One of the first things I did as a new mother was have a panic attack. We were in the hospital. They had just told us that we were being discharged and that it was time to take our baby home. I thanked my doctors and nurses, stood up, became incredibly light-headed and out of breath, sat back down and threw up into some sort of pink basin that I think was actually for peeing into.
The problem, you see, was that I had just looked down at my little baby all wrapped up in his snowsuit and ready to go outside for the first time in his entire life and realized that the doctors and nurses weren’t coming with us. In some epic oversight, my husband and I were going to be allowed to take a tiny human being home with us. Surely no one could actually think that we had the authority to leave the building with this baby. And yet, it seemed they did. So, I threw up into the pee basin, got back up and took my baby home.
By the time we got there I had calmed down enough to remember that we weren’t completely alone. After all, our bookshelves were full of parenting books that I had read while I was pregnant. I had one book, I remembered, that promised it would “explain the exact steps you can take to gently help your baby sleep through the night.” That seemed promising. Another claimed it could tell me “how to solve any problem.” Another still claimed its methods worked “100 percent of the time.” How could I go wrong? There was an authority after all. If I didn’t know what to do, I would just look it up.
In the weeks that followed, every time something incomprehensible happened (so about every five minutes) I would turn to my books. It wasn’t long before I made a terrifying discovery: nothing they said worked. My books said a pacifier would help my son stop crying. He spat it back in my face. My books said swaddling would help him sleep better. It turns out I gave birth to a tiny Houdini. My books said he needed tummy time to build his muscles. According to my son, tummy time is torture. The list went on an on.
I quickly began to feel completely inadequate. These books guaranteed that their methods would work. They had sold more copies than there were people to buy them. Their authors had all kinds of letters after their name and degrees in things I’d never even heard of. They were experts on babies. I was not. I was just someone who had mistakenly been allowed to take one home. Clearly, if these methods weren’t working, I was doing something wrong.
Nothing in my life before this had prepared me for motherhood. Nothing could have. I was responsible for the survival of another human being. I had to make sure he got enough to eat, slept for the appropriate number of hours, had stimulating play time and consistently clean diapers. But what did I know? I’d never done this before. My books told me their methods worked 100 percent of the time. It stood to reason that, if my problems weren’t solved, it was all my fault. Who was I anyway? I’d only met this kid a few weeks ago.
But somehow, in my sleep-deprived fog, it finally dawned on me: the authors of my books had never met him at all. The thing is, real babies don’t follow the rules. Real babies are insane. They do all kinds of things that, to us rational humans, make absolutely no sense. And each and every one of them is different. It’s only by living with them that we begin to learn what works for our individual babies. The terrifying truth, I realized, is that the authority on how to take care of my baby is actually me.
My son is one now. We know each other better. I’m learning what works for him and what doesn’t. My books aren’t useless, they’re just not definitive. I take a little from one and a little from another and throw in some ideas of my own and I make it work.
Chances are, your baby doesn’t follow the rules either. This is because there are no rules. But remember, those books are not the authority. If their methods don’t work for you, there’s something wrong with the methods, not with you. You are the ultimate authority on your child. Scary, I know. So, throw up in your pee basin, take your baby home and get to work. One way or another, it’s all going to be okay.