What’s Normal?


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?

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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?

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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’t normal? 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.”

Related post: The Myth of Protection

About the writer


Allison is a writer and a mother of four children. Her writing can be found at her own blog, Allison Slater Tate, on Facebook, and Twitter.


Jamie 6 months ago

Reading your post made me feel stressed and sad. The only one judging you is YOU. Reach out for help if you need it!

KATHY 6 months ago

I work at the ER and I see women who bring their children in for “crying” and I think, why didn’t it ever occur to me to do that? No seriously! My son would cry for hours on end and I thought it was “normal”. He was my first baby, I was a young parent. Whenever I did bring something up to a pediatrician, like the fact that my son through up a lot, they dismissed my stories as being that of such a young mother. I used to carry BATH towels everywhere I went. Not normal. My son has Eosinophilic Esophagitis (EoE) and he has reflux. He was not diagnosed until he was 17 years old. This is not to say that I didn’t try repeatedly over the years to get him help from various doctors, because I did, but it doesn’t stop me from feeling guilty that I should’ve done something more, that I could’ve been more proactive!

Kelly 6 months ago

Man. I read this and thought “omg this is talking to me” my 3 yr old has all these issues and more. My 5tr old has just finished 2 yrs of speech. And my 2 yr old is pigeon toed and trips over constantly. I get told constantly that mr3 is a “normal” 3 yr old and then I get home and he screams for 3 hrs because he doesn’t want to go to sleep even though it’s nearly midnight and he’s been awake since 5… Thank you, at least I know now in not the only one who hates “normal”

Amy K. 6 months ago

Parenting is totally one long essay question!! And normal is such a hard word…

Wendy 6 months ago

Just finish the question: Is this normal FOR THIS CHILD? Even close siblings can be completely different. You’ll learn what is normal for each of your children. In the meantime, you do what we all do: the very best we can for these loves of ours. Chin up, Mama. You’re doing just fine and you are NOT alone.

Sarah 6 months ago

The most sage piece of advise I have heard is that if you care enough to be worried about screwing your kids up, then you probably aren’t.

Jessica 6 months ago

If you have some tips for the defiance, stubbornness and consequences not working I’d appreciate them. Same issue with my almost 5 yr old it started about 3 though. She’s not violent though except to walls doors and furniture.

Kat 11 months ago

My parenting is an essay question, not a formula to solve. – love this quote. I had my children very young (18), so I was in that stage of life where I thought I knew everything. So I made my own decisions and went with it. Rarely did I worry what was normal – until they and I were older. I trusted my mother to tell me if I was screwing up somehow. Thankfully she understood her role to her ‘child mother’ and gave advice in little helpful ‘drips and drabs’ – easy to swallow. Now as a grandmother, I see where I could have done better, in some cases MUCH better. My husband (not my children’s father) is often amazed at my choices with the Granddaughters but it works for me. As long as I don’t upset my daughter with what I do with her lovely daughters, I am OK. Nana is allowed to bend the rules some, just don’t break the important ones.

Becky 11 months ago

I get frustrated with moms who want to tell me how and what I should be doing with my kids when their children are assholes. Doctor heal thyself. I’ll admit my kid’s shortcomings and what we have tried to do to help. And sometimes, we can’t. It’s heartbreaking.

Lynn Houston 11 months ago

great read. Thank you

Darry Waltz 11 months ago

Perhaps Acceptable would be a better word than Normal…

Lisa Duggan 11 months ago

I’m a grandmother of 3
You are all normal
Your amazing ladies
And being a stay at home mom or a working mom it’s a tuff job.
I went through every fear all of you are going through. I many times felt motherhood fly out the window
Went in the closet and cried
Snapped and yelled
I felt ashamed and miserable and I was an awful mom.
I just finally realized
Kids will be kids
There is nothing that’s perfect in this worldMotherhood is not a hallmark card .
Oh and timeout after awhile didn’t work and counting to 10.
Sometimes my kids finally got it
When I yelled ( ok ranted screamed) they ran to their rooms
Sometimes moms gotta have a melt down.
I threw away the how to be a better parent books spanking verses not spanking
Hold your baby don’t hold your baby too much let them cry.?
And they grew up and they are not anymore damaged then the rest of us. And yes when my babies cried I picked them up and held them
And both were spanked twice
Their whole growing up
So hang in there !
Then they have kids

Mindy Collier Scott 11 months ago

Moving! Truth, mama, truth!

dql091 11 months ago

Oh man, I feel this exact same way! I worry less with our second kid, but I still worry and wonder and don’t know what to say or how to respond most of the time.

I feel so lucky to have a slew of friends that I can say anything to about my kids and they accept whatever it is and don’t judge us. I learn so much from each of these great parents that I seem to be able to get by just by observing what others do when I’m at a loss and use their parenting know-how when it makes sense for our family. I’m a talker and a sharer and that seems to help in getting great tidbits of information or just the comfort that I’m not alone when I think something’s not “normal” and I find out that so many other kids are doing the same thing.

I encourage talking to those close to you, who you know won’t judge and are level-headed enough to give good advice. It’s cathartic. But if no one is around, it’s nice to read articles like this to know you’re not alone.

Jennifer Smith Headlee 11 months ago

Why on earth would you want your kid to be “normal”? I know it’s rough. But in the end you know what is right for you and your family. People are going to judge…fuck them!

ChadandAmy Duggin 11 months ago

THANK YOU FOR THIS!! A much needed read for me!

Casey Ragsdale 11 months ago


Jessica Wegrzynski Barone 11 months ago

Normal…..typical….regular…..all these words we try to force our kids into….how normal, typical, regular are most adults. I guess as parents we expect to always just know what our child(ren) needs. I often wonder what issues my anxiety during pregnancy could cause our son….when he cries uncontrollably or throws a tantrum….always will wonder and worry

Shannon Baumgartner Juarez 11 months ago

I think when you have more than one child, it seems harder to figure out what is normal, since you’re constantly comparing your kids, and their behaviors, even though you don’t mean to. “My first baby never did that, why is my second? Is that normal? Should I be worried?” And when you only have one child, it can be difficult also, since everything is new and may be worrisome. It really is a struggle, and all you can do is ask people you trust to give you a good answer.


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