People say “kids don’t come with an instruction manual,” but rest assured, when it comes to raising kids, there is no shortage of material – or people – out there willing to tell you exactly what to do. For reading materials, there are what to expect books, what to do books, what NOT to do books, how to raise happy kids books, how to raise healthy kids books and how to raise smart/creative/well-balanced kids books. There are books by world-renowned doctors. Books by leading child psychiatrists. And books by cool, hip, straight-talking every day people like you and me, except they seem to know what they are doing or they wouldn’t have written a book about it.
As far as human experts go, one trip to the grocery store with a baby in tow and you’ll quickly learn that the world is full of (usually) well-meaning people happy to tell you “exactly” what to do for every little thing from now until eternity.
But, no matter how much advice you get, solicited or otherwise, there are some things that you just have to experience for yourself. I’ve read a lot of parenting books over the years and received a LOT of advice from strangers, but, through no fault of the authors or overly eager advice givers, most of what I’ve learned about being a parent has come from hands-on training. The fact is that there’s no way to capture in words the nuances, subtleties, feelings and emotions that go into parenting.
And while most of the advice we get is based on truth, it rarely captures the full reality. Here are just a few of the things I’ve learned for myself over the years…
8. It goes by so fast.
Reality: It does, but do the math and give yourself some credit.
It’s true that childhood goes by fast. But “it goes by fast” is often said in a way that implies that you shouldn’t complain about the time you’re putting in. After all, kids leave the house after 18 years…right? (Please say “yes.”) And pregnancy is only nine months. Diapers? That will only last about 2-3 years. And they’ll be through those middle school and high school years in no time.
Every year, life seems to go by faster, so it is important to savor the special moments. But it’s also important to give yourself credit along the way. Take a minute to do the math. For example, I have three kids…
3 x 9 months of pregnancy = 2 years and 3 months of being pregnant
3 x 2-3 years of diapers = 6-9 years of diapers (buying them and changing them)
3 x 3 years of middle school = 9 years
3 x 4 years of high school = 12 years
3 x 18 years of childhood = 36 years
And I’m not even going to add up the total years that I’ll have kids in the house. Of course, if you have multiple children, you might have some of these events overlap, reducing the total time if not the total effort. While I never had two in diapers at the same time, I spent nearly 8 consecutive years changing diapers. I’ve also got 11 consecutive years of high school staring me in the face. Those are still pretty lofty numbers. So sure, it goes fast, but if my own frantic and ongoing phone calls to my own mother count for anything, this parenting gig isn’t going anywhere soon.
7. You’re going to be exhausted.
Reality: Nothing, not even sleep will ever be your own again.
Exhausted doesn’t begin to describe the levels of sleep deprivation you’ll experience. I love the phrase “sleep like a baby” for its irony alone. Sleep like a baby? You mean wake up hungry every two hours? Or because the pacifier has fallen? Or because a diaper needs changing?
Then there are toddlers. They’ll wake you up screaming at 3am simply because their “pants are making them hot.” They’ll climb in your bed every night for two months, and if you’ve ever slept with a toddler, then you know that they get more aerobic exercise in their sleep than most of us do at the gym. But it doesn’t stop there. I have a 10-year old who was actually complaining recently that it had been way too long since she had slept in my bed. She’s taken to setting an alarm at 1:30am for the simple purpose of getting in bed with me. She sleeps like a starfish and it’s only nice for one of us. Add to that teenagers and their curfews, and I haven’t slept through the night in years.
Forget sleeping like a baby. I want to sleep like a college student.
6. You can’t have nice things.
Reality: You CAN have nice things. Just don’t expect them to stay nice.
I can hear all of you parents-of-toddlers out there sighing a unanimous sigh of agreement (and defeat) as you remember all of that lovely wedding china you got, the antique vase your grandmother gave you or that stunning white couch you bought in your late 20s.
Don’t worry, all of those nice things that you had before kids are still yours. They’ll just look a little different by the time your kids are done with them. The good news is that you’ll get continue to get nice things as your kids get older. The bad news is that all of these nice (and, often, expensive) things will probably belong to your kids…and they won’t stay nice either.
