Blinded by the Times: The Mental Block of Modern Motherhood
I spent a good part of my evening watching my son chase after a can of black cherry seltzer. He would give it a shove and then watch as its shiny colors—maroon and blue and silver—swirled away from him. As soon as the spinning stopped, he crawled full speed toward it—as if he were the hunter and the can, his prey. When he arrived at his target, he grabbed it quickly and then carried the prize in his hand as his crawl turned to a one-handed wriggle across the kitchen floor.
While I followed him, I thought about the hundreds of toys we had purchased or received as gifts—the ones with buttons and wheels, the ones that played music and lit up…the ones he liked for about five minutes and then never picked up again. Instead of Fisher-Price, my baby preferred crumbling magazine pages and paper napkins, waving around socks and washcloths, flipping light switches, shaking plastic containers of popcorn and rice, scooting chairs across the floor, and chasing after cans. Months ago, the first time Jacob became fully engaged with a paper plate, I mentioned it to a few friends and family members. They all responded with some version of the same line, “Oh, of course. All babies love making non-toys into playthings.” Really??? This is the consensus? Then, what the heck are we doing buying baby so many toys when there are plenty of perfectly good things for him to play with just lying around the house?
What aren’t we asking?
When we stop and think about it, there are quite a few areas of baby’s life that we could question in similar ways. For instance, why do babies sleep in cribs in a separate room from mommy, with a monitor streaming into mommy’s room so she can hear and see his every move? Why not just sleep in the same room? Or, why do we make special trips to the grocery store to buy lots of tiny jars of pureed foods for baby? What did people do before Gerber?
Many of us don’t ask such questions. Yet, we complain about spending money on toys, furniture, and food designed to meet baby’s “needs.” And, we worry something is wrong if baby doesn’t take to those products. Then, we make it work—for example, by letting baby “cry it out” until he likes his lonely crib across the hall (a whole systematic approach to this has been developed and is the topic of several books and websites) or by forcing jar after jar of mush into baby’s mouth until he accepts.
I realize my rant of the day brings no earth-shattering news. Every culture and time period has their conventions for raising babies. How most of us think and what most of us do are functions of the times and the places in which we live. The interesting part to me is that many of us don’t think about it much. We just carry on with the normal and accepted behavior, even though the consequences of doing so affect every element of our parenting.
How does it happen?
Why is it so easy to just go along with societal norms, even if they don’t align with our values or if they are unfriendly to our wallets? Several things come to mind:
It’s the first thing we see. Whether it’s on television, in newspaper or magazine ads, part of a colorful display at the supermarket, or simply what the moms around us are doing, what’s popular pops into our heads first. That’s just how the human brain works—we’re hardwired to attend to our immediate environment. We know the saying: out of sight, out of mind. If all we’ve ever known is Pampers and Johnson & Johnson, we’re not going to think organic, cloth diapers when we think about baby poop, and we’re probably not going to look for methods for making our own shampoo when we think of giving baby a bath.
Information overload. At times, when I’m trying to decide what type of product to buy for baby or how to handle a particular baby issue, I get obsessed with making sure I’m considering all possible contenders. Suddenly, my eyes are wide and glazed over, and my fingers are in a frenzy flipping frantically through baby books or quickly keying in every possible Google search term to identify the best car seat, baby bottle, diaper rash cream, or brand of cereal. I end up exhausted, anxious, and overwhelmed with contradictory information, ratings, and reviews of my options. When my brain’s “system overload” signal is flashing, I just take the easy route. I run to Target and pick up whatever’s in stock, just so I don’t have to deal with it anymore.
What’s out there is good stuff. There’s nothing wrong with buying name brand baby care products or expensive toys that glow and sing. In fact, soap made for babies is usually gentler on their skin than mama’s soap. And, the fancy toys probably enhance baby’s development like they advertise they do. The problem is we feel like we have to buy them in order to care for or entertain baby…when really all baby needs is some hand soap and warm water to get cleaned up or something new to flap, rattle, flutter, or rustle to be entertained.
No time to think about it. (Or, it doesn’t occur to us to think about it when we actually do have the time.) Although I’m not the most eccentric and adventurous person out there, I also wouldn’t consider myself 100% conventional. I’ve always questioned what’s “normal” and considered my options carefully. However, one day, sometime after baby came around, I stopped thinking and started following. I suspect that once creative thinkers can’t think in quite as creative ways when it comes to baby. Is there really such a thing as a lower functioning “mom brain”? Some days I think so.
It’s safe. Does anyone else have nightmares about leaving some indelible mark on your child’s existence…all because you did this or didn’t do that? Fear that I’m going to mess up something major keeps me from experimenting. If I know it’s safe, sometimes that’s all I need to know.
Convenience. Premade baby food OR hours in the kitchen making my own? Plastic, disposable diapers that I can toss in the trash with their stinky contents OR cloth diapers that require I scrub out the brilliant array of baby waste they absorb? If something saves me time, I’ll usually take it. Enough said.
