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.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15809248960102035040 Ashton

    "Sometimes I feel like I'm just making it up as I go along!" This statement could apply to every day of my life and I don't even have any kids. I think we all have to learn a lot about things like living on our own when we become adults. I know I do.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06401440551873070129 Elin

    I think it is natural that you don't know how to be a mother before you are a mother regardless if you have 12 brothers or sisters or not. I have changed diapers and I have worked in kindergartens so I am used to children but I don't know what kind of mother I am going to be or what challenges there will be. I assume patience would be one but I don't know for sure.I also think it is natural that you want to use the good things from your parents' teachings and parenting but still find another way for the things you don't like as much. Really, despite your background I would have been surprised if you had been fully prepared for motherhood before being a mother. I think that if you use an older child to help take care of younger ones that this person is crowd control and not the mother, if he/she is, that shows the family is severely dysfunctional.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00629727123135969063 Nome

    I know what you are saying, I'm not minimizing it at all. I didn't take care of siblings growing up, I was the youngest of two! I did work childcare jobs, teach swimming and art, nanny, work at camps etc…all sorts of child focused and in charge of type jobs and it is NOTHING like mothering your own kid. I was actually pretty strict as a caregiver but tend to be more flexible with my own three…it really is quite interesting I think. There are those days I'm worn out with my own, that I do feel just like crowd control, just on auto pilot as you wrote. Occasionally I will babysit a friends child or two for a day and those days I am a much more engaged parent because I have to be closer and less into housework because the more kids need more attentiveness. I think it is all fascinating. Thank you for writing your thoughts.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17500128753102750833 Mommy McD

    I am the eldest of 3 so the experience is different but I related to a lot of what you are saying. I took care of my brothers when I was in high school and my parents were going through their somewhat messy divorce, and like you say it was more like managing than parenting. I mean, siblings shouldn't take on parental roles anyhow. I had my first daughter when I was 20 and my second at 22. I didn't really get much of a break between living with my parents and having my own kids, so I think I don't engage as much as I ought to because I am trying to get in more "me" time. There is a balance though, and I am learning how to engage with their interests while I do those auto pilot tasks. My 4 year old likes to help with chores, and my 19 month old just likes repeating words and singing songs. Let me say that having two kids is quite a bit different than having just the one. Their relationship with each other is special as well, so it gives me a bit more time to myself. Of course i let my eyes off them and they draw all over the walls with a sharpie, but that's life haha.I've never felt like a homemaker expert though. Not even close – I am a lousy stay-at-home-parent/ spouse if you judge by how clean and organized it is(n't) or my (lack of) cooking skills.

  • Anonymous

    To use a military metaphor, then you were the sergeant, now you're the CO.

  • http://www.ayoungmomsmusings.blogspot.com Melissa @ Permission to Live

    We were told that we were preparing for our highest calling, that we would know soooo much more about parenting than all those other moms, because we had a head start knowing how to do absolutely everything related to childrearing. I wrote about how those expectations backfired in this series Permission to Live: Motherhood after growing up Quiverfull: Part 2I also loved how this lady put it after growing up in a large fundamentalist Catholic family http://nowealthbutlife.com/housewife/ "This type of training takes all the adventure out of discovering housekeeping for yourself."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10353346026765317698 College At Thirty

    I think most parents feel like they're making things up as they go along. I clearly have no children, but I have nieces, and I was frankly terrified when the first one was put into my arms. How do I relate to her? Even when I was a child, I wasn't a child! I never *have* been able to relate to children. The great thing about them is that if you let them, they'll teach you. Last night in class, my teacher posed a series of philosophical questions, and we had to form groups and tackle one question. My partner and I chose "how do I accomplish life-long learning?" and our biggest answer was to listen to people above and below you. It seems that the Quiverful cult diminishes the role of children in society, boxing them into "Boys" "Girls" and "Caretakers", but doesn't allow for them to lead or teach or be heard.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15824217102632813598 Tanit-Isis

    I find your discussions of the differences between parenting one and parenting many really fascinating. When my first daughter was born, I had never changed a diaper—I remember waiting for one of the nurses to show me how, only to realize that they weren't going to. On the other hand, playing, cuddling, tickling, reading stories—those I was well prepared for. My father-in-law is one of eighteen children, and while they weren't a strictly religious family, I definitely get an impression of assembly-line parenting and little to no individual affection from talking to him. It definitely didn't provide him with any kind of blueprint for being a part of a "normal" family—something I think he's still figuring out to this day.

  • Anonymous

    My first post here…love your blog Libby. What I wonder about is if any of these young kids being auto pilot parented by older siblings are getting hugs, kisses, books read to them, games played with them etc…..every parent is busy and can't always do these things but interaction with your kids is crucial to their development.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12301770958254113165 LucrezaBorgia

    While I never had a bunch of siblings, I've been in childcare so long and with lots of babies that I feel I have the mechanics down pat…the connecting part…not so much.