By Debbie Urbanski
When I found out I was pregnant, I made some promises to myself. I was going to be a great mother. Being a great mother meant never raising my voice. It meant creating a house of quiet and calm. It meant playgrounds and crafts and my children having play dates all the time. I wanted to give my kids a different childhood than the one I had. As for how to become this kind of mother, I had no idea, so I decided to read some parenting books.
Thankfully there are a lot of parenting books.
I started with The Baby Book by Dr. Sears, which advocates in 769 pages for babywearing and lots of cuddling. This sounded nice. I bought several slings and a baby carrier before my son was born. When my son was born, he cried all the time, whether he was in the sling or not. His cries were neither small nor cute. He was really loud in fact. When he wasn’t crying, he wanted to be nursing. He began nursing all through the night and I wasn’t able to sleep while he was nursing so I became non-functional. A neighbor told me about Dr. Ferber of the rather notorious “cry it out” method. “Do babywearing mothers use Ferber?” I asked this neighbor. “Sure,” she said. We used Dr. Ferber’s book Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems as a guide to ferberize our child, meaning we set our infant in his nursery, in his crib, and we shut the door. Periodically we checked on him but we were not to pick him up until the morning. Dr. Ferber promised the child would only cry in his crib for a few nights. My son’s crying at night went on for weeks or longer. I don’t remember the exact length of time as I’ve blacked out that part of my life.
This was my first clue that the advice in parenting books was not always accurate for my particular child.
I ignored the clue.
My son grew into a strong-willed child who protested transitions and change. Positive Discipline led to Raising Your Spirited Child after which came The Explosive Child, which recommends collaborative problem solving and negotiation. Instead of problem solving collaboratively, my son screamed at me. Still, I was convinced that some book out there contained the secret to parenting my son. It was only a matter of finding the correct book.
After my son was diagnosed with mild autism, I became buried in an avalanche of books: Asperger Syndrome and Difficult Moments; The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism; anything by Temple Grandin; 1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism or Asperger’s. Mothers at social skills classes recommended more books and even some DVD’s: The Calm Parenting University and Stop Defiance Now! and The Nurtured Heart Approach.
Soon every moment of the day became a moment to improve my child using book-approved methods. My nightstand, and in fact my life, had become a mess of notes and parenting books. I felt like I was standing on a cliff beside my son, about to jump, and here I was tying pages of books to our arms like they could be wings.
It was unsustainable, of course.
One morning I woke up one morning and gave all those books away.
The moment the books left my life, I felt like a weight had been taken off of my back.
In some ways, I still miss these books. They were my addiction, my habit. They gave me an easy hope. If I only read enough, and read the right books, and managed to remember the advice such books were telling me, my son might turn into a different child, an easier-to-manage child, and I would end up being that parent, the warm playground-loving parent I hoped I would be
“No,” my child’s therapist corrected me. She said my particular child doesn’t need that parent I imagined, the one who did crafts and gave lot of hugs. “Your son doesn’t even like hugs,” she reminded me. True. My son needed a firmer parent who can teach him how to follow instructions and use silverware. A parent who implements incentive plans and sticks to them and is able to ignore the insults while keeping her temper in check, while using physical guidance if required.
That’s the parent I need to figure out how to be.
Unlike those parenting books, my child’s therapist has never promised me a miracle. Sometimes she asks me what I think I should do. No parenting book ever asked me this question.
Recently, my mom wrote me an email containing some ideas for raising my son. I wrote back and explained I was taking a break from outside parenting advice, that I was just working with my son’s therapist right now and trying one new thing at a time. Progress was slower this way, nobody was expecting a cure, though at least there was progress. My mom and I did not talk for months after I sent that message. She thought I didn’t need her in my life. What I needed, I later told her once I finally called her, is for someone not to tell me what to do, but to tell me I will know what I’m doing someday. To tell me I can figure this out. This is the message I wish more parenting books contained: that being a nurturing mother does not mean mimicking other mothers. It means being the mother your child needs, and what your child needs may not resemble anything that can be contained in a book.
Debbie Urbanski’s writing has appeared in Orion, The Sun, the Kenyon Review, Nature: the International Weekly Journal of Science, and Terraform. She holds an MFA from Syracuse University. Read more of her work at: debbieurbanski.com or find her on Twitter @debbieurbanski.