Tuesday, November 20, 2012

There Is No Sling

I so wanted to like Mayim Bialik's book about attachment parenting: "Beyond the Sling: A Real-Life Guide to Raising Confident, Loving Children the Attachment Parenting Way." Maybe because that's sort of how I feel about Mayim Bialik herself. I think I want so hard to like her in part because I love the fact that she has a Ph.D. in neurobiology. I'm a sucker for geeky Hollywood anomalies like Natalie Portman, who published a paper on cognitive neuroscience, or Colin Firth, who is also credited on a cog neuro paper - although merely for suggesting that the study it contained could actually be done, or Ashley Judd for just being sort of super smart and civil and fluent in French.

But Mayim Bialik is also notable for her efforts to adhere to a modern orthodox-ish type life while living and working as an actor in Hollywood, which I also find sort of fascinating, even though I have no aspirations to ever follow in that line myself. And I do really love "The Big Bang Theory." 

Still, I have to admit that I found her book increasingly irritating.

I have no issue with attachment parenting. I have actually ended up doing a lot of attachment-y things as a parent, not because I have carefully considered them and decided they were best for my daughter or family, but simply because I am lazy and they were frequently the path of least resistance. If the only way for everyone to get sleep was to pile into one big bed, that's what we did. When my kid screamed bloody murder every time I set her down, I picked her up and carried her. A lot. She loved boobs and nursing her was often the only tool in my toolkit when tantrums or traumas struck. It wasn't a political statement, and I wasn't worried about her brain development or immune system - I just wanted her to stop crying and it worked.

I'm not going to follow Mayim Bialik on the whole "elimination communication" thing - I mean, I'm down with whatever Mayim wants to put forward on that front, but we are just kind of a pro-diaper family. And if we're going to go there, well, having a child constantly screaming at me and following me into the bathroom has completely messed with my elimination of waste to the point where some days I realize it has been hours since I've used the potty - and yes, I find myself calling it the "potty" in totally adult conversations which is horrifying - and that is the reason I feel funny and by "funny" I mean, "totally in excruciating pain." So if anyone needs help with "timing, signals, cues, and intuition" about elimination, perhaps it is me. Sorry if that's TMI.

And if Mayim Bialik doesn't want to use ibuprofen or antibiotics or eat any form of animal products that's fine, too. Whatever works for her is great. For her. Which brings me to what I think my main problem is with her book: the assumption that what works for her, will work for everyone. 

That attitude, more implicit than explicit, really annoys me. I expected more from Mayim - not as a mother or as a celebrity, but as a scientist. Although she has neurobiological and primatological reasons to back up a lot of her choices, the proof of the vegan tofu pudding (as it were) seems typically to be found in the behavior of her two sons and her own intuitions about parenting.

I am not one to doubt anyone's intuitions, but it is never good science to generalize from a sample size of two - much less one. What you then have is a case study, not a basis from which to draw conclusions. Especially not conclusions that you want to share with other people who might have completely different children, not to mention intuitions.

I can tell how hard Mayim Bialik tries - she really, really does - to explain what she is doing and why she is doing it, and to be understanding of those who make different choices without sounding smug or judgmental. But it is also really, really hard to write a parenting book (especially one promising to raise "confident, loving children the attachment parenting way") without a hint of smugness or judgment or some combination of the two when you are so sure that what you are doing is the right way to do things.

I guess that's where I differ from Ms. Bialik. I don't know what the hell I am doing most of the time, and I am pretty vocal about that. Perhaps that is just my parenting schtick. But at least I'm not advising anyone else to try it. I'm happy to share recommendations for sippy cups that don't spill, or iPhone covers that double as a wallet for busy moms and dads on the go, or post photos on Facebook of cupcakes I've decorated for a birthday party, but that's about as far as I'll go telling people that I think I've made choices that it will benefit others to know about. If there is one lesson I would write a book about, it is not assuming that what works for your family will work for anyone else. 

It's always good to remember that some kids don't want to be held, or can't be held all the time, and breastfeeding doesn't always work for a whole host of reasons, and co-sleeping really isn't for everyone. There are kids with chronic ear infections who need antibiotics, and wigged out parents who need to give their kids ibuprofen when they are teething so as not to loose their minds, because not all kids have the same pain-processing systems or thresholds - and not all parents have the same levels of tolerance for endless fussing. There are plenty of parents who let their kids play with plastic toys, or watch TV, or eat processed cheese and beef jerky. And all those kids - and families - turn out fine too.