5. Kids say the darnedest things.
Reality: Kids will come up with their own hilarious quips, but the “darnedest things” will be when they repeat embarrassing things you’ve said.
Again, this is not a phenomenon that ceases once your kids hit a certain age. I still hide in the bathroom or closet to have phone conversations I don’t want my kids to hear. They are everywhere at all times, listening with the skill and intensity of Cold War-era Russian spies, just waiting to relay my ridiculous comments to the outside world.
I was once talking to a friend about how every house has its own unique smell and how comforting the scent of my parent’s home is. I concluded by saying that my kids would probably never say that about my house, because with two teenagers and a pre-teen, it usually smells like estrogen and feet. My 14-year old just recently announced this to a nurse at a doctor’s appointment. My look of slack-jawed horror matched the nurse’s. The teenager just cackled.
4. Mother’s have a sixth sense.
Reality: You will spend the rest of your life in a constant state of worry.
It’s true. Mothers do have a sixth sense. What no one tells you is that it works in overdrive. It will come in handy, to be sure. You’ll simply “feel” when things aren’t right. You’ll be in tune with the slightest vibrations in your child’s health or emotional state. You’ll sense a lie. You’ll know when something is even slightly out of place. You’ll be a super-human radar honed to NASA-level perfection.
But, at the same time, your life will become one big conjugation of the verb “to worry.” You’ll lay awake at night worrying about things that have happened. Things that haven’t happened. Things that will happen. And worst of all, things that could have happened. You’ll worry about your children while they’re at school. You’ll worry about them when they’re at a friend’s house. You’ll worry when it gets too quiet in the room where they’re playing. You’ll wake up in the middle of the night and suddenly feel an unspeakable urge to check on them in their sleep…just in case.
The problem with a mother’s sixth sense is not that it doesn’t work, it’s that for every three times you’re right, there will be another seven that you’re just being paranoid. It’s worth it for those three times, but the others? Simply exhausting. And I’m pretty sure this lasts forever.
3. Being a parent is emotional.
Reality: Dog food commercials will make you cry.
As will pretty much everything on Animal Planet, most animated movies and nearly all greeting cards – even the ones meant to be funny. I don’t know if it’s that having babies throws your hormones out of whack permanently or if it’s that having children opens an entirely new sensory landscape. All I know is that my siblings and I used to make fun of our mom for crying during movies and now I have to hide my face in a pillow every time the TV is turned on.
2. Mothers know how to protect their young.
Reality: Roman Gladiators have nothing on you when it comes to ferocity.
It’s one thing to think about protecting your child. It’s another to realize the lengths that you would actually go to to do it. Even if yours is the kindest, gentlest soul on the playground, the first time the playground bully turns his or her attention towards your child, you will discover urges that you didn’t know existed. You will glare at your child’s friend when they come to your house for a playdate and your child ends up in tears. You will imagine yourself storming a high school armed with pithy, sarcastic insults to hurl at the Mean Girls when your kid comes home from school feeling sad and rejected. It will scare you – and you will have to control it. But it will be there, because no one, and I mean no one, messes with Mama Bear’s cubs.
1. You will love in ways that you never thought possible.
Reality: Ok. This is one is pretty much spot on.
From the moment you first set eyes on this tiny, fragile being that you made with YOUR VERY OWN BODY, you will cease to question the purpose of your life. In that moment, you will be forever changed. You will most likely become more boring, messier, less punctual, and in your child’s teenage years, you will be called lame, but your life will be better for it.
That being said, kids aren’t for everyone. But if children are in your stars, then know that you will love without question, without reserve and without reason. You will go through challenges greater than any you’ve ever faced. You will cry more, worry more and sleep less. But it will be worth it. You will, in fact, love in ways that you never thought possible – and that’s one piece of advice I can give with complete confidence.
Advice books and well-meaning baby “experts” will always be there to help when you hit a stumbling block. And, chances are, they will be helpful more often than not. But you were given the children you were given for a reason – and you were meant to learn from them just as they were meant to learn from you. Take advice, absolutely. But don’t ever lose sight of your own precious journey. Interpret your family’s story as it comes – and know, without a doubt, it will be one heck of an adventure.