Recently, I got together with a friend who is pregnant with her first child. Now, I have to say, she’s got a good head on her shoulders. She is the last in a long line of friends to embark on the roller coaster of motherhood, so I like to think that she has had ample exposure to the ups and downs, the dos and don’ts, and the utter chaos of mind and body that having kids entails.
To be honest, I was quite impressed with her take on the whole process. She was relaxed and logical – despite being in her eighth month of pregnancy. She has a realistic approach to the unpredictable nature of labor and delivery. She seems aware and as prepared as can be for the coming storm of a newborn. And, quite frankly, I think she’s going to kill it at this whole mom thing.
But being with her got me to thinking about those gorgeous months of a first pregnancy when we still really and truly have no idea what we’re talking about. I don’t mean to say that we can’t have a good sense of what’s going on. And I don’t even mean to say that we can’t be really well prepared for what lies on the other side of the veil.
But in that secret smug part of my brain (the one I do my best to keep hidden), I love to hear a new mom-to-be talk about how it’s all going to go down. Because, while my parenting successes do not stretch far beyond the mediocre skill of getting Jell-O stains out of white carpet, I do have the gift of hindsight.
I know all too well that who you think you are going to be as a parent before you have kids versus what you actually do as a parent are often on opposite ends of the spectrum. In fact, it got me to thinking about all of my own misconceived ideas and assumptions. As I thought more about it, the list grew longer and I realized that being a parent has changed me in ways I hadn’t even realized.
But this kind of reflection is a good thing. Not only does it allow us to step back and realize our own personal growth (if you consider an infinitely more controlled gag reflex to be “personal growth”), but it also forces us to look forward and settle into the knowledge that our parenting experience is never going to be predictable.
While that might seem a disconcerting thought at first, there is a comfort in it. Not having a crystal ball often saves us from ourselves and allows us to experience the journey of having kids in a way that opens our hearts and minds to the infinite love, joy, and adventure. (Also, most parents would probably put their teenagers up for adoption if they had any idea what was coming. But that’s an article for another day.)
With all of that in mind, I decided to capture a few of my own preconceived ideas of how this whole “let’s have kids” experiment would go down and offer some tips for moms-to-be who might be thinking the same things. And so without further ado, I present a brief guide to:
Things We Say Before Kids vs. Things We Say After
1. Regarding Labor and Delivery
“I have a birth plan.”
After (or at least in the midst of hard labor):
“If this alien being is not removed from my body promptly, I will rain the fury of hell upon your heads.” (usually stated while staring laser-beam-hate-rays at your partner/doctor/midwife/nurse)
Please know that I am a big believer in birth plans. I think it’s very important to know what your preferences are before you head to the hospital—or wherever—to have your baby. Otherwise, you’re at the mercy of someone (or multiple someones) who may or may not know how you feel about certain procedures. But nothing makes me fear for the innocence of another being more than when a mother-to-be doesn’t just list her preferences but writes a detailed account of how her labor is going to go.
See, here’s the thing: babies can’t read. And even if they could, you’ll soon find out that kids don’t care what you want. They’re going to get out in their own way, in their own time. Count on it.
Now, some people are fortunate enough to come out of labor saying, “Hmmmm, that wasn’t so bad.” Or, “Wow, that was quick.” The rest of us hit the wall at some point and don’t care what it takes to get the baby out. We. Just. Want. It. Out. For me, that was usually halfway through the ninth month…with the real mindbending desperation hitting about mid-way through labor.
The point is, no matter how well you plan, when things get real, there’s a good chance that your birth plan will look like nothing more than a perfect projectile to hurl at your husband when he suggests, yet again, that you should “just breathe.”
2. Regarding The Newborn Phase
“I won’t be that tired, because I’ll sleep when the baby sleeps.”’
“The baby is sleeping. Finally. I am going to now hover in the hallway prepared to silently ninja-tackle anyone who so much as breathes loudly. And all the laundry. I am also going to do all the laundry. Even if it is 3 a.m.”
Sleeping when the baby sleeps is such a beautiful thought. After all, newborns seem to sleep all the time. Except when they need to be fed. Or changed. Or want to cry for no apparent reason other than to test your sanity levels in some sort of weird infant torture experiment.
But don’t misunderstand me. There are times when it’s completely possible to sleep when the baby sleeps. In fact, after the first week or two of waking up every 10 minutes because the baby wants to eat/be changed/cry to torture you, you’ll fall asleep at times and in places you couldn’t have imagined pre-baby. Like mid-feeding. Or, in the waiting room at the pediatrician’s office. Or, while trying to hold a conversation with your spouse. Not your first child? Then get ready to sleep while waiting in the car pick-up line after school. I’m not kidding.
But for the most part, you’ll find that those sweet moments of quiet when a baby sleeps are more precious than gold. Sure, you’d love a little sleep yourself, but chances are you’ll use that time to get caught up on the 50 million things you can’t do when the baby is awake. Or maybe you’ll just sit and stare blankly at the wall. Whatever it is, more often than not, the quiet is too good to waste on sleep.
3. Regarding Nap Times And Bedtimes
“I’m going to establish a sleep routine that will last for years.”
“I will sit in the driveway with the car running for 45 minutes because I will be darned if I am going to wake this child after she finally fell asleep 10 minutes before we got home.”
Bless your heart. Now, I know there are countless books on the topic of sleep training. Some people even manage to do it right. But I would venture to say this depends as much on your kids as the efforts you make. Maybe you’ll have a good sleeper. Maybe they’ll have regular nap times from infancy until they head off to school. Please know that this is my wish for you.
