Parenting is not a very comprehensive word (perplexingly defined as “being or acting as a mother or father to someone” according to Merriam-Webster). Thanks dictionary, are you trolling me? I remember those first days I brought my son back from the hospital… I wish I could say “like they were yesterday” as my memory is starting to fade into a blissful haze. He was so small, and his tiny little bum fit into the palm of my hand. I walked in the door and panicked almost immediately. Is he supposed to be this red? I tried everything to make him stop crying, is he sick? Ok, now he’s kind of yellow, what does that mean? I was completely overwhelmed. There was just so much information to process and synthesize. Here I am… “parenting.”
Today, there is seemingly no end to the tips and advice from bloggers, books, magazines or other parents. With words of wisdom so readily available from the all-knowing internet, many parents look to hundreds of sources over their own parental instincts. This begs the question, how much of one’s child-rearing should be a product of “expert” advice? And, how much should one rely on parental instincts? Can I tell the difference between the feelings of parental instinct and other feelings like fear and love?
I found out first-hand that the old saying is absolutely true: “no one knows your kids better than you do.” When it comes to what they like or what makes them more comfortable, a mother has a clearer understanding of her children than anyone. I never thought I would be able to tell the difference between the “unique baby cries.” Yet, something inside me always knew when my son was sick rather than hungry, or wet rather than bored or sleepy.
Of course, this awareness doesn’t happen right away. I didn’t understand all of my baby’s needs from the moment he was born. It seemed like a hundred sleepless nights have passed, before I “earned” confidence, and finally trusted my instincts. I am lucky to have been surrounded by many women who helped me during my pregnancy and postpartum period. Some of them were experts in early childhood development, some of them had kids of their own, and many others were well-meaning and well-educated. I had a number of situations where I just knew the advice was not going to work for my son despite the expert source. This was especially true for sleep training.
My son had a medical condition for the first six months of his life which prevented him from pooping regularly. This resulted in long and miserable nights for the whole household. We didn’t know at the time that the sleepless nights were related to constipation, but my gut feeling told me that this was not the right time to try the Ferber method. I received plenty of parenting advice from doulas, and we were all trying not to lose our minds! Long story short, I’m happy that we didn’t cave in. Our pediatrician solved the medical issue, and my son was soon a happily sleeping infant.
As a new mother, I began the parenting journey with a large dose of self-doubt, and maybe I was lucky that my parental instinct was stronger than my fear and fatigue. However, I can’t say that I was always right, and so my musings come with a big caveat. While going with your gut could be the best thing to do in some situations, it can be easy to rely too heavily on your feelings. Even if you know your kids better than anyone else, everybody makes mistakes. If you listen to your instincts alone every time, it won’t be long before you make a decision that is not the best for you or your kids. I found that it’s important to take time and educate yourself.
For example, I actively work to consider each situation and whether my parenting instinct is based on love and/or fear, against the logic of legitimate and valuable information. Sometimes it can be difficult to see what is best for our kids. My gut wants me to do what makes my son happy. It’s not uncommon for women to operate under the assumption that our knowledge or faith is superior to fact. I ran into a fellow mom the other day who was convinced that vaccines are bad for children. When I pressed her on the logic behind it, she was adamant about “feeling right” about her opinion. I instantly thought to myself, you can’t use logic when you develop an argument based on feelings! I was shocked, but I could relate to the sense of “rightness” the other woman was feeling. I knew I disagreed, but I understood that it was not coming from a malicious place.
In order to avoid investing too much in either the outside sources or my (sometimes misguided) parenting instincts, I try to weigh them both. In today’s complicated world of promoted media and spin, it’s often really hard to do this, I get it! On Facebook, for example, I feel like I get sucked into an echo chamber. That’s the terrible and comfortable thing about it’s algorithm. It will always confirm my opinion. It delivers content that I am more likely to agree with and thumbs-up.
My first observation is that, if the advice online lines up too ideally with a gut feeling, I might be trapping myself in false affirmation bias. I am careful to not to Google in a way that might play into a bias or an unsupported opinion. My challenge to other moms is to seek different opinions, and to understand the legitimacy of the source. It’s so important to actively search for information that contradicts one’s existing knowledge and feelings. My rule of thumb is that “just because it’s written doesn’t make it true.” There are still sources worth exploring on the internet. However, not every source has value.
Additionally, I recognize that every mom is a unique person, and her family is equally special. It’s going to take a lot of parenting experience and a ton of trial and error to get on the right track. While parents don’t know every detail of any other family’s unique situation, their tips can still bring a fresh perspective (hello!). It never hurts to learn a bit about parenting styles or strategies different than one’s own. But, it is also up to each individual mother to decide what truly works for her family.
While no one’s parenting instincts are perfect, they are a huge factor in everyday decision making. When it comes down to whether or not a particular parenting strategy will work, no parent comes up with the best solution to every one of life’s conundrums. While I can’t always trust my parenting instinct, I always listen to it and consider where those feelings are really coming from. Is it fear? Is it love? Can some things be explained by logic and reasoning? When all else fails (somehow), I just take a breath and remind myself that if can’t trust your own parenting instinct, whose instincts am I supposed to trust?