You Don’t Have to Choose a Parenting Method to be a Great Parent

I walked the floor with a baby on each shoulder gently bounce, bounce, bouncing them, my back burning, hoping to ease my twins to sleep. They must’ve been just a few weeks old, our fourth and fifth kids, recently out of the neonatal intensive care unit, all of us recovering from their premature birth as I tried to learn two new little ones. What worked. What didn’t. How to navigate a whole new life. Again.

One of the boys, Cael, my snuffler and snuggler and warm-skin lover, conked right out, comforted by the mama sounds and mama smells and chaos all around us.

The other twin, though? Oy. Cai didn’t settle. And so for him, I continued to pace. Was he colicky? Gassy? Burpy? Sick? Over-stimulated? Hungry? Bored? I didn’t know.

He cried and cried, and I walked and walked, and I didn’t know.

My mom-in-law was over, and she offered to help. “Can I take him for a bit?” Judy asked. “Give you a break?”

Sometimes I dream of being a grandmother. All the wonderful parts of childrearing with as many breaks as I need, full nights of sleep, less constant anxiety and barely any vomit at all. Other times, I think it must be a special kind of hell, this Grand Parenting, where I’ll have to ask permission to take the baby who owns a piece of my soul.

Judy asked for Cai. To give me a break. And I didn’t want to let her have him because I wanted to do it myself. All my byselfTo be the comforter. The soother. But my back was on fire, and I recognized Grandma’s need was the same as my own. So I let her have him, although my heart was grudging.

I assumed she would walk him. Back and forth and back and forth and back and forth as I had done. Or, perhaps, she’d think she could sit with him in the rocking chair and she’d learn — quickly — that he cried harder when sitting. Instead, she laid him on his back on the couch and sat down next to him.

I thought, “You have got to be kidding me. I’ve been walking this child for hours. For days. And you’re going to take him and just lay him downThat’s not gonna work. That’s ridiculous. That’s

He was asleep.

Out. Arms askew. Blissful on the couch next to his grandmother. He twitched and then settled as if to say thank God you all finally quit touching me. 

That wasn’t the first time my kids were going to send my parenting method packing, laughing in the face of my One Right Way.

As for the twins, it turns out I’m parenting opposites:

Safety and DANGER.

IMG_4783-001

Night Owl and MORNING GUY.

Vegetables and SUGAR.

“Hold Me” and “LEAVE ME ALONE!”

Are your twins identical, Beth? Um, NO. Not to mention my other three children, all of whom think they’re entitled to their own individual preferences and needs.

Sheesh.

When my oldest was a baby, we subscribed to the cry-it-out method of bedtime because it was the Right Way to Raise a Child. The Only Way, really. The Godly Way, for sure. I didn’t know there were other options, and, when I got wind of them, I was pretty sure they were Wrong because I had read a book.

I hated sleep training. It went against every grain in my gut if guts have grains. It went against my gut grain, is what I’m saying. My baby girl cried for me, and I sat outside her room and cried, too. And it didn’t occur to me for years — literal years — that both of us miserable indicated it was time to consider a change. I just thought… I don’t know… that miserable was part of it.

And then we had three children, and we made some adjustments. Night terrors and attachment issues and bloody noses and vomit and wet beds and sheer desperation will do that to you. We started sleeping on kids’ bedroom floors. Upright in chairs. With kids in our bed. And I use “sleeping” in the loosest possible sense of the word.

In the end, Greg and I settled on One Right Sleeping Strategy for our family, just not on the same one. Greg is an ongoing proponent of Make the Kids Sleep in Their Own Rooms THAT’S WHY THEY HAVE THEM, and also, THIS IS MY BED, GET OUT. And I wholeheartedly buy the But Someday I Want to Remember I Had Their Legs in My Bladder and Elbows in My Eyes and Hot Breath in My Hair and ONE DAY MY BABIES ARE GOING TO LEAVE ME method.

It works out well between us.

And, actually, it does. Because Greg and I agree easily on one thing: we’re never going to sleep again and the method we use to get to “Hey, look! More midnight laundry!” doesn’t much matter. Because, of course, the word “sleep” in “sleep method” is meant to be figurative, which the manuals decline to mention. No matter what method you choose to help your kids sleep? It’s unlikely to net YOU any at all.

