Before mommy blogs and Facebook parent groups and Instagram moms, there was pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton, his books and his captivating TV show “What Every Baby Knows.”
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was part of a group of working moms who were devoted to the Boston-based baby whisperer who gave us the tools to be good moms while also being good working women, two things that didn’t always go together back then.
So I was sad to see this tweet from my friend Amy Dickinson about Brazelton’s death March 13:
It reminded me of those days when Dickinson, now the author of the syndicated advice column Ask Amy, our friend Kathleen Stanley, then an editor at The Washington Post, and I were raising our only children, who were born respectively in 1988, 1989 and 1990.
Brazelton’s books, including the popular “Touchpoints” series, and show were the baby bibles of our generation.
“He was tremendously influential in my life,” Dickinson says. “My daughter Emily was born in London, and I was very lonesome. I remember I didn’t have anyone around telling me this is going to be okay.” Dickinson stumbled upon “What Every Baby Knows” late one night on TV. “I will never forget the image of him holding a baby up and connecting with this child while moving his head around and smiling,” Dickinson says. “I didn’t know how to do that.”
Twitter is full of women like us today who are saying that Brazelton taught them everything they know about babies and toddlers. “I was raised on Dr. Spock, but his focus in my view was helping parents cope,” Dickinson says. “Dr. Brazelton’s approach was helping parents connect. It’s very different.”
I remember how I looked forward to watching “What Every Baby Knows” every afternoon during my six-month maternity leave while my son Nico was taking his nap. Those six months were the only time that I have not worked full time since I got out of college. In many ways, they were the best time of my life, although doing the right thing was always on my mind. I was lucky enough to have a very nurturing mother who was full of great advice, but she didn’t live nearby. My daily dose of this gentle and loving doctor gave me comfort and joy, even on days I was exhausted and unsure of myself and my mothering skills.
“I loved that show. It was must-watching for a young mother,” says Stanley. “He had the most soothing voice and he would cradle those children and have their head in his hands and look them right in the eye. He gave you permission to be emotional with your baby.”
“I felt like we were all under so much pressure to do everything right and hit all the milestones and get them on schedule,” Stanley says. “Dr. Brazelton taught you to simply enjoy your child: Look him right in the eye and smile and laugh and giggle.”
Stanley says one of his enduring gifts to her was that he made parents realize that all babies are different. “I remember very clearly when I discovered my son and I had very different personalities,” Stanley says. “He hated stimulation, those little flippy things that ran across the bouncy seats. I would flip them around, and Will would turn his head away. He didn’t like them. Dr. Brazelton told us to watch our children and they would tell us what they want or need or don’t want or need. This was very important.”
One of our favorite secrets of the Brazelton method was this much-repeated mantra: Cheat your employer, not your baby. Note to our editors back in the day: That doesn’t mean we were coming in late and leaving early. This just gave us courage to do things like ask for a couple hours off to take our baby to the doctor or to take a sick day if our baby wasn’t feeling well, even if we could have left him at day-care or with a nanny. I know that sounds ridiculous, but 25 years ago, working moms were held to a higher standard than dads. They were often better off not mentioning too much baby stuff at the office.
“He helped me to do the things I wanted to do for my baby and to be a good mom and working mom. He helped me relax,” Stanley says. “I felt alone at times. He helped me in so many ways.”
Dickinson says Brazelton’s message was very different from many of today’s parenting websites. “Many of the mommy bloggers I’m aware of focus on products and acquisitions and being perfect and all of those things that are really the enemy of healthy families,” she says. “You have to embrace reality and acknowledge imperfection.”
Meanwhile, Dickinson got to meet Brazelton years ago while doing a column on parenting for Time magazine. “He was one of my personal heroes, and I always kept in touch with him,” she says. She often referred to his work in her Ask Amy column and had been invited to a symposium in Boston to be held in a few weeks to celebrate his 100th birthday. “It’s so rare that you meet someone who is what you would hope personally,” Dickinson says. “He just oozed compassion and kindness.”
Dickinson says she feels his lessons are timeless. “I gave a speech last week, and I passed on some of his wisdom,” she says. “Part of it was to put your phone down and connect with your baby face to face. Do things together. Go places together, and the more experiences you have together, the more connected you’ll feel and the more confident you’ll be. He has left us an enduring legacy.”
Jura Koncius is a reporter at The Washington Post. (She’s also the mother of Nico.)
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