Recently, I had a very compelling, if unexpected, lesson about what really helps parents be good parents. I was at a weekend music workshop with 30 adults and two babies — six-month-old twins.
Julie, the twins’ mom, knows I write for Today’s Parent. She asked, “Do you have any advice for me?” I don’t like to give parents the impression that I think I know what they should do just because I write for a parenting magazine. So, as I usually do, I made a bit of a joke. “Oh geez, I don’t know. Try to get enough sleep, I guess. Ha, ha.”
However, as the weekend unfolded, I realized there actually was one important idea I could give her. That’s because this gathering turned into a hothouse of support. There were endless offers of open arms to hold babies while Mom and Dad ate their lunch, or just because many of these folks, including me, love to hold babies. On Saturday afternoon, two men, one almost grandfather age and the other a childless, single thirtysomething, strapped the babies into front carriers and headed off on a 45-minute trek down a country lane so Julie could have a break.
This circle of support had a striking impact. Even though Julie was short of sleep, out of her routine and in an unfamiliar environment, she glowed, revelling in her mothering role. Without the social support she experienced, she might have felt self-conscious, exhausted and under pressure.
What’s also interesting is that I didn’t hear one word of advice all weekend. No one exhorted Julie to “look after herself” or opined as to whether she should sleep with her babies, put them in swim classes or read to them. They just kept asking, in various ways, “How can I help?”
At the end of the weekend, I took Julie aside and said, “Actually, I do have some advice for you. Get as much support as you can. It’s the most important thing you can do to help yourself be a good parent.” I made it clear that my advice was based on the lesson I had relearned watching her young family over the weekend.
The value of a helping hand applies particularly to new parents and even more so to new parents of multiples or children with special needs. But it applies to all of us. If you’re raising teenagers, for example, and you’re struggling with caring for an ill parent, what do you need? Advice about how to be a better sandwich-generation parent? No, you need someone to pick up your kids from hockey, take them overnight, feed them occasionally or in some other way help out and make you feel a little less alone with all your responsibilities.
So in honour of Mother’s Day, I wish to declare that we invest far too much time, money and energy in telling mothers what to do and how to do it, and not enough in helping and supporting them. There is a pervasive myth that the key to good parenting is more information and knowledge. That has its place, but practical help and social support do more to nurture good parenting.
So regardless of whatever else you do to try to be a good parent, find yourself some support. Join a playgroup, support group or Internet parenting forum. Hang with other families. Exchange babysitting. I’m sure you’ll pick up useful information along the way, but you’ll also be building the kind of support network that helps you be the parent you’d like to be.