the discourse

My Mother’s Parenting Books From The ‘80s Are A Revelation

To read them now is to enter into another, more human way of thinking about what happens between parents and children.

by Lucy Morris

A few years back, late in my first pregnancy, a box from my mother arrived containing a hand-knit baby blanket and the books she’d accumulated during her own pregnancies in the 1980s. They were mostly compact, yellowing paperbacks with cover photos showing mothers who evoked my own childhood: fluffy hair, flushed smiles, and an air of relaxed competence as they gazed down at content-looking babies in their arms. I remember thinking you couldn’t publish books like this today: there was a lot of nipple showing.

I found the books interesting to thumb through, but I didn’t read them, busy as I was with a curriculum of my own. There was the book, recommended by a midwife, that suggested I radically change my diet to include more liver (I was a vegetarian) and one with a chart for calculating how much money you’d need for your child’s first year (more than I had). Not to mention the oeuvre of Emily Oster, the endlessly recommended Precious Little Sleep, and The Montessori Baby. Then, once my baby was born, and my questions transcended what printed matter could keep pace with, there was the internet and social media.

But as my child matured, I soured on the advice genre. By the time he began to speak, his needs stopped presenting as a mystery to solve. Finally, I felt like a parent, not merely a baby mechanic. With sleep and experience, the suspension of disbelief required to think that a stranger knew what your child needed became harder to achieve, and anyone who made a career of dispensing advice on Instagram came to seem suspect. Even Oster, who’d since published a book about running your family like a corporation, had revealed herself as the kind of pragmatist I didn’t aspire to be.

It wasn't until I was pregnant with a second child that I returned to my mom’s books. Once I started reading them — this time, with new recognition that the idea of preparing for a baby was practically futile but psychologically useful — I found it impossible to stop. From those women on the cover, who conveyed a maternal authority I just couldn’t get from anyone on a screen, to their tone, so different from the instructional tomes of today, I became obsessed. One of the books, BabySense, was a wide-format guide that my mom called “the Whole Earth Catalog for babies,” refreshing in its practicality (here was a list of the exact kind and quantity of clothes an infant needed; here were tips, in a chapter called “The Portable Baby,” on taking them out of the house).

Of course the choices since then have only multiplied — some from technology, like the consumer breast pump; some from social and economic changes, like more mothers remaining in the workforce — but I found the ethos of the advice had changed, too.

She’d especially liked the work of Sheila Kitzinger, once known as “the high-priestess of natural childbirth,” though she wrote on many other topics, too, and whatever crunchiness Kitzinger displayed felt distinct from today’s version, more rooted in a political quest for female autonomy that our current fetish for maternal martyrdom. The books’ dated details were charming: how to use a juice jar to collect breast milk, calm a colicky baby with fennel tea, or use cornstarch under a baby’s fingernails to help you cut them. The books were full of simple line drawings, anecdotes from real parents, and postal addresses — addresses! — to write if you wanted more information on a given topic.

Some of the specifics had changed but the one eternal truth of parenthood, apparently, was that no matter when you undertook it, it felt harder than ever: “Many of us are older than our mothers were when they gave birth to their first child. Many of us have worked for several years or have established ourselves in careers,” Frances Wells-Burck, the author of BabySense, wrote in 1979. “We feel we must structure our time and share chores with our husbands in order to experience baby care without being swallowed up by it. Equally intimidating is the sophisticated new knowledge on infancy, the myriad theories, and the ‘expert’ opinions, which often complicate our lives by forcing us to make more choices.” Of course the choices since then have only multiplied — some from technology, like the consumer breast pump; some from social and economic changes, like more mothers remaining in the workforce — but I found the ethos of the advice had changed, too.

