Tuesday, September 23, 2014

On What I Wish I'd Known (As A First-Time Mother)

With Ellie turning five this past week, I've been reflecting a lot on what it was like to be her mother in the very beginning. Sometimes I feel so badly for her, being the guinea pig kid. I had have no idea what I'm doing. Becoming a mother is a very wonderful and complex thing. There are so many moments of happiness mixed with frustration and bliss and insecurity and excitement and an absolutely inexplicable love and devotion. There's absolutely nothing anyone could ever say that could really prepare you for being a parent. But, from my experiences and talking to other mamas, I think there may be a few things every mom should hear that can make hard days easier and good days even better.
Me and Ellie back in the day. 
These are some of the things I've learned (and am still learning) along the way. Some of these things get easier with more kids. But as they grow and change, I have to learn them all over again.

1. Friends are better than the Internet. Even five years ago when I was pregnant with Ellie, the Internet was full of confusing and contradicting information. (There's some helpful stuff out there, like a quick Google search for "normal colors of baby poop" so you don't have to rush to the doctor because something weird is in your baby's diaper.) But now, even more than then, there is so much information that it is just overwhelming. There is a lot of fear-mongering regarding everything from what to feed your child, how to get them to sleep through the night, whether or not to vaccinate, etc. etc. etc ad infinitum.  I've always found it much more helpful to consult friends with older children, or even those who are right in the thick of things with you. Choose a pediatrician you feel comfortable with and they can also offer you a lot of advice. Read books and articles as much as you want, talk to your own mom and other seasoned moms you trust and admire. And trust your own instincts. But don't let some blogger who doesn't know you or your baby make you feel guilty. Don't even let the critiques of some Facebook acquaintance make you feel like you're failing. You're not. You're doing just fine.

Also, haters are gonna hate, so just ignore those who aren't supportive of the way you have chosen to raise your baby.

2. All parents are insecure. There are so many possible ways to do things. And so many people who have opinions about how one way is better than the other way or if you put your child down for one minute so you can go to the bathroom they'll be scarred for life or if they suck their thumb they'll have teeth problems or whatever. Total strangers are going to come up and tell you how to be a better parent or how you're doing X, Y, or Z wrong. They're only doing that because they feel insecure about parenting. Because it's hard. It's a lot of decisions and a lot of possible outcomes and, if you love your child like any parent I've ever met does, you worry about those things. And so sometimes you take it out on other people by telling them how you figured out this magical way to do things that is THE WAY to do things. Cut them some slack. Nod and go about your day. You may agree with them, you may not. And that's fine. You don't have to do what they say. You're not a bad parent. They're not a bad person for telling you what they think. Everything is going to be okay.

3. This too shall pass. I remember feeling so impatient for Ellie to be born. It was all I could think about for long before she arrived. I wish I would have savored the last few months of being child-less. Of course, babies are amazing and wonderful and they change everything forever, but they change everything forever. It won't be so easy anymore to see a movie at midnight  or try out a new restaurant. (Not that those things are impossible, they just take more planning, coordination and money with a baby involved.) It seemed like every day I waited for her was the longest day ever, and I wish I'd enjoyed that leisure a little more. (Also, having been through three births I can tell you that electively induced labors are horrible compared to natural ones.You know, just in case you were wondering.)

Maybe it's just me, but after three kids I've learned that the clouds part and the sun shines a little brighter as soon as your baby turns one. I don't know if it's because you and your baby both have a year of experience under your belt or because they're finally getting past all the trials of being new in the world, but it really makes a huge difference. Everyone's mood picks up and 1-2 years is probably my favorite baby age. It is so fun to see them learn and grow and walk and talk, and you have the added benefit of having made it through some of the real trials like night sleeping, teething, learning how to eat, etc. But even after a year old there are plenty of challenging stages. And when your child is throwing a tantrum or can't be taken outside without running directly into the street, take a deep breath and remind yourself that it won't always be this hard.

And with that remember to seize the really good moments. Your baby's feet won't always be so tiny and kissable. She won't always cuddle up with a book and lay her curly head on your chest. He won't always fit just the right way on your hip. His laugh is going to change into a kid's laugh someday, and that baby belly giggle will fade away. So many times when I've been upset to be up in the middle of the night rocking a baby who just won't sleep I remind myself that in a blink they'll be too big to sleep on me and I'll miss it. Hold those moments close. Commit them to memory and take pictures of them and remember them during the times you wish would pass more quickly. (And if you're yet to become a parent, I can tell you that the moments you want to hold onto forever will far outweigh the ones you would be quick to kiss goodbye.)

4. When you know, you know. There are a lot of things that bring up a lot of questions. Are these contractions real labor yet? Is my baby sick or just fussy? And the answer is, when you know, you know. There will be no mistaking real labor. Don't worry. You will definitely know when it has come. And if your baby is doing something that is slightly abnormal, at least according to the information available on babycenter.com, just remember, if your baby is really sick or something is really wrong, you will definitely know. As Steve once wisely told me when I was afraid I had accidentally sprayed stain remover in Ellie's eyes because the cap malfunctioned (p.s. keep that stuff away from babies as a good precaution), "I don't think she's going to just be laying there calmly while being blinded by poisonous liquids." So yeah, if something is wrong you'll definitely know. And until then, see item number 1.

