, as I’ve mentioned before, the rules get relaxed when people are sick.  When Little Boy is uncomfortable and cranky, you can bet that we’re going to try to distract him from that discomfort however we can.  We also read, and go for walks, and snuggle, but yeah, TV is a big part of sick time.  After all, what do I do when I’m sick?  I lay on the couch and entertain myself with screens of the TV or tablet variety.

The second reason for the additional TV is that Little Boy has grown to be highly mobile and curious.  He’s also becoming increasingly social and, I think, gets frankly rather bored stuck at home with his mom and dad.  This combination means that he can get into lots of mischief.  Now, that normally isn’t too big of an issue, since we offer plenty of supervision, but sometimes as a parent you have to get things done that require your attention, and that’s where TV can help.

Do I feel guilty about this?  Of course.  I’ll always feel guilty about something.  But Little Boy has made recent leaps in verbal development, and he loves to read books and stack blocks and chase bubbles.  Television isn’t stunting him in some kind of terrible way.  In the end, I suspect it’s like most things: use thoughtfully and in moderation.

I wasn’t quite expecting this topic to turn into a series, but hey.  Here are parts I and II.

What Judith Warner got right about motherhood in America

Over the holiday season, I finished reading author Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety.  (Just the title alone makes it sound like the perfect book for me, right?)  I had a very positive gut-feel reaction to this book.  Here was someone, published, in words, who was experiencing the culture of American motherhood in much the same way that I am.  Not the specific details of our lives, but the overall aura of how mothers are perceived and expected to behave.  The unsaid expectations and judgement and blame that pile up and make you feel guilty for the most ridiculous of reasons.

Because I have so many tendrils of depression and anxiety running through my brain, I’m used to other people dismissing my perception of reality.  “It’s not that bad,” they say.  Or, “Just ignore it.”  This happens so often that I end up gaslighting myself, trying to convince myself that perhaps the forces I feel are all in my head.  It therefore comes as a profound relief to hear that someone else feels them too.

I found the pressure to breastfeed for at least a year, to endure natural childbirth, and to tolerate the boundary breakdowns of “attachment parenting”—baby-wearing, co-sleeping, long-term breastfeeding and the rest of it—cruelly insensitive to mothers’ needs as adult women.

Perfect Madness, pg. 15

The book came about after Warner moved back to the U.S. a few years after giving birth to her first child in France.  She extols the French approach to parenthood to perhaps an excessive degree, gliding over some of the more sexist elements to focus on the availability of childcare and the expectation that mothers remain adult women with their own lives.  Her shock at the contrast between the two countries’ approach to parenting is the launching point for an extended discussion of American motherhood.

It’s a discussion that’s unabashedly focused on the (white) middle class, that group that kinda-maybe-sorta has enough money and privilege to have real choices in life, but maybe not.  It’s the group that can get just close enough to having it all that when they inevitably fail, they assume that it’s their fault as individuals rather than a failure on the part of society.  It’s the group that buys the wooden (not plastic!) toy blocks and the organic cotton blankets and the Baby Einstein DVDs—or maybe doesn’t buy the Baby Einstein DVDs, so they can brag about protecting their children from the evils of TV for 2, 3, 4 years or more.  It’s the group that organizes Frozen-themed birthday parties for one-year-olds and puts together special sensory boxes for their toddlers.

Maybe our children could have run off and played.  If we’d let them.  But we didn’t.  There was so much pressure to always be doing something with them or for them.  And doing it right.

Perfect Madness, pg. 25

Warner puts this approach in context of the last 50 years of motherhood in the U.S., describing how, as household devices relieved the heavy work that had once dominated a housewife’s life, women began to fill their time with “makework and trivia.”  She talks about how Dr. Spock and other child-rearing experts popularized the notion that children are born as relatively blank slates, to be perfected into successful human beings by the attention of their parents.  She calls modern women “a generation of control freaks,” caught up in the angst of the declining American middle class and trying to prove that we are good enough.  If we do everything just right, we believe, we will be rewarded by perfect children and an easy life.

