Reading All the Parenting Books Just Made me Feel Like a Failure

Early parenthood is hard. Instead of needing to solve every problem, how about just coping?

I’ve always been uptight, and it just got worse when I had kids. So I’ve been working on it, starting with Mardi Gras. One stifling Lenten morning by the sandpit, a woman hiked up her maternity shorts and said, “You can either have a tidy house or happy, healthy children.” 

I felt a surge of love for her. People said things like that when my first child was a newborn, but I wrote them all off as slackers. 

“Yes, indeed,” I said. “At our house the Mardi Gras bead situation is out of control, and I just turn my head and look the other way.” I learned this from a friend whose husband leaves the Christmas tree up until Easter. 

A wispy-haired dad busted in, “You know, you have to watch those Mardi Gras beads because they’re from China. A lot of things from China have lead in them.” He patted his son’s wispy hair.

What is with these buzzkillers? First they try to peddle me the nonsense that is “nipple confusion,” and now they’re trying to take away my kids’ Mardi Gras? 

My kids had spent the previous Fat Tuesday up in a ladder together, both with drawn-on mustaches but one dressed as U2’s The Edge and the other as a ballerina. That year, Margot woke us up on Mardi Gras day by hollering from her crib, “Hey, Mister! Throw me something!” Our kids were a couple of maniacs, and thank goodness because that’s a pre-requisite for being a native New Orleanian. Now I was supposed to worry about poisoning them by letting them play with beads their customary three months after the holiday? They were standing in cardboard boxes and throwing them over the side, not eating them.

By sandpit day the kids were two and four, and I’d learned how to ignore buzzkillers. I had every right to complain about them, too, having been one myself. 

Breastfeeding was my first buzz-kill. There are tons of books on the subject, and tons of time to read while doing it. 

When James was a week old, the grandfatherly head of the pediatric practice called one morning just to check in. I could hardly hear him over the screams. “Have you tried a pacifier?” he enunciated. 

“Oh, no,” I shouted. “I’m breastfeeding.” 

“So?” he roared. 

“So, I don’t want him to get nipple confusion,” I said shrilly. The books said not to offer a pacifier or any nipple other than my own for the baby’s first two weeks. Otherwise, the child could possibly prefer the inferior nipple substitute and the whole thing was doomed. 

There was a faint thumping and a muffled moan. “In my 40 years of practice, I have yet to encounter a single case of this ‘nipple confusion’ of which you speak. Now, while I’m on the phone, I want you to get a pacifier and put it in that baby’s mouth.”

I wish I could say it was smooth sailing from there, but it wasn’t. For me, it was natural to continue in early motherhood doing what I’d always done, which was looking for answers in books. For James, it was natural to scream the house down.

After James and I mastered breastfeeding, I read about screaming. There were lots of reasonable techniques in The Happiest Baby on the Block that helped a tiny bit with James, and later a lot with Margot (another screamer). I had high hopes for a book called Secrets of the Baby Whisperer, and read it like the Bible. It told me how, from the very beginning, I could “start as I meant to go on.” I could establish a routine during James’ first days and use that routine to increase sleep periods and decrease fussiness: Eat, Activity, Sleep, then Time for You. The acronym was EASY, but my baby wasn’t easy. 

When the baby-care books failed, or, more precisely, made me feel like I’d failed, I went straight to the experts. We visited two pediatric gastroenterologists. The first advised me to go on a starvation diet, and later to stop breastfeeding and start soy formula. The second said that was a bunch of bunk and prescribed an antacid for James. He also said that it was possible I just had one of those fussy babies. 

After living through nine months of fussiness with James, I came to a conclusion. Being a baby is uncomfortable, some babies are more sensitive to this than others, and some babies are harder to soothe than others. 

I didn’t need a book to learn that time was the solution, and the choice was not what to do, but how to cope while waiting for the problem to vanish, or at least morph into another problem.

A mantra, perhaps, “Suck It Up,” would have done the job. Or, better yet, a mental image.

In the 70’s there was a soap commercial with the tagline, “Calgon, take me away!” The heroine was an embattled homemaker who relaxes in a frothy bubble bath and floats up into the clouds in a bubble tinged with pink. 

In my version, it’s a gleaming white clawfoot tub and my skin is dewy because of both the bubbles and my serenity. As my bubble rises toward the playroom ceiling, I extend a soapy arm over the side of the tub. I gaze down at the children.

Below me, James is lying on his back, clutching a posterboard guitar that is ripped in two, yelling, “Right now, right now, right now you have to put it back together!” He spins clockwise, powered by his stiff little legs. 

