Jessica Valenti and the drudgery of parenting

I’ve been avoiding writing about Jessica Valenti’s Why Have Kids? for more than a month now. A friend handed out copies to our baby group, and so I feel a little bound not to say only bad things, but I’m groping for good things. It’s not only that I don’t identify with the dilemma she poses, but also that I find her input fundamentally destructive.

Valenti is a blogger who wrote the book during her first year of motherhood (I think her baby is younger then K). It’s about the disappointment that she faced when she couldn’t live up to the perfect image of motherhood, and then moves on to an attack on the way that an image of perfect motherhood is used to make women feel bad–not just mother’s, but all women who are made to feel like it is necessary to be a mother to be fulfilled. It’s not really clear who does this oppression, but at various times she blames just about everybody, the medical establishment, the media, politicians, etc.

The simplest reason that I resent the book is that it just isn’t necessary. There is a lot of room and reason for critiquing American parenthood, but Valenti is mostly interested in making a loud bang and scoring some points. It’s like piling onto a bar fight. At best, you’re just adding to the noise and confusion; at worst, you’re pointlessly adding to the number of people hurt.

Another reason for resentment is that I just don’t feel like I live in the same world as Valenti. She is, for example, is particularly incensed by the “soul-crushing drudgery of day-to-day parenthood that we’re too embarrassed to talk about” (xvii). But who on earth gave her the idea that parenting was going to be easy and not involve an enormous amount of housework? She seems to blame Dr. Sears for telling her that she would spend all day cuddling in perfect bliss, which is probably proof she didn’t read The Baby Book very well. That book is full of information about dealing with fussy baby’s and changing diapers and anecdotes of just how crazy difficult it is to raise a kid. And who on earth isn’t talking about the drudgery of parenting? In my baby group that’s the better part of the conversation; people aren’t embarrassed to talk about it, they’re relieved.

I suppose I should be grateful to Valenti for this then. She crystalized my feelings about parenting as work. My previous job as a professor involved a lot of grind of course. Piles of papers to grade, reports to write up, meetings to attend, that kind of thing. But with a child, that grind all means something. It’s not that it doesn’t sometimes make me want to tear at my hair when K runs away from me as soon as I mention her messy diaper, or that she fights like a cat to keep me from putting her pants on, but there’s no question in my mind that I’m learning something in every battle, and that she is too.

But the grind of parenting as a stay at home dad has taught me something I think I could never have learned any other way. Maybe Jackson Pollack, in the middle of the thousandth drip of paint, sighed and wished he could be watching television, but when he went back to work he knew why he was doing it. Even if the canvas he was working on was turning out spectacularly bad, he must have known this was what he wanted to do.

Diapers are like that. It’s not exactly that they are to be enjoyed, but for me they are a reminder that K and I profoundly linked, and that when she is grown, I will know her in a way that only Ko and I do.

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she’s becoming company

Ko’s parents spent the last four weeks here in Brooklyn taking care of us. It’s the sort of thing you would think I would have a lot to say about, but actually I feel a bit overwhelmed by the experience, so for the moment I’ll say nothing. I did learn a great deal while they were here of course.

Having them here, though, had a very clear impact on K. Grandpa was determined to add a quarter of a kilo to her over the four weeks, and they seem to have made it a mission. There was one incident of throwing up, but on the whole the result is a somewhat chubbier baby–not quite up to 9.5 kilos, but over 9.3.

The biggest change, though, is the amount she’s vocalizing. We have a small apartment and so four adults and one toddler make for a very full space. It was the most extended term of stimulation K has ever had. Her reaction was to blossom into a seriously chatty little girl. From the very first day of their visit, she seemed so excited to be with them that even on the playground she became much more outgoing; it was like watching a squirrel scurrying around gathering nuts.

Today was the first day I’ve had her alone since they left, and it was odd to both re-experience the familiar feelings of closeness, but also taste how much a difference a month can make. I was in the kitchen with her this morning, going about my usual prattling monologue, when I realized that we had crossed a boundary. Being with her no longer feels like monologuing in front of an audience; it has become much more interactive and conversational. The biggest single reason is that she learned to nod yes and no–accompanied by the appropriate sounds. But there is more to it than that. She really has come to expect that we’re listening to her, and that we respond to her communications.

