Things I Don’t Want to Say as a Parent

This could be a daily, or even minute-by-minute log, but I am going to focus on one that has really been popping out at me lately.

A little background – I just had my second baby at the start of September, and I’ve been going to a moms’ group for the last few weeks with him. Even though this is now precious time on one of the three days my older son (3 years old) is at preschool, I just really like moms’ groups. At the shallowest level, I just find them fascinating in an US Magazine, hear the intimate details of random other people’s lives, sort of way. At a higher level, I also really like feeling the sense of community that can often evolve out of those groups. I also like hearing ideas for addressing challenges, and just appreciating the range of experience and reassuring myself that I am somewhere in that gigantic range, and wherever I am, it’s ok. Perhaps most importantly on some days, I also like that it is next door to a coffee shop that has a peppermint mocha named “the Bullfrog.”

All this background is totally unnecessary to my point, but now it’s too late. The word that has stuck out at me lately as being a word I really don’t want to use to describe my baby is “good.” What particularly got me thinking was the one woman in the group who just smiles every week during check-in and says her baby is a really “good” baby and they aren’t really having any issues. I think this is hilarious and weird and a little bit annoying. In a way, I think it’s so subversive, and thus cool and hilarious, to show up at a moms’ group and not complain about anything. What an amazing assault on the first unspoken rule of moms’ club which is you don’t talk about anything that’s going well at moms’ club (wow, that was a bit of a stretch – just thought it was worth it to try to weave in a Fight Club reference on a mom blog.) I like imagining that this woman is backed by some underground performance art fund (you didn’t know there was such a thing?) and hitting up every moms’ group in a 50 mile radius with her sunny disposition. It’s almost an act of civil disobedience.

It’s also weird and a little annoying to me because I have to admit I can’t totally buy the suggestion that she never has anything to complain about. I am pretty against complaining, but once I realized it was ok to name your challenges and process them, I think I’ve been a lot happier. Even happier than when I would just go around suppressing them and basking in the warm glow of not being a complainer.

But back to the word “good.”  I was surprised at how many women use that word to describe their babies – and these are all babies under six months old – and I started thinking about the underlying assumptions. The obvious problem is what does this mean? Good generally means, for lack of a more elegant way to put it, not f*ing up your sh*t. Leaving you alone, not requiring much of your time or effort, perhaps appearing happy, but I’m not sure that’s a prerequisite for being termed a “good” baby. Much like how everything in the “Happiest Baby on the Block” is not at all about being happy, but rather about being quiet. As the mom of a six week old, I am absolutely not knocking the value of that. But it may be a bit disingenuous to equate quietness with happiness.

The underlying assumption I find most problematic is that if a baby is not being good – i.e. easy – then they must be being “bad.” Now on the one hand it’s easy to say – well obviously these moms don’t think their “good” baby is bad if they start to cry, or they don’t think the mom who checks in after them whose baby never sleeps and cries every evening is a “bad” baby, and ‘”good” is just shorthand for a whole list of qualities, and we should appreciate these women for saving us time so we can make it to my check-in and I can ramble incoherently for a while and then say “so yeah, that’s what’s going on with us” as if that ties it all together. But language is powerful.

It brings to mind a section in Unconditional Parenting, by Alfie Kohn (a must read), where he talks about how your beliefs about human nature affect your parenting behaviors. I don’t own this book, though I should, so I can’t actually look at it to see how badly I’m bastardizing his point. But what I gathered from it was the pretty profound point that whether you believe people – and thus babies and children – are basically good and simply need some help staying in that mode sometimes, or whether you believe they have bad tendencies that need to be controlled with force or punished in order to be good, has a pretty big effect on how you act as a parent. He points out that parenting techniques that rely on control and punishment are generally founded on the latter view.

I found his point to be profound because it’s one of those things that so deeply and basically underlies what we do that we often never even realize it’s there. Unearthing our own views about people in general can be tremendously helpful, and also help us to understand our own knee jerk reactions, and most importantly, think through whether our parenting behavior is consistent with what we actually believe.

I know that I don’t want to communicate the belief that there is any such thing as a “bad” baby or a bad person by using the word “good” to describe my baby or any other baby. My belief in the fundamental goodness of human nature is one of my most deeply held beliefs and I don’t want to use language that goes against that.

I plan to come back to this post and add more slightly related points, and include more references to my desire for chocolate, but I’m publishing now because if I don’t do it now, who knows when it will happen…

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