Diapers, Crowd Control, Parenting, and Me

When I had my daughter, I didn’t have the sort of jitters most new parents have – the fears about not knowing what to do, about breaking the baby, about embarking on a whole new unfamiliar journey. Why? Because I’d already raised more children than the vast majority of parents ever will.

When I was in high school, I met a man with two young children, and when he heard how many siblings I’d had and the role I’d played in raising them, he said “I think you have more experience with this than I do!” In one sense he was right. I’d changed more diapers, wiped more noses, and washed more sticky faces than he probably ever will. Indeed, Quiverfull beliefs promised that as an older daughter I was learning how to be a mother, developing skills I would later use with my own gaggle of children. I used to buy this 100%. But now…I think there is a serious miscalculation involved in this idea.

It was my blogger friend Melissa who first made me really think about these things, to be honest. She discussed her many years of parenting experience before becoming an actual parent in a post she wrote about why she wishes she had gone to college:

Every morning, I get up and make breakfast for the family. We have potty breaks and diaper changes all around, and I negotiate outfits with toddlers. When everyone is dressed, I try to change out of my pajamas too. I spend the day corralling kids, nursing babies, reading them books and occasionally pulling out a messy project for them to try. I do the laundry and wash the dishes (most days anyways). I might read a book of my own in little snatches throughout the day, and if I’m lucky I might get a shot at a shower when my husband is home to watch the little kids.

Sounds like the life of any stay-at-home-mom, right? Except I’ve been doing it for 16 years, and I’m only in my mid-twenties.

She’s right. While I did have college as a break, I jumped right back in afterwards and, like Melissa, went almost seamlessly from raising siblings to raising my own child. Sometimes I wonder why I had a child right off. I can’t undo it now – and I wouldn’t want to! – but the reality is that, except for the time I spent at college, I’ve been raising children since I was a little girl. Like Melissa goes on to say, I sometimes feel like I’m simply on auto-pilot when it comes to parenting, or at least that that’s something I have to fight against. I have a friend who grew up like I did and is now married, but doesn’t want children for years to come, because, frankly, she wants a break. I mean, like me, she’s already raised numerous children.

Melissa drew my mind to something else, too. In a fascinating blog post on motherhood, she explains that she really wants to be the “fun mom,” but isn’t sure she how.

I can cook for 20 people without breaking a sweat. I can do 6 loads of laundry in one day. I can bathe 4 children at the same time. I can change a mean diaper.

She goes on to say that she doesn’t feel like she can always connect with her preschoolers. Mothering is more than just cooking and cleaning and diapering, after all. And Melissa says that not only did she never practice actual “mothering” when she acted as a surrogate parent to her siblings, she never saw it modeled by her own mother either:

I try to remember what memories I have of my mom playing with us kids. But honestly, my mom didn’t do all that much with us besides physical care and schoolwork. As a kid I cooked and cleaned on my own and she would check my work. My mom rarely came outside at all. My good day-to-day memories of my mom involve her playing with my hair while we talked in the evenings sometimes. There was the time when I was 6 and I got to stay up late a few nights in a row and read “The Courage of Sarah Noble” with her. When I was about 12 we did a short bible study together after the other kids went to bed. I have good memories of Christmas and birthdays too.

On this point my own experience differs slightly, though not entirely, from Melissa’s. True, my mother rarely came outside to play with us. True, we older ones, not my mother, pushed the younger ones on the swings. True, my mother spend a lot of her time cooking and cleaning and lesson planning. But at the same time, my mother did try her best to invest in each of us children individually, whether that meant a late night conversation, going out for ice cream, or simply special time while running errands. In addition, she read aloud to us extremely frequently, whether from a chapter book for the middle ones or from story books for the little ones. Mom’s time was limited and she had to split it between a whole bunch of kids, but for all those challenges she really did a great job.

But while mom mothered, I never did. I raised my siblings on autopilot, acting as a skilled manager rather than as a mother.

I was responsible for dressing my younger sisters in the morning. I could change a diaper faster than you can blink. I was a master at giving infants baths. When we had twenty or thirty people over for dinner, I could put together a feast, balancing the cooking of each dish and with my eye on the clock. I came up with an expert system for getting my siblings in and out of the shower and all cleaned in record time. I had the laundry down to a finely tuned system. I could clean and scrub and organize like no one else.

But when it came to anything beyond meeting the siblings’ physical needs (feeding, cleaning, clothing, diapering), well, mostly what I did was crowd control. I watched the kids while they played outside, or in the living room, or wherever. I ran the house while mom was gone, acting as manager and overseer. I made sure no one got hurt or broke the rules, and otherwise, I let them play. The reading to them and playing with them part? Yeah, not so much. I usually had a book in my own hand, or a piece of needlework, or some leftover homework. It was about crowd control, not about personal connections.

And now I have my own little girl. I’ve already raised more children than most people would ever dream of wanting, but I sometimes feel like I’m completely lost in parenting my own little one. Sure, I know how to change diapers. Sure, I don’t freak out when she pukes all over me. Sure, I’m not worried I’ll accidentally break her. But while I may be worlds ahead of other young parents in some ways, I’m way behind in others. I have to figure out how to raise my daughter as an individual when all my practice parenting involves raising numbers. I have to figure out how to be a mother rather than a manager. The experience I have is deceptive: I feel like I know how to raise kids, but to be perfectly honest, I don’t.

Melissa captures this in the comments thread on the post about why she wishes she had gone to college. A commenter chides Melissa as follows:

You have skills: sewing (I had to pay someone to make my daughter’s square dance dresses), caring for children (you probably could get a job at a daycare or run your own without blinking) etc. You don’t seem to value your skills but you have them.

Melissa responds with mastery:

I am thankful for the skills I received, sewing is fun to do sometimes, but I think I would go insane if I opened a daycare, I really need to find out what it’s like to do something else for a change. And while I knew how to physically care for a baby, pretty much all of my parenting skills I still had to learn myself after becoming a parent since my parents were highly controlling and punitive and I did not want to inflict that on my own children. So I am not going to credit them with those skills.

Like Melissa, the actual hands-on parenting experience I got growing up was that of a manager, not a mother, and this means that while I knew how to change a diaper or bring down a fever long before my daughter was born, I had no experience actually being a mother, let alone the mother of only one child. People assume that because I have twelve siblings parenting must be a snap for me, and while in some ways it is, in other ways it really isn’t. I have had to step off the auto-pilot in order to actually be a mother rather than a manager, and that means figuring a lot out from scratch.

And of course, this all leaves aside the whole “figuring out how to discipline constructively without spanking” thing, and the whole “teaching cooperation and respect instead of blind obedience” thing, and the whole “figuring out how to see my daughter as a separate individual and not an extension of myself.” Sometimes I feel like I’m just making it up as I go along!

Quiverfull promised that raising my siblings would give me everything I never needed to be a perfect parent. Indeed, after years of practice, I was told that being a mother would come naturally. But the problem with this is that parenting is so much more than knowing how to change a diaper or how to shower five children in under ten minutes or how to keep the laundry going with expert efficiency. SO much more.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.