5. Sometimes babies just cry.  Just because your baby is crying, that doesn't make you a bad parent. They can't talk yet, so crying is kind of all they have to communicate a myriad of emotions. Ellie had colic and just cried and cried and cried for hours even though she was fed and warm and held and all that. If you need a break from the crying, it's okay to leave your baby in a safe place and take five minutes to collect your thoughts (and your courage to face everything again). Be willing to ask for help from your partner, friends, and family when you need it. It's okay. Even when your child is older and they're screaming in the grocery store and you feel like everyone is silently judging you, you are not a bad parent. Sometimes people just have bad days. I bet you'd throw a fit in the grocery store every once in a while, too, if you didn't have any self control (especially when considering the prices in there!).

6. Cut yourself some slack. Be reasonable with your expectations. That first year is hard. It takes all of your time to take care of that baby. It's okay if you don't get any books read or projects done or don't do much besides eating and cuddling with your baby. You may see other moms who seem like they can do it all and don't need to sleep or something. Maybe you read this blog and think that I do lots of things while also having kids. All that gets put on hold for a while when the babies are tiny. Do what you feel you're up to, and let go of expectations. Do as much as you can and want to, but don't waste this time measuring yourself against supposed "super moms." They're cutting corners somewhere.

7. When you are ready, being productive can make you feel like a human again. I remember meeting someone in the craft store or somewhere who said it's nice to have something you can accomplish every day when you're raising kids because the whole child-rearing thing is such a long-term game. I have found that it does feel really good when I get out into the real world or snag a few minutes during naptime to do something that I want to do. So when you're ready, it's okay to do something for yourself. Take your baby to visit your friends. Make something cool from Pinterest while the baby sleeps. Let daddy watch the baby so you can get a latte or go to girl's night or take a yoga class.

8. Reflect. At the end of the day, it's good to step away and reflect on how things are going. If you didn't handle a situation as well as you wish you had, make a plan for handling it better in the future. Go on vacation with your hubby, or at least out to dinner, and talk through issues and make a team decision on the best way to move forward.
And also reflect on your own life. My mentor, Tammy, once told me that you can do things differently than your parents did them, but it takes a conscious decision every day because you're going against your natural instincts, the ones that have been bred in you from watching them happen over and over again. You have to choose to do and be better. And I've found that to be very true. Things only change if I make a forthright effort to change them.

9. You are more than just a mother. You're a person in your own right. And being a mother, although completely and wonderfully life-changing, doesn't have to be your whole identity. You can have your own friends. You can talk about things besides your baby. You can go on dates with your hubby and pretend you don't have a baby at all. You can read books that have nothing to do with parenting. You're allowed to be a woman, a friend, a person and everything else you are besides mother. "Mother" might be the name you get called the most now-a-days, but it's not the only name you have. It's okay to want to wear clothes that don't have spit up on them. It's okay to want to go for a walk all by yourself. It's okay to want to go and be and do away from your children sometimes.

10. You don't have to be "the perfect mom." This is actually something I think I'm learning more now than ever. Because I don't always feel like, "I've got this!" it's easy to want to at least appear to have it all together. To have little girls who always have hair bows. And boys and floors that are never dirty. But then it occurred to me that I have never, ever disowned a friend because her floors weren't clean enough. I've never ever walked away from a playdate upset that there were toys on the floor before we arrived. In fact, when I do go to someone's house and they don't have it all together, I breathe a sigh of relief because, "I'm not the only one who can't keep up with the laundry!" (Besides, who could even determine what the "perfect mom" even looks like? Opinions are drastically varied.)

I was talking with my friend, Kirsten, the other day and she said, "Why can't I be the one who has toys everywhere and makes the other moms who come to visit feel better about themselves. Why would I want to be the one with everything so seemingly perfect that they leave feeling distressed and unhappy?" I am really working on taking that to heart. On the one hand, if I didn't clean my house for when guests come over it would never be clean. But on the other hand, who cares? Seriously. And I really don't want to be the one setting impossible standards that make other moms feel bad. That would just be sad. (If you only know me via this blog and not in person, please see more on this subject here.)

Basically, if you love your child and are conscientiously making decisions for your family, and if you have their best interest in mind, you are a great parent. Surround yourself with parents who are doing the same thing as you, get and give encouragement. Share the joys and the frustrations and you'll find that you are not alone. Being a parent is the most wondrous, fulfilling and difficult thing you will ever do. Relax, honey. You're doing just marvelously.

I'll leave you with the words of Jill Churchill:
Seriously. She is a very wise woman. We could all benefit from letting that sink in.

P.S. If you haven't seen this Coke commercial from Argentina, I think it is possibly the best 60-second description of parenthood I've ever seen. I love it so much.

P.P.S. If I could do it all over again, I wish someone would have told me not to buy baby stuff. Well, there are some things you need. Like a place for the baby to sleep and clothes and a carseat. But beyond that, there's so much that the Target baby registry wants to convince you you'll definitely need. And most of that stuff is taking up space in our basement. You use most baby things for such little time that it's a great idea to try borrowing from friends or family instead of investing your money in something that will be in use for a few short months. And wait to see what you actually do want. I can't tell you how many things we bought or were given that we didn't even use. I could have bought so many cute dresses for myself had I saved that money until I knew what I really needed for the babies.

P.P.P.S. Washi tape images in Jill Churchill quote from here.

P.P.P.P.S. This is getting ridiculous.

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