I see this attitude so often in parenting magazines, advice blogs, and mommy forums.  If you follow every attachment parenting rule in the book, your infant will not cry.  If you practice only the very very gentlest disciplinary measures, your child will not only eventually learn to behave, he or she will go into adult life free of parent-induced neuroses.  If you adhere to an enormous and often conflicting set of strictures about child nutrition, your kid will have a healthy relationship with food and zero allergies.  The corollary, of course, is that if your baby does cry or your child does turn out anything less than perfect, then it must be your fault.

[The] potential to do damage, to cause one’s child unbearable and lifelong pain, became part of the very definition of motherhood. […] and the linking of nightmare experiences of children lost and abandoned to mundane everyday situations of short-term separation became attachment theory’s problematic legacy.

Perfect Madness, pg. 93–94

Perfect Madness is actually a decade years old—Warner’s generation of mothers are closer in age to my mom than to me.  Aside from the occasional reference to growing up in the 80s, though, it doesn’t feel out-of-date.  If anything, it feels even more true now than it was 10 years ago, with the ever-increasing prevalence of “natural” parenting and the recession that knocked the American middle class back even farther.  It makes the vaguely hopeful ending a bit more depressing to know that in 10 years, we haven’t managed to make any kind of structural changes to American society to ease the struggle of motherhood.

Because Warner doesn’t blame this atmosphere on individuals.  She blames it on a culture that values “rugged individualism” above all else, and I tend to agree.  For all the freedom my demographic (that is, middle-class, educated white women) supposedly has, our life choices actually remain rather constrained.  You can work—for the money or the intellectual satisfaction—but that means buying into our workaholic culture and paying the exorbitant cost of unsubsidized daycare to cover the long hours of your job.  Or you can stay home and budget carefully and love being with your kids but maybe wish that wasn’t all you did.  There’s very little space in-between.  And so women who pick one extreme or the other convince themselves that it’s all for the best, and that they have freely chosen the thing that is Most Beneficial for their children.

All the moralizing we routinely do is a ridiculous waste of time and energy.  And it rests upon assumptions that have no basis in reality.  Chief among them: that mothers do what they do most of the time out of choice.

Perfect Madness, pg. 145

The book wanders a bit in the middle, stepping away from parenting to discuss the other ways that millennial women manifest their control-freakishness: eating disorders, pseudo-allergies, an extremely individualized approach to feminism.  I was also a bit put off by the chapter on marriage and husbands, which had a very “men don’t help at all” attitude and spoke of fathers disappearing for golf and drinks on the weekends.  My family’s experience is nothing like that (although I do know people who are more stereotypical; I suspect it remains unfortunately common).

There’s one other thing I don’t like about this book: whenever the subject of American daycare comes up, Warner bemoans its low quality.  It’s the sort of thing to make a working mom feel immediately defensive, and it feels odd given the book’s focus on the middle class.

Still, Perfect Madness was a fascinating and welcome read.  I’d highly recommend it to anyone who feels caught up in the pressure of parenting, or who has ever felt that way.  If nothing else, take away this message: guilt is not a necessary part of being a good mother.

[Obligatory (not-really-a-)disclaimer: I bought this book myself because I wanted to read it.  I have no connections to anyone involved in its publication and all opinions are my own.]

The fear of judgment continues

Hi, my name is Crazy Grad Mama, and I’m an insecure parent

My latest mommy-guilt paranoia is about the food we pack for daycare.  We’ve taken an adventurous but lackadaisical approach to introducing solid food, one that’s based on offering Little Boy spoonfuls of leftover spaghetti, bites of avocado, crusts of PB&J, and even a small sliver of pizza.  At the time Little Boy started daycare, he’d been regularly eating one solid meal per day at dinnertime and was just starting on the concept of lunch.  I figured sending him one bowlful of something for lunch (plus plenty of Cheerios for snack time) would be plenty to begin with.  Applesauce one day, yogurt the next, maybe some puréed peas – I could handle this.

