Judgment Days

Trusting your own best instincts.


During my pregnancy, I ripped through enough child-care manuals to qualify as a human encyclopedia. Then I came home with my newborn daughter, Hana, who was not supposed to be hungry at 1 day old but insisted on nursing 28 times in 24 hours. Apparently, she hadn't read the books.

My obstetrician cautioned me against breastfeeding more than 10 minutes every four hours: "It'll become painful," he warned. And it did. But the perinatal nurses admonished me to nurse as long and as often as possible: "It's the only way to toughen up," they scolded. As Hana cried hour after hour, day after day, I had one overriding thought: She's hungry. I considered giving her a bottle, but the books insisted that would jeopardize our "nursing relationship." Meanwhile, my mother wailed, "Give up! You're just too flat-chested!"

Raising a child is probably the most demanding job there is, and you learn how to do it the hard way: by trial and error. The result is a kind of anxious susceptibility. You receive a barrage of conflicting advice, then have to puzzle out a solution in a sleep-deprived stupor. In the process, common sense and the impulse to trust your instincts often fall by the wayside.

Do the Right-For-You Thing Jane Valencia, a musician, writer and mother of 5 1/2-year-old Amri in Vashon Island, Wash., recalls this scene from her first week of motherhood: "Amri fell asleep on my husband's stomach, and I started thinking about how you aren't supposed to let the baby sleep face-down. Finally I said, 'I think we'd better move her.' We did, and she woke up screaming. After that, I realized that in parenting, you can't pull out a cookbook and look at a recipe. I had ruined a perfectly good moment, and why?"

Like most new moms, Jane was trying to be conscientious, but in the process she overlooked the obvious. "Parents are afraid of not doing things exactly right," observes Lynn Messenger, R.N., a certified pediatric nurse practitioner and parent educator in Redondo Beach, Calif. "But eventually they realize that most of what they face aren't major life-and-death decisions." Once you set perfectionism aside, the answers become clearer. You embrace the obvious. You let sleeping babies lie, you feed the hungry ones, and you both get through. The challenge is finding the place, somewhere between neglect and paranoia, where mothering is both competent and comfortable. It means tuning out the unrelenting chorus of advice you'll receive, as well as the resulting guilt, and then tuning in to your own best judgment.

As for me, preparation having failed, I turned to instinct. After all, my two grandmothers successfully raised 18 children without so much as a high-school education between them. Surely this suggested some kind of maternal legacy. So after several days of constant nursing and intermittent hysteria, I began giving Hana an occasional bottle. It resulted in neither moral decay nor physical deformity. In fact, it helped us settle into a happy nursing relationship that lasted 20 months.

Trusting your judgment doesn't guarantee success, but children are resilient and forgiving. The odds are very good that your baby will not only survive but thrive. And what doesn't kill you will make you a mother.