But not for the reasons you’d think. Okay, so there are sleepless nights and temper tantrums. There are bodily functions and communication barriers. There are hundred different decisions you have to make as a parent as if someone’s life depends on it, because someone’s life does depend on it. But those aren’t the reasons parenting is hard.
It’s hard because suddenly, after an entire life of everything being about you, suddenly nothing is about you. Everything, every single solitary last thing is about someone else, and there is no relief from it. And not everyone takes this very well.
I read a comment online the other day from a man insisting that children should be spanked in order to instill proper behavior. He said that if children were not spanked occasionally, they would never develop a healthy fear for and respect of their parents. He said that if children were not taught from an early age to sleep alone in their own beds, they would never learn to be independent. Furthermore, he went on to say that anyone who could not manage to do these things for to their children was a “lazy parent taking the easy way out.”
I’m going to say something controversial, but I believe every word of it. Spanking is easy. Leaving a crying child alone in their bed in order to sleep-train them is easy. It’s easy to yell at children, and it’s easy to force them onto a feeding schedule because that’s what fits your life. It’s easy to switch to infant formula when pumping is a pain in the ass, and it’s easy to ignore a child who wants to be held. It’s easy to circumcise baby boys because you don’t have to do any research, and it keeps you from having to explain to your family why you didn’t circumcise him. These things are easier because they only require a simple decision. Just say no, “Get back in your own bed.” Or yes, “We can just put some cereal in his bottle, he’ll stay asleep longer.” Or whatever. They don’t require a lot of thought, and the vast majority of the parenting world out there will co-sign your bullshit.
Yikes. Did I just say all that?
Yes. Parenting is hard. But I mean parenting the way it’s supposed to be, with the best interest of the child in mind, not mine. Not my schedule, not my social life, not my sex life, not my need for “me time,” and certainly not my view of how other parents see me. Being a good parent means I don’t get to just shove my baby into a crib in another room and call it a night because I’m tired. It means I have to spend time doing research for damn near every decision I make. It means being hooked up to a machine for a couple hours a day, every day, for over a year so that my son can get what he needs to stay healthy and grow strong.
Here I am, up on my high horse, right? Calling anyone who uses infant formula or smacks their kid’s hand away from the outlet a terrible parent, right? Not in the least. It was only last night that my 14-month-old son clamped down on my nipple as I was putting him down for bedtime, and I caught my own hand mid-air, ready to slap him for doing it. Three weeks ago, I began to resent my breast pump and the time I’d spent with it. I started looking, I mean searching high and low for some other liquid I could be satisfied with giving him, just so I could take back 45 minutes of my day. Two months ago, I agreed to let my husband put my son down for naps in his own bed (he sleeps alone for naps anyway), and a little part of me got excited that he might like it, and he might want to stay there, and I might get my own bed back.
So yeah. I get it. It’s hard to put yourself dead last after a lifetime of being Number One. But allowing my son to sleep with me at night, committing to breastfeed him until he decides he’s finished, and choosing to parent him without violence are far from lazy decisions. These are the hard choices we make.
How simple would it be for me to say, “You know what? I’d rather sleep in bed with just my husband. Let’s start putting Little Puppy in his bed at night. He might scream and cry for a while at first, but if we can power through for a couple of weeks, we’ll all be sleeping through the night soon.” Yes, that would be easy.
I could say, “I’m so tired of pumping and waking up at night to nurse. I’m tired of having a squirming toddler pulling my boobs out in front of everyone. I’m sick of having to be home at night to nurse instead of being able to go out with my friends. I’m tired of having to worry about what kind of shirt I put on every day to make it easier for nursing on demand. Can we just start feeding him cow’s milk so I can have my body back?” Simple choice.
I could say, “It’s so much work to get down on his level and explain everything. He really would respond a lot more quickly if I just popped him on the butt when he tries to reach for the keyboard. I wouldn’t have to stop what I’m doing and re-direct him. He’ll learn I mean business that way.” Totally easy.
You know what’s hard? Not doing the easy stuff.
