I became a first-time geriatric mommy at age 42. If you laughed at the term “geriatric,” so did I, but it is commonly applied to any woman over 35 who gets pregnant. Although the medical world is moving away from using geriatric, with its connotations of blue hair and walkers — the new PC term is “Advanced Maternal Age” and isn’t much better, in my opinion. I prefer something cool, like Vintage Baby Maker.
New parents, old and young, are bombarded with a torrent of information and options from the minute they find out they are expecting. For me, it first came from the doctors in the form of dozens of optional, nerve-racking genetic tests and scans that may or may not be necessary (or reliable).
As I started asking friends and family for advice, everyone offered a different opinion. Once the almighty algorithm discovered I was pregnant, it chimed in, too — Instagram flooding my feed with relatable preggo content. Some of it was useful. Some of it preyed on my worst fears. All of it was conflicting.
I’m told parenting wasn’t always so fraught with anxiety and filled with often completely opposing child-rearing options. This is the product of the mediated, consumerist world in which we now live. (Don’t get me started on the baby registry — that’s another essay entirely.)
In his book “Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It,” author Thomas de Zengotita talks about observing kids with their bike helmets that “could deflect a bazooka shell” and finds himself feeling nostalgic for the simpler times when kids were free range. “No one ever heard of a bike helmet, and injuries of all kinds were the assumed risks of childhood,” de Zengotita writes.
Imagine my surprise when I found out you should have a birth plan and it encompasses a lot more than what I had in mind.
However, he notes that if he were a parent of a young child today, what he would do is completely different. “Now that I know about bike helmets, now that they are an option, it would be downright irresponsible not to strap one on little Justin’s head,” he explains. “Justin’s Helmet Principle” is what he labels the process by which “you end up opting for these options because, on balance, it’s better than not opting for them.”
Motherhood starts when the child is in utero and some of the choices I had to make felt existential: Do we find out the sex or decline? Should we get the genetic tests they recommend (especially for us “geriatrics”) or let the chips fall where they may? Traditional OB-GYN or go the midwife/doula route? Maybe some combination of all three? Home birth? Hospital birth? Pool in the woods under a full moon?
Imagine my surprise when I found out you should have a birth plan and it encompasses a lot more than what I had in mind. My bar was pretty low: Mom and baby live through the experience of childbirth. Lots of women, however, set their expectations very high. They want a magical experience with a photographer and a playlist and twinkly lights because that’s what their favorite YouTube influencer told them they deserve — baby crowning, mother pushing with a full face of makeup and perfectly done hair.
There was more. Did I want interventions? Fetal monitoring? Drugs? When the baby comes do you want skin-to-skin immediately? The hep B shot? The eye drops? Should I bank the cord blood? Stem cells seem important, right? What if she needs them in the future and I could have saved her life, but I didn’t want to pay a storage fee to keep them on ice? How guilty will I feel?
Worst of all, what if, in the near future, they have the technology to let mere mortals dodge death — if only I had banked the cord blood. I imagined my then unborn daughter, a teenager, shaming me for being cheap. “All my friends are gonna live forever, Mom.”
For those of you wondering — I had a scheduled C-section because of my vintage age; we got the eye drops; we delayed the hep B shot; I didn’t bank the cord blood (sorry, honey, eternal life on Earth seems exhausting).
Nothing is more fraught with emotion, airs of superiority, and certainty about the way you should be doing things than how and where your child is sleeping.
It never ends, either. Once our daughter was born, we discovered even more options to navigate.
Cribs versus Montessori floor beds. No screens for the first two years, even though the grandparents are scattered all over the country and the only way your child has a relationship with them is FaceTime. The only thing my child wants is my phone. She screams when you take the black mirror away or try to hide it from her. I’d already failed before she turned one.
My husband and I learned pretty quickly that the gold standard by which all your parenting skills shall be judged is sleep. The first question veteran parents asked us when we started taking our daughter for walks around the neighborhood was, “Is she sleeping yet?”
Nothing is more fraught with emotion, airs of superiority, and certainty about the way you should be doing things than how and where your child is sleeping. Everyone’s method is the best because it worked for them — and you will hear from everyone.
Things change quickly in the science of sleep. When I was an infant, the best practice was to put babies to sleep on their stomachs. Even in the 14 years since my sister had her last child, she marvels at how different everything is for her siblings and our kids.
“I feel like a grandmother,” she said to me recently. “They can’t have blankets! All my kids had blankets and bumpers and cozy cribs.” Now the prevailing wisdom is swaddled kid (or kid in a sleep sack) in an empty crib or bassinet.
Co-sleeping is also in. If you mention cry it out, half the people will tell you they did it, the other half will tell you you’re psychologically damaging your child. Dr. Gabor Maté has spoken out against the practice of cry it out and said, “Encoded in her cortex is an implicit sense of a noncaring universe.”
Seems dramatic. I don’t want her to think the universe doesn’t care about her (even if I can’t prove that it does) and I don’t want her to believe no one is coming (even if that’s kind of true, too). I also don’t want to coddle her every whim and create a monster with anxious attachment. If I don’t let my daughter cry it out, will she be gluing herself to a work of art in 20 years?
Mistakes will be made. So much of parenting is winging it, trying to figure out what works best for the child within the entire family system in the moment. What you’d like to do and what you can realistically do are often not compatible.
What you want to do and what is best for the child are also often not compatible. Being stern but fair seems like what is required to be a good parent who raises children with boundaries and manners and aren’t spoiled rotten, running the house.
The list of decisions goes on and on, it never ends, but especially as a first-time parent, the stakes feel so high. It’s enough to make you completely neurotic, if you let it.
Navigating these options is Justin’s Helmet Principle in action — but it’s not always black or white. How do you make sense of all the new information and balance it with the prevailing wisdom? How do you know if you’re making the right decision?
You don’t. But that’s parenthood.