Everyone knew that having a child changed your life, but the advice I’d gleaned was mostly about what a baby needed, not what I might need, beyond the rote recommendations for showers and fresh air. In early parenthood, I’d been mired in charts about wake windows, when what I really struggled to wrap my head around was how each minute of my day felt so different from how it had before. The guidance I’d craved was existential, not logistical. In my mom’s books, the development of the mother mattered as much as that of the baby: One long section in BabySense was called “Living With Motherhood”; another part, on finding child care, was simply titled “You Deserve a Break: A Pep Talk.” (Kitzinger, for whom no situation was too obscure, devoted a section called “What is Life for? The Problem of the ex-Revolutionary” to mother activists.) Here, motherhood was not a to-do list but a time of personal transformation. Its status was not signaled by your water bottle or baby carrier but by shifts on a more profound level. In these books, the mother figure felt like a real person — not a vessel for milk, or an arbiter of endless decisions, or a stage manager of childhood memories. She had feelings about parenting that transcended what seemed like the sole question thrumming beneath the advice today: am I doing the right thing or not?

It wasn’t just the mother who was talked about differently. Although my parenting generation can act like it invented the idea of treating children like people, plenty of advice today still approaches kids as pieces of machinery that must be carefully calibrated with the correct words and gestures. The baby, in my mom’s books, could be a confounding mystery, yes, a creature of strange and indecipherable habits, who might occasionally drive you to the edge. But it wasn’t, in their telling, a liability, a bomb about to go off. All you had to do for it was find something that worked; it did not have to be the best thing. To that end, there were instructions for making simple baby clothes, or toys from household goods. The mother I imagined I could be, in the eyes of these authors, was creative and original, rather than someone desultorily following a list of recommendations — that is, more like the mother I’d had than the one I’d often felt like.

Here, motherhood was not a to-do list but a time of personal transformation. Its status was not signaled by your water bottle or baby carrier but by shifts on a more profound level.

The voice in these books was neither the clinical distance of the doctor nor the bravado of the influencer. It was authoritative but warm, introspective, relaxed, and funny. When it came to nursing, Kitzinger wrote, “The best thing that mothers can do to encourage their breast milk is to bask in the sun all day and be cosseted and pampered by a loving husband.” (She acknowledged this was rarely feasible.) Whereas the advice I’d encountered was overwhelming in its technicality — latch depth and pump parts, pooled milk and flange measurements — Kitzinger offered more holistic insight: “It is doubtful whether feeling she ought to have an orgasm ever actually helped a woman to get one. Similarly, feeling that one ought to breastfeed does not actually make it any easier.”

These books did not dwell on schedules or scripts; their preferred tools were reflection and rest. Kitzinger advised that as a person’s due date approached, “She should maintain a lively interest in the world outside her home and not sit indoors brooding about her state,” and, if possible, buy “a new kaftan, a cape, or ear-rings'' to “lift morale.” (I’d spent the end of my first pregnancy dutifully completing an infant CPR class.) In Kitzinger's version of parenthood, pleasure was paramount. Where joy was alluded to today, it was most often as a threat: the reminder that one day you would miss the snuggles, the warning that you only had 18 summers with your kids. In my mom’s books, sex, not work, was the dominant metaphor for the tasks of mothering, and sensuality was the antidote to the strictures of parenthood. In a chapter on postnatal nutrition, for instance, Kitzinger suggests that a bouquet of flowers on the table "may do more for the digestion and health of body and mind than a bottle of multi-vitamin pills or dried seaweed in the soup."

Even in rejecting the advice, I engaged with it.

It wasn’t until I read my mom’s books that I registered how much raising a child is an experience that, while in some sense timeless, also anchors you to your time: the guidelines, customs, and technologies; the ABCs of safe sleep, the BLW, the Snoos. In my own era, an answer is always at your fingertips — no need to send away by mail for a pamphlet or wait for a Le Leche League meeting! — but there is, of course, a cost to such convenience. Parenting knowledge, which might be considered a common good, has been largely privatized. Social media advice givers concurrently sell products and lifestyles at a scale no author could ever attain: the lactation consultant offering useful pointers on Instagram also shares her many must-haves for newborns (who needs the cornstarch tip when you can buy an electric nail trimmer?). If it isn’t the online OT affiliate linking the best shoes for your toddler, it’s Oster modeling for a clothing line, or pediatrician Harvey Karp hawking his bassinet. When expertise melds with commerce in this way, it becomes easy to conflate doing the right thing with buying the right thing.

