About 120 years ago, your great-great grandmothers, just like you, sat down for a two-minute respite from the day’s trials and perhaps glanced at an advertisement similar to one we recently found in an old magazine from the 1890’s. In the advertisement, women are implored to make good use of newly available baby formula as a superior replacement to the exhausting exercise of nursing.
Nursing is so tiring, the ad points out, and your milk supply might not be enough. Why wouldn’t you give our formula a try?
Now, for the record, I was grateful for the availability of formula when I was learning to nurse. I appreciated knowing that support was there if needed. But I certainly didn’t need anyone telling me to give up before I had even started.
Hark! Your child is at risk because of your inadequacies! Let us help you. A loud and clear, turn-of the-century bronx cheer. The favoured cry of so many unscrupulous marketeers. “Betcha can’t”!
Betcha can’t really do this. Betcha can’t trust yourself. Or your body. Or your baby. After all, this mothering game’s a big deal. And you’re so busy. Sit back and let the professionals step in. The nation’s health and wealth depend on it.
The date of the advertisement is 1889. This means, in the English-speaking world, we’ve been passively absorbing these messages for over a century from the marketplace. Traditionally, a mother might be seen as a fair judge of her own performance. Yet, in the modern world, it is the fashion to hand it all over to the ‘experts’. ‘Doubt thyself’ may as well be written on every new mother’s forehead. Hand over the cash. We’ll take it from here.
Now, to be clear, we had no idea what we were doing when our first babies were born. But like everything else in life, we did get the hang of it..eventually. Scary? Yes. Frustrating. Absolutely. Exhausting? Yep. But so was learning to read. Or dating. New things are daunting. But you possess the most fantastic learning machine in the known universe between your temples. Give something a good try, and, eventually, you will figure (at least a good portion) of it out.
Of course, we thank our stars there were experts available when they were truly needed. When babies are sick, colicky, won’t feed, or won’t sleep far beyond the limits of what parents believe to be acceptable, then thank goodness for the availability of helping, healing experts who can right the ship. The same goes for mothers. When we are tired or not at our best, we can all use a helping hand. An enormous part of the healthy postpartum transition is played by the community of support a mother can rally around her during those early weeks and months.
Yet what about when help isn’t actually needed? When, instead of giving a mother space to build confidence, a culture built on the buying and selling of goods and services deliberately sows doubt in her mind about her capability to execute? That, then, becomes a very different message and a very different problem. Are we silently, mindlessly, beginning to accept a model of zero-confidence in our own parenting abilities?
It has been proposed that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert at something. This can vary based on the domain we are discussing, but it refers roughly to ten years of solid practice, day in, day out, learning everything there is to know about a topic, figuring out its subtleties, its patterns and its idiosyncrasies. Based on this finding, it appears that we will all become experts on parenting, eventually, if we give ourselves the opportunity to be. If we are not afraid to jump into the fray and learn - painfully, slowly, pragmatically - what it takes to get there.
On the way, we will stumble, of course, but we’ll also hit a thousand little milestones of mastery. Every time we turn a corner, we’ll gain a little bit of the liquid gold of new parenthood: Confidence. Confidence that we cracked a code. Noted a pattern. Got ahead of the curve instead of behind it. With each new stage in our child’s life, there will be new challenges. Yet, armed with the confidence hard won by the riddles of previous stages, we can sally forth with heads held high. We won’t give up. We’ll keep trying. Because we have evidence we can figure these things out.
Without these little victories, without confidence, we can become passive recipients, afraid to roll up our sleeves and try. Because without confidence in our budding expertise we spend our days avoiding failure as opposed to chasing little victories. We won’t enquire, we won’t push back, and we won’t advance. We won’t learn a thing. We are ripe for those who would shoo us from the mothering scene and sell it back to us at three times the price.
Personally? I am going to keep clumsily sewing my daughter’s Halloween costumes. I don’t really care if she doesn’t wear them and we end up buying new ones. She’ll learn that her mother isn’t afraid to try to figure something out and keep at it. I am going to keep tinkering. Because I do have a lot of little victories.
So here’s the element of Expertise. May you allow yourself as many opportunities as possible to try, to discover, and eventually, to get better. May you see yourself as a work in progress and give yourself permission to make mistakes, get back in the saddle, keep your sense of perspective and keep practising.
Of course, if health or safety is at stake - call in the experts and make grateful use of their wisdom. A licensed expert on medicine, nutrition, sleep or any other published scientific evidence that can help solve a problem and keep a family healthy is a required ally. For the day to day adventures - we hope you will give yourself (and your confidence) a chance to also grow on their own. You are your own laboratory of parenting discoveries.You’re a baby guru in training.
We can’t wait to see you earn that PhD in mamahood and strut it proudly every chance you get. Don’t let yourself off the hook. Dig in. Try to learn something new. Practice constantly. Strive.
We betcha can!