October 23, 2015 by Julia
A few weeks ago the kids and I were invited to a casual gathering of women and children one Saturday night – the kids could run wild in the backyard while the moms sat around the kitchen table. Other than the host, I didn’t know any of the other mothers present, whose children ranged in age from almost-due-to-be-born first baby to preteen. Soon enough the more experienced mothers among us began to share birth stories, memories and advice with the pregnant woman and another new mother at the table. It didn’t matter what stage of motherhood we were currently in; we were tripping over each other to recall all of the gory details and retrospective insights. I imagine great-grandmothers would have chimed in with equal enthusiasm.
Why do we feel so compelled as parents to talk about our experiences?
So many reasons, really. We’ve crossed a divide. We can’t help ripping back the business attire or t-shirts to reveal the giant “S” underneath. We are more resilient people with some hard earned wisdom under our belts. We are also trying to make sense of our failures, or at least the things we couldn’t always control. We’re trying to spare new parents some of the heartache we once endured (even if we may still be enduring it for different reasons with older children). We are trying to give hope despite the upcoming challenges, and to cherish what we have in our own children. We are saying, “We made it through, and you can, too. We are stronger, happier and better for it, and you will be, too. It’s hard as hell but everything will be okay. You won’t be alone in this.”
As we finished our conversation in the kitchen hours later, there were declarations of “Don’t worry! Everything’s gonna be wonderful!” along with laughter at the worried looks of the pregnant woman.
Next year Jack will be in full-day kindergarten, which will mark the end of an era for our family. I will have been at home caring for children for over eight years by then. The majority of my time has been spent with Fiona (now seven) and Jack (now four).
I am used to them needing me all the time. I am used to their physical presence and the demands they have made on my body and soul throughout the day, demands that drained me in ways I didn’t know were possible until I became a parent. I don’t regret staying home with them at all, ever. I already look back on these years fondly and they’re not even over yet. The beauty, humor and charm of my young children never ceases to bring me wonder.
But before they’re both in school and I forget the particular struggles of this first stage of raising kids, I do feel compelled to pass on some of that hard earned “wisdom” I mentioned. (Emphasis on the hard earned, as well as on the quotation marks around wisdom; I offer it with humility.) I don’t want to be the lady in the checkout line wearing rose-colored glasses, saying, “Those will be the best days of your life!” as your children scream for candy bars. We don’t need to be reminded to enjoy the milestones – we have no problem cherishing our children – that’s the easy part. We need reassurance that Yep, it’s also hard as fuck, and we’re not crazy losers for thinking so.
Of course every parent, child and life is different, which is why these points are as universal as possible. Also, I’m more interested in the underlying habits of how to happily, sanely raise children than the details of sleeping, eating and so on.
- Find parents with kids around the same age as your own and befriend them. And then leave the house on a regular basis with your kid to meet up with them.
This is the first thing I say to every new parent, especially if they plan to stay home full-time for longer than a month. It’s that important.
So you had your baby. It was amazing/scary and you’re in a state of shock and amazement. About two weeks after the birth, the visitors slow down and your partner goes back to work. You are fine with your little buddy, cocooned and humming along to the rythym of feedings, naps, laundry, TV. But by the second day (yes, probably the SECOND day) you get a little weepy. That means you need to see other adults who are living the baby world as intensely as you.
I know it sounds intimidating to approach a random group of parents with your still-recovering self and unpredictable baby, but I’m telling you, if everyone in the room has newborns, it’s the most reassuring thing ever. Newborns are the great equalizer. We are all a mess when we don’t know how to stop the crying. Hand a colicky child to Princess Kate or President Obama and suddenly they’re just like you.
I was once in the hospital searching for a lactation specialist with a month-old Fiona in tow, holding back tears, when a tough-talking nurse ordered me to come to her mother’s group that met in the basement of the hospital. I was reluctant and dubious. But I cannot emphasize enough what a relief it was to sit in a giant circle of mothers holding babies as we talked about all our questions and worries. It didn’t matter if Fiona needed a diaper change, or started crying, or if I started crying, or if my flab was hanging out and my hair was greasy. I made friends within that group that I still count as close friends now. Those days are what got me through the hard parts. The mother’s group days were my favorite days of the week.
