Saturday, May 18, 2013

Be Your Expert

As part of the natural parenting movement of the 90s, some of my peers were advocating layperson knowledge,  the idea that we can each trust our instincts and one another in childbirth and parenting. 

Underlying that belief may have been a personal history of being misled, or in some cases even abused, by people in authority, be they doctors, religious leaders, family members, or counselors. We can figure it out together without anyone in charge, some of us said.

About that time, those who had figured it out emerged with new titles such as mentor and life coach. Doulas were considered softer, more ancient authority figures trained with a task many traditional obstetricians opposed.

Having grown up as the first generation of post-feminists, we weren't used to asserting ourselves, and sometimes were bullied by the more extreme adopters of natural parenting. We began to sort ourselves according to how devout we were in our natural parenting practices. The term "slightly crunchy" was coined by those who leaned earth mother but had one foot firmly planted in the mainstream on various issues, such as vaccinations and cloth diapering.

While I admired those who baked their own bread while tandem breastfeeding a toddler and newborn and homeschooling four more children who were each three years apart in age, I had an only child and a lot of choices surrounding a tech industry husband. I started a natural toy business and added another layer of technical crunchiness by becoming a work-at-home mom with an ecommerce start-up.

I hired a business coach in my third year who predictably told me, "Breathe!" and informed me that my business was in the top five of our international network. It never felt as slick as some of the highly capitalized ventures of the LA moms in our group. Our brand was very handmade in look and feel, and I answered my own 800 number from my home-based office and listened to birth stories with my son playing in the floor.

I had learned web design and QuickBooks and knew my way around the woodshop, toy design sketchbook, and online and on-the-phone marketing.  My background in retail and teacher education informed my product designs, and I supported other moms hand-making a supplemental income from home. I built hundreds of free content pages and achieved great web traffic at a time when the internet was a place of pioneers. We formed tight communities that are now hundreds of thousands strong.

We knew each other through listserves, blogs, and online groups in their infancy. I knew moms who married men they met playing MUDs. The geeks and would-be ludites found each other because we were forming a new parenting culture that was not necessarily supported well enough in the local La Leche League or homeschooling group.

It was radical, but some of us were reticent and needed support in how to do what some of our family and friends found odd. We wanted more interaction than a guide on natural parenting could provide. In a world where Blogger and eBay were new, we were filling one another's inboxes with genuine friendship.

Video is about to take over online interaction today, but in the late 90s we glimpsed one another in photos and words. Like so many pen-pals, our long distance friendships grew, with some of us lucky enough to enjoy real life meetups.

My inbox these days is full of blog post notifications from self-proclaimed gurus I will never get to know online or IRL. The interactions shove techie words at me to encourage my momtrepreneur confidence: SEO discussions, self-published eBook guides, video guides, and discussions about inbound marketing,  starring moms who probably makes far less income than they'd like for their dubious expert status.

What I still value is what my son has, what I used to have: Real peers playing, working, and hanging together online. He games and programs with an international group of friends and shares Reddit posts and videos about growing up in this time of intense change.

In my brick-and-mortar gallery, he sits in my office each evening, as we've returned to a final year of my working while he plays nearby. By the next version of the iPhone, he'll be off to college.

Currently he is beta testing a video game for an entrepreneur I am collaborating with in marketing. He is considered a proficient programmer in a few languages. At 17.

Natural parenting is common these days, and there is no need for an expert. We were right about laypeople. DIY is on the rise, and expert status is tougher than ever to gauge.

Perhaps we might return to free collaboration,  in which Jane's husband gave our listserve free room on his business server to have our momversations about working at home. Perhaps we might do our social media without manager, but simply by helping support each other to get the word out about our great businesses.

I'm doing this now through generosity, which only costs my precious time, but I consider it part of my job. Connecting with real people, whether in person or online, has real value and translates to sales of artists' work. It always has. But it emerges from the desire to support and benefit one another.

We get what we select for in this world. If you shop at Target instead of the handmade market, you end up with only Target for your shopping option. In the same way, if you look for experts instead of trusting your own judgement, you will tend to doubt yourself and choose answers from someone who may know less than you, and may not know or care what is best for you.

If I can help you, let me know. I support many small businesses and causes with my time and money. I believe helping others get what they want helps me. But don't forget who the real expert about your life and business is: You.