Way back in the summer of 1993, I found out I was pregnant for the first time, with my oldest daughter. I was 21-years-old and knew nothing about pregnancy or infancy. My oldest sister mailed me her copy of What To Expect When You're Expecting. I was grateful. I read that book cover to cover, letting each word of wisdom, advice, and counseling sink deep into my bones.
One look at the cover told me it was time to grow up.
The woman on that cover says it all. Matronly, solemn, practical, pragmatic. She has no use for fashion or the stresses of the world or a good haircut. All she needs is her blue and mauve artificial flower arrangement, a pair of good, solid, gray flats and a wooden rocking chair in which to sit while she reads.
I could have recoiled and rebelled, refusing to take on the image. I was a typical college student of the 90s, experimenting with my identity through the newly formed grunge movement. Out was tailored and refined and melodic; in was bohemia and retro and cachophony. But this was no time to be watching reruns of the first season of The Real World. I was expecting a baby, and mothers were expected to be, well, mothers.
By the time I reach my last trimester and I was celebrating Christmas with my family in Florida, I was realizing my use for this book was quickly fading. Within six weeks I would no longer be expecting, but I would have an actual baby. My sister was quick on her feet again and gifted me with a copy of What To Expect The First Year.
Grateful for the new primer, I began reading it cover to cover, following the guidelines of how to diaper my new baby, how to dress her, how to bathe her, how to feed her, and on and on and on.
And so my education in parenting continued throughout my daughter's formative years. It wasn't until she was a preschooler that I needed to rely upon information outside of the What To Expect series. At that point, I stored away the books and saved them for the time when I became a parent again.
Fifteen years passed before I successfully carried a pregnancy beyond the first trimester again. I didn't even bother getting out Expecting. Mine was a high risk pregnancy from the get-go, and every question I had (if it was addressed in the book at all) was answered curtly with 'you should check with your doctor.' Somewhere around month 5 of my pregnancy, I realized I should get out The First Year and at least make sure I remembered how to swaddle a baby.
As I reread the book, I found myself in shock. What was this tome of archaic, authoritative, one-sided narrative? Where was the balance? Sure, I knew a lot had changed in 15 years in childbirth and hospital protocol, but the content that was shocking to me went far beyond whether to allow hospital staff to give your baby sugar water. It was the topic of where baby should sleep that startled me.
My husband and I had decided baby should sleep with us in our bedroom. The First Year couldn't have been more against this idea. Sure, it's fine at first when you have a newborn, but later, you better get that kid out of the room. True to What To Expect fashion, the book lists out a "number of serious problems" associated with co-sleeping. Less sleep for parents, less sleep for baby, less lovemaking, and more problems for everyone when the baby has to adjust later. The short solution given was this: get the baby out of your room quickly.
Really? Serious problems? And there's no way to avoid these problems? That's it? No discussion necessary, case closed, end of story?
The book goes on addressing the issue by saying that co-sleeping seems to work fine in other societies, but not this one. "In a society like ours, which stresses the development of independence and the important of privacy, co-sleeping is associated with a wide range of problems." Again with the laundry list: increased likelihood of sleep disorders, dental problems due to too-frequent and unnecessary nighttime feedings, stunting of emotional development, difficulty relating to peers, marital problems, and even behavior issues stemming from lack of boundaries between parents and children.
Is there no room for fostering intimacy between parents and children? Bonding as a couple with the baby? Extending the intimacy that brought the child there in the first place to include intimacy with the actual child? And what's up with valuing independence and privacy as the traits of utmost importance? I mean, sure, you want kids to be confident and individuals, but isn't a sense of family oneness important too?
By the chapter on month six, the book suggests that to reduce nighttime feedings, you go cold turkey and just let the baby cry it out. Oh my. I just couldn't agree with that.
As a parent, I have oftentimes lamented at why I chose to do things the way I did with my older daughter. Why didn't I consider cuddling more with her, why did I push her to achieve and succeed and be independent so much, why did I think that strict obedience was so important at such an early age? Rereading What To Expect The First Year made me realize that some portion of my approach came from following the advice that was given as gospel truth. It never occurred to me that there wasn't only one best way to parent. How you build a family differs with who you are and what you want your family to be like. What works for one family won't work for you. The decisions you make as a parent are an outgrowth of your personality, your partner's, and, to some extent, your children's.
I haven't taken the time to read the updated version of Expecting and The First Year. Maybe the content has changed with the times and is more balanced now. At least the cover art is a little more realistic. (But they still hold on to that quilted background, like quilting is a necessary part of the transformation of woman to mother.)
Regardless of what the authors of What To Expect have decided their advice will be at this point, I think I've learned a more important lesson through my years as a parent. Take every piece of information with a grain of salt.