Before I had kids, I was the perfect parent. I had tons of great ideas about how I would raise my pretend children and what our life would look like (generally, it looked a lot like a happy sitcom family). Between all the media images and examples around us, we are all parenting experts…. I mean, it’s just the advanced version of having a pet, right?
HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! (That’s me responding to my former self.)
Now that I’ve had a few years of actual, on-the-job training, my perspective has completely changed. For the benefit of pending parents, I would like to share some lessons I’ve learned:
1. I have learned to relax about a little messiness.
I wouldn’t go so far as saying I used to be OCD, but I was very averse to clutter. You never know who is going to drop by, so I always picked up after myself and tried to keep excess possessions to a minimum. Any lingering crap would irritate me until I took care of it, because clutter quickly snowballs into filthy surroundings and out-of-control To-Do lists.
Fast-forward to having kids: a perfectly tidy house is impossible. Kids reach a stage where they are incredibly curious about the world and want to run around opening every drawer and cabinet while dumping its contents onto the floor. They will carry handfuls of toys into every room and leak them into hidden crevices. They are messy eaters who will launch rice grains into every nook of your kitchen while rubbing beans into their hair.
Toddlers are very mobile yet too young to clean after themselves, so they run around exploding your house all day long, day after day. Picking up after them is like using a sieve to empty a lake–the mess just keeps filling in as you scoop it out. Keeping down your number of possessions is also difficult because kids grow out of clothes within hours and everyone is constantly giving them presents… and they are Super Mega Attached to every last one of them (You’re throwing away Broken Doll Head with the sad eyes? You monster!).
Eventually you either have an aneurysm from the chaos or learn to chill out about it, scooping it all up at the end of the day.
2. I have learned to relax about being messy.
Before kids, I used to be the type of woman who usually wore heels (or at least boots), even when pregnant. I wore skirts and dresses as often as jeans and always flat-ironed my hair before applying light makeup. I was always clean, perfumed, and accessorized. I did not understand why so many women chopped their hair off and ran around in sweats and flip-flops after becoming moms.
Now I do. When you have a baby, anything you wear is bound to be covered in puke within hours and chucked into the laundry bin. This puke-fest will include your hair. Babies spit up, smear everything with goop, and sometimes overflow their diapers. You might have to change your clothes five times in a single day. You will not only be exhausted from sporadic sleep, but will also be sprinting everywhere, cleaning up spills while carting around infants with flailing limbs. If you do this in heels, you will eventually be doing a face-plant into the wall.
While I still try to dress with some dignity in public, my at-home wardrobe has slid into yoga pants and comfy flip-flops. Your life is so much easier if you tone it down a notch and keep remembering that everything washes off/out.
3. I have learned to build extra time into my schedule.
Me getting out the door for an appointment used to look like this: am I dressed? Check. Do I have my wallet and car keys? Check. Did I turn the coffee pot off? Check. Okay, now I’m leaving the house. Done!
Now it looks like this: Okay, the kids are up and dressed and have eaten now, are their diapers clean? No? Okay, I’ll fix that. Okay, how long are we going to be gone? Do I have enough extra diapers, baby wipes, a change of clothes, emergency snacks, extra milk and water? Okay, we are ready… no, oops someone just crapped their pants. Gotta change them, oh well it got on their clothes… need more clothes. Actually, a quick shower. Alrighty now, wait, “Brontë what’s on your hands!? Okay, we are washing your hands. Where are your shoes? WHERE ARE YOUR SHOES? (I trip over a pile of kid crap). Why did you put your shoes THERE? Don’t cry! It’s okay! Yes, you HAVE to wear shoes. BRIDGET, GET YOUR HANDS OUT OF THE TOILET!” Oh Hell, we are 45 minutes in but FINALLY walking out the door… what’s that? Someone crapped their pants AGAIN?
Little kids just DO NOT CARE about getting places on time.
4. I have learned to manage my expectations.
Somewhere recently I read about a stay-at-home mom looking at her crazy, scattered house and thinking, “I have been up for hours and what have I done?” It really feels that way sometimes, because everything takes So. Much. Longer. than it used to. You make breakfast and feed your child, then need to spend time scrubbing all the breakfast off our baby, the high-chair, and kitchen. You’re dressing and constantly changing your kids and trying to entertain them while containing explosions and looking for a brief window during which to take your own shower and brush your teeth. You get the kid(s) down for a nap, finally, and have to decide whether to use that precious hour to do errands or catch up on sleep. By the end of the day, the house is still a wreck, you have only managed to meet basic life demands (eating, sleeping, and showering) and yet you are completely exhausted, thinking about everything you didn’t accomplish.
Eventually you develop better systems, becoming more organized and efficient, but there will always be particularly hard days where your kid got into a bag of flour and dumped it all over the house or decided to throw a two-hour fit. Give yourself a break. We are all doing the best we can.
5. I have more empathy for parents.
I used to see kids acting up in public and shake my head. “Why don’t the parents do something, ” I would think, “My kids wouldn’t act like that.” I would envision the imaginary monologue I would give my pretend children that would be so reasonable, so effective… It’s not unlike when someone is super rude to you and you later imagine what you should have said to them, some witty comeback that humbles them and amuses bystanders.
