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You don’t need to find your parenting path. You’re already on it.

by Sarah Powers on November 22, 2013

This post is by Sarah Powers, Happiest Home contributor and Managing Editor, and blogger at Powers of Mine.

parenting, styles, philosophies, motherhood

As a new mom – and an observant one, having always been someone who looks for patterns and categories as a way to make sense of things – I became familiar with most of the major Motherhood Labels: attachment, free-range, helicopter, breastfeeding, babywearing, organic, hypoallergenic, you name it.

I also gathered from casual observation and obsessive blog-reading that certain labels seemed to go together: The babywearers co-slept, the breast-feeders stayed at home, the organic people cloth-diapered, the helicopters were more likely to engage in lots of of extracurriculars. (And the free-rangers? I don’t know what else they were doing, but their kids were hanging out by themselves in the park after dark while they were doing it).

Or so I thought. This is where I was wrong, where my tendency to categorize led me astray. This is where I assumed, as new mothers are wont to do, that everyone ELSE had their you-know-what together and that I alone was the one with the…issues.

From where I stood on that little island of new motherhood, it seemed like all the other moms were on a clearly marked path. A path they had chosen carefully and after much research. A path with well-lit signs along the way to guide their decisions on everything from vaccinating to preschools. A path they followed confidently, while I wandered in circles trying to make sense of it all.

Here’s what I thought then: I needed to pick one of those labels I’d studied up on and join its movement, settle into its camp, make friends with its champions. I needed to find my path and stick to it - no matter what. Veering off course, taking an unexpected turn, or changing directions altogether would mean I was weak, or worse: hypocritical.

Here’s what I know now: I was already on my path. My perfectly imperfect mothering maze. And the wandering around I was doing? So was everybody else.

I know, I know. More seasoned moms are rolling their eyes at me right now. You’re just figuring this out now? they think. How sweet.

But for every wise and self-assured mother who knows what I’m talking about already, there is one of you who hasn’t gotten there yet. You’re still looking over your shoulder, waiting for the Parenting Police to revoke your Homemade Baby Food license because you finally caved to the awesome convenience of the squeeze pouch. You feel like you’re the only one conflicted about the flu shot, like everybody else has done their homework and you showed up unprepared to the pop quiz. You’re wondering which camp you belong in, or if you belong at all.

And to you mamas I say this: 

You can be a card-carrying La Leche League member who supplements with formula or weans earlier than you had planned.

You can be farm-to-table enthusiast who sometimes treats the kids to a drive-through Happy Meal (and orders a chocolate shake for yourself).

You can be an attached, responsive parent who sets some sleep boundaries that may or may not be met with peaceful acquiescence from your child and may, in the instituting of said boundaries, result in some tears. 

You can be a homeschooler at heart who sends her kids to the neighborhood public school. You can be a public school advocate who enrolls her child in private school because it’s the right thing for that child at that moment in time.

You can be a feminist who allows barbies into your house (raises hand) or a pacifist who tolerates – and, yes, even occasionally partakes in – make-believe war play (raises other hand).

You can subscribe to free-range ideals and still follow your kid around the playground, standing protectively underneath those random holes in the SUPER HIGH climbing apparatus just waiting for a broken neck to happen (am I all out of hands to raise? I think I am.)

And here’s the thing: I don’t think it makes you weak or indecisive. I think it makes you interesting.

For a while I thought I was just weird. I’m an extended breast-feeder who never co-slept. I’m sort of fanatical about newborn bonding and yet I had three c-sections. I buy organic produce and rather unabashedly love the Chck-fil-A drive-thru. And I don’t feel like I’m being inconsistent with my values – I just feel like a human being with occasionally conflicting persuasions and an ability to make fun of myself.

And of course I’m not the only one to be made up of conflict and nuance, questions and inconsistencies, flip-flops and flounderings. That’s life. That’s growth. That’s motherhood. It’s à la carte, not prixe fixe.

mom and toddler walking

Realizing this – that making choices around a midline and in-and-out of shades of gray is fundamentally okay, that I am greater than the sum of the individual choices I make as a mother – did two things for me. One, it made me so much more confident and clear about the choices I did make and the things I do care about (remembering, as Meagan said, that it’s OK to care and that it’s also OK not to care about everything). Because the truth is I care more deeply about some issues than others; I’ve changed my mind about a few things; I’ve raised the flag of surrender in some battles and taken up arms in new ones. And I believe, now, that this is not only okay but actually important. I know now this is part of my path.

