It happened during a family idyll in paradise: Linda Morgan’s 10-year-old son, Todd, got a nasty blister on his ankle. Trying to relax and enjoy a much-needed vacation in Hawaii, Morgan, an education reporter and the author of Beyond Smart, played it cool. “I moved his complaints to the recesses of my mind, which was working hard to tune out distractions and tune in mai tais and paperback novels,” Morgan says. “After all, for years I’d taken heat from my family for being too protective, too over-the-top and simply too-too.”
Then one morning, Todd appeared at breakfast, his face practically pressed down into his papaya. His head hurt. He had a fever. But Morgan still resisted what she calls her own “usually on-target, hypervigilant instincts.”
Finally, her husband ran the boy to the hotel doctor; by this time, red streaks were flaming up his leg. “Yep, he had a raging skin infection!” Morgan says – and adds that, to this day, her son never lets her forget it.
Not that she could. The incident sticks in Morgan’s memory, partly because it strengthened her resolve to be her own kind of mother: “What did I learn? That I should have gone with my usual mega-magnified instincts. They had always served me well.”
Too Much Noise
More and more, moms are subjected to a barrage of opinions, info, research and criticism about how they perform the most desperately important and stressful job of raising kids. From news reports (“Television will hurt your child’s brain!”) to parenting magazines (yes, I get the irony!) to the ever-buzzing blogosphere, every mommy move is fair game for the crosshairs of public (and by that I mean “other mothers’”) opinion.
Increasingly, moms are inviting the info in. A quick search on Amazon.com for “parenting books” turns up more than 64,150 results. Parenting blogs have grown by leaps and bounds. We’re talking about a whole lot of talking about the “right” way to do the mind-blowing, soul-shaking, self-obfuscating and profoundly challenging job of raising kids.
With all the nonstop input, it’s small wonder that the persistent, quiet inner voice of innate, instinctive motherhood gets smothered. As Seattle pediatrician and popular mom blogger Wendy Sue Swanson says, “It’s so hard to figure out how to trust ourselves with all the chatter, from your mother-in-law to your neighbor to the Internet. You want to do it so well and so right, I couldn’t imagine not questioning yourself from time to time.”
“It’s a fire hose of overflow of information,” agrees Deb Grover, mother of three. “You don’t know what to grasp onto. You have to block out the noise of that.” How can you do that? “I take in the information that’s out there and say, ‘These are just possibilities for ways of parenting,’” says Kathleen Kapla, the mother of a 6-month-old boy. “But ultimately, I have to really listen to myself and listen to this child. He’s not drawn from a book, but from us, and how we are. But it’s been hard. Especially when I was a brand-new mom, I definitely had that sense of ‘Wow, I’m not good at this!’ It’s taken a couple of months to start to feel like I do know what’s best for him. If I need help, I ask for it, but mostly, I just take a deep breath and listen to what he’s trying to tell me.”
An “A” in Mothering
It’s not just an overload of information that’s squashing those tender green inner instincts. Grover, who with her husband is raising two girls ages 4 and 5, says stress can come from other parents, too … even well-meaning ones. “I see a lot of pressure from other parents to do certain things,” she says: “get the kids into programs, feed them certain foods, don’t let them watch certain shows. That’s all fine, and every family has a different tolerance for those things. But I have had to learn to block out that noise and not fall into those pressures.”
“It’s like a test!” agrees Ada Calhoun, author of the new book Instinctive Parenting and the founding editor-in-chief of Babble.com. “I fall prey to it. I really liked getting A’s in school. It’s tempting, when you’re good at that kind of succeeding, to try to do that throughout your life. ‘Best mother in the world’ – like you’re going to get an ‘A’ in mothering! There’s no such thing.”
For many moms, there’s also a definite retail effect behind all this pressure; they cave in to the marketing of the absolute latest and greatest kid gear and garb. It’s a kind of “consumption as overcompensation,” perhaps resulting from a lack of belief in one’s own innate ability to raise really excellent kids without bells and whistles.
Even stocking up on the basics can leave a new mom feeling overcome and defeated. “When our daughter was born, my husband and I went into Babies R Us,” Grover says. “We were looking for bottle nipples, and there was a wall there that probably had 500 different brands and types. It was so incredibly overwhelming! You see all these choices; how do you know what to do?”
Start by relaxing, writes Calhoun in Instinctive Parenting, and try to keep things in perspective; not every decision you agonize over right now will make a difference in the long run. “Depending on how we raise them, the kids may be a little more or less prepared for certain things, more or less neurotic, but regardless of whether we go with the Maclaren or the Chicco, our children will be the same people they were going to be anyway.”
