This is the third post of what was supposed to be a two-part series leading up to Mother's Day. The other posts are as follows: John Piper's Advice for Exhausted New Moms Better Advice for Exhausted New Moms (or Dads) Better Resources for Exhausted New Moms (or Dads) - this one Better Support for Exhausted New Moms (or Anyone Facing a Short-term Struggle) - forthcoming
There is a lot of well meaning but unhelpful advice for new moms out there.
Not too long after Queen Bee was born, a friend who had also recently given birth texted a brief talk by John Piper, titled “Soul Care for Exhausted Young Mothers,” to a group of fellow moms I was a part of. My friend said it had been very encouraging to her. I, however, found it to be the opposite.
In the first post of this series, we focused on some specific critiques of Mr. Piper’s article, getting to the root of why I found his words discouraging. We also looked which words of his I found actually encouraging. The following week, I offered my own, contrasting advice for exhausted parents of a newborn, namely, to slow down and to give yourself grace.
Next week, I plan to take a look at how churches can better support parents of newborns. The good news is, many already do this! But there are enough that don’t, or that do so inconsistently, that I feel it worth offering some measurable outcomes, simply to use as a rubric or guidelines.
This week’s post is less of a narrative and more of a list of resources that I have found particularly helpful, as well as some guidelines to keep in mind when doing your own research of parenting resources. Because the woman writing to John Piper mentioned a husband, I’m also including some marriage materials I’ve found particularly helpful.
Personally, I don’t have a problem using non-Christian resources, being willing to filter through a Scriptural lens anything that I’m not comfortable with. But I am aware that there can be awkwardnesses to navigate with some secular resources, and that some people prefer things from a specifically Christian worldview, which is why I’ll note if a resource is specifically Christian.
Giant disclaimer – I am not a pediatrician, a counselor, a child development expert, etc. I am just a mom and wife who is saying what I’ve personally found helpful. Treat these like you would an Amazon or Yelp review from a complete stranger.
Parenting an Infant
Your best source for parenting a newborn is going to be your pediatrician or family doctor. That is because, unlike theologians and pastors, they are required to complete a certain amount of continuing education to update their knowledge of current research and keep their medical licenses up-to-date. So they are unlikely to make the mistake of telling you to leave a newborn on a bed, on their tummy, surrounded by pillows for three hours, like Mr. Piper advised a new mom (advice which was proven to be dangerous 30 years ago, as bereaved mother Anne Diamond attested during a campaign to save infant lives).
That being said, the book Heading Home With Your Newborn, From Birth to Reality was a really helpful resource for me, personally. Written by two pediatricians who are also mothers, it is well-organized, practical, conversational, and avoids being overwhelming. There are also a number of other, similar books specifically recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics that could likely be helpful during the first year of a child’s life. (Disclaimer: David’s mother is a retired pediatrician and Christian, she’s the one who gave us this book.) Remember, the most important job of a newborn is staying alive (see previous post), so the advice of medical professionals takes precedence.
And if your baby happens to be a good waker instead of a good sleeper, I found this Baby Sleep Science website, put together by two medical professionals, invaluable when figuring out when and how to sleep train Miss Bee, our oldest. It tells you what is typical for an infant and helps address common setbacks in the quest for rest.
And if it’s less advice and more simply words of affirmation and encouragement that you’re looking for, Laura Thomas’s blog Missionary Mama might fit the bill. Though she posts infrequently, her words are contemplative and invariably uplifting in a Christ-centered manner, whether you are a parent of a newborn or an older child.
General Parenting and Marriage Resources
The three resources that have most made me a better parent are those by Sheila Wray Gregoire, Drs. Paul and Vickie Jenkins, and Dr. John Gottman.
And to the new parents of infants who may happen to have stuck with me thus far, I’d say that most of the parenting resources that follow can wait until your child hits the toddler stage, particularly if you’re feeling overwhelmed at the moment. The marriage advice could be helpful at any time, I imagine.
