Loving Our Children is a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, Not a Checklist

I recently shared details about my 5-year-old’s birthday party on social media. I talked about how I really enjoy and love throwing memorable birthday parties for my kids and that it’s somewhat of a “love language” for me and how I love seeing their excitement once it’s all set up. 

A friend messaged and said, “I really wish I was better at this. I know it makes kids feel so loved to have magical birthday memories and I just never seem to get things done to throw one.”

Let me tell you about this friend. I have spent many-a-day scrolling through her Instagram stories, feeling little pangs of mom guilt (jealousy?) when she shares yet another gorgeous artisan loaf of freshly baked bread that her kids enjoyed that day. I was so jealous I almost forgot to swipe over to my DoorDash app to order dinner for that night. Almost. Phew!

The point is, we obviously both look at what we do for our kids at times and make a mental note about the checkbox we clearly aren’t checking off. Meanwhile, I have no doubt whatsoever that in reality, all of our kids are perfectly happy and feel loved with the things we do for them and the way we show our love towards them. My children will remember that I loved celebrating their lives by making a big fuss over them on their birthdays, and how mom always teared up singing “Happy Birthday.” And her kids will remember their smiling mom at the oven and the comforting scent of fresh baked bread. Or maybe they won’t remember the details of what we did for them, but will remember the feeling of our joy and love.

I actually really tried for a while to make a nice home cooked meal nearly every night. I know it’s healthier, saves money and can be its own love language. It made evenings miserable for us. My second child has this thing where whenever I stand at the counter he repeatedly gets between and pushes me away from the counter. My oldest would always be asking if he could help- which I love letting him help occasionally but in general it just makes a big mess. My kids would fight and get into things while I tried to complete dinner. Then we’d sit down and my kids would hardly ever eat what I made. It was a recipe for resentment and every night I’d be nearly in tears telling my husband “this is my least favorite time of the day.” So you know what? I have a few simple things I make each week- taco night with a rotisserie chicken, breakfast for dinner, quesadillas, and chicken nuggets. Anything I can make in under 10 minutes and with minimal work. And the rest we order in. That’s what helps us to be happy even though it’s not as healthy and my kids probably won’t have fond memories of me opening the door to greet the pizza guy. Maybe one day when my kids aren’t so young I’ll be able to cook more things but today is not that day. I’ve given myself permission to take it off my checklist.

It also makes me think of a client I worked with once. She was really exhausted waking up so many times a night, and within a week or so, we had made progress to only two wake ups per night. I was excited and knew that with a few more consistent nights with the new schedule, habits and routines we had put in place, her toddler would be sleeping through the night. But then she spoke honestly to me. She wasn’t ready for ALL of the wakings and nursing sessions to go away. She worked at a job she loved full time as the breadwinner for her house. On the weekdays, she saw her children as she got them ready and took them to daycare, and came home when they were already asleep. Working at her job she loved was both care for her and providing for her family. Her nighttime visits into his nursery were beautiful, loving, quality time with her youngest child.

Couldn’t (and would never dream of) arguing with that. 

I stay at home with my kids. I spend all day with my kids- something I love being able to do as a mom. We get hours of play and snuggles and time together. I NEED the nighttime to decompress, sometimes catch up on work, and not feel like I’m on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I need good sleep so that I can get up and genuinely be excited to see them in the morning. I am certainly up at night when my kids are sick, teething, or struggling in some other way, but for that to be a regular thing, and to have them reliant on me connecting every other sleep cycle for them- something they’re more than capable of doing- would be detrimental to my mood (and my kids’ mood). Being an overall happy, patient parent during the day spending a large quantity of time with my kids is my gift to them. Being up all night would not be a gift to anyone in our house.

Again we have two moms, both loving and pouring themselves out for their kids in different ways, both happy, and mothering in the way we know best.

What’s my point in sharing these stories?

Today’s parents are an anxiety-ridden bunch. I can say this because I tend towards being one naturally, and because I work with anxious parents daily.

The Right Way to Parent™ comes with no guidebook. The way we form bonds, the way we create a secure attachment, the way we love and show love to our children is a MENU of choices, of which we can only pick so many.

I’ll repeat that again. We can only choose so many. Choosing all of them is not an option.

Why? Because we are human beings with finite energy and time. We also sometimes/often will have more beings that depend on us than just one single child, besides the fact that we also need to take care of ourselves.

If we humored the thought for a moment that parenting WAS a checklist with all the best ways to love our kids, and we tried to check all 500 boxes, we would fail. Then we’d feel like failures, our kids would likely be stressed out by our constant hovering and trying to do things for them and make sure they’re happy at every moment, and this would not be a recipe for a happy and thriving home.

And yet, so many of us do try so desperately to check all 500 boxes.

Any good mom would make EVERY SINGLE potentially beneficial decision for their children regardless of personal cost or the cost to the family as a whole, right? 

