Parenting in a pandemic? Lindsay Powers offers wisdom

Sarah Gelman on May 08, 2020
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Author Lindsay Powers

We’re on the eve of Mother’s Day weekend in the U.S., and I’m not sure there’s been a Mother’s Day in recent history where the mother or mother figure in your life more deserves to be celebrated. It is a hard period to be a parent, which is a challenging role in the best of times. Lindsay Powers’ book, You Can’t F*ck Up Your Kids, has struck a particular note with me during this pandemic, when frankly I’m flailing and letting all my rules and standards slide.

A longtime journalist, Powers was the founding editor-in-chief of Yahoo! Parenting and the Lifestyle editorial director at Yahoo! She is also the mother of two young children and the creator of the viral #NoShameParenting movement, which has reached millions of people on social media. (Check it out on Instagram: @NoShameParenting)

After reading her book, I wished I had Powers on speed dial—or at least in a group text—to calm my parenting fears big and small. However, she did answer the questions I had about screen time, why even doctors avoid the word “vaginal,” and the best thing we can do for our kids.

Sarah Gelman, Amazon Book Review: You had an experience where your doctor told you that you were overweight when you were pregnant, when in fact they missed a potentially life-threatening condition. Was this the inciting reason behind writing You Can’t F*ck Up Your Kids?

Lindsay Powers: Being misdiagnosed with pre-eclampsia, which could have killed me and my unborn son, was scary in real time, and infuriating when I look back. It was one of the many reasons why I wanted to write a book shining a light on parent shaming, and certainly a motivator behind the #NoShameParenting movement, which I created alongside my Yahoo! Parenting team. #NoShameParenting went viral—reaching more than 170 million people across social media—and was the loose inspiration behind my book, You Can’t F*ck Up Your Kids.

I felt like parents were judged no matter what we did. Didn’t breastfeed long enough? Terrible mother. Breastfeed too long? Weirdo mother. But as a longtime journalist, I knew a lot of the studies could be skewed, and the full story wasn’t being told. I knew to spark the conversation about why we shouldn’t judge each other so much, I’d need to give parents the tools and resources to prove that it’s really, really, really hard to screw up your kids. And indeed, in my book I list one page with five things that are bad: abuse, neglect, starvation, not vaccinating, and smoking while pregnant (but the risk drops immediately if you quit, studies also show) and then I go on for almost 300 pages explaining all the ways you can be a good parent, and your kids will thrive.

I was exhausted from being judged all the time for being a working parent, for letting my kids eat carbs, for not doing infant flash cards. (I was shocked those were even a thing! But of course a local mom emailed them around our parent group when my second born was one month old!)

In addition to knowing I could use my professional background to debunk all the biggest parenting myths, I also had a personal reason for wanting to give parents permission to be kinder on themselves. I describe my unconventional upbringing toward the end of the book, and while I wouldn’t wish my childhood on anyone, it has always put into perspective for me that my kids have so many tools and resources I never had—and kids are resilient. I knew instinctively it wouldn’t matter if they had a fancy high chair or watched TV.

Thank you for debunking so many common pregnancy myths, such as not eating sushi during pregnancy. What’s been the reaction from parents—and pregnant women in particular—to your book?

I knew my book title would be provocative, and some people would disagree with me. I gave it a controversial name on purpose. Words are powerful. Words start conversations, conversations change culture, culture changes policy. And parents don’t have a lot of support in America, given the lack of access to medical care, no paid family leave, and childcare that costs more than college tuition, to name a few things. The goal of my book was not to tell people how to raise their kids—it was to give people the true research and guidance and support to raise their kids the way that feels best for their family.

You may not want to drink while pregnant, and I respect that. But I wanted a glass of wine for my first pregnancy, and I felt like it was ridiculous that doctors just said, “Don’t drink,” and never got into the nuance. A lot of the science is really flawed when it comes to pregnant women and children, understandably so. You would never want to tell a group of pregnant women: “One of you should drink one glass of wine, another of you should drink half a bottle of wine, and the third woman should drink a whole bottle of wine every day—and we’ll test your kids’ IQs in seven years and see who’s smartest!” But you can examine research in other countries, where it’s more acceptable to drink, and see that kids of parents who had two to six drinks a week while pregnant technically had the best outcomes.

But then when you dig deeper into the research, you see even more nuance. Women who drank two to six drinks per week were more likely to be more educated and affluent—and kids born into those families tend to be pretty smart no matter what their parents were drinking. I also called up the researcher behind that drinking study, by the way, and she explained how it’s just easier for doctors to say “no drinking” in those 15-minute appointments than walk you through all the different scenarios.