My one caveat is regarding the use of pain to discipline an infant. Based on my experiences at a former (large and growing, hardly fringe) church, I know that some parenting resources and pastors preaching from the pulpit advocate the use of pain (whether firmly flicking the back of a child’s hand or a swat with an open palm on a child’s bottom) even for infants. Spanking in general is not a topic I want to wade into here, because I know it is a minefield and I want the time and space to walk carefully. But before you choose the route of spanking for an infant, be aware that even James Dobson does not advocate spanking before the age of 15 months for a child. People who advise otherwise are giving advice that is fringe and extreme, even if they don’t realize it. Also, people who advise “spanking” children (once out of the infant stage) with anything other than an open palm on a child’s fully clothed bottom are using the word “spanking” as a euphemism for child abuse. I realize this sounds harsh. These people may very well love children and have good intentions and not realize otherwise, but that doesn’t soften the fact that their well-intentioned advice does very real damage. There are better options out there, some of which are listed below, and there is no shame in realizing you may have been following bad advice and that it’s time for a change. It may be scary if you find yourself in this situation, but I just want to tell you, there is hope on the other side.
That being said, let’s sally forth.
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Sheila is a stay-at-home / homeschooling mom turned prolific Christian blogger and speaker. She also has a weekly podcast, if podcasts are more your jam. She writes mostly about marriage, but also has a number of worthwhile parenting resources.
For parenting, I’d start with her book, Raising Kids You Actually Like. It’s an ebook that’s easy readable (chapters are based off of her blog posts), well organized, and very practical. If the title alone isn’t enough to pique your interest, some of her chapter titles include: How to Stop Temper Tantrums Before They Start, Top 10 Ways to Discipline Without Spanking, How Do I Stop Yelling At My Kids?, Managing Vs Mentoring, Planning for Poverty (when encouraging responsibility in children), and What Are Your Kids Leaving Home With? (when looking to the future).
If your children are approaching puberty, she also has a course (a separate one for boys and a separate one for girls) that can help walk parents through that awkwardness. My kids aren’t quite there yet, but I purchased the course version for girls and have (slowly) started going through it. So far, I like what I see. It treats normal biological changes as, well, normal. Not something to be ashamed of. And given how she has talked about modesty and purity in other places on her blog and books, I anticipate similar attitudes will be expressed in the puberty course.
For marriage, I’d start with Sheila’s book Nine Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage, Because a Great Relationship Doesn’t Happen by Accident, where she specifically tackles “pat” answers to common marriage dilemmas, and takes it deeper. Some of her chapter titles include: My Husband is My Neighbor; I Can’t Mold My Husband into My Image; I’m Called to Be a Peacemaker, Not a Peacekeeper; and If I’m Not Careful, We’ll Drift Apart. From her blog, I’d suggest starting with her series on mental load or direct communication. And my reviews of two of her more recent marriage books can be found here.
Sheila is frequently joined on the blog and podcast by her eldest daughter and son-in-law (both have psychology degrees), husband (a pediatrician, so you know most of their parenting advice is probably not going to be wonky), and a friend who happens to be a biostatistician (aka research expert, so you know their advice is going to be evidence-based).
And heads-up, they frequently dive deep into the topic of sexual intimacy, from a Christian perspective. While the information is tasteful, it does get clinical and specific. Depending on the age of your kids, you may or may not want to have them around while reading/listening to the materials, unless you’re prepared to have certain awkward conversations.
If you, like me, have been scared off of “Christian” parenting or marriage resources before… Sheila is one of the handful of Christian resources out there that gave me hope that not all is lost within the church when I had all-but given up on them.
My single caveat is to not take seriously the podcast Sheila did with a “neurodiversity” expert. Said expert used the words “autistic” and “neurodiverse” synonymously, which is like using the words “poodle” and “dog” synonymously. And relied heavily on the idea of theory of mind / mindblindness, which has been shown to be problematic. And paid scant attention to communication differences and autistic heavily documented physical sensitivities. Anyway, that single caveat aside, Sheila’s resources are among the most helpful I’ve encountered. I think neurodiversity specifically (in any of its forms) is simply not in Sheila’s wheelhouse or experience.
