Do you have a “gut feeling” that helps you make decisions about your children or do you rely on a mixture of logic, trial and error, and expert advice? Olga Mecking found that her maternal instincts were not all they were cracked up to be. Amanda Van Mulligen discovered that she parents best when she follows her own internal compass.
My Parenting Instincts Don’t Work
By Olga Mecking
When I was pregnant for the first time, I expected there would be a little voice in my head—a maternal “instinct”—that would explain how best to bathe, feed, care for my newborn and how to get her to sleep.
Throughout the pregnancy, however, the voice remained silent. I didn’t know what was or wasn’t “normal.” I didn’t know whether the pains in my abdomen meant I was having a miscarriage or whether they were simply a result of my body expanding to accommodate the baby. While everyone told me there was no way I would miss being in labor, I didn’t realize I was actually about to give birth until I arrived at the hospital and the midwife confirmed I was 9cm dilated. And, of course, I expected that my body would know how give birth (“You’re designed for it!”). It absolutely did not.
I felt like a failure, but hoped my parenting instincts would wake up once my daughter was born. When she finally arrived into this world, though, there was no inner voice to help me out, only her cries and my silent pleas for sleep. I felt alone and I was miserable.
I confided in an old friend. I told her that I thought the concept of a parenting “instinct” was a big fat lie. She said she believed that mothers usually knew what to do; they just had to find the courage to do it.
I felt clueless but slowly, and steadily, began to figure things out. I still remember the day my parenting instinct first presented itself. My daughter, maybe six months old at the time, was crying. She wasn’t hungry, she wasn’t tired, she had a clean diaper on. I cuddled with her but nothing was calming her down. And then I heard the little voice in my head, saying: “She’s too warm, take off her tights!” And that voice was right, the crying stopped immediately, as if by magic, after I undressed her! I felt so powerful, so wise, so knowing. Finally it seemed like I had a grip on the situation.
Since that voice established itself in my head, I assumed it would be consistently right. That’s what everyone was telling me: “Trust your instincts,” “You’re the parent, you know best,” “Follow your gut.” I started paying attention and the little voice was useful in some circumstances, but it completely missed the point in countless others. Over and over again, it told me to overreact when there was nothing to worry about, such as a stranger innocently smiling at my child. It also requested that I do nothing in cases when taking action would have been preferable. When my parents-in-law pointed out that my little girl could benefit from physical therapy, for instance, the voice told me that everything was fine. But it turned out the therapy was very much needed.
I’ve come to realize that the idea of a foolproof parenting instinct is a myth. It is not an inherent thing we all have that kicks in upon conception. Some mothers have to learn everything, slowly and painfully, through trial and error, through laborious research. And going with “your gut” will not always provide the best solution. We want to pretend it will, because that would provide a simple answer for all of the complicated issues our children face.
“You are the expert on your child.” I hear this often. And I agree: there are things I know about my children that no one else does, their particular likes and dislikes, how long it takes them to get used to new environments. But I don’t expect to know every ailment they have, or whether a delayed milestone is indicative of a problem or not, and that is why I consult an expert. Maybe there are parents who have it, that “gut feeling,” that “little voice” that predicts everything accurately about their kids. But I think the majority of mothers don’t and we choose whichever course of action seems most reasonable or logical at the time.
Nowadays, I don’t expect my parenting instincts to be right. Instead, I consider the possibilities, weigh the pros against the cons, find a solution that works and adapt or discard it if it doesn’t produce the results I want. I consult various voices, not only the one in my head. I ask family, friends, yes even strangers on the Internet, because the more information I have, the better I can understand the problem and find a fitting solution—not just a solution that “feels” right.
Olga Mecking lives in the Netherlands with her German husband and three children. Find her at: The European Mama .
My Parenting Instincts Are Usually Right
By Amanda van Mulligen
I’d been a mother for a few years before I learned to follow my instincts, to trust the gut feeling that shows up when it’s decision time. Becoming a mother illuminated how powerful and intuitive my internal compass is.
During my first pregnancy I had no idea what to expect of motherhood. I muddled my way through babyhood and toddlerhood with my first son. My shelves sighed under the weight of parenting books, full of conflicting advice which I tried to make sense of. By the time my second son was born three years later, I realized I was mothering instinctively; I merely dipped in and out of books or advice on the Internet. By the third baby, I was able to detect infinitesimal changes in the way my children breathed, how they smelled and in their emotional reactions.
I’ve been with my children since the minute they came into the world. I have watched them grow from helpless babies into increasingly self-sufficient young boys. Along the way I figured out that no one knows a child’s own version of normal better than his mother.
No matter which qualifications a professional holds, be it a doctor or a therapist, they come into a family’s life and take a snapshot of a child at a single moment in time. I, on the other hand, have a rolling film in my mind of every moment since my sons were born. While I have respect for the expertise of a professional with years of training and experience, I am confident that I am a qualified expert on my own children as well. I know things about them that no doctor or therapist could possibly know. When my instinct tells me a doctor needs to probe further, I have learned to trust that unconscious feeling.
I felt instinctively, for example, that a child therapist was on the wrong track with my five-year-old son. I sensed she was wasting her time with elaborate and costly tests to determine the root cause of his explosive emotional outbursts. My instinct told me that my son’s meltdowns were the result of his highly sensitive personality traits, that they were a part of his character and not an underlying behavioural disorder. I voiced my feelings quietly. We moved in circles for months, months of strain and stress on my family whilst a cause was sought. Eventually the child therapist declared my son free of any behavioral disorder and said he was, in all likelihood, indeed just a highly sensitive child. I learned then to listen to my instinct, to listen hard, and to honor my instinct with a loud, authoritative voice.
It is my instinct, guided by experience, that tells me when to push my highly sensitive son to try a new extracurricular activity, and when to leave him be. His former schoolteacher insisted we should give judo lessons a second chance, that it would be a good way to boost his self-confidence. While I agreed with her reasoning, I knew that the scenes in the changing room—the tears and the reluctance—would be as harrowing as they were the first time. Her advice was sound, but not for my child. I can see the limits of my children that are invisible to others.
I relied on the same instinct when I postponed enrolling my reluctant four-year-old son in swimming lessons. He’s eight now and as competent in the water as any of his classmates, despite his later introduction to formal instruction. Similarly, I trust my decision to acknowledge my son’s fear of being alone and co-sleep with him. My gut in this regard is to ignore the grim warnings from an online world of parenting doomsayers and to find my own path through, one that works for my family.
It’s not just because of my years of parenting experience that my instinct deserves to be listened to. It’s reaching the mid part of my life. I’m now in my 40s and I know myself better than ever before. Through learning that my children are highly sensitive I have come to realize that I am sensitive too. I understand myself.
Relying on my instinct doesn’t mean I don’t seek help from experts; I listen to the advice of others and will continue to do so. I don’t abandon all logic and reason: feeling something is not the same as knowing something. However, the best parenting advice I ever received from an expert is “follow your heart and do what works for your family.”
I am a mother who has learned to listen to the voice inside, whether it calls for caution or reassures that things will work out fine. I know by now to respect that feeling in my gut, to let my instinct take center stage, which is where it should be.
Amanda van Mulligen lives in the Netherlands with her Dutch husband and three sons. Find her at: Expat Life with a Double Buggy.