baby books

Everything I Know About Parenting I Learned From Kids’ Books

Photo: Melissa Ross/Getty Images

At my first prenatal checkup almost three years ago, the nurse gave me a thick reference book to help guide me through pregnancy. I read it immediately, dutifully, growing simultaneously panicked and bored by the lists of foods and medications to avoid, possible complications, and pictures of enormously pregnant, enormously happy women. That should have been enough to stop me, but it wasn’t. A friend sent the Ina May Gaskin canon. Another passed on the infamous information overload What to Expect When You’re Expecting. I hated the way these books were written — the dull smugness of the language, the alarming demands, and the subjective-case examples. And yet I read on, hypnotized by diagrams and recommendations and the endless possible outcomes that awaited my body and my baby.

We are lucky to have so much information accessible to us, most of it written by well-meaning “experts” who, presumably, really want to make parenting easier. But it’s hard not to feel judged, insufficient, and deflated, especially when the purported cure-all cures nothing, or simply isn’t a possibility. It’s deeply frustrating to read about how much better other cultures are at parenting, while living in a country that blatantly refuses to adopt those cultures’ superior parental leave and health-care policies, policies that are statistically proven to improve the health and well-being of both children and their parents.

But it wasn’t until I actually became a parent that I realized what, in hindsight, seems like the obvious problem with parenting books. Like anything that seeks to offer advice across diverse populations and circumstances, parenting books set unrealistic expectations that only a fraction of the population will be able to adhere to. The group most obviously, controversially guilty of this is the attachment-parenting gurus led by the Doctors Sears who urge parents (mothers mostly) to stay home (even if that means taking out a loan), nursing on demand through toddlerhood, co-sleeping, and “baby-wearing” (in place of and not in addition to using a stroller). Certainly, some of these recommendations benefit both mother and baby, but the kind of stringent advice offered in the Sears’s plentitude of books and articles is biased, outwardly favoring women of privilege, women who do not suffer from limiting health issues, and women who do not wish to pursue their own careers.

The real reason I don’t read parenting books, though, is that I think they’re boring. I am fascinated by pregnancy, by childbirth, by the politics that continue to surround modern motherhood. But when it comes to nap schedules and tummy-time techniques, I really don’t care. It’s possible I should feel guilty about this, but I don’t. Parenting advice should feel meaningful. Instead, it feels arbitrary and monotonous, like the subjects in school I could never force my brain to absorb — someone else’s haphazard and bossy outline of how I should be.

It occurs to me that the literature of parenting is boring because parenting is often boring. No matter how much you wanted a child, after the tenth diaper change and the 13th run-through of “The Wheels on the Bus,” things can get mind-numbingly monotonous. Children, however, are not boring. My daughter, almost 2 now, is wild and hilarious and infuriating and entirely herself. She’s feral, a friendly and terrifying monster. She’ll kiss my face and pull out a handful of my hair in one swift movement. I know exactly how she feels, but I’ve been an adult for so long that it’s hard for me to imagine acting on my feelings with so much unapologetic freedom. Being around her helps me remember.

For me, choosing to have a baby was a mostly selfish decision. I don’t need children to work on my farm or carry on my family name. I did it because I liked being a child. Because I like children. I like their senses of humor and curiosity, and the way they appreciate animals with a studious obsession. I like how interesting they are, and how strange. What parenting books so often lack is an appreciation of this untamed and complex magic. Instead, the people who most appreciate children, it seems, aren’t the ones who write for parents, but the ones who write for kids. “Children do live in fantasy and reality,” wrote visionary children’s-book author Maurice Sendak. “They move back and forth very easily in a way we no longer remember how to do.”

Children’s books remind me how to access this in-between space, but they also remind me why I became a parent. They’ve given me the opportunity to better understand my daughter through, say, the kids in this weird, dated book who smuggle a kitten past their stick-in-the-mud parents and into their room. Or to consider the meaning behind her bizarrely specific tastes in characters and stories. Why is she so interested in the placid, moose-looking Zans, who has a set of horns that can open cans? She likes it so much that she says she has a Zans, downstairs, in the cabinet. What is it about the plotless Good Night Vermont that has so captured her attention? Is it the country store? The snow dog? The sugar shack? We’ve read it at least 100 times. Meanwhile, she is entirely uninterested in the books with clear, heartwarming morals. “Look,” I say, of the stalkerlike quest of the Runaway Bunny’s mother. “The mother bunny will follow her little bunny anywhere.” My daughter pushes my hand away, skips straight to the page where there are no words, only a slightly creepy circus in full swing. We stay there for a long time.

Most children’s books don’t have a lot of people in them. Their protagonists are monsters and dogs, cats and monkeys. When they do have children, the children are often alone. My daughter is particularly fond of the Good Dog, Carl series, which features a Rottweiler who looks after a baby while the baby’s mother goes out, to shop, have tea with a friend, attend a masquerade ball. Everyone has a great time, obviously, and I imagine that my daughter wishes I would follow suit — leave her alone with the dog so they could raid the refrigerator, have a crazy dance party, and then almost drown in the fish tank. Perhaps she doesn’t appreciate the choices I make about her well-being, or the things I do to keep her alive. What she does appreciate are the trumpeting sounds I make for the stomping, moonlit parade of the monsters in Where the Wild Things Are. I’ve never been one to break out in song, much less trumpeting, but my daughter gives me permission. I can bring out the Wild Rumpus anywhere.

Thinking about the time I wasted reading books about pregnancy, or Googling “baby won’t sleep” in the middle of the night, makes me sad. That information never landed me in a different place. I should have been reading Dr. Seuss all along: “Look what we found, in the park, in the dark. We will take him home. We will call him Clark. He will live at our house, he will grow and grow. Will our mother like this? We don’t know.” Seuss’s words are ominous and exciting, not unlike the early days of parenting. In the same book, another important message: “Today is gone. Today was fun. Tomorrow is another one. Every day, from here to there, funny things are everywhere.” It’s true, if you let it be that way.

There’s a book that my daughter loves that at first I thought was incredibly dull. It’s called Tap the Magic Tree, and it follows the development of a tree from winter to spring and back again. Is a tree really this book’s only character, I thought, half-heartedly following the book’s instructions to tap my fingers against the illustrations of a tree to make the leaves, then blossoms appear. All through the impossibly snowy winter, we read that book together, and all winter she was amazed and delighted. And then the snow started to melt, and we went outside and there were green buds on the trees. And it really was amazing, and I realized it was me, with my linear, grown-up imagination, who was dull. “Birds,” says my daughter. And it’s true. They’ve arrived, sitting on the branches. Just like the book said they would be.

Everything I Know About Parenting I Learned From Kids’ Books