Want a Good Parenting Day? Lower Your Expectations. Lower. Nope, Even Lower Than That.

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Via My Baba

Sometimes the worst parenting days are the ones where you’ve got a plan and a positive attitude. You know what I’m talking about? Those days when you’ve finally got enough energy and inspiration to do something fun? Your toddler starts putzing around the house, bored, and instead of flipping on the TV, you say, “Oh! I have an idea! You’ll love this!”

So you set up that activity you’ve had pinned on Pinterest for two years, that one where the kids hammer golf tees into styrofoam. It’s perfect because your toddler loves “booming” things. You don’t have golf tees or styrofoam, so you run around the house looking for nails big enough and blunt enough to be reasonably safe. You can’t find any, so you call your husband for a hint as to where they might be. They’re in the garage, and the hammer’s in there too. You find the nails, but you can’t find the hammer, which is fine, you’re still chipper, because you remember seeing your toddler’s toy hammer somewhere, recently. You’re running around the house checking everywhere you might have last seen it. OH MY GOSH YOU JUST SAW IT WHERE IS IT. It’s under the couch, of course, all the way in the back by the wall, of course, so you whack it out with a broom. You find a cardboard box. There. Ready to go.

The toddler is already dumping the box of nails everywhere. “No, no, no, wait, let me show you how to do it,” you say.

The toddler seems excited. “Boomin’ hammer, Mommy! Boomin’ hammer!”

“Yes! You can boom with the hammer!” You knew he’d love it.

You can’t really hammer the nails in with the plastic hammer, but you discover that if you jam the nail into the cardboard really hard, it’s creates a big enough hole for a toy hammer to make headway.

“Whack it!” you encourage.

Your toddler gives a halfhearted whack.

“That’s it! Keep going! You’re doing it!”

“Mommy do it,” your toddler says.

“No, no, you do it! It’s for you! It’s supposed to be fun!”

“Watch TVs?”

You know. Those days?

Or the days you wake up and feel the urge to deep clean the house or write a blog post or drink all of your coffee while it’s hot — feel the urge in your soul — and every part of the day conspires to make sure you reach only a semblance of that goal with the maximum possible stress and disappointment?

Those are the days I want to hand in my notice to my husband and walk out the door. (That’s how you quit parenthood. Right?)

Life with littles can be so frustrating.

God grant me the serenity to accept the moods I cannot change, and the courage to change the one thing I can — my expectations.

Emily Nagoski, author of the must-read book, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, taught me about the brain’s discrepancy reducing feedback loop:

In your brain there is a little monitor, a watcher, who knows: (1) what your goal is, (2) how much effort you’re investing in that goal, and (3) how much progress you’re making. And it keeps a ratio of effort to progress.

And it has a very strong opinion about what that ratio should be.

As you encounter obstacle after obstacle in your attempts to entertain your toddler or enjoy a cup of hot coffee, your brain must recalculate how much effort is required and how likely the goal is. This is frustrating for your brain — to continually put effort into something that seems less and less likely. As the goal continues to float out of reach and the required effort piles up, frustration turns to anger. Then there comes that point where the required effort becomes so overwhelming or the feasibility of the goal so unfeasible that your brain just gives up and pitches you into the depths of despair.

I can think of a dozen examples of that psychological process from the past hour alone. Parenting littles, in particular, is rife with failed, delayed, or prolonged attempts at reaching goals. And that’s what often makes up those defeating, rage-inducing, burnt-out days.

But when I understand what is happening in my brain — that it isn’t the day just magically and hopelessly crumbling around me — I can consciously evaluate my effort and my goals. As Nagoski advises, I have three options:

  1. Change the goal.
  2. Change your effort.
  3. Change your expectation about how difficult the goal will be.

For me, in the context of littles, the lesson here is lower my expectations — lower, lower, and lower still. I change goals into either tiny concrete things more within my control or broader goals that allow for whatever happens to happen. And I anticipate that things are likely to go awry. I plan for the worst (or really, the normal) toddler behavior, I lowball my goals and expectations, and I feel that glorious ding ding ding of achievement when I hit those simple goals. If it’s one of those days where I easily meet the bare bones of parenting, I can build up toward loftier goals — like enjoying a hot coffee all the way through.

It feels much better to start humble and grow than crash and burn from aspirational heights.

The other day, I took my kiddos on a walk. I consciously framed it, as I frame almost all walks, as toddler-led. I didn’t have a destination in mind. I planned on going slowly, maybe doubling back, stopping in spots for an absurdly long time. I set the goal as enjoying time in nature with whatever my toddler found interesting. That’s a doable goal, because it accounts for a wide variety of toddler behavior, from getting engrossed in nature to sitting like a rock in the middle of the trail, and it focuses on something I can control — my behavior.

If I was strapped for time, or wanted to get a brisk walk in for exercise, or desired to get to a particular destination, I would buckle the toddler into the stroller and communicate that he wasn’t getting out. I would anticipate some extra steps and maybe some more emotional friction to accomplish that goal — thus changing my expectation for how difficult reaching my goal would be. Since he was walking, though, I knew it’d be a colossal struggle to get him moving in the direction and along the timeline I wanted. So I lowered my expectations and broadened my goal, and we enjoyed a lovely slow, meandering walk that involved a lot of standing in one spot looking at bugs.

Not going to lie: I still got a bit agitated once we hit minute ten of watching the beetle walk around in circles. But I repeated my mantra: Lower your expectations. Lower. Lower still. Accept that this is what today’s toddler-led walk looks like. And God granted me a little more serenity in that acceptance.

Some day, the toddler won’t be a toddler, and can more realistically and reliably meet greater expectations and bigger goals. But for now, the toddler does what toddlers do — and we are all much less frustrated when I meet him where he’s at. Then we both experience success.

Even if I start out with too lofty of goals (silly me, thinking I could brush my teeth before lunchtime), and the day is crashing and burning around me, I can reset goals in hindsight to get myself back on track. My mom taught me this one: When she was a young mom, overwhelmed with how little she had achieved that day, my dad encouraged her to focus on what she had achieved, no matter how small — even if it was just nursing a baby all day. Which is an amazing reframe for me because I do, indeed, spend a great deal of my time sitting and nursing a baby.

Every day, I set my goals super low: feed the kids three meals and one snack a day, change their diapers, put them down for their naps, and respond to their emotional needs as best I can. That’s it. Depending on the day, that seems far too aspirational or far too easy — but it keeps me from migrating toward the despair at the end of my brain’s discrepancy feedback loop. And when I feel positive and successful, it’s a good parenting day — no matter how much I actually accomplish or what craziness actually goes down.

How to Parent When You Don’t Have a Lot to Give

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I’ve got a toddler and a newborn, and often their needs conflict in a way that leaves me feeling stretched thin and not enough. Even when there aren’t two voices begging for my attention, and both babies are content, I sometimes feel stretched thin and not enough.

I’m parenting from the couch. All I want to do with any spare time is nap. I haven’t taken my kids outside in a few days. It’s too hard to go on fun outings right now with a baby still learning to breastfeed. I made cereal for breakfast again. My toddler’s been playing from a bunch of scattered toys on the playroom floor instead of the Pinterest activities I will someday set up. He should probably have more playdates. I’m probably depriving him by keeping him at home, but we can’t afford preschool. Have I interacted enough with the baby? She seems thrown in between all my naps and my toddler’s needs. I haven’t got around to doing that infant massage or the baby and mommy yoga video. I should probably start reading to her, or doing something to show I’m invested and interested in her beyond nursing her around the clock while I scroll through Twitter to stay awake.

Scarcity. This is a scarcity mindset. I’m not doing enough. I’m not enough. What I have, what I’m doing, this phase we’re in, it’s not enough — not enough to give my precious children what they need or deserve. I need to serve up and carve out something different, better, extra, more than what’s happening right now.

With my first, I had anxiety that I thought was normal first-time mom stuff at the time, but in anxiety-free hindsight, was a roaring mental health issue. Any time he cried or seemed bored or unhappy or not meeting the emotional equilibrium I thought children of good, attentive parents should, my anxiety latched onto this scarcity mindset, catastrophized it (“He hates me! He’ll grow up stunted! Our attachment is ruined!”), then left me too depressed to engage in the life in front of me.

