“Diaper this way, because he is a boy,” said a friend’s mother-in-law, who stayed with her, her husband and their newborn for the first few months. Although the mother-in-law meant well, her critical input throughout her stay made it increasingly difficult for my friend to assert herself when she felt she needed to appreciate the help and somehow manage her relationship with her husband when he had a pre-existing family dynamic with his mother. She, my friend, has since divorced and remarried.
“You have to have more of a handle on your boy,” seethed a father at the local park when his toddler and mine had a misunderstanding. He, the father, assumed that my toddler was older because he was tall for his age and must therefore have more social skills than his boy and should therefore know better. His anger about the incident between the boys and his lack of capacity to understand about different children’s development led me to take a good few months’ break from that park just to avoid running into them again.
“Have you thought of enrolling your daughter in ballet?” asked another parent. “It’s great for coordination and self-discipline.” All I heard was a mounting bill in my head, a blaring alarm about the competitiveness, and the proliferation of mainstream media reporting about poor body image as girls grow up in the ballet world. My daughter was self-controlled, somewhat vain, and extremely competitive. The last thing she needed was one more thing to compete with others about, especially something that also involved dressing up in tutus. Moreover, as a stay-at-home mother of three at the time, who could afford these extra classes on one household income?
Each of the above scenarios share one thread in common: other people share advice with the best of intentions in both obvious and nuanced ways. You may wonder about what is the best thing to do, when to try it, and how to implement it. You may feel frustrated, puzzled and annoyed when the suggestion does not seem to work. Suggestions swim around in your head and can add up to overwhelm and a lot of stress. As a result, confusion and exhaustion and a sense of powerlessness may set in.
Keep in mind that the experiences that inform these well-meaning people’s worldviews may clash with yours. What may be helpful to them for their child or family may not be helpful to you and yours. What worked at another time and place may not be relevant here and now. Your access to resources can also look different from the next parent because of the varying interests of your children and the specific circumstances that pertain to your family.
The best intentions do not stop there with fellow parents though. Even “experts” -- pediatricians, doctors, teachers, special education staff -- may not know your child as much as you do. Although they may have exposure to a plethora of children during the course of their training and occupation, they still do not live with you and your family.
You are the expert on your child. You are the expert on what will work best for your family. You may be even more of the expert than the other parent, even if that other parent shares the same roof. What matters most is to trust yourself.
You have within you the most important ingredients to whip up the best recipe at the best time for your family: intuition and wisdom.
Your intuition will kick in when a person’s well-meaning advice strikes you to explore something deeper about your child. Some part of you will know that the advice makes sense. Some part of you knows that you’ve got to look into it. You know that your intuition has kicked in when you experience an “Aha!” moment, when things click into place and you can hardly wait to put something into practice.
You will also know when intuition has kicked in when you feel disjointed, disconnected, fuzzy and confused. When your brain takes over, your intuition has no place to give you a clear signal. At these times, your intuition may be telling you that something about this situation does not seem right. In fact, your brain may think that something makes a lot of sense, but something feels funny and so you are getting mixed signals. That is a good time to withdraw, reflect and sleep on things before you do anything about the advice at all.
Other times, your wisdom will take over immediately. You know that the advice is sound. However, the suggestion is not quite applicable to your child and is therefore not entirely appropriate for your family. In other words, you know your child enough to know that the suggestion will not work at all. In such cases, you can appreciate the input and state flatly that it won’t work for your child or family.
Sometimes, your wisdom may also lead you to explore how much usefulness you could gain from the piece of advice. Can you extract a guiding principle (e.g., thicker padding in front for diapering the boys and thicker padding in back for diapering for girls) instead of limiting yourself to a particular object to employ the principle (e.g., a certain kind of diaper)? However, this kind of exploration will require you to have the time and emotional capacity to entertain it. So please be prepared to forgive yourself if you don’t happen to have the bandwidth to do so.
With intuition and wisdom at your side, you will gain from every piece of well-intentioned advice if you are not too sleep-deprived in the early childhood years to do so. As a new parent, the best thing you can do for your child is to allow yourself to enjoy the process and to forgive yourself from not appreciating nor seriously contemplating any and every piece of well-intentioned suggestion -- including suggestions inherent in this article. :-)
Contributing author Gloria Ng is a homebirth mom of three who compiled lots of advice in New Moms, New Families: Priceless Gifts of Wisdom and Practical Advice from Mama Experts for the Fourth Trimester and First Year Postpartum. If not squeezing words into haiku these days, she can be found scratching her head piecing together "transferrable skills" to step into new industries. Follow her adventures here.