Who knew, right? Well, not me when I was a new mama, that’s for sure. I thought sleep training or attachment parenting or whatever, if done right, if done the way it’s prescribed, was supposed to result in sleep for us all. Or well adjusted children. Or well adjusted parents.

WRONG.

I mean, eventually it does, right? Parenting takes time, after all. But, in general, WRONG.

Which brings me to the entire point of this post, and it’s this:

Dear New Mama,
Did you know?
You don’t have to choose.

Parenting. It’s just so… whew!… devastating and triumphant. And that learning curve is WOW! Learning your child and yourself and your partner and your method and your madness and your magic all at once? WOW. And doing it again with each subsequent child? Double WOW.

Then along come the people. ALL THE PEOPLE. Who tell you what to do. And that there’s just One Right Way. The gurus. The books. Facebook. The grocery-store advisers. And they all talk in snapshots, with stationary bits of information, instead of telling you the more complex truth: There are Lots of Right Ways. Loads and loads. And this parenting picture is never at a standstill. Never ever. It moves, friends. It’s a moving picture. A talkie. In color. And surround sound. And high definition. On the BIGGEST screen of all. Your life.

And so, New Mama,
Did you know?
You don’t have to choose.

Not a sleep method. Not a feeding method. Not a potty or a pee or a poop method. Not a once-and-for-all, ’til-death-do-us-part method. You don’t have to choose.

But, wait.

What?

What is this, “you don’t have to choose?” 

That’s what I’m saying, friend. That’s what I mean. These parenting methods? The ones by the experts and from mama friends and the church and the schools and the doctors and the neighbors and the lady at the park who’s a specialist?

You don’t have to choose.

You don’t have to choose for once and for all. You don’t have to subscribe for forever. You don’t have to buy into this or to that. You don’t have to believe like in ice cream or world peace.

You can if you want to. You can choose, of course. But, new mama, you don’t have to choose.

You can try different things. It’s okay to try them. The sleep training and the all-night bladder-kicking. The cloth diapering and the ruin-the-earthing. The breast feeding and the bottle feeding. It’s okay to move in the picture.

If something’s not working, you can ditch it. Pitch it. Without ruining your baby or yourself or your mind. If something’s not working, you can do something else. You can, if you want. You can.

You can, and I know. I know ’cause I did. Or didn’t. Or don’t. Or, rather, it’s truer to say that I won’t. Not anymore. Now I just do what works. For right now. In this time. For this kid. In this space. For this night. For this meal. For this minute, what’s right.

Here’s the truth I’ve learned after five. And the twins at the end drove it home. All children are different. And all parents, too. With our needs and our wants and our whims. “Rock me!” “Hold me!” “Leave me alone!” So I try. And I move. And I breathe and I bend. And, in the end…

In the end, I’m happier and much better off when I’m me. Wild and free. And picking and choosing. And making mistakes. And making thing better. And making things best.

And my kids? Most important of all, my kids are better off, too. When I choose what works for us all, not a rule.

……….

Oh, mamas and daddies, what do you think? What’s your story of methods and peace? And how do you choose when to bend?

xoxo,
B

……….

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ABOUT BETH WOOLSEY I'm a writer. And a mess. And mouthy, brave, and strong. I believe we all belong to each other. I believe in the long way 'round. And I believe, always, in grace in the grime and wonder in the wild of a life lived off course from what was, once, a perfectly good plan.
52 comments
  1. […] up to us as parents to not allow ourselves to be intimidated by dire warnings and over-promises. By rejecting the formulation of One Right Way to parent, we can embrace the fluidity and chaos of parenting in all of its messy glory. By allowing […]

  2. […] oh, I don’t know, a rules-based faith, and picking the Right Parenting Method, and eating lots of […]

  3. YES!!! This is something I had to learn so early for my marriage it just translated into parenting. If it’s not working, don’t hesitate to find a different solution, which you may end up changing later still. The only hard and fast rule is family. This is fantastic.