No. Again, not possible. And the fact that we’re fed this mentality constantly is making us unhappy and constantly stressed.

The reason why it’s important to know this is because it allows us to take in information, assess our situation and resources, and then ultimately follow our own instincts and values and to parent from the heart.

Just typing that made my shoulders relax a little bit. I hope yours did too.

The ability to make these choices off the menu- and what we pick- comes from two things: privilege and priorities.

Privilege determines how long our menu is. The choices we even reasonably have at our disposal.

Example: I have breasts that make (more than) enough milk. Some mamas don’t. I have breastfeeding and formula feeding on my list of possible feeding options, and some mamas just have formula feeding.

Priorities are simply preferences- what we end up choosing off the menu we do have.

Example: the mental and time cost of all home-cooked healthy meals in our house is higher than eating less healthy sometimes and spending some of our financial resources to order in. I could do it, but it’s not a priority for me at this phase of my life. For other moms it may be a huge priority and love language towards their kids.

Our privileges and priorities are affected by parent & child temperaments, experiences, preferences, values, birth story, feeding experiences, health concerns, work life, childcare, family dynamics, cultural background, privileges, disadvantages, resources, socioeconomic status, trauma, mental health, career opportunities, time per day together, marital/relationship status, schooling choices, housing options, community, physical abilities, AND THE LIST COULD GO ON.

Our privilege and priorities may change from one stage to another with the same child, and can definitely change with the more children we add to our family.

You see, at the risk of sounding like I’m saying how you parent doesn’t matter, it’s much less about the nitty gritty details of HOW you love and adore and enjoy your children, and more about IF you love and adore and enjoy your children- and if they can feel it.

Why do we get hung up on all these little details, then? Why are the constant fights online in moms groups about minutia like epidurals, food that comes in pouches, if a baby spends their sleeping hours 3 inches from you or 3 feet from you or 3 rooms from you? If you hold a baby lovingly to your chest 8 times a day and feed them with a bottle or hold a baby lovingly to your chest 8 times a day and feed them with your breast?

In my humble opinion, most of it comes from these three things:

  1. Comparison 
  2. Looking at ourselves
  3. Parenting Fad culture

Comparison

We hear about it a lot and yet, many of us don’t recognize when we are letting it seep into our own minds and affecting our confidence. Just like my friend and I simultaneously (and unknowingly) feeling bad about the things we didn’t do for our own kids. Seeing what other people do reminds us of what we’re not doing, because they’ve chosen other paths and other things off the menu. If I find the perfect solution to never comparing to another mom again, I’ll let you know. But I’m working on it by trying to spend less time on social media, the ultimate place where we all learn about All The Things We Are Not Doing, and by trying to feel more confident in my motherhood overall.

Looking at ourselves

Looking at ourselves is difficult. I’m no therapist but I have been in therapy for years, lol. And I know that it is a very easy thing to slip into to focus on others in order to not focus on yourself. Especially if you’re trying to avoid something painful.

I truly think it’s because if we stopped fighting about all the little details and trying to one-up each other about our parenting suffering, we’d have to face a much bigger, scarier and uncomfortable question. This questions forces us to stop frantically checking off a checklist and focusing on the nit-picky micromanaging of our children and asks us to look inside.

 “Are you happy, mama?” 

Because happy mamas can more freely pour love and adoration into their children. Happy mamas can engage in the “mutual delight” that is the cornerstone of attachment. There’s not a whole lot we can do to fake delight.

In the paraphrased words of Bethany Saltman, author of Strange Situation: A Mother’s Journey Into the Science Of AttachmentAttachment is not so much what you do, it’s how you feel.

And oh boy.

The world is hard for moms these days. Society is hard for moms these days. How so few of us would like to admit how we really feel sometimes.

This doesn’t mean that moms cannot have moments of frustration. Moments of disliking our very difficult jobs. Moments of difficulty with our kids. Times where depression or anxiety get the best of us. After all, if there’s one thing that I want anyone to take from this, it’s that moms are allowed to be human.

But more often than not- how do you feel? Towards yourself and your kids?

How are the choices you make affecting your happiness?

And I could go into all sorts of scientific explanations about how our kids feel our unhappiness even if we are going through all the motions- mirror neurons and how they can identify a grim face from a young age. But suffice it to say, children absolutely know when we are feeling unhappy, resentful and completely burnt out. Something that we ALL feel from time to time, but shouldn’t be our long-term state of being, if we can help it in any way. Since we talk lots about terms that don’t sound very technical like “warmth” and “delight” in attachment science, I think it’s also okay to slip my own terminology in here and say that our “vibes” towards our children and family life in general are very important.