Thinking about it, the most amazing part is that suddenly, in the most profound sense, K is becoming company. It’s not that I’ve felt lonely in the past with her, but if I’m honest it has often felt more like caring for a pet than spending time with a person. That is changing very quickly.

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skinny baby

Maybe two weeks ago we had K’s fifteen month doctor’s visit. It turns out that while her height growth curve is preceding nicely, her weight growth curve has flattened out. I had several reactions to this, none of them good.

The first, of course, is guilt. I am much more than Ko responsible for what Kaede eats, and of course, I’ve also been aggressive in changing our feeding patters since reading French Children Eat Everything. I’m also very aware that I haven’t been able to establish a regular pattern of eating for K, not in what she eats, not in when she eats, and not really in how she eats.

“What” is complicated because I’ve been trying to avoid finding one food and sticking to it. I have been trying very hard to keep a variety of foods flowing past her. “When” is also complicated because under the influence of French Kids, I’ve cut out snacking all together and trying to keep meals at regular times and always at the table. No I feel like maybe I was starving her.

But my second reaction to the doctor was a kind of defensive negativeness. The truth is K dropped from about the 50% to about the 15%, and part of me feels like she really shouldn’t have been in the 50% in the first place. She’s just not a big baby. But the greater worry is that her curve is almost completely flat, and despite my wish this would be just a cultural difference, I’m worried.

And the last reaction was to want to laugh. The doctor’s solution was to give her a bottle of milk a day, which to my mind is a crazy amount of milk. Further, this means that the three strongest recommendations for eating we’ve had from doctors are milk, beef, and sugar. (One of our favorite doctors recommended beef and blackstrap molasses because K’s iron is low.)

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the wheely bug

K has taken to climbing up on things in the last two weeks. It started when a friend of ours plopped her into a box and she didn’t cry. After that she started climbing into the box by herself, and then climbing onto chairs, and has graduated to her climbing just about anything.

As a result, we bought her a wheely bug–which is more or less a ladybug-shaped seat set on four casters. I spent several days looking over push cars before I found this on Amazon and went head-over-heels.

Ko laughed at me at first because I kept talking about wheely bugs. She’s suspicious of the American tendency to throw toys at babies for every occasion. But once she saw the pictures, Ko went head over heels as well.

It came Thursday night and so far (as of Friday night) K has been cautiously interested. She likes sitting on it, but except for scooting a few feet once and then getting off, she hasn’t really gotten the idea. It is very much like her to take a very long approach to something so new. It reminds me of waiting for her take her first steps. They were long coming but when they finally arrived, it was like watching the sun rise.

Ko had come home late, and K was sleepy and cranky, but for some reason she chose that moment to throw herself over that last barrier–letting go. She lurched across the floor from me to Ko, and then back again, faster and faster and laughing and smiling. She was so proud of herself, her face lit up, her hands out in front of her and her legs stiff in a monster walk. She would have kept going but we shut her down after she nearly fell over backwards.

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baby talk and attention spans

K got a particularly welcome compliment Wednesday. A story teller we went to see told me that she was “a great listener,” and that K’s attention had been fixed on her the whole time. I was very pleased, especially since the story teller had gone out of her way to seek me out to tell me this.

This particular compliment made me particularly happy because I know there is a lot of truth to it. She does focus very well and for longer periods than you’d expect a baby to be able to. Throughout the reading she had been paying close attention to the speaker. Once or twice her mind did wander to a pile of purple birthing balls in the corner, but she would always come back to the speaker.

Part of this is that the story teller read “Mary Mary quite contrary,” and “Hey diddle diddle,” two nursery rhymes that K knows very well. One of the books she read featured a rabbit, fish, cow, and leopard, all animals that she’s been exposed to. We even saw a snow leopard at the Central Park Zoo a week ago. So K was listening to things that she had associations about.

