I think I can safely say that one of my favorite movies ever is Babies. I saw it in the theater way back in 2009, long before I was considering becoming a parent myself (although I must have had some sort of subconscious awareness of what was to come, because I made the future father of my children go with me to see it). It’s a documentary that follows the first year of four different babies in four different places in the world. There’s Hattie, in San Francisco; Mari, in Tokyo; Bayarjargal, in Mongolia; and Ponijao, in Namibia. The movie has no script, no voiceovers; the only dialogue you hear is the adults occasionally talking to the babies, or, in the background, one another.
Nowadays, it’s one of my favorite movies to put on in the background while I work, just for the ambient noise…because yes, there is a lot of crying, and I guess that’s a good thing for me (and, dare I say, Andy?) to get used to. (Except obviously, when Baby Simsim comes, I can’t work through the crying!) But the cool thing about the movie is you don’t just see the baby crying; you see exactly what happens up to that point where the baby bursts into tears. And what goes on in those little baby worlds is fascinating. From the perspective of a babysitter (and a doting aunt), I think we mostly run toward the baby when we hear the crying; lots of times we’re otherwise occupied with making lunches, fetching juice and snacks, picking things up, etc. But when you see the few minutes that led up to it, you think, “Well, I don’t blame the little bugger! I’d probably cry, too!”
And you relate to those babies crying. It’s nuts. You kind of see how close we adults really are to our roots. For example, there’s this one scene where Mari, the baby from Tokyo, is trying to play with a wooden toy that involves stacking colorful wooden rings on a stick. The thing is just not working. The stick keeps slipping right through the red ring she is holding in her hand. And it is frustrating. And she is trying so hard. And she screams and throws herself onto the ground. But then she gets back up. And she tries again. And it’s still not working. So she bursts into tears, throws herself back on the floor, and gives in to a few minutes of screaming sobs before she calms herself, gets back up, and tries again.
It’s priceless. And I, as a grown-up just shy of 30, know exactly how she felt.
But another reason that I really love Babies is because it gives me a chance to watch parents. Obviously, there’s a lot of cultural variation in parenting, and it shows in Babies. But it also shows how deeply similar all parents are, just as it shows how deeply similar all babies are, despite growing up as far away from each other as Earth will allow.
Basically, despite all the fascinating surface differences that make for delightful moviemaking, it shows how deeply similar all people are.
And with that, inspired by Babies, I’ve come up with a short list of things that I am going to do my best to try not to do as a parent.
1. Judge other people’s parenting choices…in public.
One thing that drives me nuts about mothers, especially mothers with an online presence, is the way they judge each other to death. In public. Without shame. Sometimes, if I happen to find myself involved in a conversation with a mommy-judger, I may point out the futility (and downright meanness) of judging another woman’s parenting choices to her face (or online, which is basically…well, not the same thing at all, but you get what I mean) and asserting the inherent superiority of one’s own choices. And inevitably, said mommy-judger will pull out some little gem along the lines of, “Are you a mother? Maybe you should have kids before you talk.”
This is when I want to say, “Well, ma’am, I may not have children of my own yet, but I don’t need to have given birth to acquire the ability to observe and inform you that you are an idiot.”
I was born with that skill, baby.
Now, all that being said, I will frankly admit that I will judge other women’s parenting when I become a mother myself. I already do. But I mostly do it in the privacy of my own mind, and with very close friends that I know won’t judge me for judging, because they probably think the same thing. So while I have thus far managed to be more discreet about it than some other women, I can’t deny that when it comes to parenting, I judge all day long.
For example, here in Saudi Arabia, there are maids. Maids everywhere. It seems like everyone has a maid, and they seem to double as nannies. A few weeks ago, Saleh and I went out to try a new hamburger restaurant here in Riyadh (Elevation Burger), and as we were eating, a mom came in with her young son…and her maid. They ordered, sat down. The maid did everything with the kid. Played with him, walked around the dining room with him. Finally the three of them (mom, son, and maid) sat down at the table to eat, and when the little boy had to go to the bathroom, he told the maid, not his mom. The maid took him out of the high chair and walked him to the bathroom, while the mom continued to eat her fries.
My mommy-judging alarm was screaming. I wondered what was wrong with this mother. Why did she seem to take so little interest in her child?
And the bundling! From what I have observed, Saudi babies wear a lot more clothing than American babies do. The temperature outside will be perfect, exactly the same as the temperature indoors, and babies that are out and about in that weather will be dressed in onesies underneath sleeper suits with footies underneath blankets in their strollers. Those babies look like they’re prepared for a trek up Mount Everest. In January. And every time I see a baby bundled up like that, I want to go and pull off one of those layers and fan her with it and say to her mom, “You know, she doesn’t have to wear it just because it’s there!”
