I remember the moment I realized what I’ve become.
It was the end of another long day of infant wrangling, which had been preceded by a night of many interruptions (this was before we sleep trained, so yeah, I was not my best self). I crawled into bed, exhausted, and of course checked my phone. My best friend, who had a baby seven weeks before I did, had posted on a Facebook group about hunting for childcare she didn’t actually need for more than a year. I took a screenshot and texted it to her, gently chiding her for being one of “those” moms—the ultra-planners, the A-type, the obsessed. We kept talking (I’m not sure why she didn’t just tell me goodnight), and she shared that she managed to sign her baby up for swimming lessons, snagging one of relatively few spots, and successfully navigating the byzantine public services registration system. Instead of congratulating her, I was pissed. “Another thing I didn’t realize I needed to think about,” I morosely typed. “Can’t my son just be a goddamn baby?”
This exchange did not make me proud. Who was I to try to make my friend feel bad for being on top of it, for doing what’s right for her kid? Why did I try to make this about me? And why did I feel like I—and worse, my son—just didn’t measure up?
It dawned on me then, and I let out a groan. I’ve become “that” parent. You know. The competitive one. Competitive with other moms and their babies, competitive with herself. Setting that yardstick way too high and lopping off the poppies that dared grow taller than I. This, despite my early decision and conscious effort to be a chill mom. Ugh. Not a good look.
I started noticing this undesirable streak in my daily mat leave interactions, and realized, in hindsight, they’d been there from pretty early on. A friend whose child was born a few days after mine started rolling over way before my son had even thought about trying. Another whose baby was mere weeks older than mine was feeding him full spaghetti dinners by five-and-a-half months (at least that’s what it looked like on Instagram)—and we’d barely gotten past a few purées. I was stoked when my baby boy started sprouting teeth, and gloated about it to one of my mom friends. “Oh yeah, my daughter’s bottom two came in a few weeks ago!” so nope, couldn’t make the leaderboard on that one either. One day I even caught myself peering through the blinds like some kind of Hitchcock character at the mom down the street helping her seven-month-old learn how to walk (this kid has been on a nap schedule since he was three-months-old, and she’d already long ago secured childcare for when her mat leave ends).
Why can’t these babies just be goddamn babies?! I felt as if every single one was being led to develop at warp speed—or were just naturally crushing those milestones like they ain’t no thang.
Listen to Sarah Boesveld talk about competition in modern parenting on The Big Story podcast.
The Big Story, July 17
Learn more at The Big Story Podcast.
Meanwhile, my own son was (and is) completely healthy and happy and well within the range of normal (although, as economist and author Emily Oster writes in her new book Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting from Birth to Preschool, we fail to talk about the wide distribution of what’s normal in terms of hitting milestones, which tends to make a lot of parents worried). Still, it felt like the mothers and babies all around me were doing everything first — and even earlier than what was recommended by my family doctor and by public health, whether that be starting on solids or sleep training or flying to the moon. Did I not buy my son enough developmental toys? I tried spending more time on the floor with baby, encouraging him to roll. I chastised myself for the times I spent watching episodes of The Good Place with him on the couch (dude loves himself a TV). I downloaded one of those godforsaken sleep tracking apps.
This parenting stuff is hard, and I was making it even harder on myself by setting unreasonably high expectations—and hating everyone else who seemed to clear them. The lack of sleep was already sapping me of energy, so why was I spending what little I had on negative thinking?
I decided to step back and think about the big picture. It’s only been a handful of decades since babies have taken such a central place in family life, since children have been treated as precious angels rather than another mouth to feed and another labourer to help run the farm. As Jennifer Senior points out in her excellent book All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, new parents today have lived more of their adult lives unencumbered by the demands of a small human than their own parents did before first having kids. They’ve built fulfilling—and perhaps even pretty competitive—careers outside the home, so it isn’t any wonder that they professionalize the maddening, chaotic, wonderful job that is parenting, which is maybe what I’ve been doing. The constant flow of information and feedback online is a blessing and a curse. “We’re now in an era where mothers and parents can talk to one another, a throwback to this nostalgic time, pre-expert, when mothers gathered at the village well,” Ann Hulbert, author of Raising America: Experts, Parents and a Century of Advice About Children recently told The New Yorker. While that sounds idyllic, she says, “actually it can be horrible! Mothers are perfectly free to be judgmental, dictatorial and obsessive, and it multiplies anxieties.”
No wonder I was being so hard on myself! Could it be that these moms I see doing everything early and first are also just manifesting their own anxieties? Could it be that they are just, simply, doing what they felt was best for their child, to each their own?
No one was giving me a performance review on my parenting—no one who mattered much to me, anyway. So, I’ve been working on easing up on myself and enjoying the fact that my pre-crawling son will still be sitting where I left him when I go deal with the laundry. Yeah, he doesn’t have a perfectly reliable sleep schedule, but he gets enough rest. I turned off notifications on those mom Facebook groups, which can be places of awesome community but also deep wells of anxiety. I’ve started meditating during baby’s naptime (or trying to, anyway). And when the mom down the street offered me a hand-me down of one of those plastic standing activity tables, saying her now barely nine-month-old son who can definitely stand up on his own was “so over it,” I didn’t grit my teeth. I accepted her generosity. Hey, maybe my baby can just play with it sitting down.