One of my long-standing charges was an Australian boy who loved books. Every day, we wound up at the book shop, where they cleverly placed the “parenting manuals” round the corner from the picture books. My eyes would dart and hover on those shelves with the precision of a pilot. (I had only a moment before five-year-old James would be out of sight, looking for the latest installment of The Magic Tree House Series. I refrain from using the word “book” in reference to these slim adventure tales. I guess they can be a gateway to reading actual books, though, so I don’t completely dislike them.)
I’ve always obsessively scanned bookshelves for interesting titles, but the longer I worked with children the more curious I grew about all the “philosophies” that various “experts” were peddling and about all those prettily packaged books on childcare. Whatever that is.
It must have been a turning point when I actually bought one. I took some of my hard-earned nanny dollars and went back to the shop that evening on the walk home from work. I purchased a book called The Idle Parent by Tom Hodgkinson. It looked more fun than the others. Being “idle” seemed like a fabulous idea. How could one manage it while diapering and cooking and soothing and reading and singing and keeping children out of the street?
I devoured the book. It was a fun read. A signpost flashed on the road before me: Motherhood Next Stop. Two Years. I not only read the book in a day, I underlined.
I had seen a lot of parenting that had distressed me in my years as a nanny. I’d also seen parents who struck me as wonderful role models for their children and for future parents. Could parenting really be codified in a book? A day with a child is an enormous, sprawling world. And that day exists within an even more enormous, sprawling world—the real world—with its jumble of conflicting opinions and emotions and resulting playground battles—and I’m talking about the parents! I’d seen things get ugly. It can truly be a jungle out there.
When you give birth to a child, The Advice Particles descend like a rain shower on a sunny day. They linger like dust floating through a shaft of light. The Advice Particles come at all momentum and angles. When my baby was born, she was a nursing fiend. The Advice Particles descended in full force.
Don’t let your baby fall asleep at your breast! (She might grow dependent on you to sleep and never learn to fall asleep on her own!). Don’t let her sleep in the bed with you! (She’ll grow dependent on, um, cuddling?). This not only felt wrong, it felt impossibly difficult. I was far too tired (and lazy) to go through the recommended process of nursing her almost to sleep and then transferring her to a crib (something we hadn’t gotten around to buying yet, anyway). I nursed my child whenever she wanted and she slept blissfully on my lap while I read. And read and read. More sleep for her and more free time for me. A win-win for mother and baby.
Those early months do not return, so if I had any advice—not that I would ever throw The Advice Particles at anyone—it would be to treasure the quiet moments when you are both with your baby and free to read. I look back on that time as an idyllic period. I gazed upon my pink seashell of a newborn while reading about being a parent.
Here is my short list, my favorite books:
Our Babies, Ourselves by Meredith F. Small
I can’t deny that I gravitate toward books that imply or state that my particular intuitions are the right ones. I sought this book out after finding it as a reference in a book called How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm, which is a light but not nearly as satisfying read as Small’s book. Although Small is an anthropologist, and therefore a scientist, she proudly wears her bias for a certain type of empathetic and responsive parenting that she feels has been largely abandoned by Western culture.
Becoming Attached by Robert Karen
If a slim book on how other cultures raise children only whets your appetite for more research and anecdotes, read this book. If you want to know what the heck “attachment parenting” is, or what the science it was named after is all about, this is your book. It’s an academic book, but an engrossing read. You will read about children who were cut off from their parents by turn of the century hospitals and the emotional trials those children and parents suffered as a result. You will read about orphanages where children grew up in isolation and what happens to the human brain as a result. You will also read many happy stories, and you will learn of The Strange Situation Experiment. Intrigued? You won’t be disappointed.
French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon
There are a lot of books now that follow the Pamela Druckerman formula. Druckerman wrote Bringing Up Bebe and has made a tidy sum off a fairly entertaining book that is filled with half-truths and lots of romanticizing. Learning the French “magic” of raising “respectful” and “civilized” children is a hot trend now. I read the book when my baby was tiny and made some notes in the margins, tucked away a few insights and chucked the rest by the time my child was one year of age. I don’t have any interest in tearing down Pamela Druckerman’s “insights,” so I will instead point you toward a book that weighs the good and bad of how the French raise their children and offers a balanced view.
Le Billon spent a year with her French husband and two children living in a small town in the south of France—where her husband had been raised—and wrote a wonderful account of that time. If you read one book from the French Are Perfect! cult of books, read this one, because it escapes the cult. It gleans valuable insight from the French without drinking the Kool-Aid. And it is worthwhile to read something from what I’ll call a “conservative” perspective if you are also reading about all that baby-wearing and other hippy stuff that you’ll get from the first two books. (If I am in a parenting cult, I confess the latter is mine. But as with every parent, my methods are a hodgepodge of intuition, and sometimes my gut agrees with the other side of the spectrum.) The book also has recipes and Le Billon has a blog, of course, that you can follow if you enjoy her book. The family, incidentally, moved back to Canada after their year experiment. No one romanticizes France more than I, and yet I ultimately mostly rejected the worshipful prose about French parents. My sister lived there for years and pointed out many things to me about French culture that I don’t like myself and are the direct result of French parenting. (I still want to move to Paris, or at least live there for a while, like every other hopeless romantic. But I also know it’s clogged with second-hand smoke. Le Billon’s book shows you the beauty of the culture there, but she doesn’t lie about the “smoke.”)
The Idle Parent by Tom Hodginkson
I re-read this as my daughter slept in my lap. I was overcome with emotion as I returned to a book I had read as a nanny. Hodgkinson is a philosopher of sorts, but mostly a compiler of other, far older philosophers (Rousseau, for example.) I don’t agree with everything in it and I think at times he is blasé about the reality of most people’s lives as he blithely advises you to throw away your financial job in London and move to a cottage in the English countryside and let the kids manage themselves. Most people can’t move to England or a farm anywhere. But he makes many valid points: Consumerism and materialism are strangling our freedom to raise happy children; minimalism affords serenity and a deeper contentment. Adult poetry and music is as good for kids as their parents. Don’t talk down to children. Also, don’t indoctrinate your child to dislike housework: free them from associating it with misery. Work and play are one to a child; don’t rob the child of this freedom. Despite a tinge of egotism, the book is a worthy addition to a library of parenting books.
Infant Massage by Vimala McClure
This is the most boring book I have ever loved. I will never part with it. It’s about how to massage an infant, and about rituals in India that the author observed in her time there. I panicked when I saw the photos in the book: Was I doing it right? I asked my pediatrician, how should I massage the baby? He said, “What feels good to you? Do that.” I treasure the book because I hadn’t thought of it before, and it planted the seed of a tradition that continues in our house daily. After the bath and before naptime, I rub my child’s feet and legs with Vitamin E oil and it is bliss. This is hardly a revelation, I know, but sometimes you panic with a newborn and worry about everything. One night, when my daughter was in the throes of colic, I started to rub her feet. Within a few seconds, she stopped crying and began to gurgle and coo. My husband stared in amazed fascination. So obvious, and yet, a new parent, exhausted and anxious, can sometimes use the most basic of reminders.
This is just a list of five of my favorite books. But I have many second-tier beloved books as well. One book always leads to another. I read books on nature, on simplicity, on seasons, on the species of birds to be found in New York City. Because when you have a newborn in your lap, sleeping and blissfully unaware of the world that awaits her, you can’t wait for her to meet it. Well, you can, because the books inspire a luxurious fantasy life. It makes you close the book you are reading, curl up next to the baby and take a nap with her. The world will wait a bit longer while both of you dream.