Somewhere along the line, maybe at a garage sale or antique store, I picked up a book called “Don’ts for Mothers.” The word “Don’ts” is underlined. It’s a small hard-covered book, about four inches high and three inches wide, that says at the bottom “1878,” though it’s in such pristine condition, the book has clearly been re-issued.
I bought it because I like old books. They hearken back to a time when people used loftier language, like the word “Anon,” and invoked God when doling out mundane advice about things like diet and daily ablutions.
Under a section entitled “Ablution,” it says, “Don’t feel it necessary to wash your infant’s head with brandy.” It further states, “Don’t use white lead as a powder. Some are in the habit of using it, but as this is a poison, it ought on no account be resorted to.”
The book says, “Don’t allow a babe’s clothes to become wet with urine. Children can be taught cleanliness, by putting a vessel under their lap when there is a sign of evacuation and will soon be not content to do without it.” So I guess I didn’t need to buy eight cartoons about potty time, featuring Elmo and other recognizable cartoon characters, all going to the bathroom, wiping and then flushing the toilet.
Under “Diet,” the book says, “Don’t add either gin or oil of peppermint to the babe’s food. It is a murderous practice.” Upon reading that, I threw out my gin and peppermint oil.
“Don’t gorge the babe with food, it makes him irritable, cross and stupid; cramming him with food might bring on convulsions.” It’s hard to imagine that over-feeding my child would make him stupid, but I’ve thought lesser things I’ve done would cause far more damage, so I guess anything’s possible.
“Don’t put glaring colors, a lighted candle or anything that glitters opposite the infant’s bed.” Well, I guess there goes the snowman night light that he asks for every night – as well as the glow-in-the-dark stars I just pasted on his ceiling.
Under “Health,” it says, “Don’t use a pacifier. Its prolonged use is harmful, and is apt to be followed by thick, misshapen lips, irregular teeth, and a deformed palate.” Eddie still uses a pacifier at night, and he’s now two. For now, it soothes him in a way I cannot, lest I stand next to him every night for half an hour until he falls asleep. I’m probably more addicted to it at this point than he is.
“Don’t kiss your infant on the mouth. Diphtheria, tuberculosis and syphilis have often been communicated in this manner.” While it’s hard to imagine giving my child syphilis, I’ve found other good reasons not to kiss him on the mouth.
As I continued to read this little book – which started to feel like it had a bossiness that far exceeded its size – I began to notice a pattern: whatever the book told me not to do, I had invariably been doing.
“Don’t put a carpet down in the nursery as it harbors dirt and dust.” Too late.
“Don’t allow children to wear tight bands round their waists. It is truly a reprehensible practice.” How else am I supposed to know when he’s outgrown his clothes!
“Don’t suppress noise. If he chooses to blow a whistle, or to spring a rattle, or make any other hideous noise which to him is sweet music, he should be allowed to do so.” God, I hate when he yells in my ear.
“Don’t allow your nursery walls to be covered with green paper-hangings.” I don’t know what that is, but I’m sure we have it.
But even if I wanted to dismiss the book’s advice as outdated, I had my own list of right and wrong that I seemed to violate. My pediatrician said I shouldn’t let Eddie nap more than two-and-a-half hours, and yet there are days when his nap reaches that limit, and instead of waking him, I sometimes continue to work for another half an hour.
I’m not supposed to yell at him, and yet when he fights me on getting into the bath, and then getting out of the bath, and then putting on his socks, and then his diaper, I’ve raised my voice to the point where he’s cried.
I’m supposed to bathe him every day, and yet on weekends, we’ll sometimes skip the bath on both Saturday and Sunday, even when I’ve noticed his hair is so sticky, it adheres to my hand.
He’s not supposed to watch too much TV, and yet now and again, I’ll have a story due and then dinner to make, and he might sit on the couch watching Curious George and Thomas the Train episodes for an hour-and-a-half.
It’s hard to mother perfectly, and I always thought I would have been better at it, but so far, my son seems relatively healthy and relatively happy – even if when his classmates are all building towers out of Lego’s, he’s the one who walks by and knocks them down. I guess the one rule I’d add to the book, “Don’ts for Mothers,” is “Don’t be too hard on yourself.”