But more often than not, guess who doesn’t think naps are the greatest thing in the world? Every child under the age of 12. That’s who. That’s not to say they won’t take naps. They will. But don’t be surprised if it’s only after an hour of both of you crying to the point that you finally give up and go to the grocery store. Where they will cry even more, by the way. Why? Because they’re tired. Which you already knew which is why you wanted them to take a nap in the first place. (Also, the laundry. Please see above.) Then, of course, the drive home will immediately put them to sleep. You will now wish that you had shopped at a grocery store in the next state so that they could sleep longer.
Just remember, when they are teenagers, they will want to nap all the time. Of course, this will do you no good because there will be more laundry at this point, most of which is on their bedroom floor. Besides, by now, you will have already learned to survive, post-apocalyptic style, on 10-minute sleep increments totaling a cumulative five hours a day. So you’re all good there.
4. Regarding Healthy Eating Habits
“I’m going to feed my kids a variety of homemade baby foods so that they won’t become picky eaters. And by golly, the healthier the better!”
“The assortment of Cheerios and smashed Goldfish cheese crackers found in the cracks of the car seat absolutely count as ‘variety’. Oh! And whole grains and dairy. Perfect.”
Again, you may get lucky. You might have kids who loves avocados from the get-go. They might think that your Thai basil stir-fry is the bomb. They might beg you for one more of those tasty, tasty tofu “hot dogs.” Or, they might be like my third child and only eat bananas and cheese crackers for a year.
Sure, you want to give your kids a healthy variety of foods. But keep in my mind that a picky kid won’t necessarily equal a picky adult. Or maybe it will, but who cares. At some point, they’ll have to feed themselves and it won’t be your battle. Just do your best and make sure they are healthy overall.
In the meantime, if your kids eat a lot of bananas (or chicken nuggets are the only thing that keeps you from a padded room on any given day), go with it. Maybe check to make sure that the raisin they found under the couch really is a raisin before they eat it, but relax. They’ll learn to eat properly. Just be prepared to give it time.
5. Regarding The Toddler Years
“I know toddlers are tough. And I will be firm, but I am only going to use positive words to discipline.”
*muttered under your breath while staring at a three-year-old who has been having a screaming tantrum for 10 minutes straight* “$@&#$@.”
I know a lot of parents who instead of saying “no” to their toddlers say “no, thank you.” As in, “No, thank you. You do not use Sharpie markers on the cat.” Or, “No, thank you. You do not scream and throw your lunch across the room.” I admire that kind of self-control. But I’m here to tell you, there are going to be days when you are going to lose your mind. Like LOSE IT. That’s ok. It’s all part of the process.
None of us are going to be perfect parents. We are going to say things we regret. The trick is to teach ourselves ways of staying calm in the midst of the madness, just as we’re trying to teach our kids ways of coping with their emotions and controlling their behaviors. In fact, we can learn a lot from ourselves. Just think of the things you’re trying to teach your child and apply them to yourself first. Hopefully, you’ve learned that cats and Sharpie markers aren’t a good match, but if you’re trying to teach them how to “use their words” instead of losing their temper, listen to your own advice. You might be surprised at how much they learn from example.
In the meantime, forgive yourself for losing it now and then. It happens.
6. Regarding Sickness (and Other Bodily Fluids)
“I have the worst gag reflex! I get sick whenever I see someone else get sick.”
“Huh. I just caught vomit in my bare hands.” *wipes hands on pants* “Good thing I didn’t wear my nice pants.”
I remember when a good friend of mine was expecting her first child. She was in an absolute panic about what she was going to do when stomach flu hit (as inevitably it will), not to mention all of the other bodily excretions that would be happening following the birth of her child. This was genuine panic on her part. She would stop by my desk at least twice daily to discuss various illnesses and seek my reassurance that it wouldn’t be so bad. I would have to remind her constantly that, as a person who gags when someone throws up on TV not to mention in real life, I have handled stomach bugs that make the Black Plague look like a case of the sniffles.
Since having kids, I have been thrown up on, next to, and everywhere in between. I have had bodily fluids of every sort propelled in my general direction and as a result, I have cleaned car upholstery, furniture upholstery, down comforters, and more carpet than I care to mention. And yes, I have even caught vomit in my bare hands without a second thought. It happens. You don’t have to like it, but you’ll survive it. I promise.
7. Regarding Love
“I will love my children.”
“I had no idea that the human heart could expand so far in order to contain this kind of love.”
And this, my friends, is the crux of it all. Before we actually have a child and look into their eyes that very first time, seeing the infinite beauty of their very soul reflected back at us, there is no way to comprehend what it means to love a child. There is simply no way to describe the sensation of feeling like your heart has been consumed by the mere existence of another being.
I used to say things to expecting moms like, “You won’t even believe how much love your heart can hold.” That’s like saying, “You won’t believe how many light years away we are from other galaxies.” Our brains simply can’t comprehend it until we travel light years ourselves into the realm of parenthood. So these days, I just say, “Wait for it,” because I know they’ll understand soon enough.
Simply put, parenting isn’t something we can plan, preconceive, or even begin to comprehend beforehand. All we can do is enjoy the ride, even with its ups and downs, dizzying unpredictability, and neverending paradigms and contradictions. Because no matter how twisted our preconceived notions were, the one thing that remains constant is our love. And it turns out, that’s more than enough to get us by.