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Learn As You Go Parenting

by Jessica of "School of Smock"
Photo by: Shutterstock

Before my son was born, I had a lot of plans for how I was going to parent. I read lots of books and made assessments based on what I observed from my friends’ parenting challenges. I thought that I was lucky to be a mom who was on the “older” side because I had watched my friends and siblings with their babies and could learn from their mistakes.

What I hadn’t counted on was that parenting throws you curve balls and that you’re going to feel judged by someone—especially yourself—for nearly every decision you make. Even though I wasn’t sure if I would describe myself as a future “attachment parent,” I thought that attachment parenting included a lot of good ideas for how I wanted to parent.

Here are five decisions that I made before my son was born and how each of those decisions ended up with drastically different results than what I had anticipated:

Vow #1. I planned for a natural childbirth. I hired a doula as a birthing coach, wanted to avoid being induced or having an epidural, and practiced breathing and birthing exercises for months before my due date.

What actually happened: A few hours into labor, I begged for an epidural and refused to do any of the breathing or labor exercises that I had practiced with the doula. I was so happy for the drugs that I nearly cried. Then, near the end of labor, I was rushed into the operating room for an emergency C-section after my son’s heart rate dropped fast and wouldn’t return to normal. My son had an extremely short umbilical cord and was in fetal distress because he couldn’t make it out of the cervix.

Vow #2. I planned to breastfeed for one year. Before my son was born, I took a breastfeeding class and bought breast pumps and all of the equipment, books, and clothing that I thought I would need.

What actually happened: After my C-section, breastfeeding went well for a few weeks. Then I got a yeast infection that wouldn’t go away, and my son started to have colic. From a pediatric gastroenterologist, we found out that he had a severe milk and soy allergy. She gave me the choice of starting a hypoallergenic formula or working with a dietician to begin a new diet eliminating all allergens. Already in severe pain from breastfeeding, I chose to start feeding my son formula.

Vow #3. I planned to carry my baby in a sling or wrap for much of the day during his first months. Before my son was born, I tried out and bought various wraps and slings. I visited babywearing forums. I loved the idea of carrying my baby close while being able to walk around, get chores done, and get out of the house.

What actually happened: Despite endless attempts at every type of babywearing hold and wrap, my son hated it. He would protest, writhe, and wail. We used a stroller instead. Next, we bought a swing in desperation, despite vowing never to get one, and he spent his happiest moments of being a newborn in his swing.

Vow #4. I planned to develop good sleep habits and routines for my newborn so that “cry it out” would never be necessary. Before my son was born, I read about infant sleep patterns and methods for assisting babies to learn how to sleep through the night. My sister and brother both had babies who had slept through the night easily and quickly, and I figured my son would be the same.

What actually happened: By the time he was four months old, my son was still waking up every two hours. He had no sleep routine, despite our continuous efforts to help him develop them. He was miserable and we were miserable. We hired a sleep consultant, who created a sleep training plan, and we did the dreaded ‘Ferberizing.’ Even after several rounds of sleep training, my son is still not a great sleeper but sleep training saved our sanity and my son became a happier, healthier baby.

Vow #5. I would only practice “positive discipline.” Before my son was born, I vowed never to yell at my child and to use meaningful, age-appropriate connections between behavior and consequences. As a teacher who had been successful at classroom management for more than a decade, I thought that I knew everything I needed to know about how to use a combination of warmth, flexibility, and structure to guide kids into better behavior.

What actually happened: When my son turned into a toddler, he began to have tantrums. Lots of them. Almost two, he is loud and opinionated and doesn’t often respond to my gentle, respectful approach. I tried using patience, encouraging good behavior, teaching sign language, repeating and affirming his language, using short phrases. But sometimes I end up in tears, and sometimes I get so frustrated that I want to run away. Yes, sometimes I’ve been known to yell too.

All of these experiences in failure are helping me to become a better parent. What is often missing in all the debates about parenting styles is the key ingredient to good parenting: flexibility.

Whether you want to become an attachment parent or not, just know that life doesn’t work out exactly as you plan. Kids respond to different approaches. You may want to co-sleep more than anything in the world, but your kid may hate it or you may not be able to sleep well or your spouse may hate it. You may believe breastfeeding is always best, but you might have trouble and decide that it’s not working for your family. Be open to the possibilities: that’s what “good” parenting is.

Jessica Smock is a doctoral candidate in education policy, and lives with her husband and toddler son in upstate New York. She discusses everything from pacifiers to gender politics on her blog, School of Smock.

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