Confession: When my baby girl, Violet, was placed in my arms for the first time, I looked down at her lovingly and realized I had no idea what the heck I was doing.
Yes, I took infant care classes and watched the instructor put a diaper on a perfectly still plastic doll — which, by the way, is basically nothing like putting a diaper on a real live squiggly baby — but I instantly realized that nothing can really prepare you to be a mother, other than the experience itself.
You learn as you go and you mostly learn by making mistakes. Lots of them. My first mistake? Confusing my babies for Golden Retrievers.
Four years before my first daughter was born, I became a different kind of mama when I brought home a fluffy goofball of a puppy named Desmond. Now, puppies are considerably easier to prepare for than children. I spent countless hours researching methods and training techniques in the months leading up to Desmond’s arrival. (Note: I had countless hours to spend because I did not have children yet.) I read about the benefits of crate training, the importance of socialization, and the positive reinforcement training approach, among other training methods. I dove into training my pup with great success. Once I got my human baby home, I started hearing a lot of those same words again — socialization, positive reinforcement, etc. House-training turned into potty-training; crate sounded a lot like crib.
And so, I began believing that the most important rule of dog training also applied to “child training,” which is to establish good habits early on or else you will never be able to teach an old dog new tricks, as the saying goes.
This kinda worked with my first child. I moved her to her crib before she turned three months old and she slept like a dream from the start. I had a strict nap schedule. I always had her sit at her high chair until the end of mealtimes. I was sure that all of my rules and “training” were the reason that she was such an adaptable baby and toddler. I later learned this was simply her personality and I really had very little to do with her disposition.
There’s no doubt that setting routines can make your life easier, but only if your child responds well to routine. My second daughter, Sabine, taught me the single most important lesson in parenting: Every child is different and what works for one kid won’t necessarily work for another.
I’m guessing you’ve heard that before, but seriously, it is so important. Before I had Sabine, I had all the advice in the world for expectant moms. Now I have one thing to say: Don’t bother planning until your baby gets here because more than half of what people tell you won’t even apply to your child. Oh, and also, you will continue to make mistakes and learn, day after day.
In fact, it was just last week that something happened that made me finally realize that raising Sabine and raising Desmond is not the same thing! Who knew?
The incident: After months of forcing Sabine to sit in her high chair at mealtimes (like, literally, physically forcing her in there), I said, maybe we should just let her sit in a regular chair? After all, her big sister sits in a regular chair and she loves doing what her big sister does. Maybe she’ll sit like a little lady? If you know Sabine, you’re probably laughing right now. Dinner quickly turned into, “Sabine, get back in your chair! Sabine… want dessert? Then, sit down!”
OK, take a deep breath. Surely, she will still sit in a high chair at restaurants, right? Violet continued to sit in high chairs at restaurants for months after she stopped at home!
A few days after the chair promotion, we went out to dinner. We went with a surefire kid-pleaser: Pizza and ice cream. The good news? Sabine sat in her high chair. The bad news? It only lasted the 11 minutes it takes her to polish off two large pizza slices. It didn’t help that the security strap on the chair was broken. Once her pizza was gone, she was on her feet in the chair, dancing to the music, threatening to jump. So down she went and off she ran. “Sabine, come back here! Why don’t you sit with Violet?” That lasted about 25 delightful seconds. Next she sat with Dad for a minute, then went back to running randomly around the restaurant, then “Check, please!”
I sat there, completely defeated. I failed. I moved her out of her high chair too soon. Now she will never sit calmly at a restaurant table and allow our family to enjoy a civilized meal. The second that thought entered my head, my mind fast-forwarded 10 years. I imagined Violet sitting across from me with a napkin on her lap, now 14. I saw Sabine, at almost 12 years old, putting her sauce-smeared hands on the tablecloth at the table next to us, her shiny eyes mischievous, greeting strangers: “Hiiiiii!” And then I laughed out loud.