Two, once I ditched that false assumption that everyone else was settled comfortably and confidently into their “camps”  and acknowledged that I couldn’t be the only one made up of seeming inconsistencies, I began to see the real depth in the other mothers in my life. I saw them wandering, as I was, and I developed a deep respect for the process of finding one’s way – even if theirs was a path that didn’t overlap with mine. I began to listen differently, to observe without jumping to conclusions, and to find commonality in people I never would have thought I would. 

Because these nuances? These exceptions to the rule? That’s where the good stuff is, where the learning happens, where the equation that once felt so complicated becomes instantly simple because it’s what’s right for you and your kid in this moment in time no matter what anybody else says.

And I think it would be awesome if we talked about those things more that we talked about the labels. Our quirks and changes of heart. The tweaks we’ve made and rules we’ve broken. What a gift to say to a new mom, “You know what? I love that idea, too, and here’s how I made it work for my family. I know you’ll figure out a way to make it work for you – and hey, if it doesn’t? I know lots of people who’ve gone in a totally different direction and are really happy.”

Hypocrisy is saying one thing and doing something else. But trying one thing and changing your mind, or adopting one philosophy and making some tweaks, or finding out that something you once believed in no longer works for you, or just plain winging it? That’s not hypocritical. That’s parenting.

mom and toddler talking

So I’d love to know: What idiosyncrasies mark your unique path? Where has your wandering taken you? What rules do you buck sometimes, even if it appears inconsistent? (And do you also love the Chick-fil-A drive-through?)

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Claire November 22, 2013 at 9:42 am

I love this! I refuse to be put into a box (which is why I hate those personality tests, love languages, etc). Also, I think that as a mother, and in other areas of life, there are times when it’s impossible to live up to your ideals. They have to be compromised to one extent or another in order to interact with the world at large.

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Sarah Powers November 22, 2013 at 2:38 pm

Thanks, Claire! That’s funny because I actually DO like personality tests and the ability to sort/categorize – it’s just how my brain works. But I 100% agree with you that we have to honor the shades of gray – in ourselves and in others. :)

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Claire November 23, 2013 at 7:19 am

Sarah, I am definitely prone to categorize; I think it helps with processing. But these tests are frustrating for me because I am always all over the place (and when I take them on behalf of my husband and son, they’re all over the place too). I know the tests say that it’s common to have some overlap, but the degree of overlap I’ve seen for myself and my family is pretty extreme. I’m sure there are people who more clearly fit into one category or the other, and for them it’s probably more meaningful.

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Janet November 22, 2013 at 11:41 am

Great post! While I was pregnant with my son and in the first year of his life, I read every book, blog, and magazine article I could get my hands on in an attempt to know the “right” way to do everything. Now that he’s 20 months old, I realize my parenting style is much more laissez-faire than I ever would have thought myself capable of, considering I’m a neat-freak accountant. I swore he wouldn’t be exposed to TV before the age of two, but we happily watch Thomas the Train almost every day of the week. My son is happy and healthy and that’s what matters!

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Sarah Powers November 22, 2013 at 2:39 pm

Yep, so true! Thanks Janet!

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Kirsten November 22, 2013 at 12:53 pm

Fabulous! Genius as always!

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Sarah Powers November 22, 2013 at 2:38 pm

I admit I laughed while writing this and thinking about your microwave-free kitchen with the sneaky secret microwave. But I STILL don’t think you’re a hypocrite. :) xo

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dona November 22, 2013 at 2:05 pm

Sarah, so awesome. I ran out of hands while reading your list, too.

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Sarah Powers November 22, 2013 at 2:39 pm

Hahaha, that’s awesome. Thanks, friend.

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Lisa November 22, 2013 at 3:02 pm

I have been a mom a long time, and it took me a long time to come to this conclusion. Part of the reason is because I am a perfectionist, and I wanted to do everything the best way. The other reason is that there are a lot of die hard moms out there (esp. AP and homeschoolers) who can be pretty fanatical about what constitutes that method or whatever. As a new mom, that can shake ones confidence.

