There’s that old saying “hindsight is 20/20.” And there are few places in life that it is more applicable than child rearing. The older my kids get, the more I find myself thinking about how much I didn’t know about having kids and how I wish that someone had told me what this whole parenting thing would be like.
Then I remember—people did tell me, but I didn’t listen. Or, rather, I heard what they said but lacked the brainpower to understand it. That’s because there’s no way for the pre-parent brain to process childrearing information anyway but logically. And if you’ve had kids, then you know that there’s absolutely nothing logical about the experience.
In the end, it doesn’t matter how many index cards people fill with well-meaning advice at your baby shower, it doesn’t matter how many sweet old ladies stop you in the grocery store to impart their years of wisdom, and, to be honest, it doesn’t even matter how many books you read. Kids are kind of like bungee jumping or skydiving, you never know how you’re going to respond until after it’s too late to stop.
It’s probably just as well that I didn’t fully understand what I was getting myself into or I would probably have a house full of dogs right now instead of a week’s worth of unfolded child-sized laundry judging me from across the room. But still, there are few things that I wish I had known…
1. People will judge you.
Oh absolutely, they will judge. No matter what you do or how well you do it, someone will think you should be doing it a different way. These people will not always mean to be judgmental or even realize they’re doing it. But you will get eyeballed for everything you do from the moment that baby belly starts to show. What you eat, what you wear, how you have the baby, what you do with the baby once you have it, how you handle the toddler that the baby grows into, and ultimately, how the teen comes out.
Do your best to trust your instincts and ignore all but the people you love and trust the most. Sometimes other people have good advice. But sometimes other people are your just weird great-aunt who still thinks that babies should just have a little bourbon when they’re teething.
(PSA: you can only be held partially responsible for teenagers as all teens are genetically modified life forms for a few years. They can’t help it any more than you can. Just keep a close eye on them and they will return to their natural human form sometime in the middle of their sophomore year of college. Maybe junior. I don’t really know. I’m just hoping.)
2. You’ll be tired for the rest of your life…at least as far as I can tell.
The first point that I would like to make here is that the people who say things to you when you’re pregnant like “sleep while you can” have either never been 473 months pregnant (which is what the final two months of pregnancy feel like) or have forgotten what it feels like to have to pee every five minutes—an act that first requires you to get out of bed, which in turn, requires physics. In other words, you go into parenting tired from the start.
Secondly, when someone tells you to “nap when the baby naps,” you should back away slowly while maintaining eye contact and smiling gently. These people are crazy and don’t remember that nap time is all about getting things done you can’t get done when kids are awake.
And lastly, the sleepless nights and early mornings don’t end just because the kids get older. You’ll trade midnight breastfeeding for staring out the window to make sure a teenager makes curfew. You’ll trade 3am toddler night terrors for 3am mom-terrors because you forgot that the school bake sale is tomorrow and you now have five hours in which to make four dozen cupcakes. You’ll trade 6am Saturday morning wake-ups with a toddler jumping on your head for 5am Saturday morning wake-ups because someone has to be at a swim meet three hours away.
But at least you’ll never be bored…and who needs sleep anyway?
3. You will always have that one friend who loses her baby weight immediately.
She’ll be the one who humble-brags at every playgroup about how her doctor made her drink milkshakes while she was nursing because the weight just came off so fast. It’s ok. We all have different bodies and they are all perfect. Just readjust the waistline of your yoga pants (because they’re still the only ones that fit…more or less) and remind yourself that it took nine months to put on, it might take nine months to take off. And as you chase your two-year-old across the playground, you can also remind yourself that those nine months don’t have to occur consecutively.
4. “You time” will take new…and sometimes very strange…shapes and forms.
Everyone will tell you that you need to remember to take care of yourself. And it’s true. But whereas “you time” might have once meant a few hours at the spa or a weekend away with your girlfriends, post-kids “you time” might be sitting alone in your car in the driveway for an extra ten minutes while everyone thinks you’re still at the grocery store. Take it. It’s still worth savoring.
5. Your kids will not appreciate the fact that you stayed up until 3am hand-making birthday decorations for the party that they cried through anyway.