Whenever Mayim writes about her calm, quiet, polite children and how her son whimpered when she night-weaned him, so it really wasn't as hard as she expected, I just want to scream and throw poop. Not necessarily at her, just in general. Because my daughter is not quiet or calm. Never has been, and likely never will be. Night-weaning was mind-jarringly, ear-shatteringly hard, involving what seemed like endless nights of screaming such that I'm sure our neighbors thought we were cutting of our daughter's toes. (They did confide that they heard her crying through multiple sets of closed doors and windows, and the typical suburban buffer space between our houses.) 

My daughter can be very polite when she has a mind to be, or when she is reminded to be. But she is also spirited and mischievous and hilarious and loud, and from what I can tell, although I did many of the same things as Mayim Bialik, I have a child who is almost the polar opposite of hers in almost every way. Which really isn't all that surprising, because I suspect she and I are also quite different people.

And this is why I am suspicious of parenting books in general. Just because you have a kid or a Ph.D. doesn't make you an expert on parenting. I know. I have both and I don't know crap about how to raise a confident, caring child. Or wait - that's not entirely true. My daughter is actually both confident and caring, but I'm not going to tell you that it has to do with the fact that I breastfed her or let her sleep with us until she was ready for her own bed. Or if it does have to do with those facts in some way, I'm still not going to advocate for them, because actually, I think that much of parenting is a crapshoot. Literally. A crap shoot. (See what I did there? I turned a philosophical reflection into a reference about poop!)

I should say that I agree with a lot of what Mayim has to say about the neurobiological underpinnings of behavior - as primates, we probably do prefer to sleep near others, for example. But like any human behavior, primate-like or not, there's a distribution, and for every sleepy snuggler, there's another kid who needs space and just wants their crib (or stroller, or playpen). I'm always skeptical of any claim that can be reduced in some form to an argument that biology is destiny. (Which is probably part of the reason I am so conflicted, because I recognize that many so many of my claims about my daughter's temperament smack of exactly that kind of reduction. But that's a topic for another post.) 

It's entirely possible that I am just feeling defensive, because all of Mayim's descriptions of her sons quietly playing with hand carved wooden toys on an artisan-woven organic hemp rug while eating dehydrated non-GMO sweet potato chips and listening to Bach in a backlit fuzzy pool of sunshine sort of drive me bonkers. Ok. I made up the part about Bach. And the hemp rug and dehydrated sweet potato chips. And the sunlight. But I do have this fantasy of what her days must be like that makes the whole idea of "discipline" in her house seem like some sort of unnecessarily comedic plot device. She never exactly comes out and says her kids are perfect, but I checked out her blog, and I think it is strongly suggested. This bothers me. Perhaps because it reminds me of how I feel when people with really mellow kids give me advice, which is that it is roughly akin to someone who raises orchids for a hobby thinking this entitles them to tell a lion tamer how to do their job.

I suspect that Mayim wasn't really aiming to write a parenting "guide" so much as seeking a way to share her experiences, in the hopes they could be helpful, or at least instructive to those who might be seeking an advocate or a different way of doing things. She pretty much says as much in the book. (I'm betting the whole "guide" language came from the publisher.) And I do think it is great that she has added a new voice to the Greek chorus of parenting tomes that I detest but cannot seem to stop buying. For a lot of people I bet it is nice to have a smart and reasonable public figure defending things that they might interested in but do not know a lot about, or that they might be doing in private but not talking about in public. There is no doubt that she believes passionately in the choices she has made, and that's great. It would be awesome if all parents could feel so sure about the path they are on. 

But unfortunately, some of us aren't that certain. Our kids are a bit more crazy. Our choices are differently framed - and constrained - by any number of factors: behavioral, neurobiological, social, familial, genetic, etc.  We really like prosciutto. 

Then again, no one is going to write a parenting advice book about how of course you love your kid but by bedtime you want to shut them in the closet and stick a fork in your eye. Or how to figure out if you have yelled at your kid too much that day. Or whether letting them go to bed in pajamas from the dirty laundry pile that they totally peed in last night because doing so will avoid a tantrum counts as gross, spineless, or merely practical. (What's a little pee, anyway, right? Some kids don't even have pajamas.) Or how the best advice is to stop reading books that make you want to scream and throw poop. 

No one writes books about these things. 

That's what blogs are for. 

1 comment:

  1. A friend sent me the link to this post because she said she laughed until she nearly peed herself (and after having two kids, that happens more often than not). She was totally right, I loved reading this! I burst out laughing at the the line "...but by bedtime you want to shut them in the closet and stick a fork in your eye." That's a nearly daily feeling for me. So glad it's not just me! My kids are loud, wild and drive me crazy but I wouldn't have it any other way. Thank for for a great read!