Monday, May 25, 2009

Molding our children

The following is a passage from Bad Mother by Ayelet Waldman:

"Sophie's mother [the author is referring to herself] hadn't yet learned that babies of six weeks have, basically, the same personality they'll have when they are sixty years old, and there is not a whole lot you can do to change that. You can do as much baby whispering and charted behavior reinforcement as you want, but the truth is that it's not going to have a whole lot of effect, either for good or for ill. You can probably train your baby to sleep through the night, but if you kid is by nature an insomniac, then the two of you are just screwed. You can probably make your kid work hard to earn enough stars on his chart to buy a Lego Imperial Star Destroyer, but if he's got a lazy streak, you're not going to have much luck stickering it out of him. And by the same token, as bad as your temper is, as prone as you are to nagging, if your daughter is by nature unflappable and confident, then there is, thank God . . ., a limit to how much damage you can do to her."

This strikes such a chord with me. I've believed for a long time that we really have far less influence over what kind of people our children are - over their natures - than a lot of people believe.

When I became pregnant with Lilah I joined an online community of women who were expecting babies in September, 2006 (Lilah came nine days late and thus turned out to be an October baby . . . which is really beside the point). The group included roughly 60-some "members," although the number of women who regularly participated and formd the core of the group was much smaller. There were women from all over the world, although mostly the U.S., from different religious, ethnic, social and economic backgrounds. Some of the women were expecting their very first babies, and some were expecting their second, third, fourth, or like me at the time, fifth baby. I remained a devoted member of this group all through my pregnancy and for several months after Lilah was born, and I even had the pleasure of meeting several of these women "IRL" (in real life), and a couple of them I developed actual friendship with.

My membership in the group, however, began to fall apart when all of our babies were several months old and I had my fill of one particular mom who liked to wax on about how placid and mellow her baby was, she believed, because she and her husband maintained such a "positive vibe" around their baby. This was a first-time mom, and I found it completely laughable that she was giving herself so much credit for her baby's personality. But more than that, it pissed me off because there were many other moms in the group who were struggling mightily with cranky babies who wouldn't sleep, who cried all the time and wouldn't allow themselves to be put down without reacting as if they were being physically tortured. These mommies were frazzled, exhausted, and already feeling like they were failing in some major way. After all, if they could just figure out how to do this motherhood thing right, wouldn't their babies be happy and easy-going? And this Pollyanna first-time mother who took so much credit for her baby girl being so easy-going, I believed, was hurting these other moms by reinforcing this misconception that we have that much influence over our babies.

I posted a message to the group, the exact words of which I don't remember now, but I basically said, "Check your egos, ladies. We don't have as much control over our kids dispositions as some of you might think. It's a crap shoot. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don't."

The firestorm that ensued was worthy of daytime television (and some of you who have followed me here to my blog from that particular site might even remember this particular drama). There were some women on the board who supported me, some who chose not to get involved in the exchange, and a lot of them who proceeded to "flame" me and cyberly castrate me (if a woman can be castrated).

The thing was, being that I was at the time working on my fifth kid, I had the benefit of hindsight and experience (not that either of those things make me an expert, but they do, I believe, give one a more knowledgeable perspective than, say, a woman who is only a few months into her very first mothering foray). And my experience was thus:

Kevin was my first baby, born to me when I was 29 years old. During my entire pregnancy and his babyhood, I lived in an almost constant state of tension, anxiety, fear, and depression. My marriage at the time was slowly but steadily imploding, and there was a lot of very ugly stuff going on. So you would think that Kevin would have been a very high strung, high need baby, right? You would be wrong. He was an angel. Very mellow, very easy going, generous with smiles and not extremely demanding. He slept through the night at 6 weeks old, with no prompting from me. He was my happy little "love bug." I did practice some semblance of "attachment parenting" with him: I wore him in a sling, I nursed him exclusively and for an extended period, when he cried, I responded. I believed that my good mothering was counteracting any negative effects our less-than-optimal home life might have had on his disposition. My baby was happy because of me, because I was doing the whole mothering thing right.

Joey was born 5 1/2 years later. I was in a much better place in my life, having remarried and left much of the unhappiness that had plagued me for so many years behind me. Still, I did experience some postpartum depression after Joey was born. A lot of it was hormonal, and a lot of it, I believe, was because I quit my job of 11 years to finally become a stay-home mom, and I was finding that it wasn't all it was cracked up to be. As with Kevin, I practiced attachment parenting, taking it a step further this time, in that Joey slept with us, in our bed, until we finally forced him out at 14 months old. Joey was a horribly difficult baby. He came out of the womb crying and screaming and didn't stop for close to a year. (This probably played into my PPD as well.) If he wasn't sleeping, he was crying. He never wanted me to put him down. It was exhausting and very dispiriting. And it made me rethink this whole notion that I could mold my baby's personality.