But watching Babies has made me feel not quite so bad about my mommy-judging. It’s in our DNA as humans. In the movie, the mother who would probably endure the most mommy-judging at the hands of Western audiences is the mother of Ponijao, the baby who lives in Namibia. Ponijao grows up mostly naked, as do most of the people around her. She plays with whatever she can get her hands on: sticks, rocks, an old plastic water bottle, a dog’s mouth (she crawls up to the dog and sticks her hand right in his mouth, grabs his upper lip and teeth, pulls his mouth wide open, and checks out what’s going on in there. No one runs to scold her or yank her hand away. The dog looks at Ponijao like, “You goober. What do you think you’re doing?” It’s adorable). A babyproofing Western mom would go nuts in Ponijao’s world; it’s a death trap!
And yet, Ponijao grows up just fine. It’s the other babies that Ponijao’s mom is worried about. The filmmaker went back and interviewed the four families after they’d seen the movie, and what concerned Tarererua, Ponijao’s mom, was the scene I outlined above, the one where Mari is trying to put the rings on the stick and keeps throwing herself on the floor in frustration. Tarererua said, “When the baby who was playing and was trying to put something on a pole, then she fell down, I was thinking the mother did not hear the woefulness of the baby’s crying. I wanted to tell the mother to be close to the baby.”
Now that’s some first class mommy-judging. I love it.
From what I can tell, parenting is like religion; everyone thinks they’re the only one doing it right, and yet they are simultaneously doubting themselves at every turn. It’s no wonder, then, that the judging comes out in full force when an example pops up that seems to somewhat demonstrate that there is not only one right way to do it. What do I know? Maybe that little boy who got a hamburger with his mommy and the maid is going to grow up completely devoted to his mother (I’m thinking of Sex & the City yet again, where Trey admits that he was raised by his nanny, not his mother, and yet as an adult, he is completely wrapped around his mother’s little finger), and maybe that mother is completely devoted to her child in ways I can’t see, or wouldn’t recognize even if I did. Maybe the Saudi babies that I see bundled to within an inch of a fever are going to grow up much better able to handle the crushing, oven-like Saudi heat than my little half-naked ragamuffins will.
Yes, I think it’s safe to say I don’t really know anything…but honestly, neither does anyone else. And when we judge, whether mommies or Muslim-ness, it’s really just a manifestation of our own insecurity.
It’s like saying, “Well, I may not get everything right, but I know that’s wrong.” But again, the truth is, we don’t. So I want to say right now, to every mommy I have ever judged or will judge, even if it was or will be in the privacy of my own mind, please know that you’re doing just fine. You’re doing the best you can, and that’s all anyone can ask…and who knows, maybe you’ve got it right. And maybe what’s right for your kid isn’t right for mine, and vice versa.
Judging, as sad as it may seem, serves a purpose; it reassures us that we’re doing something right (even if we’re not, really). It helps us stand up a little straighter; it helps us keep on walking what is at best, I’m sure, a difficult path. It helps us keep listening to our heart, rather than someone else; it helps us keep on doing what we feel in our heart is best for our families. So all I’m going to promise in regard to mommy-judging is that I will do my best to do it privately.
And again, mommies who may fall prey to that instinct of mine, even if you don’t know it…you’re doing great. It’s not you, it’s me.
2. Freak out about germs.
I admit that I’m a bit of an adherent to the Dwight Schrute school of germ management: “The worst thing you can do for your immune system is to coddle it. They need to fight their own battles.” In most cases, I’m not a fan of hand sanitizer, and in my own home, I’ve been known to observe the five-second rule.
However, I suspect that having a kid will change that. I have a feeling that at least in the beginning, a germ paranoia will set in, and I’ll be lint-rolling my kid like the San Francisco parents do in one scene of Babies–and, of course, the scene that immediately follows is Ponijao, the Namibian baby, crawling gleefully through a mud puddle and taking a sip of the clear puddle water.
In some ways, Saudi Arabia is a really good place to be a germaphobe. This is mainly because antibiotics are available at every turn. Doctors prescribe them constantly, and if you’re feeling sick, you can even go to the pharmacy and pick up some antibiotics without a prescription.
Of course, there are good reasons for taking antibiotics, and for using hand sanitizer, for that matter. But I know that overusing both of them isn’t a good thing. This is probably the only instance in which I will ever say that Dwight Schrute is onto something. If Dwight ever wrote a parenting book, I’m pretty sure that’s the only line I’d ever take seriously. And speaking of parenting books…
3. Read parenting books.
In Babies, the only time we catch a glimpse of a parenting book is in San Francisco. And honestly, the scene strikes me as kind of sad. Both the mother and the father are in bed with the baby, Hattie. The father is reading a book to Hattie. The mother is reading a book entitled Becoming the Parent You Want to Be. She seems somewhat oblivious to the adorable scene going on between Hattie and her husband, as he quizzes Hattie on what sounds different animals make. When Hattie gets stuck on “elephant,” the mom puts down the book for a moment so she can make a motion with her arm out in front of her nose, like an elephant’s trunk, and make a noise that I guess sounds like an elephant (what sound does an elephant make, anyway?). Once that’s done, she picks up the book again.
This struck me as a really melancholy scene. The mom was missing these adorable moments with her kid because she was reading about how to make more adorable moments with her kid.