Except that after about a week, we were informed that he needed more food.  It’s his teachers’ job to give us feedback on this, of course, but there are a range of approaches to saying, “Hey, you need to pack more food because your kid is getting hungry in the afternoon,” and, well, they didn’t really hit the right one.  Cue me feeling like a crappy parent.

This also means coming up with twice as many packable baby meals per week.  But there’s a reason I’m not usually the family cook, and that reason is the fact that I can barely muster up the mental energy to care about cooking (much less meal planning) on a regular basis.

Half of Little Boy’s current easy-prep menu turns out to be unsuitable for packing – avocados and bananas turn brown, peanut butter is an allergy no-no.  He’s not far enough along in the art of self-feeding to assume that he’ll eat large quantities of finger food (indeed, his teachers report that he mostly plays with the Cheerios), so the random small bits of adult food we provide at home won’t be much good for satiating his hunger at daycare.

It’s starting to annoy my husband a little, I think.  The increasingly desperate look on my face when I realize that we’re going to have to send Little Boy with yogurt and applesauce again.  “His teachers are going to think we’re terrible parents,” I say.  “We can’t send him with the same thing every day.”

Someday, I might look back on these times and laugh that I was so worried about something that seems so irrelevant in the long run.  It’s not like I’m sending my kid to daycare with fried Twinkies and Pepsi.  And it’s such an easy issue to solve, once we hit a weekend when I’m not feeling quite so sick.  Fruits and vegetables are readily boiled / steamed / baked and puréed once you have them on hand.

The underlying insecurity, however, is not so easy to solve.  I have a tendency to assume that people are thinking the worst, especially when it comes to my mothering.  (For instance, I used to close the windows when Little Boy did tummy time, because he protested the indignity so strenuously that I worried others would hear the crying and be concerned.)  Right now, it really matters to me that the daycare teachers think well of us.  I don’t need to be the best at this, but I don’t want to be laughably far behind.

In which I am not really surprised by statistics

On Friday, the New York Times described the results of a Harvard Business School study about the effect of working mothers: across the developed world, the grown daughters of working moms are more likely to work themselves, and the grown sons of working moms spend more time on child care and housework.  No one should be shocked by this – after all, parents are their children’s greatest role models.

I don’t want to harp on this particular study.  I’m secure in the knowledge that my own choice to work outside the home is the right choice for my family, and I don’t want to imply that stay-at-home parents can’t be strong models of gender equity as well.  (This particular study didn’t differentiate between working full-time, part-time, long-term, short-term, at home, or out of the home.  It counted as a “working mother” any mom who “ever work[ed] for pay” before her kids were 14.  That includes everyone from high-powered attorneys to stay-at-home moms who babysit.)

No, what I want to talk about is the third sentence of that New York Times article.

… 41 percent of adults say the increase in working mothers is bad for society, while just 22 percent say it is good, according to the Pew Research Center.

Uh, what?

I clicked on the link and spent some time reading the Pew study, which was conducted in 2007.  Yup, turns out if you’re a working mother in the U.S., that disapproval you think you’re feeling from society isn’t all in your head.  Interestingly, there’s no statistical difference in the opinions of men and women on this subject, and there was very little change in attitudes from 1997-2007.

It also turns out that almost nobody (men, women, stay-at-home moms, or working moms) thinks that mothers working full-time is best for the children, although 41% say that a mother working part-time is ideal.  They didn’t ask the “what’s best for the kids” question about fathers, because of course not.

On the plus side, 36% of the respondents said that “more fathers staying home with children so their wives can work full-time” was good for society, with just 21% saying that was bad.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to make this distinction?  If longer and PAID maternity and paternity leaves were readily available in the U.S.?  If we didn’t have a working culture that assumes long hours = more dedicated = better employee, so that moms and dads (and people without kids) didn’t have to choose between “work” and “life outside work” but could have some of both instead?

While we’re working on that, we need to get over the idea that working moms are bad for society.  Seriously, America.  You’re better than that.

Weird mommy guilt

On the way home from taking our son to meet the teachers at his new daycare, my husband said, “It’s going to be really hard to drop him off that first day.”

