I’m a parent, so I occasionally come across articles and Facebook posts and real-life comments like this: “That mother needs to control her child.”
I’m sure I’ve seen a toddler throw a tantrum at a grocery store and made a quick judgment about the choices her parents made that led to this unpleasant episode. Inconsistent rules, maybe? Not enough real consequences? Too much TV? When I was pregnant, just about every time my husband and I ate out, there was a crying baby near us, and I felt personally put out by the awful noise. This was all before I had my own kid, of course, which is why I understand the impulse, even if I’m no longer sympathetic toward the people who say, “She needs to control her child.”
What I know now is how very little parents can “control” other living beings. We can model for them, provide structure, discipline and support them, and make choices that give them the best chance of making choices we like, but “control?” Not really. And as a parent, the idea of full control of my son doesn’t feel good. I want him to be the one, as he grows, to moderate his behavior, something he will have to learn through practice but which, to an extent, is determined by natural biological development. I want to support him on that journey.
Other than the unrealistic expectations we place on young kids, whether that’s for a baby to stop crying or a toddler to accept the adult logic behind not buying a twenty-dollar Cookie Monster pillow, my real problem with this idea of control is how it traps and burdens parents. I think mothers are generally held responsible to a greater extent than fathers, just because of gender norms and prevalent myths of motherhood, but I know this applies to fathers too. Frankly, if you are the adult who appears to be responsible for a baby or child, people will expect you to rein the kid in, somehow.
As a mother, I’ve heard the call for control loud and clear, but it started earlier than that. Before I had my son, I learned to control myself as a girl: how I dressed, how much space I took up, what I could say and how loudly, what emotions I felt and how strongly, where I walked, whom I let touch me and how and when and whether I was clear about wanting it or not. I learned the hard way how little I could control, although it took years of trying to make myself more vigilant, more rigid, more impenetrable first. The more I tried to control the world around me, control people’s reactions to me, control the way people treated me, the more out of control I felt. When bad things happened, I analyzed all my choices. I felt responsible, even when I wasn’t.
In my early postpartum period, I was afraid my baby would cry in public and I wouldn’t be able to soothe him. I was afraid I would have to breastfeed him, and someone would see my breast and harass me. I didn’t know how to give my breast to my baby without keeping my body contained, the way the world expects. Meanwhile, I was struggling with postpartum anxiety and depression, and spending all day at home with my crying baby was suffocating, terrifying, and so exhausting that I experienced panic attacks regularly and a troubling buzzing sensation in my head. I wanted to be with other people, but the need for control meant I couldn’t.
In pregnancy, women’s bodies are policed by complete strangers. Are you drinking caffeinated coffee? You should exercise but not too strenuously. That allergy medicine could cause defects in your baby. God forbid you sip a bit of wine. Anything that goes into a pregnant body will either help or harm the baby that comes out, so goes the general wisdom; therefore, women must monitor and control themselves to the point, sometimes, of suppressing their own needs. Even the shapes pregnant bodies take are up for judgment, whether a woman gains enough or too little weight and where she carries it. Then, when the baby has been born, it’s how quickly can she get the weight off and back into the body of a woman who has not carried and birthed a baby.
If she chooses to breastfeed, there are rules: not in public, not near food, not without a cover, not past a certain age. (Bottle-/formula-feeding parents are judged to the point of self-restriction, too, because breast is best, duh, what kind of monster are you?) We set feeding schedules and fret if the baby feeds more or less frequently than she “should.” If the breastfed baby cries a lot, the focus immediately goes to the mother’s diet. Try not eating any dairy. Or broccoli. Avoid fatty foods at all costs. The problem is caffeine or chocolate or beans or sugar or chicken or citrus fruits or beef or tea or spinach or garlic… Just, for the love of god, figure it out because the baby is crying. No one else can change a mother’s milk, no one else can affect the baby’s diet, if that is even the problem, so the mother is solely responsible, grasping at eliminations and additions, regardless of her own dietary needs, her own enjoyment of food, her own emotional peace.
Colic, doctors say, is not harmful in the long run, nor is it preventable or curable. But they will still recommend diet restrictions for the mother and baby, holds, schedules, homeopathic treatments, gas drops. Which kind of says, “You can control this if you try.” And you should definitely try.
Your baby doesn’t sleep well? Train her.
Your baby explores his surroundings as he grows? Better make your house baby-proof. If he bumps his head, you better believe a stranger at the park will consider if you’re an unfit mother or father.
When babies become toddlers, outside pressure really amps up. They become capable of making questionable choices like repeating the curse word an exhausted caretaker occasionally mutters in despair, and running away screaming in public, and hitting, and throwing things, and knocking down grocery store displays while shouting, “Mommy is a monster!” If you somehow escaped the need to control him before, now you are actively ruining thirty seconds of someone else’s leisurely stroll through Target, so. Throw your body on the bomb if you must, just contain it. Do not under any circumstances allow your child to spill over the lines of appropriate public behavior, even if his prefrontal cortex is not yet developed enough for him to regulate his actions perfectly, even if it means you have to short-circuit his meltdown by any means possible rather than using it as a teachable moment, even if you have no idea what factors conspired to create this embarrassing and uncomfortable situation and could not have prevented it. Her behavior is basically your behavior. You are inseparable, just as when you contained her in your womb. (Have you tried just putting her back in there for a while, just til she cools off?)
I’ve seen comments on Facebook, mostly from people who don’t have children, like, “If the parents spanked the kid, that would never happen.” I choose not to spank my child, though I wouldn’t dismiss it as one aspect of discipline for other families. The problem is what this comment is predicated on, the assumption that there is one reliable and totally effective way to control a kid. But let me say this again: we cannot control 100% of our kids’ behavior. And we shouldn’t be trying to. We need to feel less pressure to shut down our children and more support from those around us to sit in the discomfort of their behavior and teach them how to be mindful of themselves and those around them.
Thinking of babies and kids as an extension of ourselves — our manners, our unsightly excess — forces us to live a lie and sets us up to fail spectacularly. If we think we can control them, what does it say about us when they act in ways we don’t like? Are we bad parents? Are we failures? And I mean this on a deep, identity level, where we assess our value. Should we take more extreme measures to demonstrate our control in other areas, exercising to excess, cleaning to excess, dieting rigidly? This lie of control forces some of us to stay home, exacerbating depression. It forces some of us to raise our kids under the constant threat of exposure, in a constant state of anxiety, thus teaching them the same ways of being in the world. We make our lives as small as possible because there is less that can go wrong that way. But it still goes wrong. It still goes wrong.
Parents, I feel you in this struggle to raise healthy, mindful, respectful children. I’m sorry I ever expected control from you. I won’t anymore, and I hope others won’t either.