When Parental Instincts Compete With Societal Expectations

What if we can’t always parent on instinct? What if our experiences of our children compete with our instincts as adult human beings?

It’s a cool, clear summer night in Binghamton, New York, with faint, jewel-stud stars beginning to fix overhead in the purpled sky. I’m sitting outside on a gravel patio with my mother, my cousin-by-marriage, and her three-month-old daughter, who is cradled football-style in the crook of her mother’s arm, exuberantly nursing.

We are sitting outside not because the weather is lovely, though it is, but because my own daughter, six months old, is in the upstairs bedroom of my mother’s drafty farmhouse, crying herself to sleep in a pack-and-play. It’s our first night in my hometown to visit family, and after three weeks of practice in Wisconsin, I had hoped we would have this sleep-training thing down by now. But we don’t. My willful girl’s hollers can be heard two floors down, and I feel a little like I might die.

My cousin’s baby is not hollering. In fact, when she finishes nursing, the baby gets passed between my mother and me, smiling brightly and gurgling interestedly at our unfamiliar faces. Since arriving in New York several hours ago, my daughter has allowed my mother—her doting, devoted grandmother—to glance in her general direction about three times, and has otherwise velcroed herself to my clothes, her surprisingly strong baby fists stretching out the collar of my shirt so that it now hangs loosely around my neck like something I picked up at the thrift store.

Jason, my husband, is still in Wisconsin. I’m flying, literally and metaphorically, solo while he packs up our house so we can move to Boston for my new tenure-track teaching position. Even when Jason is there to reassure me that what we’re doing—letting our baby cry it out—is not harmful, to hold me to our plan when I feel my resolve cracking, I’m not comforted. Like most things about parenting, I find myself adrift in competing ideas: philosophies, methods, old wives’ tales, and books upon books upon books.

I watch as my cousin assembles her breast pump and hear the staccato aspirating sound of its stimulation setting. The breast pump is another bane of my existence. I’ve never pumped more than an ounce of milk even with a hospital-grade pump, not that it would matter since my daughter refuses to take a bottle anyway. The sterile bags attached to the flanges of the pump fill quickly even though my cousin has just nursed her child; within minutes, she has several ounces ready to be frozen.

“How often do you pump?” I ask her, sitting forward in my chair. “Do you give her bottles everyday, or only when someone else is watching her? How do you know when she’s had enough from a bottle versus when she breastfeeds?”

My cousin looks up with a vaguely mystified face. She shifts her daughter over her shoulder to be burped, and continues to ignore the upstairs crying that’s now finally diminished into exhausted whimpering. “Huh,” she says. “I don’t know. I just do what seems right, I guess. It’s mostly instinct.”


That scene took place nearly two years ago, and if I feel any closer to parenting by instinct, it’s only because I know my daughter better now. I know, for instance, that she’s a sensitive child who takes her time warming to new people and experiences. I know that she prefers routine—the same wake and bed times, the same cucumber snacks, the same episodes of Sesame Street. I know that she doesn’t like to get her hands dirty with food, paint, or anything sticky, but will happily sit in a rain puddle, fully-clothed, and splash for hours. I know that large crowds and loud noises upset her. I know that she has an excellent memory, and enjoys the process of learning through repetition.

This might sound like I regret sleep training my daughter, but I don’t. The reasons we decided to do it were not entirely about her. My new job would necessitate missing bedtime on occasion, and so time was of the essence in getting our baby to fall asleep without nursing, and preferably without waking the neighbors with her screams about not nursing.

But had I known all the things I do now about my daughter, I might have modified the training process. Or I might not have. The thing is—and this may be parenting blasphemy here—I neither always choose what’s best for my child, nor do I always know what is best for her.


“In blue ink, I wrote out the parts of my maternal identity that I could not sacrifice or change, the things I knew I had to do in order to live with myself,” writes Kim Brooks in her powerful meditation on mothering and artistic creation for New York Magazine’s The Cut. On this list, Brooks writes out the basic needs of feeding, bathing, and taking her children to school, along with more personal priorities, like reading to them and helping them feel like “human beings, worthy of respect.”