And in an age of so much easily accessible information, a parent’s job becomes not just finding an answer, but finding the answer — optimizing everything. (“What does science say about whether it’s better to have morning or afternoon outside walks with a baby?” went a recent query on a science-focused parenting Reddit.) I was pretty sure my mother, who, unlike me, had an actual doctorate degree, had never “consulted the research” on her parenting choices, yet I’ve regularly done so, and more than once found myself wondering how to weigh my own preferences or values in the face of evidence.

It’s tempting now to dismiss the quest for parenting answers entirely (and this was precisely my mother’s response when I informed her that you must not praise your child’s drawing but instead the effort they’ve put into it). But what else were you supposed to do, when confronted with a creature as foreign as a baby, an experience so new as parenthood? Like many, I’d become a parent with minimal exposure to childrearing outside of what I’d experienced myself and while I didn’t think my parents had themselves done such a terrible job, the goal of my time seemed to be not adequacy, but perfection.

And despite what I recognized as a problematic atmosphere of advice, I remain a person who undertakes a high-stakes task cautiously. My mother isn’t like this; she is maybe the least neurotic person I have ever met. She is often mystified by how other people do things, but rarely troubled. Whereas, whenever I learn someone does something differently, I mount a long defense of my own choice in my head and sometimes out loud. My mom rarely seems to operate out of anxiety; she once told me that as a parent, she was lucky not to be a natural worrier. But when I’ve wanted to go against the advice, I couldn’t just follow my heart — whose directions had never seemed unfaulty — I had to study the flaws in the experts’ arguments, or the limitations in the research. Even in rejecting the advice, I engaged with it.

I kept returning to one particular Kitzinger line, which I carried around in my head protectively, joyfully, the way I carried the child growing in my body: “Having a baby is a normal life crisis.”

I’d been aware of the ways my mom and I were different, but reading these books was the first time I understood that the differences might not solely be temperamental ones — that we might, in our own ways, also be products of our times. She’d always struck me as a person born knowing what to do, but it probably helped that the advice she received largely told her to trust herself. The advice I’d received had mostly been in the form of charts, acronyms, and admonishments. When I read her books, I thought about making sure I was satiated and getting out for a walk. Engagement with contemporary sources raised questions about redshirting and sodium levels. Surely, some parents had always worried about these sorts of things, but parenting discourses now seemed defined by these worries, these efforts at optimization. Basking in the sun (unless you were fulfilling the requirement of 1,000 hours outside) would be a dereliction of duty.

Late in my second pregnancy, I finished the stack of books; I only wished that there were more. What I’d enjoyed in them was a lot like what I appreciated in my mom: an uncontested ethical authority, a touching familiarity of voice, and a fundamental correctness, even if I didn’t always recognize it instantly. The economists and influencers shaping the parenting advice landscape today, whose recommendations I’ve both followed and fumed over, simply lack this quality: something deeper and more powerful than evidence. Not maternal intuition, that old myth, but a breadth of experience and — critically — a detachment from my time. It’s possible, even likely, that I’d have disliked these books had I read them when they were originally published: their taste for the Freudian, their heteronormativity, the endless suggestions to look within. But to read them now is to enter into another, more human way of thinking about what happens between parents and children.

I kept returning to one particular Kitzinger line, which I carried around in my head protectively, joyfully, the way I carried the child growing in my body: “Having a baby was a normal life crisis,” she’d said. Plenty of the advice I’d consumed treated having a baby as a catastrophe. Some of it — and this I liked even less — presumed it was no problem, that it was simply a matter of benevolently accepting that your life as you knew it would be destroyed. But what these books suggested was a kind of compromise: that parenting could be at once totally impossible and completely fine, that a day of mind-numbing infant care could coexist with existential reckoning. “Babies and parents are individuals who learn and develop at their own rates,” Wells-Burck had written. “Eventually … all parents can be classified as experts.”

Lucy Morris is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cut, Slate, BuzzFeed, and more. She previously wrote for Romper about what happens when diet culture comes for babies.