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March 18, 2008

Writing the Book on Guilt

111When I became a mom over ten years ago, I had guilt. Plenty of guilt.

I'm not going to try to pretend like I'm beyond all that guilt stuff now that I've been at this parenting gig for a while. Now my guilt tends to be over different issues, like schooling, or whether I'm ruining my kids by letting them play video games.

But I really don't remember what I felt guilty about back then, because I think it wasn't all the same stuff parents are feeling guilty about now.

See, there were different books out then.

I run a new mom's group here in Chicago, and at first I was amazed by the number of times two issues come up: sleep training and "tummy time". Of course people had opinions about sleep issues when my first son was born, but I don't think the debate was anywhere near the same intensity as it is now. And tummy time? I don't even think that phrase had entered my vernacular ten years ago. Certainly I didn't worry that my newborn's head would become misshapen if I didn't put him face down on the floor for the requisite ten to twenty minutes each day (whether he liked it or not.)

So I was puzzled at first over why these issues kept coming up over and over--but then I took a trip to the bookstore. Glancing at the magazine rack, I counted a staggering number of coverlines (you know, those teasers on the magazine cover created to entice you to pick up the mag) that dealt with sleep: is your baby getting enough?  Should you let him cry it out? Is it safe to sleep with your baby? What about SIDS? Is your baby sleep deprived? Is your baby napping enough? Heck, I'd even written one of them.

Flipping through some magazines I saw plenty of mentions of tummy time, how important it is and how you should do it. I also saw many products advertised in the pages, designed to encourage tummy time or give your baby something to do during tummy time.

I walked to the parenting section and again, noticed that there were a large number of books dealing with sleep. Why you should sleep train, why you shouldn't sleep train, how to sleep train, how to get a good night's sleep even if you don't sleep train, and so on and so forth. I don't remember there being nearly as many sleep titles back when I had my first child. And by the time it became the hot new issue, I'd already figured sleep out for our family, for better or worse.

NOW it made sense. When you're reading about something every time you open a magazine or browse at the bookstore, of course it's going to rise in importance in your mind. And the more magazine covers and book titles are devoted to a specific topic, the more parents are going to talk about it, and the more they'll start asking their pediatricians about it, and the more those pediatricians will start forming their own opinions (and perhaps write their own books) about it, and so on and so forth. A trend is born, the books continue to sell and make lots of money for the publishers, who in turn publish more books on the same topic, which leads to more magazine articles, and so on and so forth. And the unfortunate side effect is mommy/parent guilt, a lot of it unnecessary. 

I think a certain amount of guilt is necessary. It can act as a powerful motivator to let us know when something is off in our parenting, relationships,or other parts of our life. It's okay not to be a supermom or an earth mother, but we all need some standards. Though I do believe that any number of choices can work and result in happy, healthy kids, I don't believe all choices are equal and I think we're fooling ourselves if we try to pretend that "whatever is easiest at the time" is an effective parenting philosophy. Hey, I fall into it sometimes, as do all moms, I think, and there's certainly no point in beating myself up. But that little twinge of guilt is often what I need to get back on track.

At the same time, we need to realize that today's hot new topic is probably not as fraught with importance as it's been made to seem. We need to understand that the reason it seems like all the parents around us are anxious about the same things around the same time has a lot to do with what we're being sold (whether it's books, magazine articles or products) at any given time. You think that information you're getting from a magazine article or book is totally unbiased? Take it from somebody who writes them--it's not. Magazine articles often base their information on press releases, new studies (which will be refuted in two months by another study) and experts with an agenda. Very often, books receive little to no fact-checking and are based on those same studies and agendas. Again, there are some gems and good, solid information out there, and as an author and writer I'd be out of a job if everybody suddenly stopped reading parenting books and articles, so I'm not suggesting that you do that (goodness no! Then I'd have something else to feel guilty about!) but a heavy dose of skepticism is always in order, no matter what is is you're reading.

It's also important to keep in mind that when a health or medical organization comes out with a recommendation, they aren't necessarily talking directly to you. They are talking to the public at large. Something can be important from a public health perspective, but not be a matter of life or death if it doesn't work out for your particular family or baby. I'm thinking especially of tummy time, here. How many babies do you know, in your circle of mom friends, who spend all their time on their backs? When I'm with a group of moms, I see those mothers holding their babies face-down across their laps, walking to and fro with the baby tummy-down on a forearm, or letting the baby lean on her chest (again, tummy down). I see babies learning to exert control over their heads and necks and explore the space around them. Sure, if your baby spends most of his day laying in a crib or reclining in a seat, maybe this is something you need to worry about. Otherwise, is it worth feeling guilty over?

I tend to think not. Take it from me: authors don't know everything (they're humans with opinions just like anyone else), magazines don't know everything (at many of the top parenting magazines, plenty of the editors aren't even parents. That doesn't mean they aren't good at their jobs, of course, but I have seen how it can bias the way they choose and edit the stories that make it into their publications). Journalists and reporters don't know everything, and we come to stories with our own biases and sometimes flawed information. Studies aren't infallible. Parenting is too complicated for a set of inflexible rules.

We can't get it right all of the time, but if we get it right even most of the time, our kids will be fine in the end. Or maybe they won't, but even then it's probably not something we could have prevented. As Andrea O'Reilly once told me in an interview, "Motherhood is the only job where you can do everything right, everything by the book, and still fail in the end." Depressing, maybe, but also freeing. The decisions we make from day to day maybe aren't quite as crucial as we think they are. We aren't doing the right thing as parents because we're hoping for a specific outcome, but because it feels like the right thing to do.

So think things through, use you common sense and best judgment, and take it easy on yourself when you realize that a decision you made maybe wasn't the best. It happens to us all, over and over again--the important thing is that we can admit (if only to ourselves, and maybe our kids) when we're wrong and try to make a better choice next time. When you hear that guilty little voice, take a moment to listen to it, decide if it's got a strong enough point, and if not, ignore it.

And if you're a mom who's worried about sleep or tummy time, take it from me: You can relax. In five years, everyone will be worried about something else entirely. Maybe we'll be back to orthopedic shoes?

Cross-posted at Meagan's blog.

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