The problem with that kind of thinking is it’s all scripted in your head. Of course it’s effective–it’s part of your fantasy scene, where you control all the responses and reactions. In movies, the main character’s witty comebacks always go over well because they are written that way. No one interrupts them halfway through or fails to be appropriately put in their place afterwards.
Not so in real life. In real life, you dish out your heartwarming pearls of wisdom or parental threats and sometimes… the kids don’t care. It doesn’t help. They keep screaming in the restaurant or knocking crap over. You give them a toy, a snack, you try to hold them… and it doesn’t work. Or maybe it works on one kid, but not the other. They just keep going batshit crazy as you scramble to figure out how to handle the situation.
In the meantime, you are probably getting eye-rolls and disdainful snorts from bystanders, which doesn’t help one bit. Single people like to talk about what they would do if they were the parents (in their fantasy land where everything works out the way it should) or say obnoxious things like you chose to have kids so you need to take responsibility for them. A number of times, I have encountered grumpy eye-rolling just because people saw that I have kids–kids that weren’t acting up or doing anything objectionable beyond existing. “Oh great,” people’s faces seemed to say, “Kids. Terrific.”
Okay, I get it. You don’t want to be disturbed by other people’s kids. Some of you think kids get too much attention anyway and not everyone should have kids. You might not want kids and resent the idea that you should have to.
I agree. Not everyone has to or should have children. You can have a great life, with more time and money, after choosing to not have kids. Maybe you don’t have the right temperament or lifestyle for children, and it’s great that you understand that about yourself and have chosen to forgo having them. But someone needs to have kids, unless we want the human race to go extinct, and those kids can’t be locked away in a tower until reaching maturity. They must live among us as they learn how to behave. Try to give their parents a break. They are probably mortified and are doing the best they can.
5. I’m more comfortable with all children.
Kids used to frighten me. I didn’t dislike them, I just didn’t understand or know what to do with them. People would pass me their new babies and I would freak out a little (“Oh no, aren’t they supposed to have a soft spot on their head? I gotta make sure I don’t touch the soft spot!” Little kids would settle near me and I wouldn’t know what to say or do. I didn’t know how much their brain had developed at a certain age, how much they could understand and communicate, or what they thought was interesting. If a little boy was staring at me, I might pick up a couple hot wheels and smash them together, “Is this fun? Are you being entertained by this?”
So imagine my panic upon discovering I was pregnant. I wasn’t a “kid type” woman. I didn’t swoon over baby photos or look at kids with a yearning ache. Could I really be a mom?
Yes. As panicked as I was throughout my pregnancy, the first sight of my newborn’s shiny eyes melted my heart and kick-started my maternal instincts. We have to give Mother Nature some credit here: we have been having babies for thousands of years and all of those generations survived to bring us the people around us. This doesn’t mean I suddenly knew how to handle every parenting situation, it just means I loved my baby to pieces and would do anything to figure out how to keep her safe and healthy. I even went on to have another kid.
Now that I have kids, other kids don’t frighten me anymore. You learn they aren’t a foreign species, just little people who are learning how to navigate the world around them.
7. I trust my instincts more.
Regardless of what choices you make as a parent, someone thinks you’re wrong. Medical and generational advice constantly changes. When I was pregnant, the official stance was to avoid eating nuts because they could trigger allergies. I’m glad I didn’t listen to that because now they are saying we should eat nuts while pregnant to prevent allergies.
Breastfeeding is taught as the healthiest option for babies, but a couple of generations back, formula-feeding was considered safer. We are supposed to put babies on their backs to sleep, but my mother’s generation was advised to put babies to sleep on their stomachs. They used to advise sterilizing anything coming into contact with babies, but now we are finding out that this is bad for developing immune systems. Early potty-training used to be very important, but now they are saying kids train when they are ready.
My grandmother is horrified that I let my daughters suck their fingers and thumbs. She mentions it every single time she sees them, believing it will give them flat fingers and giant thumbs. She claims her mother was allowed to do it and had to live with giant, flat thumbs. I try to keep a straight face when I hear this.
Some people think letting babies cry-it-out to learn to sleep through the night is barbaric, while others think it’s necessary for parental well-being. Some people believe strict discipline prevents your kid from becoming a thug, while others believe it crushes creativity and breeds resentment. Some believe in time-outs, while others see this as a demonstration of alienation and conditional love.
Working moms are berated for “letting other people raise their children.” They are called selfish and greedy. Stay-at-home moms are berated for betraying the women’s movement and not planning for the future. They are called lazy and spoiled.
Single parents are criticized for irresponsibly bringing children into this world without an intact family, whereas parents with troubled marriages are told they shouldn’t stay together “for the sake of the kids.”
I think everyone gets my point here, which is that no matter what your choices are, you can’t satisfy everyone. In the end, you have to listen to all the theory and then apply what you think is right for your family and your individual situation. You might have to try different things and see what works. If your heart is in the right place, however, everything will probably turn out fine.