It’s all adult projection. It’s my own fears about repeating any lack I experienced in my parents’ generation of parenting. It’s my own shame about not keeping up with this generation’s overly abundant parenting — all the things and activities and ways of living and being that are supposed to counteract everything that makes life hard. It’s my own misunderstanding of what children truly need, a focus on the trappings of a good, healthy, connected lifestyle while missing the substance of the good, healthy, connected lifestyle itself.

The trappings are often unattainable. I don’t always have the money or space or energy or time or talent to do many of the trappings of good parenting. I’m tired, and I’m tethered to a newborn’s needs and distracted by a toddler’s. That’s our life right now, and it feels limiting and limited when I compare it to other phases in parenting or other parenting lifestyles made possible by things I don’t have right now (mainly sleep).

But toddlers and newborns aren’t comparing, and they have nothing to compare things to. They don’t know what other parents are doing. They’re not aware of what they could be doing or having. They are perfectly content with the lives in front of them as long as those lives meet their needs. And the main thing they need from me is not to revamp our entire lifestyle or rush out of the current, not-always-awesome parenting stage I’m in, but to join them in that life. To meet them there. To see opportunities of connection in every moment, not just the planned, Pinterest-y ones.

Kids are brilliant and resilient. They can make do with a lack of resources. They engage with what’s in front of them. They can come up with games and worlds and ideas out of almost nothing. They enjoy repetition as much as novelty. They have no reference to interpret our parenting “fails” as anything else but their normal, beloved family life.

But the one thing they can’t make do without is me. They don’t need anything more or different from me; they just need me present and confident in what I currently have to offer — even if it doesn’t seem like much to me. They fill up on what I’m giving and have no idea about what I can’t give.

So I might not be able to give a ton of undivided attention to my newborn, but if I’m changing a diaper, I’m there, talking through it, counting snaps and wiggling toes, naming body parts, making eye contact, kissing bellies. And if there are screams, I’m there too, going slow but forward, empathizing.

I might not be able to muster up anything more for breakfast but cereal again, but if I’m serving cereal, I’m there, making small talk, noting the school bus out the window, or sitting in companionable silence, present and available.

We might be having a rough day where everyone is cranky and the day just won’t end, but if I’m dealing with cranky kids, I’m there with what little my frazzled self can offer — a deep breath, a hug, a kind word, or maybe just the restraint to not shame them for fussing and an apology for if I do.

It might be subzero temps outside with a tight budget that doesn’t allow for many trips to the kids’ museum, but if we’re stuck inside, I’m there with whatever we can do and are doing indoors.

I might be tired and needing to nap more than I would want to as an attentive parent, but when I’m napping, I’m there napping, and when I’m giving my children attention, I’m there giving them my attention.

Not all parenting stages are enjoyable. Not every aspect of our current lifestyle is ideal. There is always more and more and more to do or be or have, so much so that it would take hundreds of lives to fit it all in. But this is the stage, the lifestyle, the one life I have. So I’m going to be there for it, whatever it is. I’m not always going to love every second of it. I’m not going to stop bettering myself where I want and need to. But I’m not going to let a perceived scarcity crowd out what I do have to give.

I don’t need to do anything differently. I don’t need to give more. I just need to pay attention to what I am doing — to be there, to observe how it matters, to see things how my children see them, not as I am afraid they are seeing them.

When I fill in that “scarcity” with my presence and intention, it’s enough.

The Messy Person’s Guide to Housekeeping

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Dear messy people: those “how to keep a clean house” articles aren’t meant for you and me. They’re meant for people who are prone to orderliness and cleanliness, whose internal state functions best in a spotless home, whose very souls scream out for mopped floors and organized toy shelves. Even if they say they were once messy (messier than you, even — imagine that), they are now experts with whole livelihoods built around cleaning and organizing. Do you care enough about cleaning and organizing to quit your job and start a full-time gig involving weekly tips and a book deal on organizing? No?

Point proven: They’re not one of us.

These people have three things that set them apart from us messy ones: (1) they care more than we do about cleaning and organization; (2) they have more time than we do to clean and organize because that’s their day job; and/or (3) there’s a strong chance they’re not starting out their hey-I-was-a-slob-but-now-I’m-not success story turned brand during those [early stages of motherhood where everything is sleep deprivation, ground-in raisins, and toddlers in the toy dumping phase]. (Insert your own chaotic life situation if that one doesn’t apply.)

As I finally figured out, if I’m not internally motivated by cleaning demons, if I’m busy with other things I care about, and if all of my hard work goes to pot the second the toddler wakes up, my house isn’t going to get clean.

The standard advice for messy moms struggling to survive is, “Just let things go.” I absolutely advocate for this as part of my messy housekeeping guide, but as even struggling new moms know, it’s not a sustainable way of living. Why? Because while we messy people don’t need spotless floors or color-coded closets, we’re still adversely affected by certain things. I can let things go for quite a bit longer than clean people can…but once I can’t find matching socks or a clean spoon, I’m starting to get frustrated, anxious, and overwhelmed. That leaves me open (and vulnerable) to the cleaning experts’ advice — an equally frustrating, overwhelming, and anxiety-inducing situation (I DON’T WANT TO FIGURE OUT A SCHEDULE FOR VACUUMING MY MATTRESS, KAREN, I JUST WANT TO STOP STEPPING ON CHEERIOS).

Letting things go is a helpful, adaptive, necessary strategy for me to prioritize other things, but there comes a point when letting things go creates even more work or anxiety in the long run. Scraping mold off weeks-old dirty dishes is a low I don’t care to revisit…for a third time. Desperately soaking a cute baby onesie in Oxyclean to kill the black mold that spread from a wet washcloth I dropped down the laundry chute a decade ago — another situation I’d like to avoid in the future. And I cannot stand grimy, grungy floors.

That was a big breakthrough for me: I didn’t have “low standards” for cleaning. I had different standards. I wasn’t a lazy slob. I just didn’t prioritize certain domestic tasks as much as other people did. (And who made different people with different lives and interests and mess tolerance thresholds in charge of what I should or shouldn’t care about?)

Once I determined what my standards and my priorities were, and cleared out the clutter of other people’s standards and priorities, bingo. There was my natural motivation, shining through. Now I had time and energy to focus on my short but meaningful list of things that made my home feel livable and lovable.

What matters to you? Do you care about making your bed every morning? And I mean care because it actually matters to you, not care because some military dude says self-discipline all starts with a neatly-made bed, or care because you’re embarrassed of what your friends would think if they dropped by, or care because a study linked productivity and success with made-up beds? Does a made-up bed matter to you? Does it affect your life in a meaningful way, whether mentally or practically? No? Then forget about the bed and do the things that actually spark joy in your life. (Sorry to twist your words, Marie Kondo.)

Getting rid of the stigma and anxiety around being a messy person woman — and worse, a messy wife and mother — created much more space and positive energy around the chores that absolutely needed to get done for me and my family’s functioning.

And yes, there’s a stigma. Nobody who walks through my door and into my messy living room thinks, “Wow, her husband is such a slob” — not unless it’s quickly followed by, “I can’t believe she lets him wreck her house like that!” Nope. It’s always my fault, especially because I stay home with my kids. (Oh, you didn’t know? Staying at home with children automatically means dedicating the rest of your spare time and energy to domestic duties. You couldn’t possibly have anything else meaningful to do with your life than run after your kids with a vacuum all day long, so yes, the state of your house will be a major factor in whether you’re Being a Good Mom.)

I’m messy. That’s just the way I am. I kind of like a lived in look, and I certainly don’t mind a level of clutter and a sink of unwashed dishes — especially if it means I’m choosing to spend my time doing things that matter to me. Not to go on about double standards, but if I was a man, we’d link my messiness to being a free, creative, thoughtful soul and delegate the mess to the woman in my life. Since I’ve no woman to delegate my mess to and I’m often busy with other things, domestic stuff just doesn’t get done.

