I was having one of those infamous Very Hard Mommy Days, the kind that entail crabby kids, messy arts-and-crafts projects and rainy weather. Elbow deep in roll-on glue and glitter, my young children created refrigerator-door masterpieces with abandon, if not aptitude. But it was “one of those days,” and inevitably their good humor would without warning give way to tantrums and tears. Because my husband had forgotten to do the grocery shopping the night before, we’d been forced to consume the only food left in the house: ramen noodles and Planter’s mixed nuts. By mid-afternoon, everything in my small house was covered in a sticky film of glue, glitter and wet noodles.
Just as I was feeling most defeated by my sorry excuse for a day, the phone rang. It was my literary agent, calling from New York to give me the good news: A major publisher had just acquired my second parenting book — on the joys of raising a larger family. It was 3 p.m. and things were looking up.
Soon after, a friend unexpectedly dropped by. I answered the door still dressed in my tattered flannel bathrobe. I invited her in and excitedly related the details of the new book deal to her. She immediately began to giggle uncontrollably.
“What?! What’s so funny?” I asked with some annoyance while frantically trying to keep my 15-month-old from struggling out of my arms. He was intent on heading back to the cat-food bowl for a few more bites of what had lately become his favorite unauthorized snack.
“Well … um … just look at yourself,” she said, bemusedly eyeing my sticky bathrobe, and probably the dishes in my sink, and the Legos and headless Barbies covering the dining room table. “You don’t exactly look like some kind of ‘parenting expert.’”
It’s true. I really don’t. Even fully dressed without the glitter in my hair. For one thing, many, if not most, writers of parenting books — Dr. Benjamin Spock, John Rosemond, T. Berry Brazelton, Richard Ferber, James Dobson and Burton White, to name but a few — are men. There are some female writers on the topic of child-care issues, including the wonderful Penelope Leach and Eda LeShan, but they constitute a distinct minority. Additionally, most of these pundits — be they male or female — are well past their own time in the parenting trenches. When these folks offer child-care guidance, it’s through the rosy glow of memory, or based on solely academic observations.
By contrast, I wrote my first book, “Attachment Parenting: Instinctive Care for Your Baby and Young Child,” while actually living what I was writing about. When I penned the chapter explaining how parents can successfully “wear” their baby, it was with my own infant comfortably nestled in a sling on my chest as I typed. Writing the section on long-term breast-feeding was slow going, since I had the pleasant task of taking regular nursing breaks with both my toddler and her baby brother. I wrote my book not as a Ph.D. in child development or a world-renowned pediatric researcher, but as a 31-year-old mother and writer who wanted to offer parents information on a nurturing style that was really working for my own family and many others.
Despite the fact that I clearly don’t fit the mold of the conventional parenting expert (and in fact don’t think of myself as such), by virtue of having written rather extensively on child-care topics for newspapers and magazines, as well as being the author of two upcoming parenting books, that label is starting to stick. But the disconnect between being thought of as an authority on this subject and the normal ups and downs of my day-to-day life as a parent can be somewhat jarring at times. Although I believe sincerely and passionately in the topics about which I write, the fact is that I am a flesh-and-blood mama with real, live children. For this reason, I am not always able to measure up to the expectations that other people — and even I myself — sometimes have for me and my family.
One unsettling phenomenon I have encountered is that when some other mothers become aware of my work, they seem to feel the need to explain and even defend their own parenting choices to me ad nauseam — either that or they avoid me. For instance, I’ve noticed that bottle-feeding acquaintances at my neighborhood playground either won’t come within 10 feet of me or immediately plop down beside me to offer an unsolicited stream-of-consciousness commentary on the myriad reasons why they simply couldn’t breast-feed. I’m never sure how to respond to these encounters. These women aren’t asking for my opinion; instead they just seem to want to be absolved of their guilty feelings by having someone they perceive to be an “expert” validate their decisions. Needless to say, I would never presume to comment to them on their child-rearing practices, which are none of my business. After all, I go to the park to play with my kids, not to render some sort of all-knowing judgment on other parents.
I’ve also noticed that friends and acquaintances seem to presume that the progeny of someone who has written a book on the topic of child-rearing will always behave perfectly. Lately, when my
children do something predictably childlike, such as collapse in a crying heap at a restaurant after being kept out too late, other adults who know of my vocation seem to revel in the supposed irony of the situation. They are sure to say something they believe to be cleverly amusing, such as: “Gee, is that what I’ll get if I follow the advice in your book?”
My first-grader, Henry, has even taken to occasionally comparing his real mom with “parenting expert” mom. Henry is proud of my work as a writer and likes to offer his input on my advice to parents. He knows from our discussions and his own experience that I am an advocate of gentle, respectful discipline for children. But it took me by surprise recently when, after I totally lost it and yelled at him, Henry burst into tears and announced: “I’m going to tell all the mommies who buy your book that you scream at me all the time!“
I don’t scream at Henry all the time, or even very much of the time. But the idea that he might tell people that I do bothered me more than I wanted to admit. After all, why would anyone want to buy a book on parenting from someone who allegedly verbally abuses her own small children?
“I’ll bet those people who wrote ‘What to Expect When You’re Expecting’ never yelled at their children,” I thought to myself glumly.
I am not proud to confess that since writing my book, this isn’t the only instance in which I have allowed myself to succumb to somewhat absurd expectations regarding my family life. For example, I decided that my children should have the opportunity to be included in the publicity photo for my book. They seemed enthusiastic about the idea and we all had a great time getting dressed up and going to the photo shoot. I was certain that the photographer had captured a variety of wonderful shots of my adorable, well-adjusted children. Unfortunately, this was not the case. When the proofs arrived, I discovered row after row of pictures of what looked to me like unhappy, sullen-looking children.
“How did this happen?” I shrieked at my husband. “We can’t use these! Everyone will think I’m a terrible mother and that attachment parenting turns children into depressed malcontents!”
He finally persuaded me to calm down, and after days of poring over the contact sheets with a magnifying glass, I managed to choose the shot in which my children looked the cheeriest. Still, although I knew it was silly, I continued to harbor a secret wish that we could just crop them out of the photo altogether.
All of this baggage associated with my relatively new status as a parenting pundit was really starting to get me down. Then I happened to run across an interview with Dr. Benjamin Spock, in which he spoke honestly of his own struggles to effectively parent his stepdaughter, Ginger. In the piece, he admitted to being so angry with Ginger on one occasion that he “became purple in the face and shouted at her furiously.” I couldn’t believe it. The one and only Dr. Spock — the mother of all parenting experts — yelling! With a purple face even! I read the passage several times, feeling better by the moment. Suddenly my own foibles seemed acceptable, even inconsequential. Although I still don’t think I look like “some kind of parenting expert,” I have realized that I do look and act like something even more credible: a real parent.