It’s really hard to stop the instinct bred into me to strike my child when he behaves in a way others find unacceptable. My parents hit me and my sisters when we were young, and I tended to err on the side of caution in my behavior out of fear of my father. But what a sad thing to say. Out of fear of my father. So sure, spanking worked. But in the beautiful words of Teacher Tom, “I’ve had people shrug at my moral stance and insist that spanking ‘works,’ and I’m sure it does. There are lots of things that work that I will never try. If I need money, stealing works…Indeed, spanking may work. But there are better ways. They just take more effort.” To use the ever-popular phrase used by spanking enthusiasts and non-parents the world ’round, I was spanked, and I turned out fine. But every bit of science ever produced in relation to spanking will tell you that children who are spanked are more likely to become adults with emotional problems, chemical dependencies, and violent tendencies. They are more likely to commit crimes, abuse their own children, and suffer from psychological disorders. So yes, spanking may work to produce different behavior, but I want better than “turning out fine” for my son, and I am not willing to put him at risk for becoming one of those adults if I can help it. And so every day, I must work diligently to become someone other than who I was conditioned by my parents to be. And that is hard.
It took a couple of weeks for me to give up on finding some other plant-based milk to feed my son. I finally remembered that it wasn’t about me anymore, or the time I wanted to give back to myself. So I’ve started taking supplements again to boost my supply, and for now I think I’ll continue to pump until he’s at least two. At that point, I’m sure he’ll develop a better taste for raw juices and plant milk. We’ll continue nursing of course, and he’ll get a lot of what he needs straight from the tap. But I want to make sure he gets everything I can give him, and that means putting my own schedule on hold for a while. And that was the right decision for me to make, and yes, it was a hard one.
I was not prepared for sleepless nights. I thought the “sleepless” would stop after Little Puppy was a few months old. I’d say at least a couple of nights a week, I wake up feeling like my night was sleepless. We still nurse at least twice a night at 14 months, and of course there is the required wake-up for diaper change. If I wanted to take the easy way out, I could train LP to sleep in his own bed in a matter of weeks if not days. My husband and I might even get to have sex (gasp!) in our own bed. We could get more sleep, and I could stop waking up with this terrible pain in my hip from lying on the same side all night long giving LP unhindered access to my boobs. But biologically and emotionally speaking, he’s not supposed to be away from me at night. We’re supposed to sleep next to each other. When he was small, my presence regulated his heartbeat and breathing. Now that he’s older, bed-sharing helps maintain my milk supply. The family bed creates a healthy sense of dependency in him. He is not forced into a false, premature independence, and thus will develop healthy independence in his own time. There is nothing natural about sleeping alone, no value in it whatsoever. The notion that anyone, especially a small child, would want or should be able to sleep alone without waking is ridiculous. Do we not, as soon as we become adults, begin the search to find a life partner with which to share our bed? Do we not, as adults, crave the warmth of another body next to us as we sleep? And when is the last time any adult I know slept through the night, anyway? I know I get up for a few different reasons almost nightly. Maybe I had a bad dream, or I’m thirsty, or I have to pee. Or maybe I just wake up as a natural part of my sleep cycle. Am I really going to expect my son to sleep alone in a dark place that he can’t understand has no danger? And how can I ignore the cries of a baby who only needs to be comforted?
So yes. It would be easy to sleep-train him. But not best for him.
These are the hard decisions. The ones that put the parent dead last on the hierarchy of wants and needs. Not only because they mean less sleep, more inconvenience, and more patience. But because they’re also incredibly unpopular. Your mom will tell you that if you keep picking the baby up when he cries, he’ll never learn to work it out on his own. Your co-workers will tell you that if you don’t start putting the baby in his crib, you’ll never get him out of your bed. Your pediatrician (yes, your doctor!) might tell you that after 6 months of breastfeeding, they really aren’t getting anything from you they can’t get from a can. And your grandmother will say “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” But you know better.
There comes a time in every new mother’s life when she must decide if she’s going to do it the hard way or the easy way. If you let those other voices crowd out your “mom voice” (you know the one), you may soon find yourself in a place with which you are unfamiliar, and trying to find your way out is more difficult than if you had just listened to yourself to begin with. When a woman bears a child, her body chemistry changes. Her entire biology switches gear and innately, she knows what is best for her baby. Sleep close. Be gentle. Let baby lead you.
Don’t ignore your Mom Voice. Don’t take the easy way out. Choose the hard way.