Then, in red ink, Brooks makes another list of the anxieties that take up headspace and intrude on her artistic energy:

The white noise of parenthood. The low-level, chronic hum of anxious agitation. I wrote about playdates and birthday parties and parent nights and after-school activities and fund-raisers. I wrote about music lessons and dance lessons and swim lessons and soccer and Little League. I wrote about high-fructose corn syrup, about screen time, about standardized-test scores, about their academic performance and their social-emotional development. The list went on in this vein for seven pages.

I profoundly identify with Brooks’ red-ink list. Before my daughter was born, I was working furiously on a grief memoir that, since her birth, is now also about grieving in early motherhood. But lately, though I am working furiously during all the waking hours of my life, I’m mostly either working on my day job, or my daughter’s ever-busier life.

In our gentrified Boston neighborhood, where we are privileged enough to rent, but not wealthy enough to buy a home, toddlers can take three varieties of music classes, at least two versions of paint ’n play classes, and Little Movers classes. There’s storybook time at the animal shelter, where kids can play with adoptable pets and color on long swaths of wax paper lining the floor. There’s toddler drumming. There are play dates (mine, thankfully, come with wine). There are swim lessons, which my daughter will start this summer. All of these options are lovely ways for parents, so often isolated from their extended families, to build villages for their burgeoning families, and to—here’s another buzzword—enrich their children’s lives.

But all of these opportunities also push me back into comparison mode. Is my kid overscheduled or underscheduled? Watching too much TV? Gaining age-appropriate social skills? Getting enough fresh air? Showing enough interest in her potty? Learning her numbers and ABC’s? I could easily make another 7-page list.

In the age of elimination communication and daycare that’s called “school,” I can’t help feeling like we’re already behind. See what I did there with the pronoun “we”? I conflated my child with my parenting of her, as though these things are one and the same. They are not. Nor are my “instincts” (read: my education, my disposition and priorities, my sense of right and wrong) about parenting necessarily the same as my “instincts” (read: my experiences and observations) about my child.

This month, we received word that one of the four preschools to which we submitted applications when our daughter was 18 months old, has a slot available for her beginning in September. To keep that spot, we need to put down a $1K non-refundable deposit by April 25th. This is money we don’t happen to have at the moment because we owe on our federal taxes this year, and also because my husband’s contract work has recently dried up.

Instinct, in this case, is up against reality. As an educator, I’m eager for my daughter to start school. I believe in the importance and power of education to shape and change lives, and because I work full-time, I’m not able to provide my daughter with constant enrichment at home. But we cannot, at this time, afford to send her to this no doubt excellent preschool.

I also have a competing instinct that my daughter may not be ready for school. So much can change between now and September, I know, and children adjust better than we give them credit for, and it’s good for kids to learn how to do what they might not want to do, and all that. But I don’t have until September to make a decision. I only have now.

What if we can’t always parent on instinct? What if our experiences of our children compete with our instincts as adult human beings? I watch other parents and admire so much about their parenting, but I have to stay vigilant with myself, checking for disconnect between what I admire and what’s best for my family—for my daughter, for my husband, and for me. For example, I happen to love the philosophies of Montessori education, but its less structured style would almost surely not be best for my daughter. Sleep training was likely a long, difficult process because it required her to make a sudden change from the routine of nursing to sleep that she’d grown accustomed to. I, on the other hand, had no choice about going back to work. Instinct can’t carry us far in situations like this. And parenting is full of situations like this.

I applaud anyone who raises small people solely from the confidence of their guts. But for parents whose lives circumscribe their parenting choices, and whose guts, like mine, roil with competing messages—What’s most important? For whom?—this is for you. I will be like my mother and my cousin, and keep you company if your child cries learning how to sleep (an important skill), or reassure you that most kids aren’t potty-trained until age 3, or tell you that my brilliant husband never went to preschool. I will know that your choices are probably as impossible as mine. I will celebrate your making them anyway.

Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She currently lives in Boston, MA, with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Other Links: