The Inexact Science of Child Rearing

DaddyI love cooking with a recipe, because it tells me exactly what to use, how much to put in and for how long to cook. Clear as day. Raising kids? Not so much. I’ve had to learn over the years that child rearing is anything but an exact science.

I regretfully never babysat when I was a youth; instead, I got my first job at a bakery when I was 14. I could decorate cakes and bake cookies for you, but ask me to change a diaper and I would have gotten a guide dog to do it instead. Fortunately, there are volumes of expert baby books available to rescue motherhood dummies like me. During my pregnancy, I madly studied these manuals like I was getting ready for the SAT.

A few days after we came home from the hospital, my friend Susan stopped by for a quick visit. She walked into our bedroom where our baby was wailing in the bassinet.

“Oh dear, come here sweetie,” she said as she picked him up.

“But Susan,” I protested, “the book says to not pick him up right away so that he could learn to self-sooth.”

She looked at me incredulously and said, “Well, not when they’re this small. In a little while,” as she rocked and soothed Josh who had magically stopped crying. Susan ought to know. She was a veteran mom of preteens at that time. Note to self: it’s okay to pick up my newborn right away when he’s crying, at least for “a little while.” How long, exactly, is a little while, again? The books didn’t really specify.

Later that week, I was really having a hard time sleeping with a crying baby next to my bed. I was getting eager to evict him to his own room. That’s when my other friend Lisa came by to deliver a meal. “When can I move him out of the bassinet to the crib, Lisa?” I asked desperately. Lisa laughed, “Oh, maybe in a few more months.” MONTHS? Are you kidding me? I was thinking more in terms of…either next Thursday or Friday.

There were other questions that the expert books never quite answered for me:

  • How many degrees, exactly, is “tepid”?
  • How long should I let them nap without interfering with their night time sleep?
  • Speaking of sleep, can we really let them cry it out without getting arrested?
  • Is that a real smile or just gas?
  • Which is better to suck on: pacifier or thumb?
  • How wet should the diaper be before we absolutely have to change? (“Already? Why, I JUST changed him…”)
  • Is it colic or unresolved anger issues?
  • When should we start potty training?
  • Should I stay home or get a job?
  • Public, private, or home school?
  • When do we start driver’s ed?

As it turned out, Josh stayed in the bassinet until he grew too big for it — maybe 92 days — but many other questions were answered only after much trial and error. Here’s one thing I know for sure: every child is different. No book can tell you exactly what you should do, because they don’t know your child. Eventually, I ditched the expert manuals and went mostly with mother’s intuition, but that’s after a whole lot of praying and many nights crying out to God, “Help!” In fact, there’s only one instruction manual I need for life: The Bible.

Oh, I have to tell you this: I was so amused when I caught my mom — Gasp! My Expert! — looking at a Japanese baby manual one day. I have no idea where she dug it up, but it sure looked like it was printed in the 1960′s, which might mean that she used it as a reference when we were growing up and brought it over here on the boat. All the pictures had faded to pastel, and the babies all had round, chubby cheeks. Wearing only cloth diapers, these Japanese babies looked like miniature sumo wrestlers. I was wondering why my mom was suddenly telling me how to heat up glass baby bottles and how to lay down futon for naps.

Any baby book advice work out for you? Or did you ditch the books too?