Jordan: If you aren’t one of these parents, then you know one. You can call it whatever helicopter parent, a tiger mom, a bulldozer parent, whatever term is in fashion now, it doesn’t matter. What we are talking about here is a competition for daycare spots, and for swimming lessons, and special programs, and a competition to reach basic baby milestones, the milestones that nearly every single baby on earth will reach just fine one way or another. And then, of course, it’s a competition to post about it, and this is why if you’re not a parent and are wondering, your social feeds are cluttered with pictures telling you that this one can sit up by himself, or that one knows how to use the potty. Those pictures are not for you, they are for the people who post them to reassure themselves that their kid is still in the race, is maybe even winning by a week or two, and yes, this is what modern parenting, or at least the public face of it has become. But why does it have to be this way? I mean, obviously it does not, but if you found yourself caught up in it, or you have a friend who most definitely is, how can you convince them or yourself to back off, to just let things happen, to let a kid be a kid?
Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Sarah Boesveld is a writer at Chatelaine, and other publications, she is also a sometimes host of this podcast, and for the purposes of this discussion, but listed last a mom. Hi Sarah.
Sarah: Hi Jordan, thanks for having me.
Jordan: Oh, no problem. You put your finger on a feeling that I think anybody with kids has had, or anybody with annoying friends on Facebook who have kids has had.
Sarah: What is this insanity? Is my friend okay that’s just had a kid?
Jordan: Ya so tell me about the moment you realize you’d become one of the competitive parents.
Sarah: Yeah, so I think I was about…. my baby was about four months, and I don’t know i if you remember this Jordan, but four months is a bit of a hairy time for sleep. You know, there’s something called the four months sleep regression. I don’t think we had it too hard, but, you know, you’re up 1,000,000 times in the night, so this is my major caveat is like, I was not having much sleep at the time. I crawled into bed after a long day with this baby, and understanding that I was gonna be up many times in the night. And I checked my phone which is something you shouldn’t do before you go to bed, and I saw a Facebook post from my friend, a very close friend of mine who also has an infant daughter, little bit older well, I have a son to the daughter and she has a daughter, and she was looking for childcare spaces, and I knew that she didn’t need it till 18 months and I was like you’re one of those parents whose like all up in this planning, trying to get everything done, like why can’t just enjoy being, you know, a parent to this infant and just, like, chill on this stuff. But really my reaction to that, and being angry about that and, you know, she also signed her kid up for swimming lessons, the child’s like, blah I have to do that, too, was really just hey, like I’m not thinking about these things. Should I be thinking about these things? You’re making me an anxious mess because I’m not thinking about these things of course, I was the only one making myself an anxious mess, but we could get to that later sort of the environment that we’re in but that moment I just sort of was like, damn like why am I being kind of a jerk to my friend who’s just trying to do her best? It’s all about me and my insecurities, and my feelings of not measuring up, and so I think that the label I gave it was competitive, which is really just…. I’m thinking that I, you know, should be doing more, doing better, doing things earlier and I see people all around me doing that, and it’s making me insane because I am not doing these things and so I must be doing something wrong, I must be failing my child somehow.
Jordan: You are judging your worth as a parent by other people’s kids.
Sarah: Yeah it’s really lame to say it aloud, but that’s totally how I felt.
Jordan: But you’re not alone, I wouldn’t think.
Sarah: No, I realize that actually after writing this piece.
Jordan: Tell me how it happens to parents, how you go from whatever it is you’re expecting, and for the purposes of this discussion we’re talking about first time parents because that’s all we are, and it also tends to be the people that you see on Facebook who are getting carried away with what their kid is doing, and how far advanced Little Johnny is.
Sarah: Right, totally. I think you hit on both of those notes very well already. You know, I think we are in a parenting culture, every generation sort of has one. But, you know, we’re in a time when people are not really starting their families until they’ve had most of their twenties often and not everywhere in Canada, there are a lot of pockets of Canada where you still start your family pretty much when you’re young.
Jordan: But the general numbers are increasing, for sure.