The twins were born roughly two years after Joey came along. The number of kids in our house suddenly doubled. There were so many ingredients for another round of PPD for me (a traumatic birth, no family help or support, the special exhaustion that comes with having multiple newborns to care for as well as two other children . . .), but surprisingly, it never came. Michael and I had settled into a good, comfortable place in our marriage by that time. I nursed the girls on demand, around the clock, and again practiced attachment parenting. And they were crabby babies. Almost as bad as Joey was, but there were two of them. I think by that time I realized what a crap shoot it really was, what sort of kids we get.

So by the time Lilah was born (and she, by the way, was a very good-natured baby whom we parented in much the same way as all our previous babies), I just couldn't sit by and let this mom fool herself or any of the other moms on the board. Maybe it wasn't my place to call her out (though I never did mention any names or direct my postings at any particular mom[s]), but I just couldn't stand her ego, especially because I had been in her shoes once and came crashing down when I subsequently gave birth to the crabbiest baby in the world.

I don't believe that we have so much power over how our children's dispostions are formed. I believe that for the most part, babies are born wired in certain ways - to be high-strung or mellow or happy and good-natured or crabby and demanding. I'll even go so far as to say that I don't believe we have much influence over how smart our kids turn out to be. All these Baby Einstein programs and listening to classical music when you're pregnant and using flashcards with your toddler to give them a leg up? Bah! Kevin and Joey are geniuses, and it's not because of anything I ever did - they were just born that way. The twins? Not so much, although Daisy is lately proving herself to be a pretty smart cookie - but not because of anything I've done to foster that.

I believe that as parents we have the power to provide positive experiences for our kids which will hopefully be translated into happy memories down the line. I believe we have the power to instill confidence or break spirits. I believe we have the power to teach them to manage their feelings and to express themselves in positive ways. I believe that we have the power to teach our kids to make good choices. But I don't believe we have as much power over what sort of people they are as we like to think. I think we tend to give ourselves too much credit, and we tend to beat ourselves up too much over things that really have very little to do with us.

So, thank you, Ms. Waldman, for backing me up on this ;)


Eternal Lizdom said...

I so agree with you. My kids are total opposites. Teagan was borderline high needs. Zach completely laid back. What was frustrating was hearing from folks that the reason he was so laid back was because I was more confident and relaxed. Because, I guess, I had no clue what I was doing the first time around? Niiiice.

I believe they come partially programmed. My job is to create opportunities to develop that programming... to nurture the personality to become the best it can be. Which is why I take my parenting as seriously as I do. It's not about creating a specific type of person... it's about guiding this little person into becoming the adult they are meant to be.

Angie said...

ugh, I remember that so well. I was one of those mothers that had the screaming child until he was 12 months old.

I ALWAYS questioned myself and my abilities and WTF I was doing wrong with this child. Turns out he was Lactose Intolerant. Didn't help I found this out 2.5 years later!

Having thought I'd been through the toughest with Harrison I was SO prepare to tackle this new baby. Again, a screamer! But I finally found someone to listen and diagnose her intolerance and not my incompitance!

Now that I have that off my chest I totally agree with you lisa :)

Anonymous said...

That is BRILLIANT!!! I was wondering that for a long time now!! I was wondering if their disposition now carries over to when they are older!
I have had my share of crabby babies and mellow babies. I have kids with a strong sense of "self" ( read: kind of difficult) and kids who just get along with the whole world. All of them are pretty intelligent ( as shows on their test scores), it's interesting how their personalities carry through from infancy!!!!!
Yayy!!! Thanks for writing about it- it really takes some of the burden off.


Cheryl said...

As a granny of four, soon to be five, and a mom of two, now in their 30's, I totally agree. I often tell people that my kids turned out great in spite of me:)
From the perspective of a grandparent, it is easier to see that each of these children come into this world as an individual in their own right.
I agree also with Eternal Lizdom that what we are able to provide them is opportunity and nurturing, to allow them to fulfill their own potential. That, and morals and manners. Not to sound too old school, but what I truly believe is that what we can best equip our children with as they face their lives in this world are morals and manners. Morals give them a compass, and manners open many, many doors.

Carla said...

I'm back...sort of. I too remember that bruhaha (sp.?). I remember thinking, wait, let's listen to one another, let's support one another, let's hear what all of us have to say. Ha! This was beautifully written, Lisa, and I appreciate the reminder to do what I can and let go of the rest, control what I can and let go of the rest, provide some guideposts for my kids and allow them to be who they are. Love you!

Lindarue said...

I just requested that book from the library. My husband is convinced every bad tendency in our children is a direct result of a parenting decision!