Lastly, Why I Didn’t Rebel, a Twenty-Two-Year-Old Explains Why She Stayed on the Straight and Narrow – And How Your Kids Can Too is a book written by Sheila’s daughter, Rebecca Gregoire Lindenbach (who also works on Sheila’s blog and podcast). It is not so much a how-to manual, as it is a series of narratives and stories told to her by her peers, complemented by psychological research Rebecca did into different parenting practices. Rebecca starts out by defining what rebellion is (and what it isn’t), then dives into the themes her research teased out, including parents who use reasons instead of rules, parenting that’s based in reality instead of perfection, and making faith about God instead of about church, among others. I saw myself reflected in some of the parents in ways that encouraged me to change for the better (I hope. I’ll let you know in 20 or 30 years how it turned out).
Drs. Paul and Vickie Jenkins
Live On Purpose TV is a YouTube channel by Dr. Paul Jenkins, a clinical psychologist. He has a number of parenting videos, many of the more recent ones done with his wife Dr. Vickie Jenkins, a speech pathologist who works with children with developmental disabilities. When trying to figure out how to handle preschooler meltdowns, I asked a friend (who has a background in child development) what she recommended. Of the sources she referred me to, I personally found this one the most helpful.
The Jenkins are empathetic (themselves parents) and lighthearted and offer tangible, practical steps to implement, whether it’s with temper tantrums, getting kids to listen, or teaching responsibility. The Jenkins do not specifically mention a faith background (that I’ve come across), but nothing I’ve see from them so far would be incompatible with a Judeo-Christian worldview. Dr. Paul also has a number of self-help playlists (and a whole other website/blog) for other topics, which I haven’t explored in any depth (not having unlimited amounts of time). If you want just a taste of his videos, I’d recommend starting with his Anger Management for Mothers (or for Dads). (Yes, I am tattling on myself, here. I’m in a better place, now.)
The Gottman Institute
David and I were introduced to Dr. John Gottman’s work by a pastor as part of a class for young married couples. Dr. Gottman is Jewish, so will also approach his topics from a Judeo-Christian worldview, though religion only comes up incidentally and tangentially in what I’ve read. He is a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington and the co-founder (with his wife, Dr. Julie Gottman, a clinical psychologist) of The Gottman Institute, which uses research-based information to help strengthen relationships.
[I am having issues at the moment with their website, www.gottman.com, and David isn’t here to troubleshoot for me, so I’m not including links, at the moment. If I remember, I’ll come back sometime and add things. But everything listed below is somewhere on their website.]
Starting with books (because I always start with books, apparently…), would be Dr. John’s parenting book, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, The Heart of Parenting (written with Joan DeClaire). I’m just going to quote from his introduction, because it will summarize the book better than I can.
[T]he ultimate goal of raising children should not be simply to have an obedient and compliant child. Most parents hope for much more for their children. They want their children to be moral and responsible people who contribute to society, who have the strength to make their own choices in life, who enjoy the accomplishments of their own talents, who enjoy life and the pleasures it can offer, who have good relationships with friends and successful marriages, and who themselves become good parents. In my research I discovered that love by itself wasn’t enough… The secret lay in how parents interacted with their children when emotions ran hot.Dr. John Gottman, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child
And for marriage, I really liked Dr. John’s book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, a Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert (written with Nan Silver). It is based on evidence from his decades of clinical research predicting marital success or divorce. It talks about theory but, unlike a lot of other marriage books out there (here’s looking at you, Meaning of Marriage, which I admittedly have only read half of) gets really tangible and practical and even includes exercises to do together. He talks about how he predicts divorce, ways to nurture a relationship, managing conflict, etc.
And if you feel like you don’t have the time to sit down and read a whole book, I also like The Gottman Institute’s email newsletter, the Marriage Minute. They send a brief blurb addressing a specific topic two or three times a week, with links to articles going more in depth if it’s something you’re interested in diving deeper. Topics range from self-soothing to nurturing fondness for each other to criticism vs critique, etc.
The Gottmans (both Dr. John and Dr. Julie) also have a podcast. Podcasts aren’t really my thing, so I’ve listened to all of one episode, but if you like podcasts, have at it.
