Friday, July 18, 2008

Oh the shame of it all.

As much as we like to encourage our children to tell the truth, I think most parents are liars. Bad liars at that. Maybe we don't go so far as to fabricate facts, but I know most of us lie by omission in most social situations when it comes to our own parenting skills and practices. How do I know this? Well, informal research mostly. Ok, no research, just a gut feeling, but I'm a mom, so that has to count for something, right?

I don't think we lie to be malicious. It isn't that kind of thing, it is more of a fear thing. We don't want to be singled out as a bad parent. We fear being exposed as that parent. I think this is especially strong amongst working moms. There is already so much pressure out there to be a good, even tempered, hands on mom and we are frequently told that by having jobs, by having our children in childcare or with a nanny, we have officially handed off our child raising responsibilities. So it is easy to see why we feel defensive when the "experts" tell us we're doing it all wrong.

But really, we're all amatures at this, right? I mean, does anyone parent professionally? And in our time of amazing resources, most of us at one time or another has turned to a self-proclaimed expert to help guide us. There are tons of them out there, sleep experts, discipline experts, feeding experts and many more that I can't even begin to imagine. Part of this is great and part of it is the problem. It is fantastic to be able to research your problem and find answers, but it sucks when the "experts" make it sound like it should be easy, or quote statistics that clearly put your child's behavior in the very small minority. It is a small insecure step from there to feeling like you are the worst, most inept parent on the planet.

Take for example, my boys. They don't sleep. They never have. Ok, that's an exaggeration, they do sleep, they just don't sleep like I was led to believe they should. They go to bed late, and they don't do it willingly. It took years for them to sleep through the night, and even now, we deal with my 2.5 year old waking up on a semi-regular basis. At one point our pediatrician asked about their sleep patterns. We discussed their late to bed pattern and he sighed sympathetically. He asked how they functioned during the day. Did they zonk out in the car? Were they extra grouchy? Did they nod off between naps and nighttime? No, they are very active, generally happy kids. His verdict? He said they sounded like they were getting enough sleep. He reminded us that the "average" hours of sleep any child should get is just that, and average. While we may fixate on some number we're falling short of, some kids need much more, some much less. Unfortunately ours were in the second group, and as much as it means we have very little grown up time alone, it isn't harming the kids to sleep less.

Our pediatrician was sympathetic, but unworried. He reminded us that we were both night owls. He asked us about our sleep habits. Yes, most of my adult life I went to bed late and woke up early enough for work. I was a night owl, in no way a morning person, and this is clearly mirrored in my two offspring. And still I rarely admit how little my boys sleep.

When I do, even to close friends, I have to be prepared for their helpful advice. I've been told more times than I care to list that if I just put them to bed earlier they'll sleep on through the night. Um, I've tried this. If I can get them to sleep earlier, they wake up earlier. Hours earlier. Remember that "I'm not a morning person" thing I said earlier? Yeah. I've been told they nap too long if they're up that late. Guess what, their naps seem to have no bearing on their bedtime. Either they nap and go to bed late or they don't nap and go to bed late. I'd prefer they nap, call me crazy.

The thing is, once I do confide in someone, if they don't have a good sleeper, they spill and feel utterly relieved to find someone equally sleep deprived. It turns out there are TONS of us fighting the sleep battle and losing. More of my friends seem to have sleep struggles than the "experts" would like to have us know. And guess what, our kids are happy, healthy and growing just fine. Still rather than have to defend our choices or our situation, rather than being forced to detail what we've tried and how it failed, when it comes to the bedtime struggle, many of us just opt out of those conversations. I mean, when I hear people say their child's bedtime routine gets the tot off to dreamland by 7:30pm and keeps them out like a light all night long, you might as well tell me they are raising an alien. It is so far from my experience, I just sit quietly by and listen in a state of shock. And so do many of the other no-sleep mommies I know.

On the flip side, when something is going right with our kids, we jump on the chance to take credit for it. For example, my kids are good eaters. I don't mean they have good appetites, they do, but it goes beyond that. My kids eat a variety of foods. Little dog has an odd obsession with Brussels sprouts, Big dog sneaks tomatoes as snacks and thinks he is getting away with something. They both willingly eat a wide variety of foods and will try almost anything. I don't chalk this up to my superior parenting skills, though you may feel free to commend me on this. I don't think this is because I have some precise formula of food introduction and amazing mommy skills. And although I think I am a good cook, I don't think my culinary chops are so mind-alteringly superior that I create special magic in the kitchen that toddlers cannot resist. I think I'm really freakin' lucky. But I still brag. And when I do, some of my friends with perfect sleepers get really quiet.

I guess my point is that every kid is a bit of a mixed bag. We get some parts of their personalities that work the way we want, the way we expect and don't upset the "experts". And then we get the other parts. The parts we struggle with, the ones that defy explanation and present problems that aren't so easily solved. But we love them, and those complexities are a part of the whole kid. So why can't we just accept that at times, no matter how fantastic we are as parents, our kids are not going eat what we'd like them to eat, or sleep when we'd like them to sleep? At what point are we going to stop thinking in terms of cookie cutter kids? I certainly don't want one of those, in fact, I strive to have kids with strong self direction.
Maybe I just feel too judged as a parent, too prepared to be defensive, too driven to be that "perfect" mom I'm told I should be. Maybe I secretly think I am doing it wrong and that someone will discover how inept and unprepared I am as a parent and expose me as a fraud.

Well, I'm going to start pushing for full disclosure. I've aired my dirty laundry. What are you lying about?


Kaza said...

Awesome post, and so needed. Sleep troubles are a constant problem in our house too, and we've learned to just roll with it and not fight what her body just can't seem to do. I envy the good eating though! We're still working on that, but again, I find it's better to roll with it and not force too many things.

I think you've got a good idea here: maybe if we don't take so much credit for the good, we can then cut ourselves (and each other!) more slack on the tougher stuff.

geekymummy said...

my secret shame: I regularly feed my daughter tater tots, fish sticks, microwavable frozen entrees and other convenience foodstuffs. And, oh the horror, sometimes they are not even the organic kind!

And as for the sleep thing, at least yours don't want to get up at 6.00am on weekends!

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