What to Expect When You’re a Parent: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

In a few months, I will be an aunt again.  My sister and brother-in-law are expecting their first, and I am beyond excited.  As I am preparing things for her baby shower, I cannot help but think about all the advice we received as my husband and I prepared our house and lives for baby.  It was all pretty standard stuff: “You have no idea how much love you’ll have to give!” “Get the baby used to noise early so he or she will sleep anywhere.” “Breast is best!” and “Just remember during tough times that this phase shall pass. So enjoy it!” All (somewhat) true.

Thinking about this advice also got me thinking about the conversations it sparked between my husband and I, about those naïve (but oh so fun!) pre-baby pillow talks where we determined the kind of parents we would most certainly be and the rules we would no doubt enforce.

Two babies in I am not quite as naïve nor do I as willingly believe all the advice I am given.  I have to say that nowadays I often find myself rolling my eyes at some of the standards said to me or that I stumble across on the internet. I do so not because I know so much or because I doubt the very good intentions of the giver but because what I have discovered in the messy world of motherhood is that it’s the not-so-standard advice, the less cliché “This shit is hard!” wisdom from other parents that I relate to, and frankly cling to, the most.  The truths that are not as uplifting or endearing but that remind me I am human.  The advice that knocks me upside the head in an effort to show me that parenthood is a marathon not a sprint and that I am not the only one who has fallen flat on her face.  (I often do so while running after a baby who is not buying into the parenting philosophy we had so beautifully planned out.)

In that spirit here is some of the not-so-standard wisdom I wish someone had shared with me:

“You have no idea how much love you’ll have to give, and, yet, how selfish you’ll remain.” The first part is a standard because it is unequivocally true.  You cannot fathom how much love you’ll have for your child until he or she is here.  It is a crazy kind of love.  The best crush, alongside the feelings you (hopefully still) hold for your spouse, you will ever know.  Regardless of how “cool” a parent you think you’ll be, there’s a reason there are so many discussions in real life and on the internet about parents who over share.  It’s because those little beings suck you in, and despite your best intentions to be cool, calm, and collected, you will at some point find yourself (over) sharing about her first movement, word, smile, bowel movement, etc. to someone who frankly may not give a damn.  It happens.

What the standard fails to articulate is that this grand love does not erase selfishness.  It may ease it or help you to elevate beyond it at times, but you’re still human.  When you become a parent you will love that child fiercely to the point where you will give her or him your last bite of dessert or feed that child before you feed yourself.  But this does not mean that you will always like it or that you will do so without having your own adult-sized tantrum in the process.  I love my children; I would die for my children, but dying to self for my children has not been so easy.  There has been more than one time when I have gotten up in the middle of the night to tend to their needs that I have complained, quite vocally and sometimes through tears, to my husband about how tired I was and how that being that I loved so dearly needed to get her shit together and sleep through the night already because it was affecting my life.  I love them, but I also love sleep.  I’m human.

“Get the baby used to noise early so he or she will sleep anywhere, or so you think.” The premise behind this piece of advice is a good one.  What the giver is saying is that babies inevitably change your life but that you shouldn’t change everything for baby.  If you put everything on mute (literally and metaphorically) to appease the little one, you are creating an unrealistic expectation for the baby and yourself.  Your children will rock your world but they also have to be taught how to live in it.  In short, they have to learn how to be flexible.

What this standard fails to articulate is that some habits can’t be taught.  Or at least not to the degree you have envisioned.  There is a reason there is a nurture versus nature debate.  For example: Our first was a light sleeper.  My husband and I cursed ourselves for months about how we should have blared music near her room to teach her to adapt to noise.  Then along came baby number two.  She has had noise around her in the form of a very vocal and involved older sister since birth.  We have not limited this noise one bit, and, to our even greater dismay, baby number two is an even lighter sleeper.  The moral of our story: sometimes shit happens.  Sometimes your baby is a terrible sleeper, eater, communicator, etc. because he or she just is.  It is not because you did something wrong or because something is inherently wrong with the child.  It is just how he or she is wired.

On the flip side, sometimes your baby is a great sleeper, eater, communicator, etc. because he or she just is.  Our first slept through the night at six weeks and still (which we have discovered is pretty rare for a two-year-old) loves going to bed.  She has never fought us on it.  I mean almost literally NEVER.  Just as we cursed ourselves for her light sleeping, my husband and I often high-fived each other over her unusual bedtime habits.  We must have done something right we told each          other.  Despite cultivating a very similar routine, our second has no interest in going to bed, in a crib or otherwise.  She fights us on it EVERY.TIME.  I mean almost literally EVERY.TIME.

This advice is not meant to say that you cannot nurture good habits nor excuse parents from working hard to curtail the bad.  It is to say that as you are human so are your mini-mes.  Their habits like their interests will often differ from your expectations.

“Breast is best!” This one, unlike the others, may have you raising your eyebrows at my above description of a (somewhat) truth.  I understand your skepticism because the health-benefits of breastfeeding should make this a slam dunk.  The problem with this standard is that there is so much more to the realities of breastfeeding than your desires.  Much more than you can possibly appreciate during a pre-baby pillow talk.  Breast is best, yes.  But until you have a child you cannot fully come to terms with whether breast is best for you and your baby.  I had every intention of breastfeeding and tried with both my children.  After weeks of trying to get my first to latch – weeks of meetings with lactation consultants and a breastfeeding support group and a tube taped to my breast so she could learn and long conversations with other mothers and the reality of my first not gaining weight or filling her diaper appropriately – I realized that breast was not best for us.  What was best for us was a healthy daughter and a happy mother, which we achieved through formula feeding.  Thankfully alternatives to this standard exist everywhere on the internet.  Many women have bravely shared their stories and insecurities when breastfeeding or natural childbirth proved not to be an option.  Still, it bears mentioning time and again to new parents that if you can expect anything as a parent expect plans to change.  The change is not the equivalent of falling flat on your face; holding tight to your expectations even when change is necessary is.

“Just remember during tough times that this phase shall pass.  So enjoy it!” I end with this standard because it is the one I most appreciate some days and the one that, on others, drives me the craziest.  I know that having children is not promised and that seeing the loves of your life outlive you is not guaranteed.  So, of course, whenever possible (and probably most when you feel it’s impossible) take a breath, have some perspective, and try to focus on the positive experiences of each phase.  That being said, what this standard fails to articulate is that there are points of parenthood that aren’t all that enjoyable.  The terrible twos come to mind.  While these points differ for each parent, you will be hard pressed to find anyone who loved every moment.  Parenthood is an incredible high, but there are more than a few lows mixed in.  Those lows often come when reality doesn’t meet expectation, when the child doesn’t oh-so-easily buy into that beautiful list of rules or lifestyle bullet points you had printed out and signed in blood before he or she was born (let alone her siblings).  The not-so-pretty truth is that sometimes you won’t like your child all that much (although you will still love her or him), and the even harsher reality is that sometimes you won’t like the person or parent you are around your child (although hopefully not all the time).  What the standard calls for is perspective, which is true.  Part of having perspective is recognizing you are human and so, too, is your child.  You will bring out each others’ strengths and weaknesses.  You will make each other laugh and cry.  Good parents do learn to dance in the rain but good parents also aren’t afraid to admit that while dancing they may also be crying or screaming or dancing so wildly because of the effects of a much needed stiff drink.

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