Sarah: General numbers are increasing I think it’s, you know, the average age is around 30 plus for; Just north of 30 for women for a first child, and so you’ve had maybe a career where you are, you know, maybe a little bit competitive, you know, trying to get your foot in the door, get a job, establish yourself, and then you start your family, which is different from generations past. Also, you mentioned Facebook and you mentioned Instagram, you mentioned sort of this environment where you could see everything else and hear from lots of people, you know, talking about their child’s achievements, and we all know that on social media you like to present only the good moments, everything that’s happening very well. You’re, you know, annoying parent friends if you don’t have children. How many of those milestone, every single month photo you see of babies, and it’s like this baby is, you know, eating lots of solids already and he’s four months old.
Jordan: I am six months and I can do this, and this, and this, and this.
Sarah: Oh yes, that makes me so mad. But especially if you have a kid who’s not doing this, and this, and this by that age, it drives me batty. But, you know, the Internet really makes a sort of; Think that we’re not measuring up I think, you know, people who maybe tend to be hard on themselves as I tend to be, you know, you really see what’s going on around you, and you assume that everything is going so well in that person’s life, everything is perfect, everything’s humming along, they’re not running into any snags or any; They don’t have any worries or concerns when really they probably have lots, you know, they’re just like any of us. A lot of concerns, a lot of fears, so maybe that is the way that they’re showing, you know, that they’re doing while, they’re talking to themselves as much as trying to put on a good face for everybody else.
Jordan: Well it’s the milestones that you mentioned that I wanted to ask you about, because on the one hand, they are good things to keep track of your child’s development, and they’re certainly in all the modern parenting books. But on the other hand they do become like laps in a race.
Sarah: Oh, yeah. So the big milestones are things like….. you know, rolling over, starting solid, sleeping through the night, and I think, you know, we hear a lot of people say, oh, you know, my kids’ such a great sleeper, I sleep through the night and it’s like what do you even mean by that? Do you mean, like, 12 hours without waking up or do you really mean, like, a stretch of six hours, you know? And so, you know, I think like milestones are also extremely broad, you know, but when you see someone clearing them who’s maybe in your direct orbit, you know, when your kid looks about the same, seems to be about the same age, same, you know, stats, I guess, as it were you think well like if he could do it why is mine doing it. It’s like we don’t actually talk enough about how broad that range of normal is, and so….
Jordan: Right. Well what is the difference then between the milestones that we kind of have in our heads, and on our social media feeds, and when early childhood professionals talk about milestones, how they see them?
Sarah: That’s why I think it’s so funny like I would go, I would see all this stuff going on at, you know, in my social life, like the moms I get together with, and then I go to the doctor and I’d be like, well, you know, he’s not rolling over yet, and like going should I be worried? She’s like well no, he’s like 15 pounds, he’s huge, you know, at whatever age. I have a very large child, he was born at 10 pounds, and he is now 25 ish…. he’s nine and 1/2 months, so he’s a big boy. So yeah he’s got a lot of weight to roll over, and so, you know, it’s like, oh, yes, gravity, and mass, and physics like all play in as well, and personality, and you know, the way they’re motivated. Also, it very; you know I mentioned my friend had a daughter I think, you know, we do know developmentally girls tend to do things earlier, and then boys do, and it’s not necessarily a rule but I think, you know, an early childhood development person might be; I don’t know if they’re more chill than the rest of us because they just know more but it’s sort of very natural for us to look around us and say, well I see this person doing it, so why am I not kind of thing.
Jordan: Well also babies just have different personalities, never mind different physiology.
Sarah: Well and I think an interesting thing too, is, you know, yes, you know you can; There’s so many things in pregnancy that I think prepare you for maybe sometimes well, and not well enough for parenthood because there’s a lot you can’t control going on in your body when you’re pregnant, and then there’s so much you can’t control when they’re outside of you. You know cause they’re crying, and you don’t know why, and you try to do all these things to sort of help sooth them, and they’re not being soothed, and it’s actually quite maddening that you can’t control or help them, they can’t talk to you. You know, I think there’s a big part of that going on as well that makes parents so crazy and anxious.
