I remember the first time I was left alone with my son. By alone I mean I was still in the hospital with staff coming into my room every half an hour but my husband was taking an exam, my sister was at work, and my mum and in-laws were at home. I so clearly remember thinking ‘what is wrong with everyone? Why have they left me alone with my baby? I clearly have no idea what I’m doing or what I’m supposed to do’. I thought I was magically meant to be this Super Mum like in the Pampers adverts. In reality, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing BECAUSE I WAS A FIRST TIME MUM. But we have a romanticized notion of parenthood and it’s a big frigging shock to the system when you realize you’re not like any of the parents on tv or in parenting books. Since the birth of my son more than two and half years ago (already?!), I feel like I’ve haphazardly stumbled through sleep regressions, tantrums, growth spurts, owies, uneaten meals, endless episodes of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, 8 million boxes of Goldfish (wholegrain, of course), and countless other milestones and events. My intentions have been good but I’ve stumbled a lot. Stumbling as a parent is hard to admit to even though we all do it. I wish someone had told me the less romantic, more accurate version of parenting before I had my own kids. If I had to tell my own children the truth about parenting here are the top 5 things I would say (as of June, 2015):
- You better like the feeling of guilt because it will be the most constant emotion in your life. When my son is at daycare I feel guilty that I’m not with him. When he’s at home I feel guilty that I’m not challenging him enough. When I let him have a treat, I feel guilty that rather than make him work for the treat, it’s simply been handed to him. If he’s earned said treat, I feel guilty that the lesson I’m teaching him is that if you work hard, it’ll pay off when in reality that isn’t always the case. Ugh! THE GUILT IS ENDLESS. And I imagine this only gets worse as the stakes grow. I wish as parents we talked about this more. I was so unprepared for the relentless guilt and it was isolating initially because I felt like everyone else was winning at parenting. Now that I’ve opened up to other mums I realize every good parent I know feels this guilt acutely. What I see are strong, inspirational, brilliant mothers but what they think is that they’re being pulled in so many different directions that they never quite succeed at anything. In my mind that’s ridiculous because they have these fabulous careers or at least life trajectories, cozy yet immaculate homes, and children who are excelling even as toddlers. Basically they seem to have their sh*t all the way together while I’m at home feeding my son Goldfish (again wholegrain so it’s not a total loss) out of a cup because we have no more clean bowls.
- Do not be a terrible human because you will get called on it. The other day as I was rushing to get my son out of the door, I snapped and said ‘hurry up and get in the car please’. I thought I was pretty clever speaking sternly but adding a ‘please’. My son looked me straight in the eye and said ‘talk nicely, Mama’. I stopped my rushing about and laughed. He was right; getting to daycare 3 minutes sooner as a result of a snippy attitude was not worth it and my son was not afraid to tell me that. Through my laughter I was forced to apologize and restart the entire process of trying to leave the house. *please note, being called on your behavior is not always this ‘fun’. It is, at times, painful, degrading, and this honesty is not refreshing.
- Anyone can be a parent. I’m not saying a good parent, just a parent in general. So to be a parent you technically don’t have to change yourself. Here’s the thing though: becoming a parent makes you want to be better. At everything. At every little, stupid, big, irrelevant, important, menial, whatever thing. I imagine (largely to keep myself sane) that one day it all kind of comes together and you see your hard work pay off, but while your kids are still growing, you will often feel like you don’t measure up. That short temper you’re always working so hard to control will be tested and flare up (often). Those terrible eating habits will be watched, scrutinized, and God forbid, mimicked if you’re not careful. Having children is like holding a giant mirror up to yourself that reflects e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g. about you. That harsh and truthful reflection will make you want to be a better version of yourself. The flipside, of course, is that mirror also highlights the things that you do well and gives you a shot of confidence like nothing else can (for example, you don’t like my body? Well that’s just fine because I’m healthy and I want my children to have a healthy relationship with body image so take your size 00 and shove it).
- Having children is intoxicating. I come from a big family and I always wanted lots of kids. My husband is an only child (also referred to as a ‘lonely child’ in Scandinavia, apparently) and I always thought having just one was kind of cruel. Now that I do have the one kid, I am utterly intoxicated with the endless amounts of attention and energy I can spend on this single human. Even though in the weeks following his birth, I wanted to have more kids straight away, I’m currently unwilling to share my son with anyone else. I know as soon as I have another child and see him or her interact with my son, I’ll wonder why on earth I waited so long, but for now I’m all Beyoncé and Drunk in Love (well maybe the Will Ferrell version).
- You will think to yourself that your kids depend on you for everything. What I’m learning, though, is that actually I need my kids. Every bit of my identity, happiness, and future is tied into their healthy, successful growth. I can be irritated and complain that no one’s gotten any sleep for weeks because of the latest sleep regression, but actually, my world won’t be right until my son can sleep through the night like his body needs him to. Or eats three meals a day because he’s growing and needs nutrients. So as much as I like to think he needs me to help him grow and flourish, actually I need him because he’s my world. Everything else that happens is, when I really think about it, scenery for this diva that has filled up every bit of my heart and my head.
Like so many other things in life, I feel like parenting is being romanticized, which is so dangerous because when parenting isn’t this glorious, endless stream of cuddles and giggles and love, it can be crushing. It can make you doubt everything you thought you knew about yourself and knock your confidence to the point where you feel unable to commit to a decision. But actually, if we’re honest with each other about how wonderful AND trying parenting can be, we’re opening up a space where it’s possible to safely voice our parenting concerns and get advice on how to manage it all. My (limited) experience has taught me that when I’ve opened up about my doubts as a mother (like my son hit with me a shoe today. Is that a reflection of his love for me?), other mums have felt and overcome those same doubts. And I too have been able to offer fellow mums reassuring words because we’ve decided to communicate honestly about parenting.
For me the bottom line when it comes to parenting is this: parenting is like being in labor. The experience is almost unreal, it pushes you to your absolute limit, and it forces you to behave in ways you never normally would. BUT it is worth every second. It doesn’t matter what journey you took to get there. What matters is the beautiful end result and despite all the pain and work associated with it, you not only want to go through it again but you look back on it and think that is absolutely one of the most worthwhile things I have ever, ever done. Being a good parent is something I’m still trying to figure out, but it’s a lot easier with honest, open parents in my corner.