We aren’t supposed to raise babies alone. I don’t care if the pioneer women did it. (Thank you, God, that we are not pioneer women.) It’s not good for us to be home alone with small children for too long. Don’t even try. Get out there and talk to some grownups, preferably ones who are also in the thick of it.
2. Realize that care for yourself will transfer into better care for your kids.
Sometimes when I feel stretched too thin, stressed out, out of patience, or miserable, I think about whether I would want this for Fiona if she becomes a mother. No. I don’t want to be a cog in a wheel of sacrificial, miserable mothers, generation after generation, because what would be the point of that? And so, I need to get happy. I need to breathe and slow down. I need to have an adult life, too. These are all things that I want for Fiona when she becomes an adult, and I’m sure my own mother wants these things for me, too. As women, we must model to our daughters what self-care looks like. Besides, happier parents are the ones who are able to offer tenderness, time, and confident boundaries. Do what you must to get there.
And remember that our heart’s desires and our deepest moral values are often intertwined. Greed or total escape from reality is not self-care, at least not in the long-term. In other words, abandoning your family for the summer to do shrooms in a midwestern commune is probably not the answer. Part of self care is doing our best with the responsibilities we’ve taken on, so that we can respect ourselves and build up good relationships. It’s difficult to find time for being a caring, present parent while also taking time for oneself, but such is life, and the effort to do both is not futile. It can’t be all about your children – you are a person and your life matters, too.
3. When in doubt, clean up.
There will be moments when you just don’t know what to do next. You may be overwhelmed with tasks, or confused about how to handle a situation with your kid, or so mad you might say the f-word in front of them. Straightening up has helped me in all of these situations. You can’t go wrong by unloading the dishwasher in moments of distress. It actually feels better than collapsing, or trying to take a time-out behind a locked door while your children attempt to punch holes through it. And even if you don’t feel better while vacuuming, hey! Look, the vacumming’s done! You feel slightly better, right?
4. Don’t be a parenting know-it-all.
Whenever you think you’ve got it all figured out, or pass judgment on another parent for their parenting style or the behavior of their child, you tempt the gods. Your next kid might turn out to be a bad sleeper, or your sweet girl might suddenly begin to act like she hates you, apropos of nothing. Temperament is a real thing that people are born with. Not every difficulty is the parent’s fault, and even if it IS…they’d probably appreciate your input more as a sounding board more than as a parenting expert. As long as they are caring, responsible parents, and the child in question is not in danger, it’s better to just listen and remember your own parenting struggles. Even the most “innocent” advice or probing question can be annoying or hurtful if it’s not asked for. As parents we are vulnerable and defensive about our choices – maybe because we care so much, and try so hard. When we automatically judge other parents or kids, we break down the community we need most. Never forget that every good parent stumbles along, making mistakes…all the while hoping that our love and effort transcends our failings.
5. Model the life that you want for your children.
This is one of the many reasons I am grateful for my children: to paraphrase that famous line from the Jack Nicholson movie As Good As It Gets, they make me want to be a better person. It’s a beautiful cycle. I realize I want them to be good, and free, but respectful, and healthy, and to follow their interests and to enjoy life, and to acknowledge the sacred, and to be generous, and to have wonderful friendships, and on and on. How much can I teach them about these things if I am not showing them what it looks like? Kids smell hypocrisy from a very young age. I can’t very well tell them they must be one way if I am contradicting it with my own behavior at every turn. I really believe that they watch us carefully as they learn how to live. The lovely part is that when I remember to model my values for them, my own individual life gets better, too.
So, that’s it. At this “admittedly still early but not still new” stage of parenting, almost eight years in with two children, these are the most valuable lessons I’ve learned. I know I can’t spare you your own lessons with your own children, but I hope you find some encouragement from these truths that I hold close as I stumble along.