Theoretical parenting

As my daughter A transitions from toddler to kid, I realize how many milestones we are careening towards that involve a lot of concerted effort (read: struggle) on my part.

I recently filled out a form that asked what goals I have for my two-year-old in the next year. My list included: weaning, potty training, eating regular meals, loosening our attachment anxiety, and better sleep (always better sleep).

Seems like a lot. All of these tasks fall into a dangerous realm I call “theoretical parenting”. Theoretical parenting, like the Artist formerly known as Prince, is a trademark with no name. It involves a lot of reading and is the purposeful way I know to solve problems. It is the opposite of the take-it-as-it-comes parenting I prefer.

Babies don’t progress in any linear way; so I guess that makes them just like anyone else. Right after I wrote a parent’s prayer, A indeed started sleeping through the night. After three nights of unadulterated sleep I started talking nonsense about a second baby. Good thing A’s second set of molars started to grow in and she got us back on the crazy train right away. I am safely back in square coo-coo; happy to report that once again I feel gripped and very satisfied with our single-child household during most minutes of most days.

Theoretical parenting is handled by the logical part of the brain that also does math and applies for bank loans. After two years of broken sleep and under-use, this part of my brain has withered and died. The take-it-as-it-comes part, however, is thriving; which is why I can justify eating ice cream at any time of day and can’t make plans more than twelve hours out.

Theoretical parents read the books and execute, struggling through the emotional stress of cry-it-out sleep training to announce that their baby sleeps through the night two weeks later. I applaud your determination and I am glad you are well rested. You deserve it. Thank you for not gloating while I am in earshot.

So far, three molars have erupted in A’s mouth; the crowns are still over-laced with gruesome gum webs. It’s actually the fourth tooth, which has yet to cut its way to the surface, that has her waking me up six times a night.

Take-it-as-it-comes parents go with whatever seems natural in the moment and pray this sequence of decisions leads somewhere the family wants to go. Maybe we live in the moment and lack an end game; or maybe we prioritize cultivating a well-rounded adult over characteristics of an obedient child. Either way, I feel it’s best to justify my situation by making myself really, really happy with my situation whatever it happens to be.

For example, I get less sleep with A in my bed right now, but I wouldn’t trade those snuggles for the world. Because this round of teething feels like the end of her babyhood. I feel a little tortured (my nipples hurt for the first time since A was a newborn), but it’s ok because it’s all almost over, etc…

A smart friend, one who does not have kids, asked me a laundry list of questions related to weaning, sleeping, and potty training the other day; as if maybe I hadn’t noticed these tasks coming up on my dance card. “What’s yer plan?” she asked. At the moment, I couldn’t remember everything from the outline I’d written up. I told her about the molars; how they feel like enough right now. She seemed unimpressed.

What makes a theoretical parent?Does your head generally guide your heart? Do circumstances, like your need to care for other kids or wake up at 6 for work, push you to prioritize practicality over idealism? Are you better at following directions than me or more willing to postpone rewards than my husband? Are you and your spouse philosophically better aligned than we are? Are there any downsides to your choices?

Why a person ends up as a theoretical parent, or why not, seems to me a chicken-or-egg situation in which I am left seated squarely upon the two concepts; flapping my arms and clucking.

In short, I thought I would be a theoretical parent, but instead I am an take-it-as-it-comes parent. Therein lies the source of all of my inner conflict.

Ignored parenting tasks do eventually go away. Either desperation drives me to decisive action or the issue fades and becomes irrelevant. This is my “plan.” You laugh, but acceptance is a totally viable solution to most problems.

My take-it-as-it-comes methodology is not out of apathy: I always read the books. They’re interesting. But, truth be told, I only allocate the 15 minutes A spends in her nightly bath to reading them. While she scrub-a-dubs, I comb pages, desperate to glean the one useful sentence hidden in the next 250-page tome. It feels much like searching for buried pirate treasure indicated by a very long and sanctimonious map. If I manage to wade through the muck and mire to find that one glittering sentence, it will help; or rather, the vague shadow of it that hangs around our house for more than 48-hours will help. A little.

My aversion to theoretical parenting comes from not wanting to turn my kid into a problem. I have enough problems without making my two-year-old into one. So I don’t try to solve her, and she’s not a problem. See how that works?

My parenting is guided by intentional philosophies, but I rarely try to achieve any specific outcome. No dolphins are learning to jump through hoops at my house, but send them over and they may very well become self-regulating, confident, and likable dolphins.

As soon as A sleeps again I’ll start on that list. Promise. I will get her to fall asleep in her own bed. She will poop on a potty chair. I will find a way to leave her at day care. I will eat lots of sage and dry up the ne-ne for good. Sorry in advance to my upstairs neighbors. Hopefully her screaming will only last a few days.

Milestones, and accompanying parenting challenges, are unavoidable. The saving grace is that things are always changing. This makes kids hard, but also interesting. There’s the rub.

Whether we try to fix our kids or not, they’re going to grow. Maybe, in some ways, I can shape my daughter into an adult I’ll be proud of. In other ways, she’s bound to become the person she is becoming no matter what I do. What a relief.

The only real say any of us has in the trenches is in how we feel. I think people become theoretical parents when having a plan helps them to feel better. If the plan doesn’t help how we feel, then we take it as it comes. Hopefully we also enjoy the ride.

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