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Sasha November 22, 2013 at 9:14 pm

Great article! It took me a few months of being a new mum to figure this out.. that you can be a little of this and a little of that and not 100% in one label. I still justify things to myself and need to remind myself that I can change my mind. I think mums spend a lot of time feeling guilty about not doing something the “right” way or the way they wanted to do it (or what they thought they should be doing for their baby/kids). I’ve learned that I need to do what’s easiest for me, at that time, because the day is A LOT better when I’m happy! The kids will cope. So I’m trying not to over-analyse past decisions and just say hey – it’s what I wanted to do and what I thought was the right thing at the time. That sounds selfish but it’s not. The things we think are massive are really tiny things you’ll forget in a week. If mum is happy then generally everyone is happy :)

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Cory November 22, 2013 at 10:23 pm

I think as my kids have gotten older I’ve sort of been forced to reevaluate or change things up… I did not think I would be comfortable leaving my 6 y/o at a drop off bday party… Until we tried it! First at a friend whose mother I knew… and then with a friend whose mother I didn’t know. I called ahead and introduced myself. I came into the party to be sure it was a safe environment, and then I left, went back to work for 2 uninterrupted hours! (I work at a church and often have my girls with my on Sundays…) Conversely, I love to watch TV, introduced all my kids to Sesame and Elmo as babies/toddlers, and never thought I would be a no TV kind of parent. However, we have found that when the TV is on the AM our girls fight with one another and with us… We haven’t had it on in a month. They don’t ask for it.. AT ALL. Just kind of funny to me who we end up being as parents. “Blessed are the flexible, for they shall never be bent out of shape!” is my motto at work and I’m trying to be like that at home too!

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exmish November 23, 2013 at 1:05 am

My husband’s aunt once told her children that each of the four of them has a different set of parents. They were rather shocked – the family resemblance was unmistakable, so they were pretty sure they weren’t adopted – and then she explained:

We became different people as each of you came along.

Of course they did – and we do too!

I think the most freeing thing we can do is to tell ourselves – this is what is working for me right now. Next week – month – year (next hour??) it might be something else that works better – and not only am I going to give myself permission to change gears, but I am also going to pat myself on the back for being responsive to the situation at hand and making the best decision I can for these people I call “mine”. :)

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Lisa Wysel November 23, 2013 at 11:23 am

I’m a 58 year old mom with three adult children and I’m reminded as I read this post that I’m still on my own parenting path. I know for sure that when I had little ones I believed that someday the path would end and my little darlings would be “finished” also. Now I know that there is no point where parenting ends, it just changes. There’s still occasions of confusion and doubt, there’s still the desire to protect and shelter, there’s still that deep love that can’t be described, only experienced. The difference for me now is that my role is less active and more supportive and so much less complicated. It is reflective, it is deeply satisfying. After years of trudging on a parenting path for which there is no map, I still wander – but now, once in a while, I get to sit down on the soft earth beside the path, take a deep breath and just watch the lives of my precious children unfold. With love and gratitude.

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Marlene Bumgarner November 23, 2013 at 8:28 pm

Yes to that, Lisa. I wish I had read this post forty years ago – the names and some of the issues have changed, but the desire to squeeze oneself into a category was absolutely the same when I was a new mom. If took me many years and several children to develop the confidence to feel that my decisions – including the decision to break my own rules or change my mind about things – we’re absolutely right for our family. Sarah has done a wonderful thing, sharing her discovery with others.

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Carol November 23, 2013 at 11:37 am

Great post! It took me a while to realize that these decisions to pick the best choices for my baby were getting me ready to make the best choices for my family. We have friends whose kids are always out in activities, play dates, etc. while that works for them, my husband and I work a lot and it’s best for us to have less scheduled kid actitivies. Now that my daughter is in kindergarten and the volunteer activities are abundant for me, I’m having to face another world of choices.
So, I am far more content with those decisions now because I realized I don’t fit into any of those early parenting groups. And that’s right for me. :)

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Laura @FitMamaLove November 28, 2013 at 3:42 am

I really identify with this post. I am a breast feeding, baby wearing, organic eating mama who is not into cosleeping, is ok with CIO and pro vaccination and these are just examples–there are many others! Labels are limiting. Better to just do what our mama hearts know is best for our families.

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