Just a few feet away, Margot is an island in a puddle of pee, looking down at her shoes quizzically. She looks up and says, “Oh, Mommy, look what happened.” 

The doorbell and the phone ring at the same time.  

I hear only the wet smack of the popping bubbles, smell only their lavender perfume. My skin is warm. How it glows.

I can only describe this feeling as a buzz.

Surrender, Dorothy


What a fool I was, expecting a free pass — or at least a discount — on toilet training my daughter. 

At that point I’d been a child psychologist for 15 years. At work they called me “the potty lady.” I dealt with it all, an unflappable coach who always had a change of clothes handy. I took an eight-year-old still in diapers and got him into Jockeys within a week. I cured a four-year-old of peeing only on the drapes and pooping only in the cat box. Sure, I was cocky. Who wouldn’t be? 

Also, I made my usual mistake, asking my mother how my own potty training had gone. 

“I don’t think I was involved,” my mother murmured, gazing into the distance. “I think you did it yourself.” Even as a toddler, I was that good. Keep this in mind, though: My mother is the same woman who claims not to remember my brother reaching across her to give me a black eye when we were teenagers.

About Margot: she’s dramatic. One summer, she was Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz: brown hair in braids, blue gingham dress, red shoes, stuffed terrier in a basket. So as soon as Margot hit her new preschool classroom, she proposed that they put on a play of which she’d be the star. And they did it. As I watched her strut to center stage and belt out the play’s final lines (“There’s no place like home”), I leaned over and asked my husband, “Who isthat girl?” 

I’ve never liked attention. But because my last name is Adams, I was always the first student called for her diploma. I’d amuse the audience by taking a convoluted route to the podium, stepping on my clothes or someone’s appendage, or otherwise dorking out. Then, I’d spend the rest of the ceremony berating myself internally. I knew Margot wasn’t going to be a Xerox of me, but I didn’t anticipate how often she’d amaze me.

“Margot was supposed to be easy,” I complained over the fence to my neighbor, Mimi, while taking out the trash. From the front room, with its Persian rug, Margot warbled a melodious, “uh-oh.”

“How bad can it be? What’s she doing?” Mimi asked.

“Yesterday when she woke up from her nap she called to me from her room, asking, ‘Mommy, do I just step over the poo-poos, or what?’ What did she think I was going to say? ‘Oh, yes, honey, that’s what Daddy and I do every morning when we wake up. Just step over them. Or you can jump if you’re feeling sporty.’”

Mimi asked in a low voice, “What sort of poop are we talking about?”

“Roly poly,” I elaborated.

“Well, at least it was solid. So easy to clean up.”

Oh, the many ways in which mothers reassure each other. I went back inside feeling better.

Margot and I had a standoff. Margot, who behaved exactly as the example children did in Azrin and Foxx’s Toilet Training in Less than a Day and was toilet trained within a few hours, reversed course after that nap. Sure, she would pee in the potty when the mood struck her, but poops could just go into the princess underwear, so that she could wear a whole coterie of different princesses per day. 

By the third day, I leveled with her: “Margot, you must not be ready to keep these underwear dry. You let me know when you’re ready to try again.” We put the princess underwear away, Margot giving them a sad little wave as we closed the drawer. After I helped her back into a diaper she seemed satisfied, though, as if she’d made some kind of headway.

A month after the initial toilet-training attempt, Margot appeared in the kitchen wearing Rapunzel underwear, and we were back in business. Still, we had some high-profile accidents ahead of us. When she was three, we went to a high school performance of The Wizard of Oz. As soon as the Wizard showed up, Margot covered her eyes and peed on my lap. 

“Mommy, why did you take me to that horrible play?” she asked when we got home. “I’m only a little girl.” 

All I could do was apologize. “How is it,” I asked my husband after Margot was asleep, “that she always makes me feel like an idiot?” Instead of the benevolent coach, calmly putting my experience to good use, I’ve ended up the bewildered observer, cleaning up the mess just like everyone else.  

Child psychologists don’t have it any easier as parents. With my own child, it’s not important what I know or what I’ve done for a living. All that’s important is my role in the drama: mother. If I feel like an idiot, if Margot feels like she’s succeeded in spite of me and not because of me, then I’m playing my role to a tee.

For Margot, victory is sweetest after a struggle. She has to be the General, or better yet Dorothy, our plucky heroine who gets herself out of a tight spot and back to Kansas. Remember, Dorothy’s mother was dead. And Auntie Em was no help. It was the wicked witch who sent Dorothy that awful smoke signal, telling her to surrender, and it only made her fight harder.