If you’ve gotten stuck in a pediatrician’s waiting room lately, you’re not alone. Last week, I called my daughter’s doctor and the scheduler said, “If you can avoid it, don’t come in today. We’re crazy.” Fall is the beginning of the sickness season that overwhelms pediatricians’ offices everywhere.
“Washington parents must never ask their own mothers these simple questions; they always default to the doctor’s office,” a medical professional complained to me recently. (For obvious reasons, I am not naming her.) She said it was a common lament: “Why don’t they ask their mothers?”
I had a visceral response to her hypothetical question’s blind spot that I’ll get to in a minute. Before that, I thought it might be worth it to look at her larger point: When did it become necessary to ask a doctor if a child should stay home from school and rest? When did parenting become professionalized?
It’s true that many of us turn to books or Google or experts more readily than we do family. (I find I am guilty on this front both personally and professionally. Just last week, On Parenting introduced an Expert Advice feature that will appear on Thursdays.)
Certainly there are some health issues that were better handled in the old days of passed-down common sense. Antibiotic overuse is an obvious example of medical intervention introducing serious new problems. But unintended consequences are a byproduct of a wholesale shift in the way we parent now, often for good, or at least necessary, reasons.
First, many of us no longer have our mothers (or fathers) to rely on. In my case, my mother’s Alzheimer’s disease cut off our ability to communicate about parenting before I had my daughters. The absence has left me without rudimentary guidance. (Thank goodness for Marguerite Kelly!)
For specific concerns, I reach for professional help on the most minor of matters. Last week, I turned to Google for a disciplining issue with my daughter. A Dr. Sears article popped up. Though the bullet points would have been blindingly obvious to my mother, who raised five strong-willed daughters, and her mother, who raised eight children, the article helped me immensely. The death or sickness of a parent is a more and more common situation for young parents as our generation delays childbirth.
At the same time, in this region especially, many of us are living far away from what therapists call “our family of origin.” It’s one thing if mom is around the corner to look in on Johnny. It’s quite another if you have to call her in Dubuque or Denmark to ask if you should get her grandson checked out for a nagging cough.
Then there’s the touchy fact that even if experienced and engaged grandparent are at hand, we may not be willing to trust them. The more we learn about the health and safety of our children, the more we question our parents’ decisions.
Even if we adore the way we were raised, few parents today would agree that smoking and drinking liberally during pregnancy or driving without car seats or giving infants blankies are great ideas. Just because we shouldn’t judge our parents for not embracing modern health standards they didn’t know about doesn’t mean we leave them off the hook entirely.
Finally, we have the medical community itself to blame. Isn’t it the pediatricians who often give us the sense that instincts and tradition are of little use? Oftentimes this is not because the old ways were wrong, it’s just that the doctors can’t say that.
The medical professional who told me of the eye rolling at parents did so after I asked her for tips on how to decide if a child should see a doctor. She told me she couldn’t provide me with answers because it might open her up to a lawsuit.
The legal offense is often for doctors to deal in the world of worst-case scenario, which in turn primes us to deal with our kids’ health issues in the same realm. Not for nothing, it was a pediatrician who once suggested my daughter’s bug bite be biopsied.
I understand that not-so-sick patients probably outnumber the truly sick ones these days. Please forgive us anxious parents. If it seems we’ve lost connection to common sense, we probably have. We need the the minor advice as much as we need the more intense interventions. Don’t question us behind our backs. Accept that the experts have become the new “mothers.”