  4. My rule of thumb for parenting (as well as teaching when I was a teacher) was always “If it isn’t working then don’t keep doing it”. Nothing is more irritating then having another parent tell you the one tried and true method for raising a child. This holds true for everything including potty training! Please parents, please, please, please, learn the art of support vs. judgement, criticism, and self-righteousness. No one will want to sit by you at the playdate!

  5. I appreciate this post. I was strongly in favor of attachment parenting, but we did it in our way, not hard core. We had to supplement breast milk, too. I got seriously stressed by Nazi moms who made me feel as if we were letting our kid down all over the place. Now I see it differently, but then I felt like a failure. After several years of parenting, I have more perspective now, and I have tried to share some of that with newer moms, like you are here, but not so hilariously. 🙂 I did have a nurse give me similar advice to the La Leche mentor above, when my baby was just a week or two old and she told me, after a desperate evening call from me. She said I was the parent, I could make the rules (this was about getting my baby to sleep, big shock), set the bedtime, create the routine–in short, I was in charge. For whatever reason, that was the lightbulb moment for me–exactly what I needed to hear at that time, and it helped. Before then, I felt so lost and confused, and almost like a victim. After that, I started to realize I could do this mom thing. Thanks for sharing some wisdom!

  6. Thank you so much for this! I have an amazing 6-yr-old that is adopted, has ADHD and SPD and is truly a piece of work. After reading many many books and listening to tons of people, I’ve completely lost my parental instincts. Every time I start to say something, I question whether it is the “right” way to handle things. I used to parent by gut but then thought that was wrong…..now I’m trying to refind my gut instincts. You are so right….there is no one right way. And sure as shooting, as soon as you find it, your brilliant, scheming child will catch on to it and turn your world upside down again.

  7. Thank you!!! As a new mom of a 3 month old, I could kiss you and all those moms out there who have ever been anywhere on this ride! My husband and I struggled and still do on the books, the opinions, blah, blah. But I really think my latest testament to it all is the swaddle drama. Our baby sleeps best swaddled, but now that he found his hands he really LOVES to shove them in his mouth. Unfortunately the startle reflex is still there and if his hands are out of the swaddle he’ll smack himself in the face and wake up. I tried a bigger swaddle, two different brands, no swaddle, a single arm swaddle, the YouTube of the magical lady who makes those cute blankets…then I remembered the Miracle Blanket a friend gave me. aka the baby straight jacket. I had long abandoned a month before because I couldn’t get it on him (I was a little hesitant then to man-handle him the way its required to get on correctly). ALAS he has slept great with it. Goes to show me, some things work at different times…who knows? Either way, he is the greatest little thing ever, straight jacket and all!

  8. Sleep in the figurative sense. In the loosest possible sense of the world. YES!

    Oh thank you for validating to this brand new mom that just because my kid isn’t sleeping thru the night and I’m not sleeping, really much at all, doesn’t mean I’m doing it wrong.

  9. OMG, your comment about the grandmother having to ask permission to take the baby who holds a piece of her soul hit me so hard. I just started crying here at work….which is normal for me so everyone is used to it…lol. I have no control over my emotions anymore. I sometimes don’t think of that when my mother-in-law asks very timidly to help…..I don’t think of her need to want to soothe. Or when my step mother assures me she’s ok when my youngest starts to fuss. I must resist the urge to be the only comforter.

    But we have totally found out that you just do whatever you need to do for everyone to get sleep. My 2.5 year old was a breeze (although we didn’t realize it at the time). She ate on cue every 2 hours, she slept for 2 hours from 10-12 and then again from 2-4 and went to bed at 9:30 for almost a year. Her 5 month old sister is a learning process every day. She eats when she wants and sleeps when she wants and it’s never at the same times or the same amount and by golly if you don’t know what to do at any given time she will let you know just how unhappy she is. Some days rocking works and some days bouncing and patting her butt works and some days nursing works but it’s never the same. Lately she just wants to be put down and she will cry for a few minutes before passing out. Something I told myself I’d never do. I can’t even try to soothe because it wakes her up more, so I literally have to lay her down and walk away. On those nights my stress level is at max until she goes to sleep (which is usually within 5 minutes).
    My husband sleeps on the couch until 2-3 when I come down with the baby in which time we switch places because the baby’s sleep is restless from then until she wakes up which also wakes up our 2.5 year old because she is still co-sleeping. And if she’s awake NO ONE is getting any sleep.
    Ugh….someday maybe we will all sleep soundly in our own beds…..maybe not. But as long as we’re all getting sleep it’s ok….it’s all ok.

