In the last few weeks before S arrived, I finally got around to reading one of the “baby care” books that had been given to us as new parents. I flipped through the first pages and settled into bed – as comfortably as one can with a bowling ball for a stomach – to review Everything I Must Know Before Bringing Baby Home.
I smugly thought I had all the basics covered. We’d gone through the childbirth class at the hospital. The nursery was freshly painted and stocked with diapers and clothes. I’d gone to a few La Leche League meetings to learn about nursing.
But no, the book informed me. I was far from ready. For I still needed to “decide on a parenting philosophy” before my baby arrived. I kid you not, the book described in quite solemn tones the need to research, discuss, and decide upon an approach to parenting that would satisfy me, my spouse, and above all, our precious and perfect little child.
I remember feeling positively stumped. What on earth was a “parenting philosophy”? The book hinted at various approaches, but they seemed such extremes that I failed to recognize any parents I knew.
I thought of mothers that were closest to me – my own mom, my sister, my best friend from college – and I could not figure that any of them championed a parenting “philosophy.” They simply parented. A little of this, a little of that, a lot of trial and error, a lot of leaps of faith. But no set philosophy or principle determining every decision. Simply a willingness to learn from the situation, from their children, from their own wisdom and mistakes. And they were good mothers, the kind of mothers I hoped I’d be.
I shook my head and laughed. Tossed the parenting book on my bedstand and heaved my tired, swollen body into bed. Why worry about some silly philosophy – what did it have to do with parenting, anyway?
How naive I was. Turns out there was a whole world of mothers out there who adamantly subscribed to parenting philosophies and staunchly believed that I Should, Too. Whether it was attachment parenting or cry-it-out, vaccinations or bottle-feeding, sharp opinions surfaced on every side of every single parenting issue. And I was simply stunned to discover how much time, energy, and emotion women had invested in these issues.
I remember feeling shocked the first time another mother scoffed at the idea that we put our baby to bed in his own crib, that he didn’t sleep in our bed with us. Why would anyone else care what we did? We were just muddling along through new parenthood, the same as anyone else – following some of the same choices our families had made, trying out some new possibilities for our own situation, hoping for the best.
But as I got to know more and more mothers, through playgroups and moms’ groups, I began to learn how parenting philosophies could become true ideologies – lenses that consumed one’s vision of the world. (For one example of the latest outcry in certain circles, check out this essay from Erica Jong in the Wall Street Journal, which decries “attachment parenting” as turning motherhood into a prison for modern women, trapping them between unattainable ideals of bonded, all-natural parenting and the realities of their lives as working mothers. Hoo-boy, did she tick off the crunchy mamas with that one.)
Why are parenting ideologies so attractive? Perhaps because mothering is so tied up in identity. Perhaps because the pressures to do-it-all-perfectly have become too much. Perhaps because parents want to believe that the latest advances will produce healthier, happier, smarter children. Perhaps because it is oh-so-human to want easy answers.
Whatever the reason, I have seen how parenting philosophies can quickly transform into troubling ideologies that lead to conflict, stress, and (worst of all, in the eyes of a mothering spirit) neglect of God. Ideologies hold ideas – theories, philosophies, human-made constructs – as central. Theologies, on the other hand, hold God as the center: of the world, of our lives, of our thoughts and actions. If we hold an ideology – or book or expert or study – as central, then our own ideas become more important than God. We become the Creator, the source of truth and power.
But if we try (however meagerly) to keep God at the center, then we can admit to wonder, mystery, awe, and unknowing. We are reminded that we cannot control all that we would like to control. We are humbled by the greatness of God’s love, compassion, and forgiveness. We remember that we are not called to be successful, but to be faithful.
If our parenting philosophies become ideologies, then we end up alienating each other as well as the God who made us. One article I read recently in Parenting magazine summed up this situation perfectly (and made me laugh out loud, to boot). In an essay entitled “A Decade’s Lessons,” a mother reflects on what she has learned in the 10 years of raising her sons:
When Zander was an infant, I spent a lot of time reading about the most fascinating subject in the universe: babies, and how to raise them. By the time he and I ventured out into the real world, I had developed what one could charitably term a ‘parenting philosophy.’ Like any zealot, I was insufferable. And I found it impossible to relate to anyone who wasn’t as far left of center as I was (hey, we lived in Berkeley, CA) about breastfeeding, co-sleeping, diapering, circumcision, and the like.
Looking back, I could kick myself – not only for having been so annoying ad self-righteous but also for failing to realize that the type of diaper someone uses on her baby’s nether regions (circumcised or not) is of minimal importance when it comes to making friends with another mom.
Amen. We can’t let philosophies stand in the way of friendships or community. The God who created us to love and serve each other calls us to bridge the divides that separate us, to celebrate the diversity among us, to learn from each other as we grow in love.
And if we consider parenting as a vocation – not a competitive sport, not a trendy accessory, not a race to the finish – then we can remember where to place our hopes and trusts. In the very Source of Life that sustains us as well as our children.