I’m okay with that now.

Being messy is not a vice, I decided — not unless it starts to interfere with my mental health and daily functioning, just like any thing in this world (including neatness). So I turned my tentative guilty pleasures (like never folding laundry in a timely manner) into lifestyle choices. My litmus test: If the only reason I feel ashamed about not doing something is because of what a stranger or an organized friend or a Better Homes and Garden contributor might think of me, that’s not a good reason to prioritize it.

I am terrified of typing those words, because bucking any ingrained female expectation is a no-no — even among those of us who are literally losing our minds trying to meet those crushing expectations. I think it takes a lot of courage to admit, “Hey, I genuinely don’t care that my clean laundry is piled out of sight for a week, and since I find no compelling moral or practical argument for why I should focus on that in my current life situation, I’m not going to reorder my whole existence to become the kind of woman who wants to fold her laundry as soon as it comes out of the dryer.” It’s courageous, I think, because what we’re actually saying is, “Hey, I’m not going to let what the culture says or what other people might think of me set the priorities for my particular life at the cost of me and my family’s purpose, passions, and well-being.”

This is a gigantic Step 1. This is the it that wiser women really mean when they tell struggling moms to “let it all go.” Let go all these desperate and failing attempts at keeping up false, clean freak appearances. Repeat after me: You are a messier person than some people, and that’s okay. You don’t care about an organized pantry, and that’s okay.

You don’t notice the grime in the windowsills. You don’t care about artfully stacking your books on your bedside table. It takes you a few weeks (or months) to throw out whatever’s expiring in the Tupperware that got shoved to the back of the fridge.

But you do care about the cleaning things you care about — so make a list of those things and let the rest go. Speaking of letting go — that’s Step 2.

Step 2. Rest. The more I push and hustle when I’m burnt out, the more anxiety, frustration, and negativity builds up around chores — all huge motivation killers. I’m a low-energy person who needs lots of space to do nothing, to do something thoughtful or relational, and/or to sleep before I’m fit for the world of productivity. Once I embraced that side of me instead of pushing it away as a sign of laziness and failure, I was more productive. When my batteries were fully or mostly charged, I could go longer. I didn’t resent the time and energy I had to spend on housekeeping because I had time and energy to spend.

Now, when I start avoiding chores, or resenting chores, or feeling overwhelmed by chores, or experience that soul-burning agony of putting my dish in the dishwasher instead of the sink, I don’t beat myself up for being a lazy slob. I take them as signs that I’m burnt out. I use a little humor and compassion: “Wow, Bailey, it’s that exhausting to you to fold and put away your pants instead of dropping them on the floor? If you’re that tired, you need to go rest.”

This sometimes means letting things go to pot a bit more than I like, a bit longer than I like. I intentionally let them go. I say, “Yikes, I really want to get the kitchen cleaned up, but this is my only chance to take a nap before work, and I desperately need a nap because I’m 38 weeks pregnant. I am choosing to take a nap instead of resentfully plowing through the dishes and depleting my energy further.”

Without fail, every time I prioritize rest, I recharge more quickly and am able to get things done. Without fail, every time I push or belittle myself for feeling unmotivated, the house falls apart more and longer. Shame and resentment are only motivational in the very short run, and fail to address the burn-out underlying my lack of motivation.

Step 3. Set things up so that your priorities drive chores, not the other way around. For me, a big motivation killer is feeling like I’m constantly running around the house putting something away or cleaning something up. It makes me feel unfocused, unproductive, and unavailable to the people and passions I care most about. Cleaning schedules are hit and miss with my lifestyle too — rarely do they coincide with how my specific week actually goes, and I end up feeling ashamed or frustrated about abandoning them for a slew of non-negotiable errands and obligations that continually and unexpectedly crop up.

Instead of interrupting what I’m doing or how I’m living to clean, I now pair related tasks together as much as possible. If I’m running a bath for the toddler, I might quickly spray down the fixtures while still engaging with him. If I’m microwaving popcorn for movie night, I’ll empty the dishwasher until the timer beeps. I’ll stack my son’s laundry on the stairs to take up when I’m going up to tuck him in. I might quietly tidy up his room if he asks me to sit with him a few minutes longer at bedtime. If I’m bringing my coffee cup to the sink, I’ll also gather up any wrappers, tissues, and dirty dishes that never made it into the kitchen yesterday. I fold and stuff my clothes into drawers right after I undress at night. Things like that. I’m already there doing something absolutely necessary or wanted, so I tack on a little task I’ve been meaning to do.

This means that the dishes don’t always get done by bedtime, and my son’s room remains a disaster zone for a month (and counting), and stuff stays stacked on the stairs for a while. That’s okay with me, because stuff still gets done, and I don’t feel hounded by meaningless tasks. My house is never always clean, all of it — but it wasn’t all of it always clean back when I was struggling to follow the clean people’s advice and beating myself up about being a lazy slob because I couldn’t keep up. Nope, my house isn’t always clean and tidy — but it no longer feels unmanageable, and it’s no longer a source of chronic anxiety and shame.

For a messy person like me, that’s all I want out of a cleaning approach.

Pregnancy Is My Winter Season

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It’s winter, and I’m pregnant. Only five weeks left to go, but they’re still a whole five weeks.

These are my two least favorite seasons in the entire world. I shouldn’t have to explain why winter gets me in a funk, but here you go anyway: IT’S FREEZING. And for pregnancy: IT’S UTTER , ALL-CONSUMING EXHAUSTION.

Nobody told me about pregnancy exhaustion. You hear about the morning sickness — a bane that passed quickly for both my pregnancies — but not the exhaustion.

Surprise: It’s a whole thing.

I was chatting about it with my sister a trimester go, the trimester where your body’s supposed to hit an energy spike. Am I exaggerating? I wanted to know. Am I just a wimp? Is it possible that pregnancy is really this tiring?

Bailey, she said. I would take the sleep deprivation of having a newborn over pregnancy exhaustion anytime.

And she had two under two at the time. She knew a thing or two about tired.

I, like all women, possess the unique talent of being completely incapable of recognizing just how exhausted and burnt out I am. I err on the side of guilt and comparison. Other women get through it — with more children, tougher pregnancies, and cleaner houses! Slog it out, girlfriend.

And I do, usually, but I’ve been slogging more slowly lately, checking behind my shoulder to see who’s policing my pace and my output. Is anybody? And if they are, are they right to do so?

I just want to sleep. Forever. Or at the very least lie horizontally on a comfy couch with my two gigantic pillows and the cozy red throw.

But I haven’t been letting myself, because I’ve got a toddler. And I’ve got guilt about all the things I should be doing with him and for him. Mainly, I’ve got major guilt about not getting him outside everyday.

A couple winters ago, I got sucked into the wonderful world of nature-based play. We went outside almost every day, rain or shine, for two winters. I rhapsodized about all the fun we were having splashing in slush puddles and running around in freezing rain and hauling a sled in a real, actual blizzard (okay, that wasn’t such a fun time at all). I even started my own hashtag for all our nature adventure photos: #rainorshine365.

This winter, I was having none of it.

I remember sitting on the front porch, already too pregnant and tired to stand on two feet, and feeling the shift in the weather. There was this melodramatic, WINTER IS COMING moment, and there was my feeble, Nope, and then winter unleashed itself halfway through fall.

Not here for this.

Neither was my toddler. I’d take the ten minutes to bundle us both up, and I’d hunch on the porch, unmoving, and he’d sit on his tricycle, staring into space, and then he’d echo my heart’s cry of, “In! In!” Thank goodness. Whenever I asked him if he wanted to play outside, he’d say no. Praise Jesus.

It took me a good long time to let go of my #rainorshine365 goal this winter. Just today we won’t go out, I reasoned. Okay, just on days below 20 degrees we won’t go out. Just on gray dreary days we won’t go. Just on weekends we’ll get out, if the weather is nice.

But here I am, on a beautiful, sunshiney holiday day, temps in the 30’s, fresh white snow on the ground, and we are not outside.

