On Rules and Doing It Wrong

Woman reads while baby sleeps - advertising image from c. 1949

At heart, I am rule follower. I can’t watch sitcoms because the social rule-breaking makes me cringe, not laugh. I never ever cut in line. I was the kid in school who had to do every assignment perfectly, and would fall apart if I missed the mark.

So when I had a baby, naturally I flipped the hell out. I desperately wanted someone to tell me how to raise this terrifyingly small human, to tell me how to do it RIGHT.

And boy howdy, I discovered that the world is full of someones who just couldn’t wait to tell me all the ways I could fuck this up. Every new mother I know has gone through this painful introduction to this endless stream of advice and fear.

Looking back, I can’t believe how much time I spend reading this stuff. I remember late nights where I would tell myself I’d just read through one more topic, one more post, and THEN I’d go to bed. (This is an unfortunate side effect of having a compulsion for completeness – online message boards are infinite, so you are never complete, so you had better just keep reading and reading until you fall asleep on the couch. Fun!)

I think my need to understand the rules is why I also have a need to buy every vintage etiquette book and how-to manual I can get my hands on. When I hold a Sunset Magazine’s guide to good hostessing (circa 1943) in my hands, I picture a young mother sitting at her kitchen table, flipping through looking for answers. She wants to be a good mother, a good wife, a good friend. And the advice she’s getting is both hysterically funny and heartbreaking, because it’s all terrible. It’s terrible advice, and she shouldn’t listen to any of it – because really, what did the editors of Sunset know that she didn’t. Nothing.

It makes me want to give that long-ago young mother a hug, then give myself (circa 2007) a kick in the pants, and then take out a billboard on Highway 101 that says THERE IS NO RIGHT WAY.

(Except when it comes to standing in line.)

(Featured image: Woman Reads as Baby Sleeps from Photographic Advertising Limited
Image source: Collection of National Media Museum on Flickr)