Juniper got her first round of vaccinations the other week, which made me feel like a good and responsible parent. What made me feel less good and responsible was the part of the pediatrician visit where the doctor asks, "Where's she sleeping?"
"Her bassinet," I say, which is not a lie but also not fully the truth.
She does sleep in her Snoo-- a "smart" bassinet that we rented for the first six months of her babyhood-- but she also occasionally sleeps in places she's not supposed to, like her Dock a Tot, her car seat, our bed, her Baby Bjorn bouncer, my chest, propped up on the Boppy nursing pillow after a bad morning of reflux. We're not leaving her on the hood of the car unsupervised, but I'm not always supervising her as closely as I should, because that's not physically possible, because sometimes I'm the only one home, the baby is finally sleeping somewhere she shouldn't, and Mommy needs to take a shit. I know that research shows that it's safest for the baby to sleep alone in her back in a bassinet without anything else in it, but sometimes she won't sleep that way, it's 3 in the morning, and it's been days since I've successfully entered NREM sleep, and the choice is for her to sleep with us or for nobody to sleep at all.
Have we tried swaddling? Yes. It only works about 50% of the time. She has figured out what swaddling is for. She has outsmarted us.
How about white noise? May I invite you to check out our gerryrigged triple white noise setup involving an immortal JBL BlueTooth speaker that earlier in its life was used to blast chest-clutching hits of the overwrought 1980's for parties and now is used mostly to play a three hour block of continuous baby-soothing white noise I found on Spotify. White noise works maybe 75% of the time.
Have we tried putting her down for sleep when she first shows signs of being tired? My husband read a Bible-thick book about baby sleep before she was born and has forgotten more about the "right" way to get a baby to nap than I'll ever know. The "put her down when she first seems tired" trick works about one out of three times.
All of these safe sleep ideas look neat and tidy written down in step-by-step instructions, but nothing about parenting is neat, tidy, or step by step. Doing things the right way is not always possible, nor does it always get results. I know I'm not perfect and frankly, I spend enough time telling this to myself that I don't need to hear it from a doctor.
Our pediatrician is not the first doctor I've fibbed to. Many a dentist has been told that I floss regularly (even though I've been told by dental professionals that they can tell by looking-- so why ask?!). In the past, I have lied about how many alcoholic drinks per week I consumed, my stress levels, frequency of marijuana use. I already knew those things were not good for me. I didn't need a doctor to waste their medical degree explaining something to me that I already knew.
Pregnancy is a minefield of impossible standards, all of which put the onus on the mother to make perfect personal sacrifices or be blamed if something goes wrong. Which means it's a time that a lot of us lie about how well we're taking care of ourselves. Most friends I've asked have admitted that they'd have an occasional glass of wine with dinner when they were pregnant, even though the official guidance is that "no amount of alcohol is safe." Pregnant women are told that they should exercise for half an hour per day, but tell that to a woman who can't get out of bed without puking during her first trimester, or who can't walk three blocks without her feet swelling up in her third. Some doctors tell their patients to only sleep on one particular side during pregnancy to ensure blood flow to their gestating babies, which, for women who are not made of the same material as Gumby, means neck pain-- We are not made to sleep in one position for eight hours! Pregnant women are told to avoid lunch meat, sushi, oysters, runny eggs, coffee, all painkillers except Tylenol, many medications, vigorous exercise, soft cheeses. That Emily Oster book that everybody reads helped ease my mind on some issues, but that doesn't mean that we admit all of the ways we slipped up to our doctors, or to anybody else for that matter, since when it comes to a woman's conduct during pregnancy, everybody's an armchair obstetrician.
When I take Juniper to the pediatrician I have to fill out a questionnaire about my postpartum mental health, and I fudge the answers to that, too. One of the statements reads "I have blamed myself unnecessarily when things have gone wrong." I have a choice between "Yes, most of the time," "Yes, some of the time," "no, not very often" and "no, never." My "real" answer to that question is "yes, most of the time," but I always mark "not very often" to juice my score so I don't get a lecture about how I should try such depression-busting tricks as getting more exercise (when?!) or try returning to hobbies of yore (when?) and end up leaving the appointment irritated. (Also I take issue with the wording in that question. The word "unnecessarily" is doing a lot of heavy lifting, and if you're actually anxious or depressed, wouldn't you see the blame you put on yourself as necessary? But I digress.)
Medical guidance for safe parenting practices is presented in a similar manner to how safe sex is taught under the direction of Ned Flandersy government officials-- the only contraception method that is 100% effective is abstinence; the only sleep that is 100% safe is in a bassinet, alone, with no blankets or pillows. The only safe pregnancy avoids everything that could, in a rare worst case scenario, lead to disaster (except for minimizing the environmentally ubiquitous fetus-damaging poison that big polluters are pouring into our air and water, because what we love doing as a society is pretending that we can compensate for unaddressed structural problems or heartbreaking randomness through individual choices). The only acceptable food for a newborn is colostrum. The only acceptable amount of screen time is no screen time. Teaching people the second or third-safest alternative might give people some crazy ideas.
The problem with perfection-only parenting guidance is that once a parent discovers that less-than-perfect isn't the disaster they were warned it would be, they stop taking expert advice as seriously. Or, if they're like me, they try to follow the "rules," find the "rules" impossible, and fill the space between what is and what should be with guilt and annoyance. Is having a guilt-ridden mother who doesn't feel like she can be totally honest with medical professionals a health benefit to a baby? What amount of guilt is safe?