Jordan: Milestones are a way to judge that you’re gaining some semblance of control.
Sarah: Totally. Like I’m doing well, like I’m you know, and that’s why I was like, I wrote in the piece, did I not spend enough time on the floor with him, did I ruin him by sitting in front of the TV with me, you know, and it’s like I know I’m not supposed to do that, and I still feel badly but sometimes…
Jordan: Shockingly it happens. Listen Sesame Street works.
Sarah: Yeah, he loves the TV, but yeah it’s at least a milestone is sort of like oh phew, like things are humming along, I’m doing this thing right, I’m keeping this little person alive. I’m actually doing more than that, which is to make sure that they’re healthy, you know, along with developing well, gonna be a smart person contributing to society. But do you remember it was maybe back in the early 2000’s that like Baby Einstein started right? That was a big program, it was a company trying to make lots of money, right, you know, But there’s like whole industries around these anxieties that we have, and so there’s going to be all kinds of products, and programs, and, you know, in my neighbourhood in Toronto there’s like classes you can take with your infants, like crawling classes so they can, like, practice their agility, and I’m like what are they like a show dog? You know, like, do you need to; And again….
Jordan: Build that baby’s core strength.
Sarah: Right? And here I am though, like judging these moms, do you want to do this? And I’m like no. See the judgment is such a minefield too but at the same time it’s like we are offered these things to spend our money on because people are anxious, because we’re in this Internet soaked society where we are concerned all the time about something happening to our kids, we’re concerned about not doing enough for them, we’re concerned about not measuring up, you know, and also we have a year of mat leave, which is a blessing in this country. But we have time to kill you know, and money to spend because a lot of people have established their careers and have some money, you know, when they’re on leave so I think like businesses are catering to that too and helping us but also playing into our anxieties.
Jordan: So you’ve had a child for almost 10 months now?
Sarah: Yeah. Life is very different now.
Jordan: I’m sure, do you remember how you would have viewed the kind of conversation we’re having now, or the kinds of posts you’re talking about on social media.
Sarah: Ugh, I scrolled past them. So bored, so boring. I try not to talk about my kids too much with my friends who don’t have kids. But at the same time, I have written about parenting and parent culture before, just as a journalist when I was at the National Post I did that quite a bit so I was aware of this culture, and so I think.
Jordan: What did you think of it, though?
Sarah: I thought it was crazy. I thought you know why? Everything’s gonna be fine. You know, our parents raised us, and we generally turned out fine, but I think the instinct and desire, I think with most generations is to do things better for your kids, you know then you were done by, even though you seem to have had a great childhood and, you know, maybe most people have. But I think you know you always want to improve, but it gets to a point where things get a little nuts and so actually remember writing about this book called Expecting Better, I talked to the author back then, it was an author named Emily Oster is A New Mom, is an economist and she’s based in the States, and her whole thing was when she was pregnant she was given a lot of advice, given a lot of like, you know, don’t go in a hot tub, don’t eat raw fish, you know, all this sort of rules. She looked at the data and the evidence around that, and was like, well does the research back up that this is something I really shouldn’t do or is it gonna be fine? You know, and drinking is a big one too, it’s like the no amount of alcohol is safe kind of thing.
Jordan: But in the span of human history the no drinking rule is actually super recent.
Sarah: Yeah, but I think it’s, you know, but I think because people are….
Jordan: I’m not advocating, for the record on this podcast, but.