The anecdote, if you’re feeling burnt out to a crisp and rarely enjoying your life or your children, is not to continue down this path of frantic, white-knuckle list-checking motherhood. But by really asking ourselves to re-evaluate what would help you live a more happy life. Because while a crude cliche, “if mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy,” actually has scientific legs to stand on. Maternal mental health, “warmth,” “delight” “attunement” and “enjoyment” are all major indicators of secure attachment. While the things moms commonly argue about- where the baby sleeps or how they are fed- are squarely NOT indicators of secure attachment, per the research.

What does this mean?

While Facebook moms groups and Instagram threads may be full of (often clearly and admittedly unhappy) people bragging about how they haven’t had a night away from their home in 8 years and haven’t had more than a 3 hour chunk of sleep in a decade, maybe consider they don’t actually hold all the answers to the way YOUR family should run.

Consider that it might be better to be away from your children for a few hours or gasp- even take a weekend away with your spouse- even if your children cry at the door as you leave and miss you, and come home happy to see them- than to sit at home day after day feeling trapped and unhappy and snapping at everyone. Not just better for you, FOR YOUR KIDS.

Consider it might be better to help your child learn to fall asleep in the crib- even if they don’t like it at first- to get better sleep than bedtime taking 3 hours every night and ending in you fuming and saying four letter words because you’re only a human being with limits. Not just better for you, FOR YOUR KIDS.

Consider it might be better to just pump the bottle and hand baby to the other parent or mix some formula and let someone else feed the baby happily, or even consider night weaning (if age appropriate) to eliminate excessive every-hour feeding than to sit in the rocking chair crying and shoving a boob in their face for the eighth time that night begrudgingly or be curling your toes and swallowing nausea every time they latch. Not just better for you, FOR YOUR KIDS.

And while I do honestly see less heat directed towards parents making these choices- it goes the other way too!

You’re happy and loving life and thriving and still nursing your two year old? Amazing. Ignore the hater who has input on whether your child is “too attached.” You and your child are HAPPY. That’s literally just the right amount of attached. 

Love sharing a family bed with your toddlers and everyone’s getting good sleep? Tell the person telling you they’ll never sleep on their own to take a hike. You and your child are HAPPY. That’s working for your family. This is not just better for you, it’s better FOR YOUR KIDS.

In short, do what you can do happily and in the best mental health you can achieve, and then I highly recommend that you troubleshoot what does not fit into that category. May I gently suggest we all could reconsider our list-checking from time to time.

Parenting Fad Culture

In the parenting world, many people like to identify with certain styles of parenting. Parenting fads don’t help, because they truly DO make us feel that our parenthood is a tally of how many things we checked off on the list.

The only evidence-based parenting style that has been shown to have good outcomes is Authoritative Parenting, characterized by “high warmth” and “high boundaries.” Yeah, that’s roughly as specific as it gets. Kind of sounds like there are a lot of ways you could implement that!

The other parenting styles can have some great ideas, but are in all actuality fads- they are not evidence-based.

Take the popular Attachment Parenting style created by Dr. Sears. It used to be called “Immersive Parenting” until parents kept telling him it was an apt name for the style, since they constantly felt like they were drowning. They then changed it to Attachment Parenting in order to piggyback on the growing popularity of the evidence-based attachment theory.

There are 8 B’s on the checklist.

The first B- Birth bonding- maybe baby needed some extra help at birth and you couldn’t get the golden hour.

Strike one.

The second B- Breastfeeding- you have low supply and had to go back to work at 6 weeks where you stopped being able to keep up with pumping.

Strike two.

The third B- Bedsharing- what if you have risk factors? What if you don’t feel comfortable with it? What if you don’t get any sleep while bedsharing?

Strike three.

Head back to the dugout.

Guess your attachment is broken because you’re only 8 weeks in and already missed out on nearly half of the checklist.

This isn’t true, but it’s the unspoken logical conclusion of the checklist mentality of parenting fads.

Now, I’m not trying to pick on Attachment Parenting here. This applies to all parenting style fads. I do a LOT of the things as recommended by AP- not because I think that’s the only way to bond with my baby, but because I generally enjoy them AND it’s a great way to bond. Natural birth, breastfeeding, and babywearing are my jam. But I am a “baby trainer” according to the laws of AP, so I automatically lost my membership card a long time ago 😉

I think Attachment Parenting as created by Dr Sears has some wonderful overarching goals- closeness, responsiveness, attentiveness, attunement. Yes! Right on the money. But the devil literally IS the details here.

And reducing closeness and responsiveness to specific tasks that not everyone can achieve has caused countless parents to feel like failures when they were actually doing the PERFECT job, and all they could possibly do, for their family.

If we could break free of Checklist Parenting and instead look at our family values and journeys as Choosing our Own Adventure- where we have a multitude of pathways to a happy, healthy family and all we have to decide is what we’d enjoy most and help us live life to the fullest- how would that change this generation of parents?

My guess is: better outcomes for families and children along with a lot less stress.

What do you want your family’s adventure to look like?

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I’m Katelyn,
Award-winning pediatric sleep consultant, child development expert, and most importantly, wife and mom.
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