I was silent for a moment before responding.

“Sometimes I secretly wonder if I’m a bad mother, because I don’t feel guilty about this at all.  I’m going to walk in and go, ‘Here, take my kid, thanks, bye.’ ”

He laughed.

There are some important caveats to that sentiment.  I don’t entrust our baby’s care to just anyone – only close and competent family members, carefully-screened babysitters, and a thoughtfully-selected and widely-recommended daycare.  I will miss my son after a while, for sure; he is adorable and I love his little habits.  And my comfort level with handing him over to anyone who’s not his father has definitely increased significantly as Little Boy has gotten older.  It wasn’t until he was about four months old that I felt confident giving a caregiver a basic schedule rather than a long list of “if he cries, try this and this and this and that.”

Oddly though, much of my difficulty in leaving Little Boy in the early days was not concern for him, but concern for the person taking care of him.  In the beginning, when you’re nursing completely on demand – especially before your baby is old enough to take a bottle – mom’s absence means removing the easiest and most reliable soothing method.  Even later, I felt awful heading to school knowing that my husband’s postpartum depression was going to get worse with every minute that he had to take care of a baby who wasn’t perfectly happy.  Somehow, I’d internalized the idea that an unhappy baby was my fault even when I wasn’t there.

Now, however, I don’t feel guilty that Little Boy will be spending much of his time with “strangers.”  I’m a better, calmer, and more engaging mother if I get real breaks, and my husband will hopefully be a much-less-stressed father when he can stop having to try to get work done during nap time.  Plus (weirdly capitalistic as this may sound), we’re paying the daycare providers; I don’t have to feel like I’m taking advantage of their goodwill on those days when my son becomes a Purple Minion.

My brain, however, is not so easily settled.  Does my lack of guilt about daycare make me a bad parent?  Aren’t I supposed to feel guilty about this?

Saying no to Pinterest-perfect parenting

Pinterest and I are not friends.  I wouldn’t say we’re enemies either; it’s just not my thing.  I’ve never been the kind of person who compiles pictures of clothing ensembles (except for when I was planning my wedding), and I already have way more tasty-looking recipes torn out of Martha Stewart Living than anyone in my household will ever cook – we certainly don’t need to add to that collection.  There’s also the dubious legality of pinning copyrighted work, and my own concern with the quantity of images glorifying skinny bodies and over-healthy eating.

But I don’t mean to hate on Pinterest.  It’s just one facet of the “make everything magical” culture, a culture that is fueled in part (but only in part) by social media.  There’s nothing wrong with gathering ideas for inspiration, especially if you have the time and energy for that sort of thing.  But it can put an awful lot of pressure on the rest of us.

In the second half of my pregnancy, a number of family and friends started asking for pictures of Little-Boy-to-be’s nursery.  I had seen on Facebook many photos of friends’ nurseries, with their artfully-arranged matching furniture and baby-name-themed wall hangings.  And I really wanted Little Boy to have a nice, functional room, even if it included an IKEA crib and his mother’s childhood dresser rather than a fancy new furniture set.  However, this meant cleaning out a room that had endured only vague attempts at organization since we moved in.  My husband and I were already busy and depressed, and my high standards for sorting all of our stuff only made those conditions worse.  I don’t regret the organizing we did – it’s nice to have all my craft supplies in one place again and to be able to find the envelopes and stamps without conducting a house-wide search – but I do regret the intense anxiety that went along with it.

I was putting some of the pressure on myself, for sure.  My desire for perfection often gets in the way of just getting stuff done.  Other people’s photos of stylish nurseries fueled that internal pressure, and repeated “I want to see your nursery!” requests made it impossible to convince myself that it didn’t really matter.

We “finished” the essentials of the nursery about a week before Little Boy was born.  The final touch was a sampling of baby books purchased the night before we went to the hospital.  And do you know what?  Little Boy didn’t care that his space had only existed for a few days – it was ready for him when it was needed, and that was all that mattered.  (He probably still doesn’t care what it looks like, to be honest, but I do appreciate having a clean and pleasant space.)