The reason for this severe shift from hippy nature mama to couch potato is obviously because I am a wimpy, selfish, sad excuse of a mother. That’s the “fact” I struggle against daily.

I don’t why it’s so difficult for me to say, “Hey, I’m five weeks away from giving birth. I’m huge. I’m tired. I’m getting ready to recede into post-partum hibernation anyway. This is just a season. My spring is coming, but right now it’s winter. So curl up on that couch and nap away.”

Actually, I do know why it’s difficult for me to say that. It’s because our culture is not a seasonal culture. It didn’t teach me to connect with, much less honor, the ebb and flow of nature — of my body, of the day and night, of the four seasons. I didn’t run with the seasons — I honed an internal drive to motor a linear path through every. single. obstacle. Tiredness? Sickness? That time of month? Just temptations for laziness.

Life is about balance, I thought. It’s about habit. You figure out the middle ground between vice and virtue and carry it with you all day, every day, or you are a terrible failure of a human being.

My feasting was marked with moderation. My resting was marred with work. The seasons of my life and of nature all bled together into one overwhelming, never-ending thing to be overcome. The slog.

Fortunately, being a short-lived wildschooler put me in contact with a whole community of nature lovers and cold dwellers who encouraged living with and listening to the seasons.

Winter is not a season for any sort of plowing ahead. It’s a resting season. Nothing grows. Nothing is produced. It’s not the time for harvest or output or even getting things ready. Everything is dead, sleeping, waiting for resurrection. It’s a time for enjoying the abundance of what we have and what we’ve worked for. It’s a time for conserving resources, energy, light, and warmth, huddling closer to share them, curling in on ourselves to maintain them.

And here’s the thing: spring always comes. But first, winter. Always. Our ecosystem depends on it.

Pregnancy is my winter season — especially in winter. (I’ve only ever had winter babies.) I can’t motor through anymore. I don’t have much to give. Shutting the doors. Settling down. Curling up. Snuggling close. Sleeping.

I’m not giving up. I’m not failing. I’m hibernating.

This winter pregnancy, I’m trying to follow the rhythm of my body, the rhythm of nature, the rhythm of the life within me, and the rhythm of the seasons I’m in — seasons that might not be my personal favorites, but seasons that are critical for producing life.

Toddlers vs. Halloween Candy

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Ethical conundrum: How much of their toddlers’ Halloween candy can parents eat?

Related: How much of their own Halloween candy should toddlers eat?

Last Halloween, we guiltily ate most of our baby’s trick-or-treating haul. He was under a year, most of it was a choking hazard, and at the time, we erred on the side of not giving him much sugar.

This Halloween, we’d given up banning sugar, he knew what treats were, he had his molars, and honestly, we wanted him to participate fully in the holiday — and that meant candy. Since he was getting candy, little sibling would want candy too. (This, of course, complicated ethical conundrum #1. I told myself that Snickers were still a choking hazard — the nuts! the caramel! — and hoarded them all for myself.)

Our game plan was Ellyn Satter’s advice.

For everyday snacks and meals, Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility prevents parental tantrums and anxiety over our toddlers’ weird eating habits. Eats FOUR cheese sticks in one sitting, then refuses to eat them for weeks after that. Can’t get enough bananas one week, can’t throw them off the side of their tray fast enough the next. Eats so much pasta that I almost don’t get a decent serving, eats little to nothing for the next few meals. One of our toddlers regularly consumes nothing but milk at 1 or 2 meals a day, even when we offer tried-and-true favorites. WHY. The double whammy of food waste and potentially starving children is too much for my soul to take.

In comes DOR to restore sanity. The gist of DOR is this: Parents decide what, when, and where kids eat. Children decide what and how much (if anything) to eat of that selection. No coaxing, no threatening, no force-feeding, no little airplane spoon rides to transport peas into a determinedly closed toddler’s mouth. It’s all based in trusting children to regulate themselves and to learn to enjoy various foods through time and structure.

Even with Halloween candy.

Ellyn says,

When he comes home from trick-or-treating, let him lay out his booty, gloat over it, sort it and eat as much of it as he wants. Let him do the same the next day. Then have him put it away and relegate it to meal- and snack-time: a couple of small pieces at meals for dessert and as much as he wants for snack-time.

Harrowing advice, I must say, but we’ve been using DOR since Day 1 and we’ve liked the results so far. So we decided to stick to it and trust it, no matter what happened. And if it all exploded in our faces, we’d do something different next year.

I was okay with the initial night of celebration. Trick-or-treating ended at dinnertime (with meltdowns all around, Mommy included — do you know how exhausting it is to chaperone a tripping-prone child who insists on either meandering slowly by themselves or being carried around the block, no exceptions?!). They got to pick treats out at dinner, but honestly, the toddlers ate more of their auntie’s chocolate chip pumpkin muffins than their candy. (Excellent choice, by the way.) They enjoyed dumping out and throwing their candy at Daddy even more than eating it.

On Day 2, interest in eating treats appeared with a vengeance. Nonstop whining, tantrumming, and/or asking for treats all morning long. Hello, Terrible Twos. One of them skipped over their peanut butter waffles, thinking I’d offer Skittles for breakfast instead. I didn’t, and a packet of Gobstoppers went flying into my coffee. I know Ellyn said to give them free reign over treats the day after (probably to avoid this very post-Halloween cryfest), but I didn’t feel comfortable doing that because I still felt all judged and uncertain about toddlers indulging in unlimited sweets, and it’s a hassle to wipe sticky fingers and faces all morning long, and I planned on giving them as much as they wanted at snack time…if we all survived until 10:30 AM.

We did survive. I gave them full cups of milk and total control of the pumpkin treat bucket (minus choking hazards). I felt like I unwrapped hundreds of candies. I was shocked at how much anxiety was flooding my system. Hey-o, never knew I had this many negative associations with sugar. Didn’t know childhood obesity was a deep dark fear. Who’d’ve thunk that watching my toddler stuff their face with candy and — oh, horror! — enjoy every carefree bite could trigger so much worry? It felt like this would never end. It felt like their appetites were bottomless. It felt like I’d failed as a mother because my kids liked candy. We will never recover from this! They’ll never eat vegetables now!

It’s really sad that my anxious adult lens dampened my experience of their pure joy over trying new treats for the first time. In all actuality, one ate about five pieces and the other ate about six pieces, plus they chugged two cups of milk each. (I didn’t even bother offering an alternate snack.) They both stopped when their bodies told them to stop. We had a few conversations about treats after that, but even the Gobstopper-throwing child graciously accepted that treats would be served at meals and snacks only, and there was no more whining about candy for the entire week after Halloween.

They ate all of their lunch an hour later. I was genuinely shocked, what with the conventional wisdom that sugar before meals spoils the appetite. But I guess, in hindsight, we really hadn’t done anything differently: I let them eat their fill at snack as I always do. Snack just happened to be Halloween treats.

At afternoon snack, I offered a non-treat snack plus their Halloween treats. Along with some non-treat snack, one ate about four pieces, the other opened a bunch of candy to try but only ate a few pieces. Dinner was uneventful, both accepting that they were allowed only one treat at meals.

On Day Three, they ate snack on the wagon ride home from library storytime, so the treat bucket was unavailable. I told their babysitter they could eat one piece at lunch, but neither asked for one even though the bucket sat smack dab in front of them. I don’t remember afternoon snack or dinner (probably a couple treats at snack and one at dinner), but since the excitement of Halloween was dying off for them, I stopped offering treats as snack options and dessert on Day 4. Zero complaints.

The treat bucket now sits on my nightstand, where I have sadly eaten all the Snickers and am selflessly reserving the last few Reese’s peanut butter cups for my husband. The last time a toddler ate candy was yesterday, when they interrupted my nap by waking up early from their nap, and I said, yes, yes, eat the Skittles pouch you found between the couch cushions; sure, of course, watch some dad play with Disney trucks on YouTube; do whatever you want, JUST LET ME SLEEP. (I am a desperately exhausted pregnant woman, people.)

SO.

Regarding Ethical Conundrum #1: I’m not sure. After all, Snickers are on the line.

