Everybody Else Knows Best

Photo: Julie Blackmon; Courtesy of Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago, Illinois

In reaction to the seventies, babies were cruelly cry-alone-in-the-dark Ferberized; as the eighties waxed on, they were lifted howling out of their cradles and shushed into the protective 100 percent–cotton dad-boob baby-slings of attachment parenting; in the nineties rose the underground cult of Baby Wise, which was arguably just a pastel-glossed swing back to Ferberizing, couched in the holistic terms of parental “sanity,” advocated in tough yet loving talk à la Dr. Phil. (It wasn’t Dr. Phil, exactly, but I have a vague Dr. Phil memory of Mr. Baby Wise, with his domelike head…)

And in the aughts, we have my 42-year-old friend Elaine, who has this amazing gift of her 9-month-old baby, Sam, who simply cannot sleep. Oh, the nostalgic daytime hallucinations she has about sleep, “For the first eight months, Sam slept like, well, a baby,” she explains, despairingly, on the phone, “but the problem was that he was doing so in the family bed, which I know you’re not supposed to do, so we tried to transition him into his bassinet, but then he’d just cry all the time! I mean projectile cry! Cry until he vomits! Although I’m thinking maybe he’s reacting to me because I can’t stand the crying and instead of waiting a full two minutes or at least counting until 100 like our pediatrician said I rush in too early to scoop him up and so maybe the problem is my own maternal stickiness, I’m too emotionally sticky…”

Which may be exacerbated by the guilt Elaine feels over the fact that, while she has always been committed to breast-feeding … Very committed. Extremely committed. And not because of the IQ thing, which by the way, she read recently, may be in dispute. No, as far as the breast-feeding, it wasn’t because of any high-academic-expectation trip, which can also be damaging to children according to something she heard on the radio, all of these helicopter parents just helicoptering, helicoptering, helicoptering, and breaking speed limits to drive all those forgotten little lunches to school, all those forgotten little lunches! And then moving into their kids’ dorm at Yale, continuing to torture the burned-out 20-year-olds, all the fragility, the timidity, the crispies, the teacups … No, Elaine was committed to breast-feeding mostly as a way of fighting the postpartum depression her sister had, and yet even with all the aloe and lanolin lotion in the world, she finds she simply can’t continue, because “it just totally feels like my nipples are falling off!” So instead, while behind her back, she deftly positions the bottle, in front, feeling like a total faker, she just pushes, toward Sam, her boobs.

“Ohhhhhh,” I exhale into the receiver, in deep empathy. “It’s all so hard! It’s just oh so hard!” I am unloading the dishwasher while I see, as if in a dream, that my own daughters, 7 and 9, are sitting quietly at the dining-room table. They appear to be, against all odds, doing their homework. Given that Madeline arrived in 2000 and Susannah in 2002, making them the first-actual generation of children of the parent-crazed aughts, it is sometimes amazing to me that they read, write, walk, sleep, or even sit correctly. (How sharply and horrifyingly I remember finding, in Suzy’s diaper, a tooth from a purple paisley ’fro pick I hadn’t seen since college: “It could have punctured her windpipe!” screamed a surgeon dad-friend.) Oh, all the “don’ts” we indulged in: The only available day care was garishly Elmo-ish, the toys were plastic, possibly all Chinese-made toxic, who can remember; the dad was tired, the mother was mad and hormonal. Upon failing my Ph.D. studies in Avent™ bottle-system care (I don’t think I ran the microwave steamer/sanitizer/thingee correctly, ever), I both sloppily scrambled together tons of formula and breast-fed my children for way, way too long. Worst of all, as soon as they could turn their heads, my girls had television—oh, so much television. While their dad traveled, I would sit in bed tapping frantically on my laptop. When, from the living room, my tots showed restlessness—a desire for play, activity, McNuggets, or perhaps merely some mindful maternal attention, I would call out, like a carnival barker, “Well, my dears! How ’bout some more of that good, sweet television?” What could I do? I had to work. Even though our trilling pediatrician (we called her Glinda the Good) insisted if we allowed them to watch Teletubbies, our little ones would never learn English. And yet, like so many other unforeseeable outcomes, my girls have learned to count in Spanish, on the road the junior safety patrol shouts stridently at me not to speed, and so bored are they of the flashing box now they’ve become avid readers. Not to mention that now, owing to the custody schedule of divorce, I bake cookies with my girls and take them to the museum, all the quality activities we didn’t do when their father and I were muddling through the beautiful modern mess brought on by their births.

But for today, there is Elaine, holding Sam, and she wants to be told what to do, and so I say: “Go back to bed.” The clock says 3:47 p.m. “Take Sam.”

“You mean take Sam? Into the same bed I’m in?”

“Yes,” I say. After a beat, emboldened, I continue: “Continue the exact same pattern you’ve fallen into, confidently. Because there’s a new parenting movement called … Native Instinctualism? It’s a return to more of a Dr. Spockian point of view, which premises … ah … Parents Natural Instinctuality as the primary locus or seat of praxis around children’s developmental … something. The key is that it’s American Pediatric Association–approved, as reported last week on 20/20 and this week on Katie Couric … I can forward you the link, it’s www-dot-P-N-I … Or wait a minute, perhaps it was www-dot-PAR-NAT-STINCT— ”

And to my familiar soothing lullaby, gently, oh so gently, a grateful Elaine re-cradles the phone and goes to her rest.

Everybody Else Knows Best