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


The Scary Mommy Community is built on support. If your comment doesn't add to the conversation in a positive or constructive way, please rethink submitting it. Basically? Don't be a dick, please.

  1. melissa at filling our bucket says

    Wow. What an incredibly powerful post. What IS normal? How do we even know? What is normal for us may not be normal for someone else and vice versa. I think parenting is just constant worry.

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  2. grownandflown says

    Some moms make parenting look as natural as breathing. To my eye, It looked like they knew how to mother before they had their first child! I watched them, thinking they must have grown up with lots of brothers and sisters or they babysat or they majored in child psych in college – none of which I did. Over time, I gained confidence over the day-to-day stuff and hope I managed the question you pose of what falls in and out of a normal range.I had the help of a good pediatrician, trusted friend, and loving mother. Now that my youngest is 17 and oldest in college, guess what? I still worry and wonder if I did the best job I could have because, like you, I don’t want to have “screwed up the most important people in the world to me.”

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  3. Mary says

    Excellent post! On a side note, regarding the speech therapy. My daughter had four years of speech therapy. She was not a fan and complained often. She is now twelve. We were watching home movies one day. She turned to me and said, “wow, I really did need speech”. That was wonderful to hear!

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  4. Kristen Mae at Abandoning Pretense says

    If I didn’t have to poop right now (drinking coffee + sitting in front of the computer = POOP!), I would be CRYING. This is ME, ME, ME. And I have a strong feeling that it is EVERYONE, EVERYONE, EVERYONE. One of your best posts, Allison. *Sharing*

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  5. Arnebya says

    Alison, I have NO idea what normal is or is supposed to be. Truthfully, I don’t wanna find out because I’m afraid I won’t be it. Most of your questions, big and small, I have asked myself at some point and my answers vary depending on the child, the situation, and the amount of vodka I have imbibed that hour. There are times, though, when I get glimpses of confidence and realize I didn’t question the normalcy of my son watching the stream of urine go through his fingers or of one of my girls inserting the word vagina into conversation about broccoli (or anything, really) while the other mentioned “enjoying” her vagina before she was 11. My guess is normal can change per person, day, time, situation, and placement of the moon.

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  6. Elaine A. says

    That very last statement is the KEY. I think there are so many different “normals” but we just don’t want to mess up our kid so we are constantly looking for some universal normal. But I don’t think it exists. All of my kids have different needs and ways, of course! They are all different people.

    Without writing a book, this post made me think of my SIL. Her second child was born (when I was 17, btw) at 26 weeks gestation. Of course he had a slew of issues and spent MONTHS in the NICU. I never thought (until just now, reading your post) about the guilt she may have felt about what she may have thought she did wrong to make him be born so early. Gosh, I really can’t believe that never crossed my mind…

    Anyway…. excellent post. And I had a really TOUGH 3-year old too. I was nodding through that entire paragraph. Big Momma hug to you on that one!

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    • Samantha says

      I agree – I think the universal normal we’re all looking for is usually “what do other people think is normal?” Whether we realize it or not, and whether we want to or not.

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  7. Jenny Isenman AKA Jenny From the Blog at The Suburban Jungle says

    You’re right people don’t like to discuss the abnormals and the fears. I do it a lot on my site, with as much humor as I can infuse because it’s a good way to talk about the abnormal. The best part about talking about what’s off or odd or not right is it ironically makes people feel more sane, as there’s really no such thing as “normal” anyway. Good job.

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  8. Jenny Pallen says

    “Normal”… I hate that word and I hate applying it to children. As Mothers we are all trying to make our way through parenthood the best we can in hopes that we turn out some great “adults”. And what is “normal” for one child may not be “normal” for any other.

    I have been very blessed to have a great friend whose children have varying issues (Asperger’s, ADHD, depression, bi-polar, being bullied, etc…). She has always been very open and honest about her and their struggles and yes that has definitely kept mine in perspective. But she has also been a person who says “jen, did you notice…” or “jen, maybe you should take your kid to the Dr now.” Like I said I am blessed.

    It makes me sad that Mothers judge each other so harshly. And yes, I have had that too. But, I am a cocky bitch and confront it. You got a problem with my kid bring it to me and we will work it out… don’t talk shit behind my back.

    I wish more Mothers would realize that we are all in this together and if we could support and accept one another just a tad bit more it would go a long fucking way.

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    • Samantha says

      Absolutely – we mothers (parents in general, but we’re talking about moms here) have ENOUGH problems, stresses, struggles, etc., and we all, as mothers, know that we do. So why would any mother want to add to that for another, especially by judging them as parents?

      Although my personal favorite is being judged by people who are NOT parents…that’s always a good time.

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