Regarding Ethical Conundrum #2: How much of their own candy should kiddos eat? As much as their bodies want — which, it turns out, isn’t as scary a proposition as I thought.

Learning to Lament, With Toddlers

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My #firsttimeparent moment came when two-month-old e.e. started crying more than his usual contented self. After all the kinds and lengths of cries and screams we’ve witnessed in two years of parenting, it’s utterly laughable that we were even concerned about this particular cry — much less concerned enough that we felt it best to take him to the pediatrician ASAP. He was fine. Apparently we weren’t the first new parents to worry over newborn cries, and our pediatrician assured us that the worst was yet to come.

Toddlers cry. A lot. They scream. They tantrum. They wail. They sob. They reach humanly impossible pitches and intensities. It’s just a thing that they do, even if you check off all the Basic Needs boxes: fed, changed, rested, warm, entertained, attended to. Consistent routines and nap/meal schedules help to stave of hunger- and exhaustion-related meltdowns, but I still cook many a lunch with toddlers screaming, “MAHHHHHHH!” at me, as if I’ve never given them any food in their lives.

It’s my favorite part of parenting, for sure.

Before crying underscored my existence, I resolved never to do that horribly dismissive things parents do — telling their kids to stop crying!, as if they’re miserable because they’re crying instead of crying because they’re miserable. I’m still resolved, but my success rate is far from 100%. Sometimes, I just can’t take it anymore. The crying is so incessant, so loud, so intrusive, and from my adult perspective, so irrational. Nothing triggers compassion fatigue faster than a whiny scream over no discernible thing, with all offers of kindness, solutions, and juice refused.

It’s not irrational, not when I step away from the screaming and process what the heck just happened. Life just sucks sometimes, for all of us, toddlers and adults. It’s not about wanting Mama to get the cup of water instead of Daddy, not really. It’s about the fears we have of losing connection with someone we love, and how little control we have over people, and how much we need them, anyway, and how are we supposed to function, needing someone we cannot control? It’s not about tripping over their feet and falling on their butt (again) as they’re learning to walk. It’s about the frustration of wanting to get to a solid, steady place in life, but development and obstacles constantly hold us back, no matter how much we try. Some days, we wake up on the wrong side of the bed. The world looks bleak, we feel crappy, and it’s just too overwhelming to make it downstairs to breakfast.

Once, a parent tried soothing their daughter who had burst into inconsolable tears. “It’s okay,” they soothed. “You’re okay.”

“I’m not okay!” she snapped.

Toddlers aren’t irrational. Toddlers are honest. They’re honest about the jagged edges of reality that we try to smooth over with the lies we tell ourselves about being in control and everything having a meaning and life always working out in the end.

Toddlers know how to lament. 

The impulse is to calm the child, to make things better. But the scream comes back, “Don’t even try to calm me down!” whether in words or equivalent. Why is this so unnerving? Doesn’t it evoke all the fear, resentment, frustration, which hasn’t really changed at all since our own childhood? And isn’t the impulse to get the child calmed down, by any means possible, an impulse to stifle this Pandora’s box? It’s an enormous challenge to really be with the child in its inconsolable state.

That child is ourself. We want love, which is always going to turn out to be less dependable than the infinite we hoped for. We want psychological security and it will never be enough. We want physical security. We want to continue as me forever. Our wants, and perceived needs come up bang against the wall of aloneness which wanting and hoping and grasping creates. Then, can we be with the sadness this evokes? Can we feel it, the impulse to run away from it, the absoluteness of it, the non-negotiable nature of our predicament as a vulnerable, scared human being? Perhaps if we truly perceive the fact that there is nothing I can do, then the child/adult may for the first time be free from an enormous burden of managing the unmanageable. — Anonymous, quoted in “When a Child Is Inconsolable: Stay Near”

I think that’s why we’re often deeply uncomfortable with crying children: they’re lamenting an unfixable grief. Why else are we still trying to get our children to stop crying when it’s obvious they feel a need to cry about something? Sure, we often get flat out annoyed and overstimulated and just want the crying to stop for our own sanity. But in other moments, we can’t deal with the helpless position we find ourselves in when our babies are sobbing, and we’ve tried everything, and nothing will fix it. We feel helpless, we feel guilty for feeling helpless, and we feel reminded of a deeply uncomfortable truth…that sometimes nothing can fix the hurts in this life, not in the way we want, and certainly not on our own timetable.

Sitting with a screaming toddler, it’s the exact process of sympathy, discomfort, and then avoidance I feel with people who’ve experienced adult pain. They’re single and they don’t want to be. Their family’s a wreck. They hate their job. They want something more out of life. The first few times, I knit my brow and listen intently. Yes, this is a valid pain. I get it. I’ve felt it myself. The next few times, when it gets clearer and clearer how badly this pain is affecting them, I get nervous. I don’t know how to help. I don’t know what to say. I don’t want to be in this support position anymore. Why are they telling me all this? I’m not a counselor.

The few times after that, I want to throw up my hands and tell them to get a grip — as if there’s a timeline on grief.

I find myself thinking of the story of Job a lot, how he drew the short stick in life just for being a righteous man, and how all his friends came, lamented, and sat with him for seven days and seven nights, holding space for his unspeakable grief. They must have got compassion fatigue from seven days of lamenting, because after Job starts verbalizing his grief in long, melodramatic monologues, the friends lose their empathy. They start trying to fix things: Here’s what you did wrong, Job; here’s what you can do; here’s how you can move on.

Just like me. I do that. I’m the obnoxious fix-it personality who’s quicker to Google possible remedies and analyze everything to make sure this never happens again. I do it to everyone, including myself. I haven’t learned to lament. I haven’t learned to hold space. I don’t think many of us have, even those of us who aren’t obnoxious fix-it personalities. We don’t know how it feels to have someone sit with us and let us scream or cry or rant for as long as we need, without judgment, without fidgeting, without Googling nearest counselors who price services on a sliding income scale.

There are, of course, things we can do to help. Sometimes someone needs a nap or a hug or a cup of juice to get blood sugar back up. Sometimes advice, a game plan, and counseling is absolutely critical to resolving or avoiding the issue in the future. But sometimes, at the core of the grief is an unfixable thing that just needs space to be.

One of my toddlers woke up from a nap screaming. They didn’t want to be touched. They didn’t want to be spoken to. They flung themselves away from me at great risk to their physical safety whenever I moved toward them or opened my mouth. Finally I just sat there. They screamed full volume, full heart for thirty minutes. I timed it. My husband had to take over lamenting, because the other toddler needed me (which might have prolonged the screaming). After thirty minutes, the tears abated, I picked them up, gave them a kiss, nuzzled them, fed them a snack, and we went about our day relatively tear-free.

They just needed to lament, and they needed me to sit with them and let their feelings be unfixable.

If I’m honest, I need that. We all need that. We aren’t as free or in touch with our grief as toddlers are. We’re less egotistical; we’re more conscious of how perspective and time work; we’re more considerate of how our sorrow and pain affect others. But we still need to lament more than we’d like to admit. And we still need friends who will sit with our lament in silent acceptance for as many days and nights as it takes to feel okay again.

Gently Teaching Breastfeeding Manners

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For all the convenience of whipping out a boob whenever your baby starts squawking, breastfeeding isn’t always a walk in the park. One of the hardest challenges was when e.e. started doing gymnastics at the breast, around nine months old. He was distracted, restless. He bit me a couple times. He started grabbing my glasses and my hair, and whacking my face and chest — hard. I wanted to wean him cold out of sheer self-preservation.

I didn’t really know how to handle it, because he was a baby, after all. How do you teach a baby? The only insight I knew about flailing baby hands was the punitive methods I’d heard in the past: pull his hair when he pulls yours; pinch him when he bites you; gently slap his hand if he smacks you. Show him how much it hurts.

Violence against my child was not option. Neither was violence against me, no matter how innocent or accidental.

My big breakthrough was giving up the idea that I could control my baby’s actions. That is, I couldn’t actually prevent him from trying to hit, pinch, bite, or pull my hair. It’s not like I could get inside his brain and flip an “off” switch for restless baby hands. Nor is that a developmentally appropriate expectation. Once I accepted that he would try to do those those things, I could focus on what I could control: preventing him from actually hitting, pinching, biting, or pulling my hair.

