Parenting sure ain't what it used to be.
As recently as a couple of decades ago, the concept of "parenting" itself didn’t exist. People got together, had babies and, for the most part, brought their children up more or less the way they’d been brought up. There was progress here and there—child-labour laws, Sesame Street, seat belts, full-day kindergarten, etc.—but most new parents just sort of muddled on, making it up as they went along or taking well-meaning advice from grandparents or their doctor.
Today, however, it’s a whole different ball game. It’s not just the amount of information available in every conceivable form—the books, the videos, the websites, the parent Facebook groups, the online courses, the Instagram influencers with their six sets of adorable twins and heartfelt essay-length captions on “real-life challenges” of family life—it’s the fact that, if you’ve got the cash, almost every brain-breaking parental quagmire can theoretically be solved by outsourcing to an expert.
What started with lactation consultants and infant sleep trainers (now almost standard) has become a burgeoning industry of experts. In the city where I live, I can hire a consultant to come into my home and give my family personalized advice on everything from my kid’s screen time, diet and food preferences to toilet training, temper tantrums and anxiety levels. There are group programs and personalized coaches to teach your child how to ride a two-wheeler, tell the time, self-soothe in times of stress, meditate, even tie their own shoelaces. Okay, I’m joking about the last one, but there are lots of YouTube tutorials. I know because I’ve watched them. (The two-loop method works best, if you ask me.)
Before I had kids I was extremely judgemental about the prospect of consultants because I was brought up, like many people of my generation, almost exclusively by my mother. Like most moms of her generation, mine didn’t have access to experts. She had one book, Dr. Spock, and that was it. As the stay-home wife of a travelling salesman living with two tiny daughters in the middle of the countryside, my mother barely had friends, let alone help. She didn’t even have the internet! It makes me shudder with loneliness to think how utterly isolated and confused she must have felt without being able to Google important questions like, “Can an 18-month-old dehydrate from drooling?”
As with most clear, firm judgments levied by my pre-parenthood self, once I’d experienced the full-on reality of motherhood, I was forced to revise my position. I became much more forgiving, but most crucially, I stopped casting any judgment whatsoever on the way parents chose to outsource their burdens. Because let’s face it, while all of this stuff is crucial, lots of it is maddeningly difficult and flat out gross. Toilet training, for instance, is just a burden. There is nothing fun about it apart from it being over. Nobody finds it fulfilling to scrape poo from the inside of their toddler’s mini-tuxedo trousers in the washroom of a fancy restaurant during their sister’s wedding reception (as I recently did).
I didn’t hire experts myself, which was something I felt very smug about until I realized, on reflection, it was because we’d hired a full-time nanny instead. My husband and I are not rich, and it was a major financial stretch, but it was something we felt we had to do so I could keep working as a freelancer with no maternity benefits. I work at home, which made a lot of our situation much easier (breastfeeding, for example), but the biggest benefit of all, I now realize, is that our nanny was incredibly experienced and taught us everything we needed to know by showing us how to do it. She showed me how to swaddle my baby and taught him to take a bottle. She knew the signs he was ready for weaning and demonstrated by example the best way to parent a wilful toddler (hold firm and never escalate). Most crucially of all, when my husband and I just couldn’t or just desperately didn’t want to do something ourselves, she did it for us. This extraordinary privilege—the privilege of being able to occasionally duck out—eased the experience of new motherhood more than anything else. It may well have saved both my sanity and my marriage. Although it was financially punitive, I’m still convinced it was worth every last cent.
Having said that, I get that outsourcing, whether in the form of consultants or experienced in-home childcare, isn’t an option for everyone, let alone most people. It’s crazy expensive and generations of people have figured out how to do without, so don’t for a second feel badly if you can’t afford it or feel it’s not for you. By the same token, if you’re a new parent who’s recently found yourself in the weeds of a seemingly unsolvable conundrum, be it toilet training, sleeplessness or your baby’s inexplicable sudden appetite for cigarette butts in the sandpit, just remember that the old saw about it “taking a village” to raise a child is gold-standard truth. Yes, new parents today have resources like BabyCentre and Today's Parent just a tap away, but no website can put a hand on your shoulder when it’s 4 a.m. and every single person in your house is crying and say, “You’re doing a great job, this is just really hard. Now go lay down and let me take over for a bit.”
Only another person can do that. If it’s not a mother or an aunt or a sister or a neighbour, it’ll probably be someone you pay. And if you can’t afford to pay, here’s something you can do: Ask. When you’re broken and struggling and at your wit’s end, remember that your friends and your family will help you if you ask. There are also hotlines and helplines and doctors and counsellors who will answer if you call because it's their job to help. Modern parenting is so crazy and complicated and funny and fulfilling and relentless that at some point everyone needs to outsource it somehow. The trick, as the experts say, is to find out what works for you.