But beyond that, the compliment touched a point I’m very proud of. I feel like we’ve done a good job helping her develop her concentration. Ko and I have been using Sally Ward’s book (Ko read it in Japanese, me in English), Baby Talk, with her since the early spring, and I think it’s been effective.

There’s a lot to say about the book, but one of the take away points for me is her idea that you should try and work with the child’s attention focus rather than against it. Instead of trying to call the baby’s attention to something, she advocates watching what the baby is looking at, and then talking about that thing. So if the baby stares at a dog, you describe the dog. And when baby’s attention shifts, you shift too.

I think this idea is marvelous. In the case of the story time, I was sitting right behind K. When there was an opening, I would interject a comment about whatever she was paying attention to–the puppet of a cow, the picture book, or the color of the birthing ball.

I’m completely sold on Ward’s ideas, especially after watching parents futilely trying to keep their toddler’s attention focused on something. Ward says that this results in fragmented attention, because the baby wants to follow the parent’s instruction, but at the same time their curiosity is directed elsewhere.

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parenting and fear

I had some thoughts about the role fear plays in parenting this weekend. A friend came over recently and insisted on telling K that her diaper “stunk,” and that she had a “stinky” diaper. I laughed it off, but told her that we didn’t use that kind of language with her. My friend’s reaction was to accuse me of being overly sensitive. She said, “Telling her the truth that her diaper is stinky isn’t going to damage her self-esteem.” I had a dozen responses on the tip of my tongue, but I left it go at telling her that while I agreed there was no such risk, we didn’t use that term anyway.

Since then I’ve been thinking a lot about the issue of “stinky,” and also my friend’s assumption that we are afraid of damaging K’s self-esteem.

The most basic reason I can think of to explain our decision not to use that word is that most of the time K’s diapers aren’t stinky at all. We cloth diaper, so I am on intimate terms with K’s poop. She doesn’t eat much red meat, and no processed food, so all those smashed lentils and oatmeal she’s pooping out usually smell like a barnyard. Several times when she’s been sick or upset the smell is stronger, but even then “stinky” seems a strong word.

Still, while all that is true, it doesn’t really explain things. I’m fairly certain that we wouldn’t use the word even if it were accurate.

The deeper reason, as far as I can intuit, is that it simply doesn’t fit the way we communicate with K. “Stinky” is an expression of disgust, and things that are disgusting are beneath notice. I don’t want her to think of any part or product of her body as beneath notice. It’s important to have a healthy relationship with your poop.

Much more puzzling, however, is how to answer my friend’s assumption that we were afraid of damaging K’s self-esteem. It seems very true to me that this fear–that bad parenting will damage a kid–underlies an awful lot of parenting decisions. I see that when reading screeds against attachment parenting on Urbanbaby.com. The base assumption is that parenting is a kind of high-wire act with no net. There is little room for error, and success is maintaing a precarious balance.

Maybe it’s better to think of parenting as an art. I don’t seriously think K will be a better or worse person based on the word “stinky.” But that decision will certainly affect what kind of person she is. Most parenting decisions, it seems to me, are similar to this. Questions of style that change the total picture, but don’t result in clear cut “better” or “worse.” Most parenting decisions just make your kid more like you.

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cross-cultural pooping

I recently had a discussion with Ko about Lisa Patricelli’s book Potty. If you know that book, it’s meant to make kids comfortable with using the potty. (K loves it–even reads it while sitting on her potty chair). Basically, a baby in a diaper decides he wants to use the potty, sits on it, waits, poops, and is rewarded with hugs and the ability to wear underwear. The reader never sees any poop, which is hidden in the potty chair.

When Ko read that book, she laughed. “It’s so American,” she said, “there’s no cleaning up.” I laughed too, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized her point is very true. Further, the baby gets a material reward–new underwear.

In contrast, in the Japanese potty book we bought, ひとりでうんちできるかな? (I wonder if I can poop by myself?) not only are the last three pages all about washing up after, the images are much more explicit in showing not only wiping, but also the poop itself. In fact, there are four different pictures of poop, including tiny poop, an enormous green poop, and a smiling healthy poop flexing its arm muscles.

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