Oddly enough, kids don’t appreciate the effort we make as parents until much, much later. Not only will they not remember that you carried them for nine months, birthed them, and kept them alive up until this point, there will be times where it will seem that they don’t appreciate anything you do for them up to and including: feeding them all meals (especially the ones you took the longest to prepare), giving them baths, brushing their teeth, taking away sharp objects, pulling them out of traffic, preventing them from going off the high dive at the age of three, and spending time and money buying whichever Christmas present you thought they would be most excited about. (They will, however, spend hours playing with the box it came in.)
But, they will love when you cuddle on the couch with them, read to them, pick them up when they skin their knee, pull them into your bed when they come in teary-eyed after a bad dream, and buy them sugary cereal on occasion and eat it with them over Saturday morning cartoons. So there’s that.
6. You’re never going to live up to your own expectations.
This is a fact. We all go into parenting with a series of well-laid plans and the best of intentions. But eventually, making our own all-organic baby food turns into feeding kids cheese crackers off the floor. There’s nothing wrong with that. The bottom line is that sometimes parenting is nothing more than doing the best you can on any given day.
If you try too hard to be perfect, you’re going to spend way too much time feeling disappointed. Just keep on keeping on. The only expectation you, or anyone else, should have of your parenting is that your kids grow up feeling loved, cared for, and secure. The rest is just semantics.
7. Don’t ever assume you’re through the worst of it.
I know this sounds horribly fatalistic. It’s not. There is good stuff around every corner, too. But parenting is all about the long game. After my first daughter, I remember thinking that if I could survive the first three months, I would have this parenting thing in the bag. As it turns out, that was the easy part. Newborns stay where you put them. They don’t have opinions. They don’t tell you that you’re mean. They are happy to eat the food you provide them (for the most part). And they never miss curfew.
Every time I have heaved a sigh of relief thinking that I have finally gotten through the worst phase, a new set of challenges arise. It’s a constant trade-off. But the end result is that every phase of parenting has been my favorite—and my least favorite—for one reason or another. And it’s that beautiful balance that keeps me going.
8. You’re going to screw up more than you’ve ever screwed up on anything in your entire life…but that doesn’t make you a bad parent.
If you’re a surgeon and you screw up constantly, it’s safe to assume you’re not a very good surgeon and perhaps you should consider another line of work. Fortunately, parenting is not like that. Making mistakes as a parent is just part of the experience. And you will make mistakes…oh will you ever make mistakes. What makes these mistakes different from other things in life is that in parenting, unlike surgery, love and humility go a long way in repairing the damage we may have done. We have to be willing to admit our mistakes, be willing to learn from them, and always be ready to try something new. And not because we’re sure we’ll get it right the next time, but because our kids are worth the effort.
9. On that note, your kids will never be perfect, either. Never.
This doesn’t mean that they won’t be amazing. It just means that no matter how hard you try, no matter how vigilant you are, no matter how absolutely boss you are at parenting, your kids have an infinite, immeasurable, earth-shattering ability to make mistakes, too. And just when you think they can’t do anything worse, they will. I don’t say this to say that kids are inherently bad. Kids are awesome. And you may very well have really good kids. But there will be moments when they test you beyond your imagination. And those moments will be so hard that you will start looking on adoption sites—not to adopt more kids, but to see if anyone else might want yours.
Just remember at all times that your job is not to have perfect kids, but to raise really great adults. So hang in there. They will be ok—and so will you.
10. Parenting is all about wearing your heart outside of your body for the rest of your life.
Our hearts are inside of our bodies for a reason: so that they can be protected. But once you have kids, that heart of yours goes out into the world, unprotected and vulnerable.
It will get pushed by the playground bully. It will get ignored by the mean girls. It will get broken by a crush. It will get sick and you will sit sleeplessly through the night, aching to your very core, begging for it to get better. It will long for things that may never be. It will dream big dreams. It will burst with pride at successes and shrivel into a lonely shell with disappointments. It will never again be yours and yours alone.
But it will grow beyond your ability to imagine. It will expand and soar to heights that you never thought possible. And while you no longer have control over its path, you wouldn’t have it any other way, because never has it felt so whole.
Despite being blindsided at every turn for the last 17 years, if you asked me what I would change about where I am, I can’t say that there’s much I would do differently. Sure, it would have been nice to not always learn things the hard way. But the fact is that parenting is the greatest challenge, greatest adventure, and greatest growth opportunity any of us will ever have.
And hey, if we don’t get it right the first time, there’s always the next kid, right?