My doctor told me to. How fortunate we are for modern medicine! Moms with complicated pregnancies and parents of preemies often thank their doctors for baby being alive and well. And, it’s nice to know when tiny bumps appear on baby’s skin or when baby’s demeanor seems a little off that we have a place to go that is full of people who studied how babies work. However, it’s good to keep in mind that pediatricians learned a lot of what they know from textbooks (that change yearly), medical journal articles (that contradict each other), and from observing babies that aren’t ours.
Why does it matter?
So what? What happens if we just go along blindly with the times?
Common sense becomes less common. Thank goodness for Google! What would I do without WebMD? My baby books give me ideas for games to play with baby. And the fact that multiple answers to nearly every question I have are just a search button away—that’s pretty fantastic. But, with expectations based on the What to Expect series and decisions centered on babycenter.com, what happens to our common sense? The more educated we are and the more resources that are at our disposal, the less common sense we use and gain. We’ve been taught not to trust our instincts, and I don’t know if that’s always a good thing.
We spend money we don’t need to spend. Even if you’re one of those coupon bag carrying moms who goes to ten stores a week to get the lowest prices, only buys what’s on sale, and shops exclusively on double coupon day…you may be spending more than you need to spend. People spend up to $4 for a tiny bag of puffed food for baby. Why not give baby the real fruit instead of its dried up doppelganger? The same applies to toys, books, CDs, baby care items, and many other products “made just for baby”. So much of it just isn’t necessary.
What comes naturally is not natural. In general, I find that the easiest, most convenient, and most popular thing to pick up is often the most unhealthy and the most harmful to the environment. Unfortunately, the quickest, cheapest food is usually more processed and has more sugar, sodium, and chemical preservatives. With baby care products, the ones we commonly reach for have long lists of harsh chemical ingredients on the back.
We feel pressure to always have certain products on hand. Do you panic whenever you run out of [fill in the blank]? Have you ever been late to work after driving through rush hour traffic and waiting in line at Walgreens so you can buy a binky to leave with the babysitter? We become reliant on having particular foods, creams, and toys with us at all times, when baby often would be fine without it.
We feel stressed when what everyone else does isn’t working for us. When we feel like all babies should do X or like Y, and when our babies don’t, we get nervous and we try to make ours fit the mold. We forget that each baby is unique and will have different preferences and patterns.
We have regrets. As my baby is eating Cheerios, wearing Huggies, and playing with a toy from Wal-Mart, I run into an acquaintance whose baby is eating fresh fruit, wearing cloth diapers, and playing with a handmade toy. And I feel bad because I didn’t put as much time or thought into baby as she did.
What can we do?
Is there anything we can do to open our eyes?
Talk to other moms. Spend time with people who are less conventional than you. I have mom friends who wouldn’t set foot into a Babies ‘R’ Us, even if they were paid to do so. They use cloth diapers, make their own baby food, sew their babies’ clothing, and make their babies’ toys. While I must admit that (1) I harbor a little envy toward those moms, (2) I will probably never try all of those things, and (3) I may have a tough time attempting any of them, it’s still nice to get a different point of view.
Talk to your mom. (Or grandmother, aunt, etc.) Although the way they did it might not be better, it’s interesting to see how things have evolved. Finding out what has and hasn’t stood the test of time may shed some light on how you do things.
Find out how other cultures do it. You may be surprised to know that baby food in some countries means mom chewing food first and then spitting it into baby’s mouth. In other countries, baby sleeps in mommy’s bed until baby is a teenager. Again, you may not be interested in embracing another culture, but expanding your perspective doesn’t hurt.
Educate yourself about alternatives. There are countless magazines, books, and websites devoted to providing information on healthier or more natural options. Check them out and find out about home remedies, how to make your own cleaning products, or how to get baby to sleep better. Also, take doctor’s advice for what it is: a well-educated opinion about what’s best for our babies, but don’t rule out other possibilities or recommendations.
Stop and think about it. Although you may decide to jump on the bandwagon, make it a conscious decision by asking yourself “why” before you do.
Try going without. The next time you are about to make a purchase, ask yourself if it’s necessary. When you run out of something you always have in your diaper bag or in your refrigerator, stop before you head to the store. Are there any alternatives that would be cheaper, healthier, or just a nice change of pace?
Nothing. Some of us are perfectly happy with tried and true. If you have bigger and better thoughts on your mind and you continue doing everything that everyone else is doing, you will likely be perfectly fine. People will judge you less. If my words are giving you a headache and the questions would complicate your life, then carry on.
As for me, I like these types of headaches. In general, mommies and headaches are not a good combination. But, if it can change my approach to motherhood in helpful ways, then, every once in a while I’m willing to give my head a good spin. And in case you’re wondering, I’m not arguing that we all should reject the customs of our times. I’m merely suggesting that maybe we shouldn’t adopt modern conventions so mindlessly. To me, being a good parent is making sure my approach to parenting reflects my values and the unique needs of my baby. And, I can’t do that without lifting a few blinders.