I obviously don’t know, but parenting strikes me as kind of like riding a bike; the only way to figure out how to do it is to do it. You can read about riding a bike all you want, but when you hop on that bike, it doesn’t matter if you’ve read an entire library; you’re still going to fall a lot before you get the hang of it, just like the kid who never read a word. And even if you get to be the best bike rider ever, you’re still going to fall every once in awhile.
I’ve bought a few books about childbirth for my Kindle app (yet another thing that I’m sure books can’t ever completely prepare you for), and once you start buying childbirth books, Amazon puts two and two together and starts recommending parenting books. From Michael and Debi Pearl’s To Train Up a Child (which I have never had any desire to read, except perhaps out of a morbid curiosity) to Mayim Bialik’s Beyond the Sling (which, I admit, lingers on my Kindle wish list, cruelly tempting me to break this rule–what can I say? I love Amy Farrah Fowler), there is a parenting book out there for everyone. If you already believe in spanking your kids (or your future kids), no problem; there are books, like the Pearls’, that round up research that says that spanking does children no harm and then counsels you on exactly how to do it. (Of course, although I am not yet a parent, I will lay all my cards out on the table and say that I would counsel anyone against taking that book seriously.) If you want to breastfeed your kid until he goes to kindergarten, there are books that will tell you how to do that, too.
I have a couple of problems with the idea of reading these parenting books that Amazon is marketing to me relentlessly. One, as that scene in Babies seems to illustrate, it seems like getting caught up in guilt-inducing parenting books takes away from time that could be otherwise spent, you know, with my kid. I would think that the books make us feel guilty because up until that point, we haven’t been parenting the way the book counsels we should, and then we feel even more guilty because reading the book about parenting takes time away from actually parenting. I mean, I feel guilty right now because I’m typing this while Andy lays on the couch, burrowed under a blanket, napping and occasionally glancing up at me to make sure I’m still there; I want to finish this post and pick him up and snuggle with him instead of writing about how I’m not snuggling with him.
What will it be like when I actually have a kid burrowed under a blanket on the couch?
Two, it seems like reading those parenting books is just going to make me feel like even more of a failure when either the tenets of the books don’t make parenting easier or I am just unable to follow them. I read in an article that in Beyond the Sling, Mayim Bialik talks about how, as a part of her attachment parenting philosophy, she did not instruct her two sons to say “please” or “thank you.” She said that she simply modeled when to say those words and over time, the boys naturally picked up on those good manners. Now, I totally agree that kids need to see their parents demonstrating good manners. But I can say right now that I’m not going to be able to refrain from singsonging, “What do we saaaay-ay?” every time I hand my child something or someone else does. Heck, I do that to my toddler nephew now, and when I do, he says, “T’anks.” It’s pretty much the most adorable thing ever, and I’m pretty sure his parents taught him to say that. And good for them. No matter how many parenting books I read, I’m probably not going to be able to resist the temptation to teach my kids to say, “T’anks.” So it’s probably best if I avoid books that instruct me that doing so could be detrimental to my kid’s development.
Good Lord, the kid’s the size of a heirloom tomato and I’m already feeling guilty about ways I could possibly mess it up once it gets here. I don’t need parenting books laying out exactly why my instincts are all wrong.
4. Not chase perfection.
Do I need to explain? I mean…duh. Toddlers & Tiaras is an irrefutable testament to the fact that this endeavor rarely ends well. Terrific television…terrible parenting. Plus, the one parenting book I have read (two years ago, before I went to China for the first time), Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, somewhat advocates for this chasing perfection approach, and although I think there’s a little bit of the Tiger Mother in me, I don’t think it would be responsible of me to let myself become a full-on disciple of Amy Chua. I’m too competitive. I like to win. I can see my child ending up on Anderson Cooper 360 someday, the greatest concert pianist on Earth but who, despite her brilliance, would be virtually unknown outside the classical music world if she hadn’t penned a tell-all book about how her competition-crazed mother would withhold food, water, and bathroom privileges from her until she played that concerto the entire way through without a single mistake.
Yeah. Not worth it.
5. Not beat myself up when I utterly fail at following these rules.
And finally, we come to the most important rule of all. My dad always says, “You know, when it comes to raising kids, there’s no rule book. You just have to figure it out as you go along, and do the best you can.” Even though Amazon is proof that thousands have tried to write that rule book, I know my dad is right. And despite my insistence on writing down this list of rules, his advice is probably the best I’ve gotten since I found out I was pregnant.
And I mean…he and my mom love my brother and me like crazy and just did the best they could. And we turned out fine. What else do I need to know, really?
At some point, I’m probably going to download Beyond the Sling. I’m probably going to not going to be able to refrain from ranting about the misguidedness (or at least, the lack of informed patient consent) of elective c-sections in some public forum. I’m probably going to end up choosing to buy antibacterial Wet Ones over the non-antibacterial kind, and at some point, I’m probably going to to ask my kid why he or she got a 93 on a test instead of a 100. But you know what? All of those things will be part of my job. And no one, even the very best person for the job, will ever do it completely perfectly.
Just ask President Obama.