Sarah: No, I remember writing about that book and fetal alcohol syndrome, people were like, whoa, you know, this is very dangerous to actually sent this message that even a little bit is ok, and I think a lot of the public health messaging around co sleeping as well, which is having the baby in bed with you, not recommended by public health, same with drinking. But a lot of people, not a lot of people, but some people do it, but they’re like, ok, I’m reasonable, you know, safety conscious person I’m not smoking and drinking, and then getting into bed with my kid kind of thing. Anyway, Emily Oster wrote another book called Crib Sheet which just came out in the spring, and it is about parenting, and sort of all the evidence and data around parenting and, you know, kind of tried to break down what sort of the conventional wisdom is, what people around you might be doing or saying, and then saying hey, why don’t you look at the evidence and decide for yourself whether this is something you want to do? And the reason I bring that up is because….. I think going into having a child, I remembered Emily Oster’s work and I thought hmm… like, I like the idea of being able to decide for myself, you know what is right for me and my family, and I think she was really heavy handed with that message in Crib Sheet you know, for a reason because there is so much going on around you that you get sort of overwhelmed and mixed up in it, and it can really make you crazy, and so she….. you know I thought about that before I had kids but then I still got wrapped up in it. I decided I want to be a chill mom, I try to be like that, but it’s really hard when all of this is going on.
Jordan: Listen I read a book called Bringing Up Baby.
Sarah: Oh yeah, the french one.
Jordan: The french one, and I thought this was gonna be song and dance that had my child using cutlery by age one and a half.
Sarah: You’re not in France which you know, speaks volumes through about like the culture that you’re in. It’s not just you, it’s this whole environment that you’re at.
Jordan: Oh I can’t escape it. Yeah, it’s you know, I’m at the age now and so are you, and a lot of our friends are having their first child, and you’re in that web, and you have to make a conscious decision not to engage in it if you don’t want to get pulled in to your point, just the modern culture of parenting.
Sarah: Right, and so I think you know, as someone who knew about this culture ahead of time, ad someone who actively decided you could make all kinds of plans,
Jordan: Right, you should’ve been the person who… ya.
Sarah: I should have been the one who’s gonna be chill. But I think it just speaks volumes to the power of this pull, and I think it’s an influence all of us contend with, you know, just we’re all products of this world that we are in, but we can, and we should, try to step back every now and then, and just take stock, and get some perspective, and not to be so hard on ourselves. I remember when I filed this piece to Today’s Parent editor and chief Kim Shiffman and I said, god I was so mean to myself. I’ve re read this and I’m like why am I so mean to myself, and she’s like you know what a lot of people are, you know, this is a really good opportunity to just kind of make other people feel like they’re less alone and encourage all of us, and I’m mostly talking to myself to just like, step back, relax, spend the time enjoying your child, they’re only gonna be this age once, and if you have another child, you’re gonna have a little toddler as well as this infant, so you won’t get to enjoy it in the same way, like let’s try to like dial down some of this anxiety by getting some big picture perspective on the world we live in, and make decisions around how we want to be in it with our kid.
Jordan: Well what can happen if you can’t pull back? What happens when parents go down the rabbit hole further than you did?
Sarah: You know, I think you just…. you could well, I mean, I think it could contribute to some mental health issues. I think in some ways, you know, you can really get whipped up in that anxiety, especially if you’re quite isolated, and you’re mostly looking at Facebook, and not in person really life, and having real conversations with the moms in your orbit. You know, if you get together with mom groups or whatever, ya it’s gonna be annoying at first cause it’s like, well, how’s your kids sleeping? How’s your kid eating, and then, if you know, has your kids sprouted a tooth yet? And…
Jordan: Right, does he sit up?
Sarah: Yeah, does he sit up? And then so all of that stuff you can take that, you know, they’re also trying to suss out whether their kid is measuring up too, you know, you can kind of get that perspective, but if you just choose to sort of, you know, and it’s easy as a default to do this, and I was doing this like, oh, I didn’t you know; No, he doesn’t have a tooth yet, no, he’s not sleeping through the night, no, he’s only had a few puures, and your kids’ having like full spaghetti dinners, it’s like good for you like you know, you end up getting pretty bitter and negative, and then the concern is that you might isolate yourself from other people. When you know, community especially when you’re a new parent is really important because there’s this whole new world you’re stepping into, it feels really high stakes. Everyone says just enjoy it, and yes you are but you are also navigating something new and terrifying, and so I think if you go down this rabbit hole too far, you’re going to set yourself up for some real challenges and possibly isolating yourself, and you know, that’s not something that’s necessarily gonna be healthy for you. You know, try to maintain those relationships with those other parents in your life, and also maybe start some conversations where you get to some of that realness a little bit, you know, try to be like, hey, you know, I’ve felt like, you know, I’m not doing enough for this kid, you know, I don’t know if you ever feel that way, and they’ll be like god yes, you know, and then maybe you can get to a place where you’re relating on that level rather than sort of racking up like points as sort of how well you’re doing versus them, because you’re not gonna get the big picture if you just do that.