Some people tell me “you absolutely can f*ck up your kids!” and I challenge them to define what “f*cking up” your kid actually means. Does it mean that your kid didn’t follow the perfect path you imagined for them? Because that’s not “f*cking them up.” Our job is not to mold our kids into who we think they should be, it’s to give them the tools to become the best version of themselves.

I would never tell a family how to raise their kid(s). There are a million different ways to raise happy and healthy kids, and no one size fits all strategy!

You touch on the phrase “natural childbirth,” and how it’s often used to mean vaginal childbirth, the opposite of a caesarian birth. Both of my boys were born via c-section, and the dismissal that this major surgery isn’t “natural” or considered “less” has also made me angry. What is the reason for this euphemistic term?

I also delivered my two sons via c-section. I’ll never forget telling another doctor that I’d had “just two sections in two-and-a-half years,” and him raising his eyebrows at me and saying, “C-sections are not minor surgeries.” I’d glossed over them like recovering from a cold or something! Our society is so quick to dismiss the pain women go through.

The idea of competitive childbirth is so ridiculous. You never hear of people bragging about getting a “natural root canal” with no Novocain! When you dig into the history, you see that a lot of the backlash against c-sections is blown out of proportion. Yes, it’s a surgery, which does inherently have some risk. But it’s very safe now, and certainly beats the alternative—that women would die in childbirth, or their children would die, which regularly happened before c-sections were more widely available.

The WHO once said that only 10 to 15% of women should have c-sections, but they didn’t have any science whatsoever to back up that rate. In 2015, Harvard and Stanford teamed up to study the 10 to 15% recommendation and found “C-section rates below 19 percent lead to preventable maternal and neonatal deaths.” The study also found that higher rates of c-section did not lead to more maternal or neonatal deaths.

I honestly believe that people use the word “natural” because they’re too squeamish to say “vaginal.” And “natural” is kind of this marketing term right now. It doesn’t mean anything, except that any product labeled “natural” costs more money. The CDC reports that Americans spend $1.9 billion on our kids annually for “complementary health.” As one doctor in my book said, “There is no better consumer than an anxious mom!”

As someone who feels constant guilt about giving screen time to my kids (okay, let’s face it—I feel constant guilt about everything), it was refreshing to read some more realistic guidelines around screen time and children. That said, I’ve been letting my kids have more screen time now than ever. What’s the threshold before I need to worry that I’ve caused major damage?

You don’t need to worry about causing major damage, unless your kids are literally tied to a television from birth and you never speak to them. Screens are not a bad thing, especially when used in moderation. And it’s literally impossible to keep our kids from them, in a world where we order toilet paper on an app and even some refrigerators are “smart.”

There are a lot of benefits to screens:

With all things in parenting, moderation is key. Think of moderation over the course of a week, not a day. If you have a busy day at work, or your kids aren’t feeling well, then one day might have a lot more screens. The next day, try to do a little less. There is no way you’re going to look back on this time in 10 years and say, “I really wish my kids had watched less Paw Patrol during that global pandemic!”

When you’re on a road trip or confined on a small seat on a plane, you probably let your kids play with your phone or watch tablets. Then when you arrive or land, you say, “We’re here! Give me my phone back!” Think of the pandemic in the same terms. When it ends, we’re going to take our phones back. Our kids will grumble and whine, but we’re the adults and it’s up to us to make the rules. Kids are adaptable. They’ll get over it if we stick with it.

I also like the idea of creating screen-free times during the day, such as during meals. Parents should also take a break from all the stress scrolling that we’re probably doing.

Obviously you wrote this book before we were all practicing social distancing. If you could add a chapter on parenting during coronavirus, what would it say?

I didn’t write my book with a global pandemic in mind, but I feel like all the guidance is especially relevant right now. If I were to add on to my book, I’d emphasize even more its key message: Be kind to yourself, love your kids, and don’t worry about most of the things that you’re afraid are screwing up your kids, because they’re not.

As parents, what’s the best thing we can do to ensure we’ve setting our kids up for future success?

The best thing we can do to ensure we’ve set up our kids for future success is to stop defining what success means for our children. It’s not up to us to define what success means for our children. It’s a misnomer that our job is to craft our children into who we think they should be. Our job is to give our kids the tools to be the best version of themselves.

In the discipline chapter, I talk about how discipline is less about time outs and threats—and instead about helping our kids develop positive traits. We as parents should ask ourselves what traits we want our kids to have, such as honesty and kindness. Then we need to model honesty and kindness and give our kids positive reinforcement when they do. This is what experts call a “time in.” You can’t give your kids a time out and expect it to be effective if you don’t give them “time ins”—positive reinforcement for the traits and/or moments we’re proud of them.


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