Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
A Little Advice About Advice

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Dear Marjo,

I'm a new mom with a six-month-old baby girl whom I absolutely adore. For the first time in my life I know what it means to say that I would do anything for someone. I don't care if you call it instinct or love—all I know is I would give my life for her in a heartbeat, without even thinking about it. 

I'm also a very relaxed mom. I'm the oldest of six (I know!) and spent years helping to care for my younger siblings. So I've entered motherhood already knowing how to change diapers, push strollers, and burp babies. My partner is also very comfortable with kids and we trust each other one hundred percent with our daughter’s care.

The one thing that doesn’t make me happy or relaxed is other people. Whenever I’m out and about with my baby, total strangers (usually old women) are giving me all kinds of advice, as if I’m stupid. Hats, socks, and sunscreen seem to be common topics, and everyone seems to have the perfect solution for teething. And the one that really makes me cringe is when people tell me to enjoy the baby now because the time will fly. Okay, yes, I’m sure I look tired or even haggard, but do I really look like I’m not enjoying her?

I would love it if people just smiled and said, “What a beautiful baby!” I have a great pediatrician, close family, and good friends to turn to if I need help. How can I tell these old ladies to back off without actually saying BACK OFF? 

Signed,

Solo Flyer

 

Dear Solo,

Before I say anything, I must point out the great irony here: that you are writing to an advice column to ask how to stop getting advice. I hope that makes you smile instead of wince, because there’s actually one huge difference: unsolicited advice is not the same thing at all as asking for help. It’s so jarring when people break into your reverie with finger wagging and how-to’s. It feels like someone is throwing a rock into a still pond, breaking the peace with an unwelcome splash, which of course is followed by ripples of resentment.

All these years later I still remember the pebbles that were thrown at me. They didn’t hurt per se, but damn they were irritating. There was the time I was walking in the cool sunshine, my baby in a carrier and both of us wearing matching baseball hats. I was mired in a dark bog of postpartum depression, and there were entire days—strings of days—when we didn’t go outside at all. So to find myself outdoors and actually enjoying it was such a happy relief to me. We were browsing a yard sale when the parade began.

“I hope he’s wearing sunscreen,” said the first woman, “but at least he’s wearing a hat.”

I’m not sure why that comment brought tears to my eyes. I was emotionally fragile to begin with, but it also felt like a condescending “Nice try.”

“What a sweetie!” the next woman said. “But it’s a little cool out. He might be warmer with socks.”

My new best friend smiled and cupped my baby’s bare feet. Now I felt exasperated. Then a third woman, who’d noticed my baby gnawing and drooling on the edge of the carrier, actually walked up and shoved a plastic toy into his mouth. Holy hell. I burst into tears, dropped the toy on the ground and walked back home, not to emerge for another few days.

Every outing was like that. Baby acne, crying, a runny nose, sunshine or rain, everything was an invitation for advice. I knew these women were probably experienced moms or grandmothers, and their advice was intended (usually) to be helpful, not critical. But I didn’t need it, and it wore me down. Thankfully, they were countered by people who simply smiled and said my son was gorgeous. Even better were the people who left it at a smile and didn’t say anything. Best of all were the neighborhood ladies who knocked at my door with a roast chicken or pizza, accompanied by a kind word or two.

Eventually I vented my frustration to my sister, who gave me advice that actually helped.

“Every mom gets advice from strangers,” she said. “Just blame the doctor. And if you can’t do that, just say they’re probably right and move on.” And guess what? It worked.

“A little witch hazel would clear up that acne,” one woman said.

“I know,” I said. “But his doctor said it would be best to leave it alone.” The woman nodded and walked away.

“Try a vacuum cleaner,” another woman said, when my baby was crying. “There’s something about the sound of a vacuum cleaner that makes them sleep.”

“You’re probably right,” I said. The woman nodded and walked away, this time with a little smile of satisfaction. I admit, it galled me a little. But for once she was walking away instead of me.

It worked every single time. With a prepared response I didn’t feel like I had to brace myself for every outing. And knowing that it happened to every mom made me feel less insulted and more normal. Soon those pebbles of advice stopped splashing and stinging, and eventually felt more like leaves that were floating down from a tree without breaking the surface. The ripples smoothed, my resentment eased, and I was able to keep moving forward instead of retreating to my dark home.

So I’ll say it to you, dear Solo. It’s all normal. When the finger wagging begins, just point your own finger elsewhere—to the doctor, your own mom, or God. Or, as much as you don’t want to give them the satisfaction, just tell them they’re right and move on.

If my prepared responses don’t work for you, come up with your own. That’s the real key: to expect the pebbles and gracefully accept or deflect them. But don’t let them hurt you. They’re just part of nature, human nature, and they’re not meant to cause more than a little splash.

XO,

Marjo

P.S. Two words: frozen bagels. Your six-month-old teether will love them. (Sorry—I couldn’t resist!)

Do you have a question about the joys, complexities, or challenges of being a mother? Email askmarjo AT gmail.com and I’ll do my best to answer it. Please do not bend, fold, mutilate, or otherwise contort this column into anything it's not meant to be: friendly advice from one mom to another. My opinions and thoughts, no matter how heartfelt, are not a substitute for professional counseling or medical care.



Marjorie Osterhout is a writer, editor, and storyteller. Her essays and articles have appeared in anthologies like It’s A Boy (Seal Press) and magazines including Parents, Parenting, and ePregnancy. She also spent a whirlwind three years travel writing for Disney. She is a former managing editor, columns editor, and columnist (“Dear Marjo”) for Literary Mama.


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I love your advice to this mom. Perfect. Spot on. And will give many many other moms just that much more control over situations like the one "Solo" describes. I would add: I think the comment "enjoy the baby now, time sure does fly!" has nothing to do with the mother being addressed and everything to do with the wistfulness, nostalgia, and bygone days of the person making the comment. I think it's almost IMPOSSIBLE for a mom with older kids or a grandmother to see a young (or just younger) mom with a baby and not remember -- with rose colored glasses or not -- the "easy, blissful" days of infant hood. So much of unsolicited advice is more of a reflection on the advice giver than on the intended recipient. :)
I'm wincing a little because I think I've said the "Enjoy it now, it goes fast" thing, and I'm not even old. (Thirty-nine but who's counting?) But I am done having kids, and it is wistfulness talking. Of course I've never meant to imply the mother in question is NOT enjoying the baby! But having read this, I think I'll keep that tidbit to myself. :) Spot on answer, Marjo.
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