Jordan: Do you want to know, I’ll give you one last anecdote that plays into this because it’s really interesting. We got a report card, because they do report cards in day care now. And….
Sarah: See god, and like the swimming lessons does report cards, we were laughing at it with my friend….
Jordan: Those ones are cute though, this one is like a check off; They have a list of milestones, cause she’s two, she turned two, and you have to have…..
Sarah: Right. Oh god, I can’t wait for daycare now Jordan, thanks.
Jordan: Ya you have to have all these things checked off and there were a couple of things that they didn’t check off, which is uses two words together, or speaks to teachers. So basically in their eyes my child was nonverbal. This kid speaks in full sentences at home. She will say I want to go up on the big bed, I would like to go outside again and stuff like that, like
Sarah: That’s like, how many words did you just say 8 or 9? Yeah?
Jordan: They’re huge sentences though, her language is great, whatever, that’s not the point. The point is, is that rather than being like okay, well, this is crap because she’s fine I hear talk every single day. But those daycare workers don’t think that she has hit those milestones, so it wasn’t even like me judging my own child’s milestones, it was me judging what other people knew, and now I want to take a video of her and show them to see, she’s talking.
Sarah: But yeah, but I think right in what you were saying is a concern for what other people think and I think that is something that’s very difficult to; If I’m understanding that correctly is very difficult to shake, I probably would have been like these experts in the field think that my child is not measuring up, and…..
Jordan: Well that’s right, but even though you want to explain that she is.
Sarah: What must they think of me as a parent because I must not be doing; And then, of course….
Jordan: That’s it. Are you reading to her? Yes!
Sarah: Right. Yes, and again, like…
Jordan: You feel judged.
Sarah: they if anyone should know that all kids are different, and all the kids are; But I mean, did they act like concerned? Did they pull you aside and say your child is nonverbal, like we really need to have like, did they make an issue of it?
Jordan: No, they didn’t do that, but they filled in the sheet and didn’t check off the things and we look at it and then we did it to ourselves.
Sarah: Totally, and that’s the thing, too if you’re not taking off all the boxes you’re failing, and that is completely not the way it works and you know, any pediatrician, any family doctor, unless…. you know the kids are much older, and it’s clearly a developmental concern, then they will raise the flag, or get excited about it as my doctor really diplomatically put it, then we’ll get excited about it.
Jordan: That’s a very nice way to put it.
Sarah: I know, I was like I’m going to use that.
Jordan: But yeah that was my only point was that just to end this by looping back to your original point, is that that’s a point where you can let your anxiety take over, or you can actually realize that you need to chill out about it because you have evidence to the contrary.
Sarah: Yeah, and also just things take, you know, the time that they take, and your kid as long as they’re loved, and supported, and having everything that they need, and that you are mindful of when it is really a concern and you’re talking to your pediatrician or doctor about it, just try day to day to just have a good time with that kid, he loves you and smiles at you when you get in the room, you know that’s the good stuff and all the rest of it can really just be noise.
Jordan: Thanks Sarah.
Sarah: Thanks for having me.
Jordan: Sarah Boesveld is a writer at Chatelaine and many, many other places. That was The Big Story, and if you want more head to thebigstorypodcast.ca, or find us on Twitter at @thebigstoryfpn. If you want more of Sarah, and less of me, stay tuned because she’ll be guest hosting this program for a week very soon. You can subscribe to us for free wherever you get your podcasts on Apple, on Google, on Stitcher, on Spotify on G Poder. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, we’ll talk tomorrow.
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