Babies don’t do anything out of malice. They do things to explore, to get a reaction. What happens if I pull on this long hair? What’s that fun sound Mommy’s skin makes when I slap it? Wow, Mommy yelled really loud when I did that! Why would she do that? Can I make her do it again?

A corollary insight: The more you make a big deal out of something, the more interesting to baby it becomes. For toddlers as mischievous, curious, and stubborn as mine (that is, most toddlers), Mommy’s big reactions are excellent opportunities to explore their power and influence — a healthy thing, a good thing, a normal thing, but a thing that gets old and hurtful real fast for Mommy.

It’s better to simply prevent the pain and redirect a baby toward a more pleasant way of being silly, stubborn, or curious.

When his little hand started whack-whack-whacking against me, I’d catch it in mine and kiss his palm. I’d turn it into a distraction far more fun than scratching Mommy’s cheek. I’d stroke my face with his hand, or stroke his face with his hand, or playfully shake his hand, or wiggle his fingers.  I’d play three little piggies on his toes, or the itsy bitsy spider on my fingers, or round and round the garden by his belly button. Usually he stopped trying to whack me fairly quickly, but sometimes he didn’t, and I’d just keep hold of his hand, blowing raspberries into his palm, until he was done eating.

In other words, I responded to what he really wanted: to move his hand, or be goofy with Mommy, or keep himself entertained while nursing. If I were to pinch him back or yank his hair or even cry, “NO! Bad touch!“, I’d be responding to a nonexistent impulse in babies: the impulse to be naughty or disobey or cause pain. The important thing is meeting him at his level, keeping myself safe, and reinforcing positive, pain-free things to do with his hands.

For biting, whether accidental from restlessness or purposeful from curiosity, I would yell out (an involuntary and unplanned response that I include only to keep it real). To reduce the restless acrobatics that led to bites, I learned to nurse him in distraction-free areas or pump a bottle to-go and avoid the issue altogether. If he was really restless, that was a sign to me that he either wasn’t hungry or wasn’t going to focus, anyways, and I set him down and tried again later. If he bit on purpose, I might set him down (not as a punishment, just to collect myself), or I might carry on with more intentional distraction. He didn’t bite more than a handful of times.

Last insight, a mantra really, a perspective that keeps me sane no matter what age of child I’m dealing with: this will not last forever. The standing-on-his-head, kicking, pinching, arm-flailing, tear-inducing, painful nursing stance he took as a nine-month-old only lasted a few months, at most. He naturally transitioned to a more mannerly nurser around age one.

My point is, there need not be any fear surrounding restless breastfeeding or slapping baby hands. He will not grow up to be a psychopath who delights in causing pain. It’s not a serious, ingrained character flaw that needs to be pinched out of him. It’s just a normal development in the breastfeeding relationship, and like all other aggravating parts of childhood, it will likely be short-lived, and it will certainly, eventually pass.

In the meantime, I grab hold of and kiss those flailing baby hands to keep my sanity and skin intact.

Raising Kids without Gender Stereotypes Isn’t About Getting Them to Like Certain Things. It’s About Acknowledging That They Already Do.

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Hurrah for floral prints!

Here’s the problem gender stereotypes: they say many true things about boys and girls — who they are, what they like, what they want, what they’re capable of — but they don’t say all of the true things. My son does indeed enjoy pushing his toy truck across the floor. He rough houses. He ate a handful of mud the other day. He loves the outdoors. He plays catch. He likes bears, lions, dragons, and dinosaurs because they growl and roar. One of his first words was “whoo whoo” — the sound of a choo choo train, obviously.

Name any toddler boy thing, and he’ll likely be into it. All of those “boy things” are great fun, and not remotely toxic.

What’s problematic is when a descriptive observation (most boys like trucks) becomes a prescriptive value that limits and shames boys who don’t conform — e.g., all boys should like trucks, and by extension, shouldn’t like a certain set of other things that only girls should like. It’s also problematic when those accurate descriptive observations ignore other accurate observations that give the whole story about boys and girls — such as, “most girls like trucks too.”

People being who they are and liking what they do is never a problem, even if their interests are stereotypical. There’s nothing wrong with statements such as, “Most boys I know prefer trucks to dolls,” and there’s nothing toxic, dangerous, or oppressive about boys enjoying trucks over dolls.

But gender stereotypes often get internalized not only as “the way things are” but also “the way things ought to be” — so much so that those generalities, however accurate, prevent us from seeing our individual kids as they actually are. In other words, we often miss when our descriptive observations become prescriptive, and oppressive, values.

Already someone has snatched a doll away from my son because “boys don’t play with dolls” — a funny observation, since a boy was literally just playing with a doll. “Pink is a girls’ color!” some of my former students shouted at the boy using pink scissors — an odd assertion, since a boy is currently using pink scissors without any evidence of a sex change.

We say “boys don’t,” but what we really mean is “boys shouldn’t.” Instead of changing our concept of masculinity to include all the things that boys can and often are interested in, we try to restrict the parameters of our sons’ unique beings based solely on “what most boys do.”

Do I really have to elaborate on how blind, repressive, and, frankly, silly this is? Even if it’s true that more boys like “boy things,” many boys do like many of the things girls like. That’s a fact. Why deny it? Why can’t “most boys prefer trucks to dolls” be an interesting factoid instead of a prescription for how our individual sons must be? My individual son is not “most boys.” He is himself. And there are many boys (and many girls) like him.

Gendered parenting says be this, not that. It takes all the different things and interests and traits in the world and divides them into two categories: masculine and feminine. It introduces a faulty, absolute division of the world: you can be like a girl, or you can be like a boy — as if that’s the only or primary value governing children’s interests. If a boy possesses too many things, interests, and traits from the “feminine side,” he allegedly becomes effeminate. Even though he may naturally value those “feminine” things and interests and naturally possess those “feminine” traits, gendered parenting says those things, interests, and traits cannot be a boy’s true masculine nature.

Gendered parenting is a lens that trains the eye to look only for masculine or feminine traits and interests in boys and girls, respectively, and thus reinforce only those things as good, normal, and desirable. And if children don’t respond to this subtler reinforcement, gendered parenting openly shames the “effeminate” or “unladylike” things their children do.

Basically, gendered parenting only values parts of our kids — everything that falls under a predetermined “masculine” and “feminine” category. 

Gendered parenting particularly hits hard against feminine traits — obviously in boys, but also in many girls raised in “gender-neutral” households. There is a kind of “gender-neutral” parenting that applies the same prescriptive censorship against “girly” things. Their girls will not wear pink. They will not like princesses. They will not wear dresses, or make up, or sparkly shoes. On principle. These gender-neutral households act as if there is only one way to be a strong woman — and that is to be like traditional masculinity, or at least not like traditional femininity.

Of course, many girls like “girly” things even in households where parents don’t introduce them or outright discourage them. Restricting our children to a predetermined way of being — even if it’s a less traditional, allegedly more subversive way — is just plain old gendered parenting. There’s nothing progressive about it.

My husband convinced me to get rid of the term “gender-neutral” altogether and replace it with “parenting without gender stereotypes” instead. For many, gender-neutral parenting implies an aim to make boys as feminine as possible and girls as masculine as possible, deleting and adding feminine and masculine traits until their child is completely androgynous.

This is not the parenting without gender stereotypes that I advocate. Parenting without gender stereotypes is not prescriptive. It doesn’t let gender concepts for either sex dictate how the child will be raised. It doesn’t place any inherent value on masculinity and femininity as distinct sets of virtues, interests, traits, colors, activities, and so on. It isn’t about making boys less like boys and more like girls; it’s about operating outside of the idea that boys should be one way because they’re boys, and girls should be another way because they’re girls.

Parenting without gender stereotypes draws awareness to gender stereotypes only to check parents’ own biases and tendencies — never to restrict a child’s being.

