Before I became a mom, I was offered all kinds of baby advice. Some of it I found helpful, other things not so much. I felt comfortable picking and choosing between the gems and the rocks because I was fairly confident in my ability to parent well. I mean, people do this everyday, right?
After I became a mom, I was offered even more baby advice. And, again, I was happy to use what was applicable and throw out what didn’t appeal to me. This process worked just fine with my first child and I vividly remember wondering why people made parenting through babyhood so complicated. To me, it all seemed very natural. I simply followed my intuition and, before I knew it, a sweet and spirited little toddler emerged before my very eyes. So, naturally, I planned to follow the same process when my son was born.
And then he turned my world upside down.
He was colicky. He wouldn’t sleep, wouldn’t eat. He screamed every second his skin was not touching mine. He was sick constantly. He was miserable. I was miserable. And suddenly, that intuition I had been so proud of disappeared overnight.
I flailed alone, trying to just get through each day. I questioned every single decision I made and wondered why I was such a terrible parent this time around. I remember wondering if I just couldn’t cope with having two children. And I even asked my husband if he thought I was suffering from postpartum depression. There had to be a reason why I could not make him happy. And I was convinced that it was my fault.
I simultaneously craved advice from anyone who would offer it on the off chance that they had the magic cure, while also shuddering in fear at the potential judgement being passed. When you get to that point of desperation, you have already tried every trick in the book. So in my grumpy, anxiety-ridden state, I was also frustrated when none of the advice I was given offered any real hope.
I felt ashamed and embarrassed when people I loved would make simple suggestions that insinuated his “bad” behaviors had been “allowed” to flourish. And in fairness to them, they were confused too. For the most part, such comments came from people with average kids who followed the baby book “rules”. They never had to question the axiom of putting a baby to sleep drowsy but awake. They never struggled to get their kid to shut out external stimuli enough to even allow sleep to come. It was never a question that their baby would eat exactly when and how much he was supposed to eat. So a baby like mine was… well, a mystery.
That is, until I came to a very simple realization: He is his own, unique, self.
Simple enough, right? But the implications were profound and immediately provided a sense of comfort I had been lacking for an entire year.
I should have seen it all along. From the moment my first child was born, I was amazed at how much personality she had. It’s remarkable, really, how little it has deviated from my initial impressions. Even little propensities, like her distaste for sleeping under blankets, have been evident from very early on. Watching her grow put a new spin on the nature vs. nurture debate for me and I began to recognize that while genes influence a large percentage of one’s personality, nurturing those traits in a positive manner ultimately forms the final makeup of a person.
So why couldn’t that apply to my son, as well? I’m convinced that it does and that it explains a lot of our early struggles. Undoubtedly, there were some medical issues that complicated things but, for the most part, I was simply trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. I was searching for answers in places that didn’t take his needs or personality into account. In my attempt to make my baby “normal”, I was actively ignoring the personality traits that would make it impossible to follow conventional baby wisdom. And in doing so, I prolonged the suffering for us both.
No one would argue the fact that no two adults are the same, so why do we continue pushing the narrative that all babies fit into the confined “rules” we have set forth as a society? Some people are reserved. Some are outgoing. Some are night owls, while others prefer to rise with the sun. It would be ridiculous to expect us all to operate by the same guiding principles, yet this is the expectation we have for our children. Why is that?
It still boggles my mind how simple, yet elusive, this idea seems to be. In all the overwhelming pieces of advice thrown at me by family, friends, and doctors, I was never once told that he simply might not be wired to sit quietly by himself, to sleep with regularity, to digest new foods easily. And it certainly wasn’t proposed that I follow his lead to figure out what would work best for the both of us.
In this age of smart phones and Google, when we have the answers to everything at our fingertips, we have come to expect that all our problems are black and white. We rarely take the time to consider nuance and outliers to the point that we neglect to examine them entirely. Maybe it’s time we acknowledge that we don’t actually have all the answers and that our babies are worth listening to. It’s humbling to realize that an infant can communicate better than you can listen.
At the end of the day, I don’t have all the answers. But I do know one thing: I know my son is exactly the person he was born to be. He is an independent, strong-willed, intense little boy. And I find great beauty in that. Someday, he may be be a CEO, a philanthropist, an entrepreneur, or a diplomat. Whatever he does, he will make his presence known, just as he has done from the very beginning. Hopefully, he just does it with less screaming.
So if you are a struggling Mama, like me, know this: You have done nothing wrong. When all else fails, put down the baby books, tune out Grandma’s endless stream of advice, and remember that your intuition is still in there somewhere. Listen to it. And listen to your baby. He is his own little person that was never meant to conform to conventional wisdom. Your struggles won’t disappear overnight. There may not be any easy answers. You may still come out of that first year feeling traumatized and broken. But at least you know you will be able to pick up the pieces and recognize your beautiful baby for exactly who he is, not for who anyone else says he should be.
**C also writes for POMP USA, a start up company promoting businesses owned by service members, veterans, and their spouses.