    But I wanted to tell you that parts of this read like a Dr. Seuss book and I thought you could make it into one for new moms all written and illustrated like a Dr. Seuss book and it would sell great. I would buy it for sure. 🙂 Just a thought…

  10. I thought pacifiers were evil incarnate until I couldn’t lay down until I gave DD one. I thought sleep training was cruel until I hadn’t slept in a month. I thought I’d wean at a year, until she was two and I still hasn’t. I thought I’d never let her drink soda until she was dying of thirst at a rest stop. I thought I’d let her dress however she wanted until she tried to go out of the house in THAT. I thought I had all the answers. Turns out only she did.

  11. […] side or the other, and that’s okay.  I was thinking all of this, and then my friend posted this article on facebook, and my heart cried out in delight at the fact that someone could put this into words […]

  12. F#cking books. I have 16 (not an exaggeration although I wish it were as I am pretty sure it speaks to my confidence level in general) books on baby sleep. Toddler sleep. And you know what? Like you said – WRONG, no matter what any of them say. The whole reason I started writing was to say that the mama instinct is the right one. That mama knows best. As you (and your kids, and your husband, and you, yourself, will eventually realize too). It might take some time though. ‘Cause 5 kids? Is a lot of kids.
    Love your blog and so happy that you’re on FITL now. MWAH. Seriously LOVE your blog.

  13. Great post, Beth! My oldest wanted to be held and rocked and never put down, and I regret letting him cry it out too much. Stupid books! My second wanted to be put in his crib and left alone. They’re still the same, but I sneak in lots of hugs and snuggles whenever I can 🙂 Tennille

  14. Thank you, Beth, for letting the new mama’s know they can choose not to choose.
    I remember how stressed I was when it was time to feed my son solid foods. Every where I looked there was a different “schedule” of when and what to introduce first.
    It wasn’t until I read the line “its just food feed your baby” that I relaxed and just fed my baby.

  15. Love, love, love this! I believe I know what THAT book is..and I tried to use it for feeding and sleeping. By 4 weeks I was throwing it out, my hubby and mom encouraged me to follow my instincts. Then I fell into the mindset that every whimper should be met with nursing and cuddles…even the 9 month 3 am on the dot waking. For cuddles. Cause “parenting doesnt end at night”. Well, I was dreaming of car accidents allowing me to go sleep in a hospital and my child was miserable because he kept waking for cuddles. I let cosleepers guilt me, but it just didnt work for us. It was like I hopped from one extreme to another, looking for the hard core right way manual. I finally figured out what worked for us. A lot of nuturing and loving, a little sleep training in the later part of the first year, and continual changing of what works for us. I hope my next one is more easy going though! 🙂

  16. This is so ridiculously RIGHT ON. “I didn’t know there were other options, and, when I got wind of them, I was pretty sure they were Wrong because I had read a book.” <– every kind of awesome. Because I was right there with you with my first…and then I had my second…and actually cried to God, asking him for a handbook, a specialized guide for this child. I swear it's right there in my prayer journal.

  17. Very well said! There is lots of wisdom in the post and in the comments! I had a friend recently speculate that one of the God’s reasons for placing so much importance on the firstborn was more to counteract all the things that we inflict on our firstborns as we learn the way to parent than on them being the firstborn!

  18. For the last 2 weeks, my twin boys (3 in May), have been crawling into my bed. Every night. Earlier and earlier. In the past I would get up, repeatedly, and take them back to their beds. Have no idea why they started this up again, and I don’t really care/mind. Right now (or at 0130, 0300, 0400, 0515) they need me. That’s all that matters. It’s done me a world of good letting go of the stress of it. I need a sleep book (friends opinion)? Why? They are only coming into my room, not yours. They are only waking me up, not you. We’re good, thanks!

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