Sunday, October 17, 2010

Defending the Paranoid Mom

When I was a brand new mom, I never wanted any one to say about me, "She's such a First-Time Mom."

Y'all know what I'm talking about. The First Time Mom stereotype is an uptight, paranoid germaphobe who won't let strangers hold or even touch her child, follows all her pediatricians rules to the letter, and constantly worries about her child's safety.

When I had Sophia, I didn't think I was that mom, but now I realize that I was. I think back about how I freaked out (internally of course) when my mother-in-law let my breast-fed four month old (who had never had dairy or refined sugar, thank you very much) eat whipped cream off a slice of mud pie at an Islands. Or I remember the typed out list of instructions I had for anyone who wanted to babysit. Or how heartsick and tearful I was for hours after Sophia fell off my bed when she was a baby, despite the fact that the doctor reassured me that she was fine. How crazy I was, right?

Well, actually, no. I think early motherhood paranoia is actually quite sane. Even more, I think God intentionally designed new moms to be like that. All the anxiety we feel about our baby's safety and the weight we give to each of their "firsts" (first solid food, first high-risk allergy food, first time in a high chair, first time facing forward in the baby carrier), have a real function: ultimately, they really do keep our children safer.

Two recent experiences I've had brought this to the forefront of mind, even though my youngest is now three.

The first was traveling with my friend and her seven-month-old baby and her little bumble bear of a toddler boy. A huge percentage of her life is about keeping those kids safe: not just from bashing their heads onto rocks or running into the street (both of which are very likely realities for her son if she doesn't watch him constantly, especially in unfamiliar surroundings). But also keeping baby from ingesting kung-pao chicken off her dinner plate or upturning an entire tray of water glasses that a waitress thoughtlessly set right in front of the high chair.

The second experience was listening to our speaker at MOPS this Friday, who is a professional baby proofer. She did a great job informing us of unthought-of dangers without alarming us. Listening, part of me wanted to say, okay, are we maybe worrying a little too much about household safety? But then I remembered the time Livie opened a bottle of children's ibuprofen she reached at the way back of the bathroom counter where I thought it was safe, and drank it. I also thought of Sophia bashing her head on a flower pot when I was standing right next to her in my backyard; she got eight stitches in the E.R. The fact is, even when we are watching the kids all the time, they can still get hurt, so doesn't it make sense to do our very best to protect them?

So back to that First Time Mom stereotype. I think the reason so many new mommies get a bad rap, or face judgement for following their pediatrician's rules to the letter, is because, basically, it's inconvenient for the people around them. As soon as you're out of the baby stage yourself, having to go back to thinking about the complex and time-consuming needs of someone else's child can even be downright annoying. But that doesn't mean that the mom who has found freedom in her children's older age is a more relaxed mother or a wiser woman; she's just in a different stage.

The worried First Time Mom is not unique to my generation either, even though we are bombarded by over 10,000 books from conflicting experts, so perhaps it's a little more complicated for us. I was recently reading Anne's House of Dreams for the thousandth time (if you're a mom, especially of girls, go out right now and buy the entire Anne of Green Gables series, I beg you), and I came across this passage:

Anne walked down to the Point...leaving Little Jem for the first time. It was quite a tragedy. Suppose he cried? Suppose Susan did not know just exactly what to do for him? Susan was calm and serene.
"I have had as much experience with him as you, Mrs. Doctor, dear, have I not?"
"Yes, with him, but not with other babies..."
"Oh well, if Little Jem cries, I will just clap a hot water bag on his little stomach," said Susan.
"Not too hot, you know," said Anne anxiously. Oh, was it really wise to go?

I'm so amused by this -- not just because they thought the remedy for a crying child might be a hot water bottle -- but because this book was written before World War I. Moms don't change. And neither do kids. They come out of us delicate, vulnerable and without sense. And though we might worry a little too much about some things that don't really matter, overall, I'm grateful for the paranoia that comes with young motherhood. And I am going to give all the new moms around me a break: washing my hands, clearing my floors of choking hazaards, respecting their dietary laws, and keeping my judgments to a minimum. Won't you join me?


  1. I've found that, so far, the first-time mom thing extends way past baby/toddlerhood. Even now that my first baby is 4, when he tries something new or presents a new behavioral challenge, I'm a clueless wreck who's worried that I'm making mistakes that will wreck his life for good.

  2. Yep, yep, and yep. Also re: Anne. Can recite them from memory.