My younger sister had her first kid 14 months before I did. She experienced a few of the usual first-time mom struggles — breastfeeding didn’t come easy, and of course there were some sleepless nights. But, overall, she made being a mom look easy. And so, when I had my son a year later, I attempted to model my mothering after my sister’s. She had done all the same research I had, was confident in her parenting decisions, and had a healthy, happy, well-rested baby. If I did everything like my sister, surely my baby would also be healthy, happy, and well-rested. Right?
LOL, not so much.
I loved early motherhood as much as a person can on four hours’ sleep per night, and I absolutely adored my baby son, but damn, he was a needy, energetic, colicky baby. I tried all the techniques my sister used and then some, reading book after book on gentle sleep-training and techniques to make your baby “the happiest baby on the block.” Some of it worked, a lot of it didn’t. Clearly, I was doing something wrong. My niece was so calm and quiet and slept so much!
As our kids grew, so did the differences between them. I watched my sister easily redirect my niece using a low, firm tone of voice and couldn’t figure out why the same tactic got only a blank stare from my son, followed by a continuation of whatever behavior I’d been trying to distract him from. My son was very affectionate, hilarious, and whip-smart, but he didn’t give a lick about making my life any easier by listening to me or sticking to a sleep schedule.
My sister had to be doing something different with her daughter to make her care about consequences. Something about my sister’s love or actions influenced my niece to want to keep out of trouble, to listen, to sleep. I assumed something must be wrong with my approach. Maybe I was too impatient. Maybe I was somehow not present enough. I was sure my sister was doing everything right and I was a terrible parent. But I forged ahead anyway, still modeling my parenting after my sister’s, with mixed results and always feeling a little bit like a failure.
Then, when my son was four, I gave birth to my daughter.
Almost immediately, I noticed huge differences in personality between the two of them. While my son had wanted near-constant physical contact as an infant, my daughter would actually push you away if you continued to touch her while she was trying to fall asleep. She does love a good snuggle session, but when she’s done, she’s done, and she knows what she wants. From very early on, she self-regulated in just about every way you could think of, needing only gentle guidance to remind her of routines and, as she grew older, household rules.
My daughter, nine years old now, remains a compliant child; in fact she’s so compliant that I almost feel compelled to tell her to try breaking a rule every now and then just to mix things up. As I write this, I hear her shuffling around in the kitchen making herself a snack. I know when I go to the kitchen later, there will be no evidence of said snack. Whatever dishes she used will be in the dishwasher and any crumbs will have been wiped up. If my son makes a snack, you’ll know about it. He would make a terrible criminal because he’d leave behind a trail of evidence.
But neither of my kids is “right” or “better.” My son has a strong will and a wild, creative mind, and yes, in many ways he has tested my parenting skills. My daughter is compliant and “easy” to parent, but I worry every day that her agreeable nature will one day put her in a position of not standing up for herself when she really needs to.
The two biggest things I’ve learned from my kids’ widely divergent personalities is, first, that we parents need to lay off on the comparison and being so damn hard on ourselves. And second, that I will never, ever judge a mother who is struggling with her child. I’ve been the embarrassed parent at the grocery store whose kid is screaming and flailing on the floor. I have multiple degrees, a supportive extended family network, and have read countless books and articles on child rearing, but none of that protected me from being that mom.
Because every kid is different, and some kids need more guidance (sometimes a lot more guidance) than others. Kids’ personalities influence their behavior and in turn influence how we parent them. Some kids are born stubborn and/or defiant. Some kids have developmental delays, processing disorders, or other special needs that make it difficult or impossible for them to “behave.” The snapshot we see of a parent’s life with their child, whether out in public or on social media, almost never provides enough information to warrant our judgment.
And I’d go a step farther and say that even when we have a view of the bigger picture, we still shouldn’t judge. My sister and I were parenting our two firstborns in very similar ways but with very different results. Then my second child came along and was so different from my first that it totally altered the way I view child rearing.
I was doing the very best I could with my son, but the child simply had a mind of his own. There was only so much I could do to control his behavior short of hog-tying him. At 13, he is a sweet, empathic, brilliant kid who does his best to follow our rules, so it looks like the lessons do eventually sink in (take heart, parents of strong-willed children!).
But I think I’m the one who learned the biggest lesson of all here, and that’s that, as parents, we really need to reserve judgment. For other parents, certainly, but also for ourselves.