The Voices

By Tammie Ortlieb
Web Exclusive

mother and daughterSometimes, I need to quiet the voices in my head. They nag at me in my sleep. They pull me away from dinner and laundry. They show up at every diaper change and nursing. Who are these people? And why do they insist I’m such an incompetent mother?

I do have moments, I believe, where I feel capable, in control. Moments when I know that I’m a competent parent, regardless what the voices tell me. Not psychotic. Not needy. Moments when I don’t question all those mothering skills I picked up babysitting the Howard brats that summer. Skills like how much peanut butter to put on toast, knowing the number of times Melissa comes out of her room before she actually goes to sleep, and how to get gum out of Chewbacca’s fur (scissors, in case you were wondering). And what about that egg I had to carry around in that basket for a week? How about that one?! Even got an a “A” on that project.

These voices, in their incessant calling, squash that competent feeling as a bug under the giant’s shoe. How can I possibly know how to raise a child? Have I ever sat home chewing at my nails while my son was out on a seconds new driver’s license? Have I ever sat through the night rocking a baby with chicken pox just to keep her from scratching? Have I watched the one I’ve tended with all my sweat for eighteen years walk out the door to start a life of her own?

Part of me says, okay, fair enough. No, I haven’t reached those milestones in my mothering career. I’ve only had time to get a blue peg and a husband in this game of Life. But don’t I get to try? I mean, what’s the fun if I don’t get to play? I want to spin the wheel, go on a honeymoon, pass pay day. Heck, I want to make it to Millionaire Acres.

No, the voices say. We know best. We’re the experts. Just trust us. I try, really. But my head spins from all the contradictory advice. Spock tells me to wake the baby for feeding in order to get a schedule established. The mother daughter Pryor team, in their book Nursing Your Baby, says no, no, waking isn’t necessary. Just be sure to nurse when baby seems hungry. Dr. William Sears and his wife go so far as to say that baby should be allowed to suck for means of pacification. Why, then, does Dr. Brazelton suggest this is a bad idea?

These voices fly at me from every direction. “Just put the baby down,” my new neighbor, Mary, says. Mary is thin and graying. I’m not even sure she has children. “And get her out of your bed. If she sleeps in Mommy and Daddy’s bed, she will never want to go to her own.”  A coworker of my brother’s even told of putting her colicky baby’s crib in the basement. That way, we could all get some peace at night.

My friend’s doctor, a respected local pediatrician, told her that she needed to start thinking of getting her four month old to quit nursing. “You know, if you don’t wean him now he could be interested in the breast forever,” the doctor said. I’m sure he will, she thought, but it won’t be mine.

My mother-in-law had a great saying. She said she never saw a kid go off to college in a diaper. Now there’s a thought. I guess I could apply that to all the other advice the voices so freely offer. I can see my diaper clad high school grad jumping out of Mom and Dad’s bed in the morning, me carrying him in the backpack he’s practically worn out, and taking a break for a little num-num before heading off to start on that business degree.

Truth is, I’m not in the beginning stages of my mothering, nor am I in the twilight years. I’m smack in the middle. My kids are of an age where they, should they find this article, would buy every copy and immediately send them through the shredder. I can’t BELIEVE you wrote that stuff! They are old enough, in other words, to have weaned, been potty-trained, and moved themselves to the big boy bed.

I didn’t listen to all the voices. Sometimes I had to search out new voices. Sometimes I just had to cry and find my own voice. My children all slept in the family bed, potty-trained when THEY were ready, and nursed for an extended time with a gradual child-led weaning. I used backpacks, front packs, and slings to tote them from place to place, believing that mother’s touch and smell were more important than bright red and yellow toys dangling from bars above their heads.

I still hear the voices on occasion. They’re more of a background buzz now, having progressed from a test of the national broadcast system to relaxing elevator music. When I hear them, I just smile, acknowledging their influence on my path to discovery. Discovery that what works for one family may not be best for another. Discovery that in actuality, multiple styles of parenting exist, none being right necessarily, just different. Yes, I do hear the voices. And I fight every urge to whisper back to them. I did it, I think, I’m a grown up and I did it. Nanny nanny boo boo.

Tammie Ortlieb, an at-home mother of four for sixteen years and retired La Leche League leader, has her Masters in the field of Devlopmental Psychology. Her essays have appeared in “Vegetarian Baby and Child,” “Positively Woman,” and “BusyParentsOnline.”