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While scientists bicker, parents should trust their gut

Tanika Davis
Tanika Davis (Jeffrey F. Bill, Baltimore Sun)

A few weeks ago, the findings in a scientific report made their way around the social media mill, giving harried and guilt-ridden parents a reason to cheer. The report, in the Journal of Marriage and Family, said that when it comes to spending time with children, more is not necessarily better. Quality time is what counts, the report's authors found.

And in fact, time spent while stressed, overly tired or too distracted to be truly present could be actually detrimental to kids.

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Never one for contributing to my children's detriment, I immediately canceled three playdates, one Mommy and Me music class, a trip to the zoo and my offer to bring snacks to the kids' Easter parties at school.

OK, not really, but I did think, "So if I spend one weekday evening and one weekend morning at the gym, I actually won't be the world's worst mother? And I can go get my hair cut and colored? I can have brunch with a friend?"

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I was so encouraged: Science said I could have a little bit of myself back! And who can argue with science?

Apparently, other scientists.

Because before I could type the words "Girls' Weekend" into my Google calendar, a dissenting view made the rounds.

"Yes, Your Time as a Parent Does Make a Difference," the article in the New York Times said. The piece's author called the first study "misleading" and said it didn't hold water.

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I felt blue. "Me Time" was so close. And then I felt angry. The "experts" were at it again — bickering in the news media and dragging me into their dysfunction.

"You know what does hold water?" I yelled at my computer screen. "The wet blanket who wrote that follow-up article! And you know what's really misleading? All the conflicting, contradictory, confusing advice parents get every day!"

It's true. For every aspect of pregnancy, childbirth and raising a child, there is an expert opinion to go along with it. And for every expert opinion, there are two or 20 others that dispute it.

Hospital birth vs. birthing center. Moby wrap vs. Ergo.Exclusively breastfeed? Potty train in a weekend? Ears pierced? Circumcision? What age to see the dentist?Big family or one and done?Scented baby lotions? Baby food from a jar? Children's multivitamins: yes or no?

Once, a veteran mom scolded me for standing my bouncy, chubby-legged infant on my lap as he practiced his stepping reflex.

"He's too young for that!" she fairly yelled. "You'll mess up his legs!"

So much advice. So much noise.

When I was pregnant with our boys in 2009, warning signs seemed to blare at me from every conceivable spot: No runny eggs.No wine. Don't have even a sip of coffee!

Today, pregnant women are told they can have up to 12 ounces of caffeine and that a glass of wine a day is fine, too. I don't know whether to high-five the moms-to-be I see in line at Starbucks or side-eye them out of jealousy for all the caramel macchiatos I gave up while gestating.

Our own mothers put us to sleep on our tummies. These days, doctors tell us, back is best. But when my grandmother came to help me with my newborn twins, she went behind me, flipping the boys onto their bellies. I barely slept for all the checking on their breathing. The boys slept like rocks.

How are parents supposed to make sense of it all? It's so confusing and crazy-making.

The answer is … I have no idea. I'm not an expert. I don't pretend to be one. And even the experts who sell the books and write the blogs and agitate the unfortunate tensions between working moms and stay-at-home ones, attachment parents and free-rangers — they don't really know either.

Every child is unique. Every family is different. There is no one size fits all, and most of the advice du jour will be passé tomorrow. Be as informed as you can and then trust your gut.

When it comes to you and your family, you're the only expert who really matters.

Now, where should I go for brunch? I need to show off my new highlights.

Tanika Davis is a former Baltimore Sun reporter who now works as director at a communications firm. She and her husband have twin 4-year-old sons, a 3-year-old daughter, a perpetually messy house and rapidly appearing gray hairs. She also needs a nap.

She can be reached at tanika@thehatchergroup.com. Her column appears monthly.

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