Other Parenting and Marriage Resources
Hints on Child Training is a book written by Henry Clay Trumbull, originally published in 1890. He was a chaplain and advocate of the Sunday school movement, as well as the father of eight children. You may wonder why on earth I’m promoting such an out-dated parenting manual. Because (a) it had lots of practical, hands-on advice that I’ve found actually helpful and implemented in our household and (b) it helps show that many of the suggestions proposed by the resources I’ve named above are not new or reactionary. You can get the book on Amazon or also for free (ebook) on Project Guttenberg. Gregg Harris wrote the forward for the more modern printing. If that piques your interest, great. If that makes you skeptical, please give it a chance. Some chapter titles include Scope and Limitations of Child Training, Will-Training Rather than Will-Breaking, Honoring a Child’s Individuality, Training a Child as a Questioner [my parents did a good job with this one], Never Punish a Child in Anger, Dealing Tenderly with a Child’s Fears, etc. Be aware that he does make a reference to “whipping” a child; in that respect, he is a product of his time.
But I’ll leave you with the following quote from his chapter Training a Child’s Faith:
The first lesson in the training of a child’s faith is the lesson that he is to have faith in God. Many a child is told to have faith in the power of prayer, or faith in the value of good conduct, without being shown that his faith should rest wholly and absolutely on God. He is told that he can hope to have whatever he prays for; and that if he is a good boy he can expect a blessing, while if he is a bad boy he cannot expect to be blessed. With this training the child’s faith is drawn away from God, and is led to rest on his personal conduct; whereas his faith ought to be trained to rest on the God to whom he prays, and in loving obedience to whom he strives to be good.Henry Clay Trumbull, Hints on Child Training
Families Where Grace is in Place, by Jeff VanVonderen, is a book that touches on both parenting and marriage. And its themes can really expand out to other relationships, as well. It is subtitled Getting Free from the Burden of Pressuring, Controlling, and Manipulating Your Spouse and Children. And, really, the subtitle says it all. He writes a lot about the shame cycle, and how little it does to actually affect real and lasting change. He describes how to recognize legalism in a parenting or marriage relationship, why it doesn’t work, and how to move away from from it.
Ngina Otiende is a certified marriage coach whose blog tries to help create healthy patterns in marriage while also addressing unhealthy dynamics and teachings. While not someone I follow regularly (simply because there are only so many hours in the day), I’ve found her writings to be both compassionate and direct. And as a Christian immigrant from Kenya, she helps offer a perspective to North American church culture that I find helpful.
Dr. Camden Morgante is a Christian psychologist who writes periodically on her blog about recovering from purity culture, motherhood, marriage, and faith in general.
Weeding Out the Unhelpful
In my perusal of parenting resources, particularly those labeled Christian, I’ve learned to apply a few litmus tests to decide if it’s actually going to be worth the effort of reading.
First, there is acknowledgement of different stages of childhood development. As a (dearly loved) former pastor of mine once said, ” The word ‘no’ from a toddler is not a sign of rebellion; it is a sign of autonomy and is a healthy thing.” (Queen Bee’s first sentence to me was “No, Mama, no no no” as she rejected my offer to hold her hand while she was toddling up a small hill.) A child is obviously physically still developing in different ways over the years, it only makes sense that they would intellectually and emotionally still be developing, as well. This is well documented by psychological studies and basic common sense. But some Christian resources (in their fear of anything related to psychology, I presume) have thrown the proverbial baby out with the bathwater and treat any lack of conformity to a parent’s will as “rebellion,” whether the child in question is a teenager smoking pot or an infant wriggling during a diaper change. This unrealistic expectation of a young child’s behavior sets parents up for failure.
The apostle Paul says, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me” (1 Corinthians 13:11). What Paul does not say is that it is sinful or rebellious to think like a child and reason like a child when one is, in fact, a child.
Second, there is a lack of fearmongering and extremes. The advice from John Piper fails at this smell test. As you may recall, when a mother of an 8-week-old baby asked for advice on continuing her walk with God in the face of her (very real) exhaustion, Mr. Piper immediately jumped to worst case scenario: not just that her relationship with God would struggle, but that she would lose it. Then he upped the ante by saying that if she lost her relationship with God, she wouldn’t just struggle as a parent, but her child would become out of control, another worst-case scenario. This is fearmongering. And simply not true. There are plenty of non-Christian parents who raise well-behaved children.
