But one night, my husband was passed out on the couch with a fever, and I was left to handle the nighttime madness on my own. It was 2 o’clock in the morning and the baby was screaming, clearly hungry. I had struggled with milk production, but the books had been adamant: Breast is best. But my daughter wouldn’t latch, so I didn’t really have a choice. My baby would have to settle for second-rate food: formula. Well, when I brought it to her, she wouldn’t take that either.
As she arched her back and screamed, I thought back to when she was born and how everything might have been different if I’d just gotten one more massage from my midwife instead of opting for drugs. The natural-birth books had all warned against drugs and surgery; why had I been so weak? Why hadn’t I just endured the pain and tried to turn the birth experience blissful, like all the women in Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth?
In a fit of anger, I nearly threw the baby across the room. It’s the scariest feeling I’ve ever had, and I quickly put her in her bassinet, went back to my air mattress, and let her cry while I sulked. I was only weeks into being a parent, but according to the books, I had managed to fail at the three most important things so far—childbirth, breastfeeding, and soothing.
I’m not alone in my self-blame. Research shows that parenting books can be damaging to new parents, adding to mothers’ stress and heightening their chances of developing postpartum depression. The you’ve-already-failed messaging in these manuals is pervasive. Missed breastfeeding your newborns in the “golden” first hour of their life? Too late, your bond is irreparably harmed. Still using a pacifier after six months? Too late. Allowed your toddler to play with your phone? Not potty-trained by 3? Yelled at your kid? Too late, too late, too late.
Parenting is as high stakes as it gets—another person’s life is in your hands. And many of us look to gurus for easy step-by-step instructions on how to do it right. Don’t get me wrong, tips and tricks are great. But what the “experts” are telling us doesn’t always work. They don’t account for the fact that raising other humans is a messy endeavor. That each child and each parent is an individual with unique experiences and needs and quirks.
After almost a decade of raising a kid and talking to parents for my podcast, The Longest Shortest Time, I’ve realized something: We’re all winging it. We are master improvisers, managing our kids’ daily curveballs with a mix of random ideas, physical comedy, and whatever tools just happen to be at our fingertips.
Read more: How to enjoy the exhausting role of parenthood
Through trial and error, I discovered some techniques that really did make things easier with my daughter. For soothing, blowing on her eyelids and stroking the top of her nose worked. For breastfeeding, I sat her upright and facing me, as if seated in an invisible chair—a position that nobody mentions in breastfeeding books.