That needs to be understood clearly: parenting without gender stereotypes is not about “un-sexing” children. It’s not about confusing them about their biology, or discouraging stereotypical interests, or ignoring real differences between boys and girls and how the culture socializes them. It’s about un-gendering and un-stereotyping parents‘ perspectives that would cause them to miss, ignore, downplay, or shame certain of their children’s traits when they view their children primarily as boys or girls instead of as individuals who happen to be a boy or a girl.

Parenting without gender stereotypes challenges parents’ gendered assumptions. We assume that baby boys like blue, sports, bears, dinosaurs, and rough and tumble play, so we decorate their nurseries in “boy colors,” buy them dinosaur rompers, and purchase Little Tykes push mowers for their birthdays. Let me again be clear: nothing is wrong with any of those things, and nothing is wrong with the assumption that boys will enjoy them. In fact, I decorated e.e.’s nursery in primary colors, dressed him in dinosaur rompers for a good chunk of his babyhood, and bought him a Little Tykes push mower for his birthday. Those are all things that are good, fun, and likely to pique any kid’s interest.

A problematic assumption is that there’s something wrong with a boy if he doesn’t like those things, or an assumption that boys wouldn’t like the color pink, dance, cats, flowers, and make-believe dress-up — because let me assure you, they are just as likely to enjoy them as they enjoy all those wonderful “boy things.” e.e. chooses his pink sparkly hand-me-down shoes over his no-nonsense sports shoes every time. His first explorations in play involved a beloved leather purse, a teething necklace, and Mommy’s scarves. He spends the majority of his day “cooking,” and if I ever lose him in a crowded play place, I can generally find him at the play kitchen.

Gendered assumptions miss whole chunks of a child’s world. My e.e. still doesn’t play with his Little Tykes push mower, but he loves snuggling his Monkey stuffie. Going off gendered assumptions, who’d’ve thunk that?

Parenting without gender stereotypes also challenges parents’ gendered assumptions on the meaning of children’s play and interests. Many people would recoil at many of e.e.’s toys: He has a purse? You bought him a purple necklace for Christmas?! You’re emasculating your son!

But that’s superimposing a gendered understanding of the world onto my son’s play. He’s one years old. I guarantee you that he doesn’t gravitate toward or away from certain things based on the social pressure to be a boy, or to advance a feminist agenda. Even if I wanted to shape him into a particular kind of child, I couldn’t: I can’t get him interested in most of the stuff I set out for him. He plays with what he likes, for reasons that have nothing to do with gendered stereotypes. He doesn’t play with purses to challenge the status quo. All he knows about purses is that they’re fun to hang around his neck, pull around, fill with stuff, and fiddle with buckles, straps, and zippers.

Adults read far too much of their own beliefs and fears into their kids’ play. Because we’re hyper-aware of gender stereotypes, we often fail to see the context, the meaning, and the true appeal of a child’s particular interest. We might see the boys who come to my school with painted nails and assume that they’re secretly gay, or want to be girls, or will grow up to be fashion icons, or don’t want anything to do with “masculine” things.

We’d guess wrong, because every one of those boys fits the traditional rough-and-tumble stereotype. They like painted nails because colorful paint fun, especially on nails! It doesn’t stop them from digging for worms or tackling each other on the playground. Nor does it predict that they’ll be feminists or emotionally intelligent or anything like that. It’s just nail polish to them — no gendered thinking, whether traditional or subversive, attached.

Shame, oppression, toxicity; self-confidence, equality, freedom: they start with outside values that parents’ inculcate in their children, not with children’s innate interests. Parenting without gender stereotypes redirects parental influence toward teaching real virtues and values, rather than assuming that certain interests will predict a certain kind of virtue or value.

Of course, what children are interested in can and does influence their values. Play is their way of exploring the world — and it matters. So there’s nothing wrong with deliberately introducing or not introducing a child to something because you as a parent value and enjoy it (or don’t). Parenting without gender stereotypes asks us to examine the reasons why we do or don’t value that thing, and get rid of reasons that are based in gendered thinking — thinking that is entirely arbitrary and culturally bound.

I deliberately put my son in pinks and florals. Why? Because his dad and I like them. Sharing something we love with our son is a perfectly natural parenting instinct. Pink is a great color, floral fabrics are fun, and good grief, God created pink and flowers for everyone. Why shouldn’t naturally-occurring  parts of creation show up on my son’s sweatshirt? Once e.e. starts picking out his own clothes, I won’t mind if he prefers different prints or colors. There’s no inherent goodness in him liking pink or floral; no inherent danger in him picking out his truck pjs and dino shirts instead. His color and print preferences are not, in themselves, indicators about his values or personality.

But the fact that he can wear whatever he likes without having to worry about whether he’s less of a man — that’s an important value I hope to pass on through his pink shirts.

For me, parenting without gender stereotypes isn’t trying to get my son to prefer pink over blue or girl stuff over boy stuff. It’s trying to get him to see that every option is valuable in its own way and open to his choosing. Where gendered parenting says he can be this or that, parenting without gender stereotypes says he can be this and that. He can rough house and play in the mud and play kitchen and drive his trucks and read mermaid books and like lions and like all the colors of the rainbow (or only prefer blue). He can respect women and hate the color pink; he can be a firefighter and unwind with a latte; he can be completely, stereotypically masculine and still be not an ounce toxic in his thinking or behavior; he can be every inch gay and not be any less of a man.

He can like whatever he likes, and by extension, he can be whoever he is, and he doesn’t ever have to worry about conforming to what most boys do just because most boys do it. And I will love all of who he is.

It’s not that kids should enjoy a predetermined amount of “girl things” or “boy things.” It’s that they already do enjoy a whole bunch of diverse things that range from “girl” to “boy” to “neutral.” If we take away our gender blinders long enough to see, that would be the most obvious and accurate description of our children.

You Aren’t Wrong Just Because Someone Else Is Upset

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I’m indebted to Robin Einzig’s (above) and Harriet Lerner’s wisdom on this subject.

As a highly sensitive person, as a devoted wife, mother, daughter, sister, and friend, and as a woman conditioned to care far more deeply about others’ feelings than her own, I find it difficult to say no, to disagree, to disappoint, or to be in conflict with others.

It comes out in different ways with different relationships. With anyone else besides my husband or son, I feel intense anxiety and sometimes terror about conflict, even on the most innocent of subjects, like personal preferences. I tend to clam up and nod along. If they find out my hatred of sausage pizza, our friendship is done for. 

With my husband, this discomfort with conflict comes out in, ironically, angry fights, criticism, and arguments. I’m not comfortable with actual differences between us, not okay with holding to an opinion that he doesn’t completely support too, certainly not able to take a stand that evokes a strong negative reaction in him. Since I have no faith in my own opinions, I have to be right — unequivocally, universally right. My opinion being not mine but God’s own truth, I must therefore argue my husband into submission.

Funny, isn’t it? Argumentative people are so crazy insecure about being wrong that they have to be right, especially when they’re not sure they are.

With my son, my anxiety over our differences in opinion (I want to make breakfast right after I take a quick bathroom break, he wants breakfast NOW) manifests in indecision, guilt, and, eventually, irritability.

I point out these different manifestations because I think both dogmatic, critical people and insecure, guilt-ridden people are just two sides of the same coin: uncomfortable with making decisions that others disagree with; uncomfortable with sitting with someone else’s loud, conflicting emotions; unable to see the difference between causing disagreement and causing harm. And as a result, we lose sight of our own agency and responsibility, as Einzig’s quote above demonstrates.

We are ultimately responsible for our own choices. We are responsible for believing what we believe and acting on what we believe in accordance with our conscience. For those of us with a neurotic need to be right (and thus safe from harming others or eternal judgment or loss of love or whatever it is we fear most), the scary reality is that we are sometimes wrong…or that there are several reasonable choices available to us, and we’ve got to pick one if we want to live a life. We’ve got to risk being wrong.

Other people’s opinions and reactions make that difficult. Of course, it’s good to consider people’s reactions to our choices, as those reactions indicate the effects of our choices on others. Making responsible, ethical choices for ourselves ought to factor in the impact of our lives on others. A good number of people ought to pay more attention to other people’s reactions, frankly.

