Why I swore off parenting books

When I was pregnant, the best advice I got was from a friend who told me to steer clear of parenting books and websites. Her point was that there was no way to plan for what was about to happen to  me, and so every parenting technique I highlighted in a book would likely be thrown out the window when baby arrived, anyway. Conceptually, I understood what she was saying. In practice, it sounded impossible.

I am an information hoarder by nature, and a chronic over-planner. The idea of “winging it” gives me stress hives. Despite my friend’s advice, part of me remained convinced that if I could just order and read every parenting book on Amazon, becoming a mom would be a breeze. If I just subscribed to every child development app, my baby would eat vegetables, sleep through the night, and be in the top percentile of everything.

For the record, this is my general approach to life. I am not a jump-off-the-diving board type person. I am more the “read several books about the history of diving boards, how other people have approached jumping off them, then create a five-point plan for how I will one day—maybe—jump off the diving board” type. Preparation is my spirit animal. What I’ve realized, though, is that information gathering is a very useful tactic for delaying action while creating the illusion that you’re doing something. It’s a good way to run in place and otherwise give into the fear of stepping into the unknown.

I do understand that research is helpful sometimes. I get that if you were taking a trip to Rome, before you left you might want to glance at a map and get a couple of restaurant recommendations. I, however, have spent most of my life telling myself I’m not ready to go to Rome because I haven’t yet memorized all the street names, read twenty books on Italian history, and learned to speak the language fluently.

Motherhood changed all this for me. As the weeks of my pregnancy counted down, it was coming whether I was ready or not. I had a choice, then. I could spend those weeks stockpiling information in an attempt to anticipate any situation I might encounter (as my husband likes to call it, “pre-worrying”). Or, I could sit back and trust that I, like millions of women before me from the dawn of time, would figure it out.

So, although it took every ounce of my self-control, I followed my friend’s recommendation. I read novels instead of parenting books. I stayed off the internet and instead cultivated a small group of trusted friends and medical professionals to answer my parenting questions. For me, this has been the right approach. I know because the few times I strayed from it offered no relief, only sleepless nights scrolling through WebMD.

Probably the hardest part of this approach is not having anything to measure myself by. Without a heavily-researched five-point plan to compare myself to, how do I know how I’m doing as a parent? If I haven’t defined success, how do I know what grade to give myself? When my son was a baby, I loved going to the pediatrician every couple of months because it was a chance to hear the doctor tell me, “He’s doing great.” Which of course I heard as “You’re doing great”. This was the gold star I needed, the confirmation that I had motherhood all figured out.

Now that he’s older and we see the doctor less frequently (barring daycare plagues and face dives off the furniture), I have to be careful not to seek my gold star through comparing. Is he talking more or less than his peers? Is he better or worse than his classmates at building Lego towers and making dinosaur noises? What percentile is he in when it comes to gluing popsicle sticks to construction paper?

These days I have to work extra hard not to seek reassurance from the wholly unqualified judging arena of the Internet. I have to double down on staying in the moment and enjoying the phase we’re in, rather than exhausting myself calculating whether that’s the right place for us to be and what’s coming next. I have to listen to other parents’ stories about what their child is doing/saying/eating purely as anecdotes, not measuring sticks.

There is another sneaky benefit of learning to be in the moment as a parent, and that’s that the more I’ve replaced obsessive planning with the trust that I’ll figure it out as I go, the easier it’s been to keep trusting. I can feel my default shifting as I spend less time and energy trying to anticipate and plan for every possible scenario—whether at work, in my marriage, or simply a trip to the grocery store—and more time enjoying what I’m doing. This could be because I’m just too tired to think that far ahead, but I suspect it’s at least partly due to a new ability to relax and just be.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m far from living in some enlightened state of Zen motherhood. I do, however, feel generally calmer and happier moment-to-moment. This is important, because with kids, moments are the payoff. My memory of my son’s first steps is not that developmentally he took them right on time, it’s the look on his face as he crossed the room to me on his shaky little legs. I’ll take joy over planning any day.

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