The last thing on your mind the first week you have your newborn home is keeping a tidy house. So when my parents came over to see their new granddaughter, our coffee table was a disaster. Frantically scattered upon it lay every single parenting book we had bought, read, forgot about, and then frantically dug up again in the previous 72 hours when it became clear how woefully over our heads we were.
Why the hell did I think I’d learn to swaddle a baby just by reading about it once? And why won’t she sleep? Wait … is she sleeping now? Is she dead? No … she’s definitely asleep.
“Wow. Look at all those books,” my dad said.
“We never had those when you were growing up,” my mom added with a smile and an “aren’t you lucky” tone.
“Well, we could’ve read something. There was that Dr. Spock,” Dad said.
Mom’s smile disappeared. A line had been crossed.
“He was a liberal kook.”
Fortunately, my wife has ninja skills when it comes to changing topics whenever one of my parents stumbles into politics. She once pivoted from Anthony Weiner to the glory days of St. John’s basketball in two moves flat. But the point sank in. The people responsible for raising me had gone full Lucille Bluth.
They did no research. They chose to skip all the homework. My parents: they elected to wing it.
A well-traveled path of faking it
Had Mister Rogers raised my parents, that might be fine. However, both freely admit they had terrible relationships with their fathers – especially my mother. I have no doubt there was love there, but there was also a lot of other things. Aloofness. Volatility. Impatience. Hoarding. And, yes, violence (and it wasn’t just the parent-on-child kind). Yet, they made the decision to follow only what they had experienced firsthand when it came to raising two brand-new human beings. Tactics they knew from experience were flawed, but they hoped against hope that this time it would turn out different.
No doubt a lot of this was tribal. They’re Irish Catholic ™ so anyone else is “The Other, Not Our Kind,” and eventually dismissed. This is especially true of pointy-headed intellectuals who write books. It’s such an easy style of parenting. It doesn’t ask you to be humble, to say “there are things I don’t know – and someone else might.” You don’t need to be courageous or vulnerable enough to venture out of your comfort zone to learn something about yourself you may not want to know. All it requires is for you to repeat the cycle of “This is how we do things because that is the way things have been done, because that it the way we do things, because that is the way things have always been done. Because …”
Believe it or not, we wound up in family therapy. It ended because my parents didn’t see any point in it.
Now here I am, sitting in the same position they were all those years ago. Co-piloting a family with two children. Of course, I said to myself I’d be different, but I was more like them than I care to admit. Once our first child was born, I was done with reading books myself. Who had the time? I’d figure it out as I go. People have been raising kids for millennia, right? So long as I didn’t hit anyone, I was doing better (which, while true, is an incredibly low bar).
Choose your own adventure
It was my wife who suggested that I read up some more on parenting, and maybe talk to someone about how I respond to certain situations – and why. As always, she was right. Not to give them a shameless plug, but I found How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen – an offshoot of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen (And Listen So Kids Will Talk). I won’t give you the whole book report, but it has opened my eyes to the value of helping your child identify what they are feeling and why, and how to use those feelings in a constructive manner. Almost by accident, any parent who reads it will find themselves applying these practices to themselves – even in adult relationships. I know I have.
It would be great to say I’ve done all the work needed to be done, and the cycle I was born into has been broken. Of course, that would mean I’m not prone to yelling “WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON!” at 5- and 1-year-olds on occasion. I am. Honestly, I just did in the last 10 minutes while I was trying to concentrate on writing this paragraph. But a start is a start – and knowing the tools you need to get to where you want to go (communication, emotional honesty with yourself and others, introspection and accountability) is a good place to be. Even if it isn’t the finish line. And, most importantly, it gives the tiny human beings we are charged with raising a leg up toward becoming confident, functioning, compassionate – and hopefully, fulfilled — adults
By the way, I had to look up what made Dr. Spock so controversial. Turns out he was against hitting kids and nuclear arms, but pro-civil rights and marched with Dr. King.
What a kook.