The ‘shoulda, woulda, coulda’ of parenting

In no other area of your life are you bombarded with as much advice on what you ‘should’ be doing as when you become a parent. You suddenly find everyone is at it. Family, friends, online communities, random people you meet maybe a handful of times at baby groups, health professionals, journalists in magazines, writers of books… Some of this advice will be given in response to you actually asking for it. I’ll wager a good percentage of it is completely unsolicited and unwelcome! Much of it will be contradictory, leaving you in as much of a muddle as before.

The 'shoulda woulda coulda' of parenting

I was reminded of this today when I saw a message on a Facebook group I follow, from a new mum worrying about the sleeping habits of her six week old baby. Her little one doesn’t like her cot or moses basket but will sleep happily on one of her parents or in their bed. (Oh, I have definitely been there!). The mum was of course worried that she is doing something wrong. Shouldn’t her six week old be sleeping peacefully on her own? Shouldn’t she be sleeping for longer stretches? Should she, the mum, be doing something to facilitate this? Should she leave her to cry it out?

I was immediately struck by several things:

1. How this reminded me so much of our early weeks with ToddlerGirl who, guess what, didn’t like to sleep anywhere but with us. And how we felt like we must be doing something wrong because don’t all babies snuggle down peacefully in their moses baskets, especially by the grand old age of six weeks?!

2. That all the advice being given in response was probably just adding to the confusion. Unsurprisingly, everyone had a different suggestion based on what they experienced with their baby. And everyone fully believed their way was the right way! No, you shouldn’t leave a six week old to cry it out. Yes, they should be sleeping in their moses basket by themselves. Yes, you should do cry it out, it’s your life too. You should implement a strong bedtime routine that will solve everything. It was all pretty familiar to me – I have seen the same question and responses over and over in my own quest for answers about ToddlerGirl’s (lack of) sleep!

3. That all the “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” flying all over the place are most likely serving to add to the pressure this new mum – and any others going through the same thing – is undoubtedly feeling.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is suddenly obvious to me how unhelpful this word ‘should’ can be. It immediately sets us up with an expectation, the pressure to do something, the sense of failing if you are, in fact, experiencing the opposite. If you remove ‘should’ from the equation altogether, how much of the worry and stress would go with it? OK, I probably wouldn’t have got any more sleep – and I expect that I would have still spent a considerable amount of time wondering exactly when our sleep would improve – but I wouldn’t have felt that I was doing something intrinsically wrong, that there was some secret mummy knowledge that I was missing because my baby ‘should’ be sleeping well on their own.

Two years down the line, I have learnt that baby and toddler sleep is a huge obsession for many parents; that how and when you get to that holy grail of sleeping through the night varies from family to family; that the only thing you ‘should’ do is accept that there is no one size fits all answer to the sleep question and that you have to find a solution that works for you and your child. Having said that, I still find myself thinking about all the things we ‘should’ be doing to improve ToddlerGirl’s bedtime and naps! I am just a bit better at banishing those doubts now. We COULD make some changes if we want to but, while what we are doing works for us, there is no reason to put extra pressure on ourselves.

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to sleep. There are so many things we feel we should be doing in this life but most particularly as a parent. Food, discipline, behaviour, toys, television – I could go on. With such an overwhelming amount of information on parenting available, so many different opinions on what is the right approach, it is all too easy to get caught in the ‘should’ trap. I know I do at least once a day. I’m going to make a real effort to avoid this by changing my SHOULDs for COULDs. Just that shift in emphasis suddenly feels very liberating! And I’ll let that new mum on Facebook know that she is not alone with all her worries and questions but, once she has sifted through all the advice, the only thing she should be doing for definite is whatever feels right for her and her family…

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