The day I discovered I was pregnant, I made a beeline for the Wilkinson Public Library. I walked out with What to Expect When You’re Expecting – what else would I chose but this abiding classic? – and had finished the first chapter before the Gondola had deposited me back home in Mountain Village.
It was the beginning of 38 weeks of voracious reading. Along with lots of cantaloupe and vanilla ice cream, I devoured pregnancy book after pregnancy book. I got them as gifts. I bought them from Amazon. I checked them out from the library. My bookcase shelves were lined with all manner of pregnancy-related reading, from the tongue-in-cheek fun of The Girlfriend’s Guide to Pregnancy to the natural childbirth bible Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth. It was as if reading about the growing little girl in my belly – if she had eyelids yet, how big she was compared to a piece of fruit – was my way of connecting with the little pamplemousse (one of my favorite French words, meaning grapefruit, and our pet name for the baby) while she was in-utero.
Like an overachieving student, I felt like I could pass any test pregnancy could throw at me. Braxton-Hicks contractions? Yep, I knew the symptoms. Preeclampsia? Placenta Previa? I could recite the definitions. And the fetal development calendar? I had it memorized. All the name-brand physicians and midwives who spread the good word of how to best be pregnant via the written word were on my radar.
Then the baby was born. And I realized pregnancy was over… and I had an infant. I had studied rapaciously for “Motherhood 101 – Pregnancy” and meanwhile completely neglected to prepare for “Motherhood 202 and Beyond – The Rest of Your Life.”
It’s not as if I knew nothing about babies… all my beer money in college came from nanny jobs, after all. But just because you watched a few kids while their moms got manicures doesn’t by any stretch of the imagination mean that you will know what to do when you have your own, I quickly discovered. Questions like ‘What is a normal temperature for baby?’ and ‘Should I stress if she sprouts bumps all over her forehead?’ sent me scrambling to whatever resource I could get my hands on. Like the instruction manual in the baby thermometer package. Or the $80-a-visit family physician.
For the first few bleary-eyed weeks of baby Elle’s life, I was upset with myself for not having studied harder for my debut as mother. I hadn’t even read anything by Dr. Spock! What kind of mother was I? And as any new mom could tell you, the first month with baby doesn’t offer much by way of leisure time for reading, or last-minute cramming for tests like Taking a Temperature by Anus.
Yet as the weeks passed and my daughter and I got to know each other a little better, I realized something else: Motherhood isn’t necessarily something you have to read about to be good at, and it’s definitely not something you can completely prepare for – even if you do study hard before the big test of motherhood.
To start, any advice you want about your child’s development can be found at the grocery store. Or in line at the post office. Or on a bench at the Coffee Cowboy. Or, if its really early in the morning or late at night, on the phone with your mother. Fellow moms and dads are walking libraries of information, and they absolutely love to share.
Take teething, for example. I was in the grocery store a few weeks ago, chatting with another mom whose daughter is a toddler. I was lamenting about Elle’s recent grumpiness and how it must be the first signs of cutting teeth, since she just couldn’t be grumpy just for the sake of being grumpy.
“Soak a washcloth in chamomile tea, then freeze it and let her suck on it. It’ll make her gums feel better, plus it will put her to sleep,” she suggested.
“Or, give her a chicken bone to bite on,” a man fondling apples interjected.
“Oh, just give her Tylenol – that’s the only thing that works,” an older woman said as she strolled toward the bananas.
And on the subject of sleeping through the night: Another friend informed me that the only way Elle will ever give me eight hours of uninterrupted sleep is to let her cry. “Three nights is all it takes. It’s hard at first, but it’s soooo worth it,” she said.
Another girlfriend insisted that I must move her crib out of our bedroom. “Derek’s been sleeping through the night since he was six weeks, and I know that it’s because he’s in his own room.”
Meanwhile, my mom is adamant that we don’t move Elodie out of our room, and steadfast in her resolution that we don’t ever let her cries go unanswered. “She will learn that her needs will always be met, and so she’ll be a confident and comfortable child and will sleep through the night when she’s ready.”
And so it goes. Ask any question related to any kid-related issue, and you’re bound to get an array of colorful answers. No need to go scrambling to Amazon for books about teething or sleeping; just mention your problem in public and you will be assailed with all the suggestions you could want. And the best part is, as your child’s parent, you get to pick and choose which suggestions you actually follow. For us, it’s a frozen chamomile washcloth instead of a chicken bone for teething relief. Not to bash the chicken bone school of thought, it’s just not our style. Its feeding Elodie rice cereal about an hour before bedtime – a little trick we came up with on our own, and has turned out to be the only way our daughter will log more than five hours of sleep at night.
It’s what I call instinct parenting, and it follows the belief that your gut feeling is, ultimately, the best parenting tool you have at your disposal. And that’s something you can’t learn from reading a book.
How it works is this: You smile and nod and thank other parents for their advice, and then do what feels right for you and your child.