And then there are people like me, who swing wildly between crying, “Hang it all, I’ll do what I want!” and cowering in the same spot, petrified of any negative reaction. More scary realities: there are many reasons why someone, somewhere would have a strong negative reaction to our choices — whether that’s our husbands or toddlers or the world wide web. We sensitive people must never construe the presence of a negative reaction to be a surefire indicator that our decision is wrong, selfish, or harmful. We must separate our agency from other people’s feelings.

We lose our agency, our responsibility, and thus our own selves when we cannot separate a decision and our ability to make a decision from someone else’s feelings. Just as Einzig points out, in our discomfort with others’ negative reactions, we start shifting the blame of our indecision or our own feelings onto others: “He won’t let me. I can’t do it.” Eventually we feel trapped. And this entrapment shrivels our souls and boils up into angry conflict with those we love.

There will always be consequences to our choices, for sure. It may be true that you can’t go to the bathroom without your toddler melting down, or that you can’t say no to sex without your husband stonewalling you. But that doesn’t take away your choice. It doesn’t take away your responsibility to make the best decision you see fit. Their reaction is only one piece to puzzle of decision making.

Often it comes down to choosing your consequences: Do you want to sit on the toilet while your toddler screams and bangs on the door, or do you want to take a pee while your toddler destroys your under-sink storage? Do you want to stand your ground and experience your husband’s bitter disappointment, or do you want to have a tiring, empty sexual experience that leaves you resentful?

There aren’t universally right or wrong answers. And to be clear, others’ emotions aren’t right or wrong either. Your toddler is entitled to feel unhappy and disappointed by your decision. Your husband is entitled to feel unhappy and disappointed by your decision. It’s unfair to expect that their emotions should align with yours, and it’s not okay to invalidate their feelings just because they make you uncomfortable. BUT. That doesn’t make your decision wrong. That doesn’t make your feelings invalid. And that doesn’t take away your ability and responsibility to make choices in line with what you think is best.

True boundaries allow you to sit with your own emotions and acknowledge that your feelings don’t take away someone else’s right to feel his own feelings. True boundaries allow you to sit with another person’s emotions and recognize that their emotions don’t take away your agency or responsibility.

It’s a scary but liberating reality.

A Day in the Life of a Mom with an Eight-Month-Old

Since I shared in intense detail the overwhelming experience of mothering a newborn, I thought I’d share a peek into a much more rewarding time of motherhood. I might be the only mom on earth who never wants to go back to the newborn stage. Yeah, itty bitty babies are the cutest, but I can’t function without sleep or with a nonexistent schedule, and I struggled with the limitations of an immobile baby. And newborns are hard, because they demand so much without responding.

Now that e.e. smiles and babbles and pulls his version of practical jokes on me, I finally can feel a connection. And now that I get enough sleep every night, I actually do feel it.

I love our mornings together. He wakes up somewhere between 4:30-6:00 AM for a morning feed. I gave up trying to designate a specific wake time, but I put him back to sleep if he wakes up before six. We hang out in bed, whispering, playing peek-a-boo with the covers, and annoying Daddy who valiantly sleeps in until past seven. We chat and giggle, and he scratches my face and pulls my hair and steps in my eye. That, and finally admitting that it’s a reasonable time to get out of bed, gets me up. I throw on a robe and make my coffee.

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Caffeine doesn’t make a difference to me, but I like the ritual of something sweet and warm every morning (no black coffee for me!). Plus, coffee draws me into the kitchen and motivates me to make breakfast. Whether or not I actually make breakfast depends on if he slept through the whole night or woke fitfully every two hours from teething pain. Since he still gets all his nutrition from breastmilk, I’m not as rigid about regular meals. And I rarely eat breakfast myself. I know. Bad mom. I’m just so slow in the morning, and I hate cooking.

To accommodate my lack of cooking motivation, I’ve got his breakfast routine down to a simple formula of grains, berries, and fruit. Normally I make porridge fingers or banana pancakes ahead of time and just toss one in the microwave each morning. That way I only have to muster up the energy to cook once every two weeks or so. Then I cut up some sort of berry and fruit (banana or clementine, usually, though I bought plums this week).

I drink my coffee at the table and toss food onto his tray while he feeds himself. We started baby-led weaning (a UK term for eating solids) at six months old. Once we got over the initial terror of choking (which he’s never done), it was smooth sailing. I love baby-led weaning — less cooking, more time eating my own food, and great entertainment. e.e. has developed quite a diverse and demanding appetite. He eats anything, and anytime he sees anybody else eating something, he protests loudly until the person in question caves. Not unlike a begging puppy, actually. His pincer skills are incredible, and he regulates how much food he ought to put in his mouth all on his own.

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After a quick swipe with the wash cloth, I ignore the messy booster chair and release e.e. to play while I finish my coffee. Normally he’s independent in the early mornings, and I read or stare into space while he explores within my peripheral vision. But I follow his lead: if he needs cuddles, we snuggle, sing, and read books until he crawls away, ready to explore.

I am a huge, huge advocate of babies playing independently, for their sake and for parents’ sanity. The paradoxical way of infant independence is connecting when baby wants to connect so that he feels attached and satisfied enough to go explore. I never demand that e.e. play by himself; I just connect when he wants to chat or snuggle, and I don’t interrupt him when he’s doing his own thing.

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Getting off my soapbox, we enjoy our morning until an hour-and-a-half after his wake up. We follow a flexible schedule based on wake times, and I adhere to it religiously. Our day falls apart if he doesn’t get enough sleep! He takes a long morning nap (1-2 hours), leaving me plenty of time to shower, get ready for the day, and clean. (I usually read or write, to be honest. Like I said: bad mom.)

For some reason, he needs more cuddles after this morning nap. We read one of the library board books obsessively curated for maximum social awareness and diversity. We sing some songs. I bounce him on my knee. I’m likely still not dressed at this point.

On Tuesdays we go to library storytime, where e.e. ignores all the colorful toys and inspects the perimeter of the room. He’ll crawl back to snuggle up with one of the adult strangers or use an infant as a stepstool. We’re making great progress with safe socialization and personal boundaries. /sarcasm

He goes back to sleep two hours after his morning nap and sleeps for an hour, waking up when Daddy comes home for lunch. 95% of the time I’m dressed (unless I’m really involved in a blog post), so we play outside or take a walk to a park. Ideally, I want him to get some outdoor time every day. Practically, I get fed up with digging dirt, leaves, and wood chips out of his mouth and sometimes we come in early.

I love our outdoor time, though. It’s fun to see the world through his wondering eyes, and there’s no pressure to be active or exercise. I just sit and think (or not think). It’s done a world of good for my mental health and creativity.

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Two and a half hours after his late morning nap, he goes to sleep again. My mother- or grandmother-in-law watches him for an hour while I go to work at my preschool for a couple hours, and then Erich comes home. e.e. reportedly sits up all excited when he hears the door open. He adores his daddy.

I get off around 6:15 PM and come home to a baby eager for snuggles and boobies. We’ll go outside again, maybe eat dinner if our lives are put together enough, or hang out in our apartment. When 7 PM rolls around, we go through our quick bedtime routine: pjs (sometimes), a lullaby, and our goodnight ritual borrowed from my granddad and punctuated by lots of kisses: “Good night! Sleep tight! Don’t let the bed bugs bite. Scrambo! Hasta mañana! I love you!” Then I kiss his cheek with his bunny lovey: “Here’s lovey!” And then I’ll kiss his cheek with his puppy lovey: “Here’s other lovey!” Then I’ll blow him one last kiss (unless I lose all self-control and smooch his chunky cheeks again) and close the door.

Unless he’s overtired (in which case he might cry for 5-10 minutes — getting off schedule makes a gigantic difference!), he’ll babble to himself before drifting off to sleep until around 6 AM the next morning.

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See? Motherhood isn’t all chaos. I wish my sleep-deprived newborn mom self could have seen this coming — these lazy mornings and those rested nights, and this giggly, snuggly, adventurous eight-month-old.