Trust – Within Reason
So, how can you be sure of your own instincts? “This is the premise of everything I do!” says Swanson. “I hear from patients, ‘Am I supposed to be feeding fruits before veggies?’ and there’s this look of terror as they await biblical instruction of how to do this right, but there are so few ‘rights’ and so few doctrines or rules when it comes to parenting.”
Swanson cites two of those “rights” that parents should heed – the careful and correct use of car seats, and putting babies to sleep on their backs – but says that almost all of the rest of it, from nutrition to sleep to discipline, is open for parents’ own interpretations. “I think the hum of information makes us all crazy. The vast majority of children are normal, and the swath of normal is wide.”
That ever-present hum of information has left a lot of parents twisting in the wind, Swanson says, thinking they have to take it all in, sort fact from fiction – even without the help of their pediatrician. “It’s gotten too complicated,” she says. “We’re not even allowing those people who have been trained to help us, help us.”
How your pediatrician can help, Swanson says, is by providing the critical link to research and data that you need to keep your baby safe within the framework of your own instincts. “You might have the instinct that your baby wants to sleep on his tummy,” Swanson says, “but that doesn’t mean you should do it.”
“We’re never going to be perfect parents, and the whole process of parenting is that you learn as you go,” Swanson says. “We all make mistakes. Trusting our instincts is going to lead us down perfect, beautiful paths and it’s going to lead us down dangerous paths as well, but the instincts are there.”
Swanson suggests moms say “no” to the endless chatter, which serves to distract or dampen those deeply held mommy instincts. Instead, moms should find a few voices that really resonate with their own parenting style – and make sure those resources have credibility.
Anyone and everyone has an amplifier now,” Swanson says. “If they are together and articulate, they can look like an expert. I think we are confusing experience with expertise.”
The Mother Within
For a brand-new mom who is still negotiating sore nipples and night feedings, “Listen to your instincts” can sound like an impossible, even cruel, assignment. “Just tell me what to do!” she might cry in her overwhelmed state, and who could blame her?
One parent educator insists the simplest path to happy motherhood is truly innate. “We were born to take care of our children; it’s part of our DNA,” says Yaffa Maritz, and she should know. For the past decade, Maritz has had a front-row seat for the wild, exhausted, exuberant and messy show that is new motherhood. Maritz’s Seattle-area support groups for new moms and their babies, Listening Mothers, have schooled hundreds of dazed moms in the fine and crucial art of, well, listening to their inner mother.
“The problem is that in our busy lives today, we don’t really make time to get to know the mother within,” says Maritz. “The mother within is a wise woman. We all carry with us generations and generations of instinctive mothering.”
So how do you draw out this inner, most excellent mother? Maritz suggests you start by finding a little peace and quiet, however you prefer it, whether by meditation, yoga, journaling, going for a walk, deep breathing or simply lying in the grass. Take some time on a regular basis to stay in touch with your own inner beliefs and goals. What do you want for this child? What feels really right to you? Can you let your baby cry himself to sleep, for example, or is that feeling wrong for a reason? Is cosleeping a better fit for your own particular brand of mothering? Do you really have to wear that baby everywhere, even if you really, truly do not like to?
Looking within sounds simple, even pleasurable, but Maritz points out it’s a dying art. “Even when we breastfeed, we catch up on our Blackberries,” she says, and there’s still more evidence of that persistent, permeating “hum.” Put that device away for a while and reflect, Maritz says, and remember that you are part of a natural process and that you do carry inside all that you need to be a good mother and to help your child have a healthy, happy life.
“I think it’s so amazing that regardless of what I do, this baby is going to grow and turn into a person,” says Deb Grover, a graduate of Listening Mothers who now works with Maritz on the website Community of Mindful Parents (communityofmindfulparents.com). “I have a certain influence, sure, but it’s such a natural process, it’s really beyond me. It’s my job to be my daughters’ support system in this process, but at some point I have to trust that my children are going to be OK. I have confidence in that.”
“I think everyone has the instinct to do a totally good job,” agrees Calhoun, “and that job is not to win an award. That job is to raise this baby up to be a person who can take care of themselves and contribute to society. Pretty much everyone is completely capable of that.”
And, while you’re at it, check your own acceptance of other mothers’ instincts and choices. Says Swanson: “There is so much advice, and really, we don’t need a lot of advice. We need camaraderie.”