In the decade before World War II, “good mothering” was defined by scientific, regimented practices. Not a lot of cuddling going on in the 1930s and ’40s. After World War II, however, good old permissive parenting, the variety we now know, came into fashion.
According to Shari Thurer in “The Myths of Motherhood: How Culture Reinvents the Good Mother,” the change happened so fast that some mothers changed their techniques midstream. To demonstrate the point, on Page 248 there is a quote — taken from “For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts’ Advice to Women” (1978), by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English — from a mother whose brood supposedly straddled the contrasting decades:
“I was serving a new vegetable to the boys. Suddenly I realized that I expected Peter, the oldest, to clean his plate. Daniel, the middle one, didn’t have to eat it but he had to taste it. And little Bill, as far as I was concerned, could do whatever he wanted.”
After reading this, I closed the book and did the math. Supposing this mother was raising children in the early 1970s, and assuming the oldest was 10 years old at the time of this quote, the woman is probably in her 70s — at least — by now, and therefore, most likely not on Facebook. Otherwise I would have written to her im-mediately and put her mind at ease.
How could she, and these authors, have gotten this wrong? Peter cleaning his plate and Bill doing everything but clean his plate has absolutely nothing to do with the decade’s popular child-rearing practices. It has everything to do with having more than one child.
I did everything right with Ford, my oldest. I read and reread parenting advice books until the pages were falling out from overuse. Not coincidentally, Ford is an excellent eater.
I began to cave a little when Owen came along two years and two days later. Dustin was deployed (again), and my time was limited. I still expected Ford to be the textbook child, but by then, I was more likely to use “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” as a makeshift booster seat, not serious reading material. Frankly, if Ford had known how to read, I might have asked him to summarize the really important parts for me: Ford, is it time for your brother to try meats yet? And what’s the new philosophy on toilet training?
I had not yet completely lost my desire to fit the latest definition of a “good mother,” but the reality of ever living up to it was beginning to fade. I felt like a silver-medal winner at the Olympics: I saw the goal, but I was losing by a nanosecond.
When Lindell was born four years after Owen, I was an Olympics has-been. I rocked Lindell to sleep every night, not because cuddly parenting was in vogue (was it?), but I could not risk waking up the other two boys.
While I remember that sweet potatoes were the first solid food Ford ever tasted, the only thing I recall about Lindell’s babyhood appetite is that he once ate the gel from a Glade plug-in air freshener and had to be taken to the emergency room.
While I used to fret over the adequacy of Ford’s milk, I didn’t think to research “toilet water” the night that Dustin yelled from the hallway, “Has anyone seen Lindell?” And then: “Sarah, he’s filling a Dixie cup with toilet water again!”
Somewhere in the middle of this is Owen, who is expected to taste his food, even if he gives it to Ford later. In fact, dinnertime at our house is a case study in a range of parenting techniques. Like the mother from 1978, I expect everything from Ford, but Lindell can stand in his chair and dance the Funky Chicken, and no one would argue.
This doesn’t mean that I love Lindell any less than I love Ford. I love all my children the same. (Your mother meant it when she said that, by the way!) What did change from one child to the next is my desire to conform to the experts’ idea of a good mother. I still care about parenting. And I still care about my kids. I just don’t care what the parenting books have to say about it.
So if I could find that other mother with three sons, what I would tell her is this: You changed midstream, but it had nothing to do with the current parenting philosophies of the time.
Then I’d ask: Were you even aware of a different parenting philosophy after the second child?
Of course, I would need to follow all of this up with: Tell me, did all your boys turn out OK?
Because I would really, sincerely hope that they did. Or else I’d worry …
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at email@example.com.