The most recent push for a “magical moment” came from my mother-in-law, who persistently asked for pictures and video of Little Boy meeting his cousin for the first time.  The cousin is two years old.  Little Boy is one-quarter that.  We want them to interact a bit – hence the visit – but it wasn’t like they were going to lay eyes on each other and instantly become best friends for life.  Trying to force it would just stress out the adults.

A while back, I came across this post by Thea at Supermom?, who says,

When I was growing up I don’t remember my parents planning many things for us to do, or trying to make crafting fun for us. I just remember playing and having fun!

Her post in turn lead me to an older Huffington Post article titled, “I’m Done Making My Kid’s Childhood Magical.”  In it, Bunmi Laditan writes,

It is not our responsibility to manufacture contrived memories on a daily basis.

They’re right.  My childhood memories exist against a background of pleasant family togetherness: having dinner together, going on hikes, playing board games, and driving cross-country to Grandma’s.  My parents incorporated us into their regular activities, and it was wonderful.  We did fancy themed crafts at preschool; at home, my mother taught me how to cross-stitch and knit.  (I still can’t believe she entrusted a five-year-old with a needle!)

Some of my most beloved childhood activities, however, sprang solely from my (and my brother’s) imagination.  We created a tabletop city of Popsicle-stick people, complete with background stories and a full genealogy.  We spent a week building and defending a rock fort outside my grandparents’ cabin.  We dreamed up complete cultures – language, history, and all.

The real magic happens when children are left to their own devices to discover their world and create new ones.  Parents are responsible for ensuring that their children’s world is one of love and trust, but also freedom.  We build the backdrop for those special memories; we can’t construct the memories ourselves.

So I’m not going to stress out about planning perfect “learning activities” for my son.  We will simply read together and talk together and play together instead.  We won’t be inviting 50 people to a themed first birthday party, because what child remembers their first birthday anyway?  And no matter how many of my husband’s friends insist that we’ll change our mind, we won’t be buying an Elf on the Shelf for Christmas.

Oh, and that special first meeting between Little Boy and his cousin?  It will be remembered far longer than any staged photograph, because it went something like this:

Uncle, to Two-Year-Old Cousin: “Want to come meet your cousin?”

Two-Year-Old Cousin: “No.”

Running strollers and the fear of judgment

On a recent morning, Little Boy and I were out for a run when he started to get fussy.  This wasn’t a huge surprise; his relationship with the running stroller can be described as grudging tolerance at best.  It was also a particularly windy day – I don’t know how much that affected him, but it was certainly making the run harder on me.

My first response to a disgruntled Little Boy is to stop, pop my head around the sun shade, reassure him of my presence, check that he’s comfortably positioned with sunglasses still on, do a quick sniff test, and then give him a kiss and resume running.  If the grump level continues to rise, I’ll unstrap him from the stroller for a hug; at that point, it’s time to turn around (if I haven’t already) and head for home.

The path we run on is a popular spot for joggers, walkers, and bicyclists of all ages, so we pass and get passed by numerous people on a typical day.  When I’m pushing a baby who has decided to be, as my husband calls him, Mr. Fuss E. Pants, I become extremely self-conscious.  What are these various people thinking of me?  What kind of judgment must they be passing on my mothering skills?

What a selfish mother.  Can’t she see that her baby’s upset?  How can she keep running like that?

Logically, this anxiety has no basis.  No one has ever actually said such things in my hearing, nor even given me an obvious dirty look.  I know that Little Boy will be fine; our runs by design avoid mealtime and naptime, and the need for a diaper change would be unmistakable.  After a certain point, the best strategy for taking care of him is to get back home – and the fastest way to do that is to keep running.

My husband has no such worry in this situation.  He automatically assumes that any observers are sympathetic (oh, poor Daddy instead of oh, poor baby).

So why am I so concerned?  I wish I could more easily let it go.  This type of anxiety is almost always unproductive, and it permeates other parts of my life as well.  If I could just say to myself, “I’m going to submit this paper and deal with what the referee says when it comes,” I might be closer to graduating than I am now.