High Stakes

At brunch the other day one of my friends was holding my 1-year-old. He was chomping on a sour pickle (and flicking the juice all over my friend, who thought it was funny), and reached for the piece of cake on my friend's plate. "Can he have that?" my friend asked. "Sure. He's the second child. He can have pretty much anything," I replied.

I've been thinking about that conversation, and why it is that the experience of parenting the second child (or subsequent children) is so different from being a first-time parent. The recent exchange I had with Jody and Elizabeth on the posts about the woman who didn't want to spend a weekend with her friends got me thinking about even more, specifically about how sometimes as mothers we can't let anyone else take too much care of our children. But then I read Kateri's latest post, and thought, "Aha!"

"Aha," because Kateri wrote in the most direct way possible about why being a first-time parent feels so high stakes and raising subsequent children does not. Go read her post. It's short (something that can't be said about any of my posts) and pithy and hit me right between the eyes because it's the essence of why parenting's so hard emotionally. I'll wait. No, seriously--click and read it, leave a friendly comment, then come back here.

Now that you're back, can we talk about two things? The first is how it feels to let go and let other people take some of the emotional burden of parenting, and the second is how to give yourself a break and avoid putting yourself in a perfectionistic parenting box.

Letting other people take over some of the care and emotional energy of thinking about your child is rough. That's been one of the hardest things for me as a mother--the letting go of needing to be the one in charge all the time, or the repository of knowledge (and let's face it, I'm Cliff Clavin), or the one the baby really wants. And I think that I had an easier time than lots of mothers do, all things considered. I had to make a serious effort to force myself to allow my husband to do things the way he wanted to with our son when he was tiny. It was hard to listen to my son crying, knowing that I knew how he wanted to be held and that my husband wasn't doing it "the right way." I started leaving the apartment so I wouldn't have to swallow my words of "advice" to my husband.

But it got easier and my husband started to know what our son needed more and more. The feedback loop worked like a charm. And then, when my husband was laid off and home all the time, he and my son really learned each other. He had 15 months of being at least as hands-on as I was, and I think that's still a major influence on our relationship and my identity as a mother. At one point I started being afraid that my husband might be a better parent than I am. When I realized how scared I was of that, I forced myself to really consider that it might be the case. And you know what happened? Nothing. If my husband was a better parent than I was, it was still OK. I was still a great mother, my son still loved me, and the world kept turning.

So, Question #1 for you: Do you feel like you've come to terms with other people being good at caring for your child? If yes, how did you do it, and if no, what work do you think you could do to get there?

On to the second thing, which is giving yourself a break and making parenting decisions less high-stakes. I'm not sure there's really any good way to do it. First-time parents are, by nature, concerned about everything they do in taking care of their children, and that's the way it's supposed to be. I just wish we could put less pressure on ourselves to do things perfectly all the time. That pressure leads to stress, depression, and the one-upsmanship that makes interactions with other parents so much less helpful than they could be.

I don't tend to feel guilt very often or to let others' opinions of me guide my thoughts or actions. (I think that's a result of the way I approach decisionmaking about parenting and in general, but that's a whole different post.) But even if I did, I think I've devised a pretty decent strategy for putting parenting decisions into perspective. When I was pregnant with my first son, I made a parenting mission statement for myself. I figured out what were my main goals as a parent, and then some smaller goals, too. When I started to get stressed out about what I should do, I referred back to my mission statement. If it didn't have anything to do with one of those goals, I just took the path of least resistance or more fun. It's been remarkably freeing.

So, Question #2: How do you keep yourself from sweating every small decision you have to make as a parent? Is it getting easier as your child(ren) grows older?

I'm hoping we can start to find some way out of the mental and emotional mazes we keep ourselves running around in. So please share your experience, whether you've gotten to where you want to be or not. As usual, you can post anonymously if you want to by putting "www.google.com" or "www.fake.com" into the "URL" box and only I'll be able to see whatever real or fake email address you put in the "Email Address" box.