A long time ago I once said to H "Why don't you read parenting books? You spend hours reading books for your papers and you do NO RESEARCH for raising your kids." He tried to explain to me that it wasn't the same thing and at the time I really just didn't get it. I felt angry and resentful that I seemed to be the only one doing any research but now years later I get it. About a year after I said this to H, I stopped reading parenting books myself. I can remember the exact moment where I stared to question the research I was doing. We were at the park for a homeschooling event. A friend and I were venting about our kids fighting all the time. Another woman shook her head at our failure to keep peace and said "My girls NEVER fight. I suggest you read....." For a second I wanted to slap this woman. Her children were kind of awful and frequently beat the hell out of other kids at the play dates. They might not fight with each other but they certainly vented their aggression out on everyone else. And really this was just a microcosm of every parenting discussion I had. Someone would make comment that their kids NEVER did whatever horrible thing my kids did and then the recommendation of a book.
Initially I read all the books. I couldn't bear the thought that I was going to screw up my kids so I read every damn book I could. In some ways this was pretty normal for me. I am an academic and academics are trained to read and research. I approached child raising the way I did an academic paper. But there were a few key differences between writing a paper and raising a human being. Like the fact that my kids were not some kind of generic sample from a parenting book. They were a unique combination of biology and culture with pretty distinct personalities. They didn't respond the way the books said they should. And unlike a paper I couldn't mess with my data to make things look different. So when I read "How To Talk So Your Kids Will Listen...", I felt utterly frustrated when Beastie Boy mastered the language and used it to manipulate the crap out of us.
The second problem had to do with how this reading made me feel. When I researched for an academic paper I usually felt pretty good about myself. The accumulation of knowledge to tackle a theoretical problem made me confident and prepared. I could go into the paper with a solid plan that 99% of the time panned out. And on the rare occasions when it didn't, I had an arsenal of other theories that would likely work. It seems like this is what parenting books would do for me as well. Well no. Parenting books basically just confirmed that I sucked and that I was a "NOT GOOD ENOUGH PARENT." I had a list of sins: I said no too much. I made too many decisions for my children. I praised them too much. I didn't praise them enough. I gave them too much freedom. I did time outs when I shouldn't do time outs. I didn't do time outs when I should. On and on. Every time I read a parenting book, I was more and more aware of what a shitty parent I really was. I was screwing up my kids for life. They were going to need years of therapy.
And hanging out with other parents just confirmed what the books were telling me. No matter what group I hung out with, they had read all the books and unlike me they had mastered the skills. For every problem I faced with my kids there was a long list of what I should be doing that would make things better. But it was clear from their sideways looks and condescending tones that I just sucked.
One day watching my kids play in great joy at the pool, I realized that it was all a load of bullshit. As my kids jumped in the pool again and again, laughing with joy, I thought "They are the happiest kids I know." And I realized that their joy was a reflection of the kind of life that we had given them. I also realized why H didn't read parenting books. There is no hand book for raising up tiny human beings. In some ways, we will never get it perfect and why should we? Our kids should watch us fumble. They should have parents who yell sometimes and then have to apology for being mean idiots. They should have parents who sometimes make decisions they don't like. They should be able to fight with their siblings and figure out ON THEIR OWN how to smooth things over because at the end of the day they are each other's best friends. My kids might not have parents who have mastered any set of parenting skills but my kids do have parents who not only love them but are crazy about them. They have parents who let them be kids. Who read to them. Who play with them. Who paint rocks with them. Who bring them to coffee shops and buy them books.
On that day I let go of the guilt. I stopped trying to justify my parenting choices to people. I made a decision to not except the guilt that other parents tried to place on me for decisions they did not make. I refused to read books that did the same thing. I refused to label the we parent. I cut myself free from all that baggage and stated to parent my children.