Third, the resource recognizes that discipline is not synonymous with spanking, or punishment in general, for that matter. Training a child toward better behavior can include course corrections and reasonable consequences, it’s true. But discipline in its fullest sense also encompasses positive reinforcement, relationship building, behavior modeling, etc. When we say someone is “disciplined” in general, we don’t mean that they go around self-flagellating all the time. We mean that they are self-controlled and well regulated. And if an athlete is “disciplining” their body, it includes not just grueling work-outs (which I personally would consider punishment, but then, I’m not an athlete) but also appropriate amounts of rest, balanced nutrition, work with a trainer to prevent and diagnose injury, etc. So if our children are going to be able to “discipline” themselves later in life when we’re not around to potentially micromanage their every move, let’s use all the tools in our parenting toolbox to get them there, and not just the punishment ones.
Fourth, the resource is based on (and cites) research. And I don’t mean “I researched the Bible and am now throwing out random lists of 15-20 verses [I kid you not, ask me sometime about my pre-marital counseling workbook] to prove my point.” The team at To Love Honor and Vacuum has much better resources than I on deciphering this, so I’ll leave it to them here, here, or here. (As a reminder, Keith is a pediatrician, Joanna is a biostatistician, and Rebecca and Connor both have psychology degrees, so they’re all familiar with scientific research standards. And they’re all Christian and involved in homeschooling in one manner or another, so not exactly science-boogeymen.)
Fifth, is the advice working? This goes back a bit to last week’s post about giving yourself grace to try new things. Sometimes, those new things won’t work. And I’m not talking about you tried it once and it didn’t work so you gave up, or doing something super inconsistently and then getting frustrated that things overall aren’t changing (been there, done that). What I’m talking about is if you’ve tried something relatively consistently for a fair period of time and it’s either making things worse or not helping at all. Sometimes, this may be because the advice is bad. (This is why I stopped using indirect communication with my husband.) And sometimes it’s not so much the advice itself, as it is your specific situation. When I started using parenting techniques suggested by Drs. Paul and Vickie Jenkins (above), I noticed a positive change in myself and in one of our children. But another of our children continued to have the same struggles. This was one of the clues that told me she may not be neurotypical. Or, let’s take the marriage advice of always assuming good intentions on the part of your spouse. With two well-intentioned spouses, this advice works well for soothing marital conflict and misunderstandings. But when one spouse is a narcissist, this advice backfires.
Sixth and last (I promise, sorry this post is so long), boundaries/guidelines for appropriate behavior are established. Some of the more recent parenting and marriage advice in particular will throw out disclaimers of “oh, of course I am against abuse, blah blah blah.” But then don’t actually define abuse in a way that people who are in abusive situations can actually recognize. For example, I listened once to a parenting sermon that a friend had recommended. (I DO NOT recommend this sermon, and may do a fuller analysis of it later. Just including it as an example, here.) The pastor talked about the need for “disciplining” a child. From the context, discipline was equated with punishment (see my note above about discipline not being synonymous with spanking). At one point, the pastor asked a question along the lines of, “How do you tell if you’ve gone too far [with disciplining a child]?” Instead of taking the time and intellect to spell it out, he lazily said something alone the lines of, “Believe me, you’ll know! [followed by laughter from the audience]” This sermon link was recommended to me by someone who thought it was normal to “spank” children on the naked behind with a wooden spoon. To be clear, this is discipline gone too far. This is extreme and abusive. There are better ways and resources out there. There are better Christian ways and resources out there.
The establishment of boundaries and guidelines for appropriate behavior was one of the things in particular that struck me about Sheila Wray Gregoire’s book Nine Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage (above). While I’m sure there are others out there, her’s happened to be the first Christian marriage resource I came across that talked about both boundaries and consent within a marriage.
Wrapping It Up
This probably should have been two posts, sorry. Especially if you’re an exhausted new parent who is now doubly exhausted after having actually gotten this far! I hope this is helpful, whether you’re a new parent or just looking to check out new resources.
My prayers are with you.
Part 4 of this series, “Better Support for Exhausted New Moms,” will be forthcoming.