Parenting is not a competition. But that doesn’t stop some parents from treating it like one.
Last week I wrote a post about the self-loathing I felt upon stating my son’s age in months. The first comment I received was a joke (I hope!) about how I should get my son checked out because he’s not yet walking on his own.
Taking care of a baby is inconvenient, sophisticated business, especially when it’s your first. Everyone needs some help, a little advice, and some points of reference to be reassured they’re not doing it wrong, and that information typically comes from three places: the grandparents, other parents, and books/the internet.
The problem is that while such sources can be very helpful, they are double-edged swords. And the constant comparisons and check-marking are a primary reason why.
For one thing, everyone has had their own experiences that they’ve overcome, and they subsequently assume their way is the only way, NOW AND FOREVER. Once they see someone deviating from that path, they are quick to impart their wisdom. But dealing with other people’s advice is not only part of being a new parent – it’s part of being human. So you get used to it. Probably?
Less expected but more insidious is the rivalry that develops between parents. Other comments below last week’s post touched on the inherent competition that comes with being around other parents, and one commenter even suggested that eliding a child’s age (rounding off instead of being specific) can help skirt presumptuous comments from others. Insane. Parents are so aware of the competition factor – and the reality of unsolicited advice – that they have developed strategies to avoid dealing with it!
Every kid grows and develops at his or her own pace, and many parents can be quick to notice – with pride or concern – when someone else’s baby isn’t developing at quite the same speed as their own.
All the guidebooks and online sources are filled with information about developmental milestones and timing and etc. (there are two primary tiers: what a baby should be doing by month X and what a baby could be doing by month X), and they take great care to let readers know that there is quite a bit of fluctuation at either end of the spectrum. “There are always outliers in both directions, so don’t be alarmed if your kid doesn’t match up with someone else’s.” The point being that unless things start severely slowing down, odds are it’s not too big a deal if your baby is a few weeks or a month behind whatever scale you choose to follow; nor should you ready a spot on your mantle for the Nobel Prize merely because your daughter started cruising a few weeks before your neighbor’s.
Every baby is different, like a beautiful snowflake. That’s a wonderful point of view, right? Too bad it means little when you’re out on the front lines of parenting, where adults aren’t so much beautiful snowflakes as they are destructive balls of hail. “Why can her son clap already but mine can’t?” (This is just an example, my kid can totally clap already.) “Why can he pull himself up already?” (Again, not my kid. He’s great at this too. Has been for a while, really. Months.) “Why doesn’t he babble more?” (Oh my God does my son babble! You’ve never heard such incredible babbling. I mean that: YOU LITERALLY HAVE NEVER HEARD SUCH BABBLE BECAUSE YOUR KID IS BEHIND.) And so on.
Such bench-marking is toxic; it’s not good for the child or the parents. Withstand a few rounds of this, and suddenly hanging out with fellow parents is fraught with stress, and every little difference in the kids is occasion for worry or relief, disappointment or pride (if you’re one of the lucky, better parents).
In matters concerning their offspring, parents tend to lose just about all reason. When we spot something we consider amiss (“My baby did that/didn’t do that by month X. My baby must be better than/worse than that baby!”), our first reaction is often puzzlement (“my son was crawling by 9 months and walking by 12…what’s wrong with yours?”) which can be expressed in countless ways, not least of which are condescension and judgment. As a result, someone else’s innocent puzzlement can lead to your anxiety. Or anger. Or both. Usually both. And then you might find yourself looking for ways that your baby appears more advanced than theirs, just to stick the knife in. And that only makes it worse. It’s a wonder parents ever remain friends at all!
Raising a kid is hard enough without worrying whether or not he’s a few weeks behind in one area or another. And God knows the kids themselves don’t need to be pitted against their playmates in some sick competition; that can wait until it’s time to apply to preschool.
So stop worrying about whether your kid is keeping up with the Joneses’ baby. If there’s real reason to be concerned, pretty sure it won’t take someone else’s gloating or sniping to clue you in. And believe me, eventually, all those concerns about little Joey not being able to walk just yet will quickly be replaced by frustration at how goddamn fast the kid gets around.