When I was pregnant, I imagined what life might be like if I had a little girl. I envisioned teaching her to stand up for herself, buying her dresses with science symbols, letting her get dirty, and being an example of a strong woman for her. I wasn’t going to stereotype her or allow anyone else to, thank you very much. In short, I considered how to teach her to be a feminist.
But I turned out to have two sons.
Recovering from the chaos of the holidays, “improve mindfulness” or “be present” may be on the top of your New Years Resolutions list. I know it’s on mine! It’s especially hard to be present as a parent, when we’re pulled in so many directions – sometimes literally. As someone who gets stuck in her head a lot, I’ve worked on this quite a bit. Here are some approaches that have helped:
The overly cheerful Christmas letter is a relentlessly parodied cliche. Yet it and its cousin, the perfectly cultivated Facebook feed, call to us: “You want us, don’t you? Your life should be like this. Your kids should be like this.” And then we wonder – “Maybe I’m not trying hard enough. Maybe if I tried a little more, my kids would be like that.”
But for the sake of us and our kids, we need to resist the siren song. Not just of comparison – because that’s a shitty, dark hole to end up in as well – but of treating our children like our personal accomplishments. Believe me – I speak from experience.
“Did they have a home?” Sprout asked me. I had just finished telling him the Christmas story.
“Yes, they did have a home after that,” I said, skipping the whole “escaping into Egypt” bit.
While his question surprised me, it wasn’t totally out of nowhere. We’ve been talking about how not everyone has the same privileges we do, including homes. As both a Christian and someone who’s concerned about our society’s most vulnerable people, I want Christmas to be about a lot more than Santa and presents. In fact, I want to teach my kids how to serve others during the this time of year.
Here are some ways to turn away from consumerism and towards others at Christmas:
On the night before my son’s first day of preschool, I made a controversial parenting decision – I didn’t make him a “first day of school” sign.
As I said in a message on my personal Facebook page: “I was going to make a sign for [Sprout] to hold on his first day of preschool tomorrow. But I fell asleep in his room while trying to get him to sleep and woke up at 10:40. And now it’s 12:30 and it’s still not done. Maybe next year!”
Watching my three-year-old scale the “rock-climbing” wall at the playground, I bite my tongue. I don’t want him to fall, of course. But neither do I want to discourage him from trying this new piece of equipment. Instead, I want him to explore his world enthusiastically. I want him to feel safe enough to climb high, good enough at assessing risk to know what is too high, and gutsy enough to pick himself back up when he inevitably does fall.
But as all parents know, it’s a difficult balance. It’s especially true now, when American society wants to bubble-wrap our kids and control their every moment.
So how can you find this balance?
Embracing these ideas in our parenting I think have made my son more willing to try new things and appreciate a wide diversity of people and experiences than he would have otherwise.
People say that moms are much more go-with-the-flow when it comes to the second child compared with the first, such as in this commercial. Much to my surprise, I actually do fulfill this stereotype. And it’s not just my perception – both my parents and in-laws remarked how much more comfortable I seem. While the fact that Little Bird is a better sleeper than his older brother and a fast physical recovery helped, so did the knowledge I’ve accumulated over the nearly three years of Sprout’s life. Here are some of the things I’m doing after Little Bird was born that I didn’t do the first time:
Encouraging people to visit: While welcoming visitors is the opposite of what most advice recommends, it’s been essential for me. I get cabin fever very quickly; I was getting antsy after a few days of being snowed in this winter. Postpartum, I have to deal with the double-whammy of not being able to bring the baby to public places before he gets his immunizations and the fact that exclusively breastfeeding him means I can’t leave for more than 45 minutes or so. With Sprout, I’m fairly certain this combination significantly contributed to some postpartum anxiety. Luckily, this time around I’ve had three different sets of friends visit, bearing news of the outside world and nice things to say about the baby. My friends understood that normal “host” etiquette was out the window and I was grateful for the company.
Becoming an older sibling is a huge transition, especially for a toddler who can’t fully grasp what that means. With Sprout gaining a baby brother in less than a month and a half (!), we’ve been working to get him ready for this major event. Unfortunately, it’s hard for us to take his viewpoint on this – I’m an only child and Chris doesn’t remember his sister being born.
So here’s some of the best advice we’ve gathered from articles and our own ideas, along with how we’re applying it:
As a kid, my idea of adventurous eating was that I went to a deli that served tongue. (I never ate tongue, but the mere presence of it on the menu was enough street cred for me.) Admittedly, I didn’t live somewhere with a whole lot of options – all we had in my town for years was a couple of average Italian restaurants, a pub, and a Friendly’s.
But now, living in the D.C. suburbs, we are absolutely spoiled for choice. D.C. itself has a thriving foodie culture and our suburb has a number of immigrants who have brought their delicious food with them. So I’m dedicated to ensuring Sprout is exposed to all sorts of cuisine. So far, we’ve had Indian, Thai, Lebanese, dim sum, and authentic Chinese dumplings. But last weekend, we went a step more adventurous than we ever had before – Ethiopian.
Being the mother of a toddler, I appreciate having a full toolbox of parenting resources available. Some of them I don’t use for philosophical or ethical reasons, such as spanking. But until my pregnancy, I always felt like what I did or didn’t do was my choice. That immediately changed when a case of placenta previa (when the placenta covers the cervix) caused some very scary heavy bleeding at the end of the first trimester into the second one. In my follow up appointment, my doctor informed me that among my many other restrictions, I couldn’t pick up Sprout until any risk of bleeding was past. Suddenly, a key piece of my toolkit disappeared, affecting everything from how I hugged my son to bedtime routines. Over the course of the two-and-a-half months of restrictions, I learned some strategies to adapt my parenting to these limitations.
Find alternative ways of showing affection: One of my favorite ways of showing affection to Sprout is picking him up and giving him a big, tight hug. With that no longer an option, I switched to kneeling down and hugging him at his level. Along with being better for my back, it also showed him more respect by me coming down to his level. I would also invite him to hug me while I was sitting down on the couch or a chair. Despite all that, the first thing I did as soon as the doctor lifted my restrictions was swoop him up into my arms.
Practice your best negotiation techniques: Before the restrictions, I seriously overestimated how much I used my physical size against my son. While we use zero corporal punishment or ever have any threat of it, there’s the simple fact that I’m two feet taller than him. So I can pick him up if I need him to move. Losing that advantage was surprisingly hard to get used to. With the restrictions, if he was lying the floor and I needed him to wash his hands, I – gasp – had to talk him into it. Anyone who has ever reasoned with a toddler knows how brain-twisting that can be. Since he doesn’t care much about logic, I often threw in some additional motivation. Instead of bribing him with stickers, food, or toys, I offered more non-materialistic joys. He particularly likes “walking on mommy’s feet,” where he stands on my feet while I walk wherever we need to go. I also leveraged singing and squirting his bath toys on him. Other times I reminded him of future pleasures, like eating pasta for dinner or reading whatever book he’s currently obsessed with at bedtime.