Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Teaspoons of Pureed Peas and Doubt

I was thrilled just to make it out of the house. Hannah was five months old, the weather was lovely on that weekend afternoon, and we were headed to a friend's 30th birthday party. It was a casual, kid-friendly event at our friend's home, and I was excited to be doing something social. 

But knowing me, I was probably preoccupied with the logistics too. Managing the feeding, changing, and napping of this new little life while also figuring out how to be social? All of it was still a relatively new challenge to my 26 year old self. Those challenges didn't mean I'd rather stay home and skip the party--that's never been my way--but I was probably a bit nervous and fragile. 

I found myself seated on the couch with another new mom, her son right around Hannah's age. Since we knew nothing else of each other, we started in on the baby talk, and I fought that lump beginning to form in my throat, sensing early in the conversation that this was likely not to go well. She brought up starting the babies on solid foods, and then she went for the clincher: she asked how many teaspoons of food Hannah was eating each day. 

I didn't know the answer.

I looked searchingly at my husband, and he didn't know either. I started fumbling, saying that Hannah goes to daycare, and I don't know exactly how much she eats while there, and was given a long response back about how this mother carefully estimated every ounce of breast milk and spoonful of rice cereal. My mind raced as I stared at the happy infant in my lap, gumming a teething toy. Was I even supposed to be tracking things to that kind of detail? Her pediatrician never mentioned it. None of the constant babycenter.com emails I carefully scrutinized said so. Should I ask her daycare provider to count each spoonful? What about the times she didn't swallow all of it, and let half run down her chin instead? Did those count?

I want to be clear on this point: the other mother wasn't trying to be judgmental about how I was feeding my child or anything else. But I felt filled with doubt. Was I doing the right thing by sending Hannah to daycare so I could work? What would happen if I wasn’t there to count every spoonful of baby food? As a young parent, so much is new to you. Every decision feels momentous because you don’t know which ones will matter. It’s disorienting experience, and you begin to mistrust what once might have seemed like common sense.

It's been almost a decade since that conversation, and I still remember how I felt in that moment. In response to my New York Times Motherlode column, a commenter named Alex posted, "Very good piece. At the same time, it is a sad state of affairs that in 2013 women still feel the need to justify their choices. Work or stay at home, the kids will be all right. The most important thing is to have happy, self-fulfilled parents and/or caregivers modeling the behaviors and socio-emotional skills needed to be successful in life. Whatever your choice, own it, be proud of it and never look back." But despite generally being proud of my choices, they're still difficult to fully own and never question, even things like counting teaspoons.

Yes, earlier generations of working mothers paved the way for women like me to be able to make choices. But having more choices doesn't make it absolutely easier to be a new mother, nor do I expect any degree of social change to provide women with all of the support and clarity they need to stop second-guessing themselves. We’re parents, and we’re going to worry about whether we’re doing the right thing by our children. That’s true whether it’s 2004 or 2013, and it will still be true when Hannah is old enough to be a mother herself.

There are moments like this sprinkled throughout my parenting past. I'm still figuring out the emotional side to parenting. Not everything is a cut-and-dry, yes-or-no situation, nor are our responses to them. After all, thinking critically about the choices I make, and seeing what I can learn from those choices, is exactly the type of skill I hope to be modeling for my children. I own my choices by examining them closely, like when I concluded that knowing Hannah's teaspoon intake wasn't critical for this particular child at that point in her life. That conclusion came at the cost of a ruined weekend, though.

So I write about the doubt and the hard choices. Because maybe someone out there went to a birthday party with their new baby this weekend, and left feeling stung. Maybe knowing that someone else had doubts, LOTS of doubts, somehow still made it through, helps them to make it through, too.

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