When my firstborn was three weeks old, I called my lactation consultant. “Is it, um, normal for him to cry, like, for hours at a time? Because he does, and… uh, I am just wondering, is that normal? Just what a newborn does?” She paused, then answered simply, “No, it’s not normal.” That was all she said. She didn’t elaborate, didn’t offer me any advice on how to proceed, didn’t talk about colic or reflux. I was left hanging, wondering how I had managed to break my child already. My baby wasn’t “normal.”
That was only the beginning of my tenuous relationship with the word “normal” as a parent. “Please tell me this is normal,” my friends and I say to each other. Regularly. They are loaded words. What we are really asking is, Am I doing this right? Am I missing something? Do I need to call a pediatrician? Do I need to call a psychologist? Do I need to chill out? Is this a phase, or is this for real?
I try my best, but it is very, very hard to be a confident parent in this age. I envy my mother, who just did what everybody did and it all worked out somehow. Parenting seemed less self-conscious back in the ’70s. Especially when I was a newer parent, everyone was up in my business. It was not just a choice to breastfeed or cloth diaper; it was a political statement. Organic food or fancy, BPA-free bottles or sippy cups were class issues. Whether our kids played with cheap plastic toys made in China or expensive, safe, green toys made in Germany reflected upon our parenting. Now that my kids are older, it’s time to worry about test prep and school options and extracurriculars. No matter what I do with my children, I feel judged somehow by someone.
But the real struggles, I have found as my kids aged, are not over tangible choices like diapers or cups. The really hard things are the ones we don’t want to talk about with just anyone, the intangibles of parenthood. One of my children, for example, was an extremely tough three-year-old. He had out-of-control temper meltdowns with me; he hit and kicked and I ended up having to straddle him and hold him down just to defend myself until he could calm down. That isn’t the kind of thing you just bring up casually at playgroup or Bunco. “Hey, does anyone else have a violent kid who strikes her? Did you find time-outs as useless as I do when the kid is trying to bite your hand off? Anyone?”
Similarly, when I came to terms with the fact that one of my boys really did need speech therapy, it was hard to know what to say to my friends. “Oh, we can’t make playgroup because… well, because nobody including me and my husband can understand a dang thing out of my child’s mouth, and though he looks two years older than he is, he sounds like a baby, so he has to go to therapy every week.” People get hinky when it comes to talking about your child needing “HELP,” even for something as basic and functional and common as speech therapy. It’s like we’re not supposed to admit that our children need help — or that we need help — sometimes. In the meantime, my internal dialogue runs overtime: Is he having trouble talking because he stopped moving in the womb and I had to have that emergency induction at 37 weeks? I waited 12 hours before going to triage that night — if I had gone in the night before instead, would he be okay? Is this within the normal range of issues? Will he someday speak clearly and easily and no one will ever know he went through this?
I worried about so many little — and so many big — things over the years. It’s normal, right, that one child didn’t really read fluidly and wrote some of his numbers and letters backwards well into kindergarten? Was it normal that a 3 year old woke up in the middle of the night shaking with night terrors? Is it normal that he still does it now at 8? Is it normal for my son to love his penis that much? Is it normal that the other one doesn’t touch his penis at all? Is it normal that one child cannot stand to lose a game, any game, to the point of losing his mind if he even falls behind? Is it normal for another child to be this defiant, this stubborn, that no consequence holds any power over him? Is it normal for a child to tell you he worries every single day at school that you might not pick him up and he will never see you again? And let’s not even get started on me — Is it normal for me to lose my temper so quickly, to cry so easily, to worry so much?
I have come to learn that “normal” has a broad definition when it comes to children, and that parenting is, for me, more like reading a book than solving a math problem. Instead of only having one “right” way to get an answer, with one “right” set of steps to follow to obtain that answer, I mull, experiment, interpret, and re-interpret the material over and over again until I develop my own point of view and my own solution. My parenting is an essay question, not a formula to solve. But, as with some of my college English classes, occasionally I stumble upon material that goes a little over my head or beyond my realm of experience, and I am a little lost out at sea. Unfortunately, that is when I feel most alone. I don’t know whom to trust or not to trust. I have to pick and choose who can handle my honesty and my requests for support. I have to know who won’t judge me, or judge my children, for our possible deficiencies or flaws or socially unacceptable quirks. I even need to know who won’t judge me for asking the questions in the first place. That’s when I most need to know that this is “normal.”
The real fear creeps in to my head at night and keeps me from sleeping: what if it really isn’tnormal? What does that mean, exactly? Can I fix it? Because when all is said and done, what I really want to say when I plead, “Tell me this is normal,” is, “Please don’t let me screw up the most important people in the world to me.”