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There are so many things that I wish I had known before becoming a mom. How to be a stay-at-home-mom may have topped the list! New mom (and experienced mom) challenges like breastfeeding, endless crying, sleep training, and an unbelievable biological response to your baby, something people talk about but can never fully understand until you have your own child. There are also unique challenges for being a working mom, though I lack the experience to speak to those myself in this list.
Looking back now as a parent, I can’t believe there were a couple of families that trusted me to babysit for them when I was a teenager, placing the lives of their children in my inexperienced hands. Now, I can barely bring myself to trust anyone with my own sons, let alone someone with no training and little to no exposure to caring for young children (I didn’t hold my first baby until I was 26). There did come a time when I decided to stop being a babysitter – not only was I ill equipped to handle tantrums, power struggles and emergency situations, but I knew the kids deserved better, more experienced people to care for them.
I say this only to illustrate how clueless I was about parenthood. Before my first child was born, I literally told my husband we would just strap him on in a baby carrier and go on with our lives. It was just an addition of responsibility to keep a child alive, right? Along with the beauty and wonder of being a mother, the hardships hit me (and my marriage) so hard I’m amazed I survived the first year.
Don’t get me wrong, I love being a mom. It will always be the most amazing, beautiful thing I have ever or will ever do. I have no doubt of that. In spite of my struggles, not one moment has me regretting my choice to become a parent, though there has (and I’m sure will be) plenty of doubt and self recrimination at my ability to be a “good” mom.
If you are a first time mom, here are 10 things I wish I had known before becoming a parent. If you are a seasoned parent, maybe you will find some that make you crazy cackle because you’ve been there, too. Without further ado, here we go:
1) Crying isn’t something you can ignore
Babies cry. A lot. And I mean a lot! Even the most mild natured child will have bouts of screaming non-stop and sometimes not for any reason you can define – he/she will be fed, diaper cleaned and just had a nap.
And it will break your heart. Every time. Their cry creates a biological response in your brain to respond, much like an ambulance screaming right into your ear. Without the ability to speak (or even understand what he/she wants or needs at times), crying is their only means of communication. I will look at my crying baby, exhausted, frustrated and baffled at what he wants, and think how terrible it would be to exist without the ability to comprehend this big world and our complex bodies. After I try to empathize with him in a more general way, my blood pressure will lower a bit.
There will be times when you have to simply ignore the cries to take a shower, start laundry or some other task. But know that the crying will be your companion, even if it’s just in the back of your mind. Because we have evolved to respond to those cries. There’s nothing you can do about it. But you will build up a tolerance level for what you can and can’t take before needing to intervene!
2) Sleep when the baby sleeps is a myth
This was by far the most recommended piece of advice while I was pregnant: “sleep when the baby sleeps.” It sounds amazing in theory. Maybe some moms found a magic solution to make this possible (especially those with multiple kids), but I never did.
Sure, occasionally the stars would align and I could nap while my first born slept. At all other times, nap time was when I could get things done like pumping (a big one I’ll talk about later), cooking, cleaning, laundry, showering, and any other task I couldn’t normally do while caring for an infant. Plus, both my boys would only nap on me. Jimmy refused being in a carrier until he was old enough to be forward facing and Ben is the same though he will tolerate a carrier for a while. And the last thing I wanted to do was fall asleep on the couch with my child on me for fear of him rolling off or his airway being blocked one way or another. Fear kept me awake (most of the time). With my second child, sleeping when he slept was no longer an option since I had another child fully awake and ready to get into mischief.
If you have found a way to sleep when your child sleeps, I am immensely happy for you. But having talked to many, many other moms, the ability to do so is rare. Just do your best to get what sleep you can.
3) Breastfeeding (or pumping) isn’t for everyone
Breastfeeding is not easy. Not only in the initial stages of getting you, your boobs and your baby trained, but in the constant, non-stop routine of feeding. And for my first, I was an under supplier (didn’t produce enough milk, even after trying any and all methods I could find to grow my milk supply). We tried for three months to breastfeed directly, but he grew frustrated quickly and eventually refused the boob (he was also getting 1/2 his milk from formula). So, I pumped. I pumped and pumped and pumped, at least 8 times a day until he was a year old. It may seem like a lot (and I assure you it was), but between mommy shame and wanting to provide good nutrition and antibodies to my child, I did it.
For moms that work, pumping can be a challenge and some babies will take bottles, others will refuse them. Some babies will learn to prefer the bottle and then refuse the boob. You won’t know how it will go until you try with your specific baby.
I know a few people who decided not to breastfeed before their child was born for a multitude of reasons: pumping at work was going to be impossible, a desire to never have her nipples touched, and wanting the freedom not to be tied to her baby 24/7 for food. Admitting these were reasons that made me roll my eyes before having kids brings me a bit of shame. Having experienced failed breastfeeding, pumping and now 24/7 breastfeeding, I completely support and don’t judge any mom for her choice of how to feed her child. The child will grow to be happy and healthy no matter what type of milk is given.
4) Sleep doesn’t come easily for some babies
Everyone has heard of sleep training your child. You just teach your baby how to fall asleep on his/her own. Great! But then you have your own baby who has a hard time falling a sleep without help and is too young for sleep training (most resources I’ve read recommends at least 4 months old). What do you do? Well, there’s no easy answer. There are hundreds upon thousands of books, websites and other moms with tons of advice out there for you. But what actually works? Depends on your child.
Ben will only sleep on me right now at 3 months old, but he is a cinch compared to Jimmy. I can put Ben on the boob or just walk around. So long as I’m holding him, he will fall asleep. Jimmy on the other hand would only sleep on me, but he required an intricate series of bopping, singing and shushing to fall asleep. If any step was interrupted, start over. And the routine came from hours of trial and error. Eventually, we did sleep train him (after research into all the conflicting methods, one failed and another two were cannibalized to find something that worked for him), and he slept with less of a routine. He’s 3 now and while he fights naps sometimes, he’s perfectly capable of falling asleep on his own but it wasn’t always easy.
5) Horror film imagery
This seems strange to put on the list. But, it’s common enough that every mom I have mentioned it to gasps with relief that it isn’t just them.
When this first happened to me, I thought there was something horribly wrong with me. Maybe my sleep deprived brain had finally snapped, and I needed serious help. It was something like this:
I’d be walking with my baby in my arms out of my bedroom when I trip (just a little) on something at my feet. Immediately, I covered his head with my hand noting the sharp corners on the dresser. If I had truly fallen…insert horrible, ER-worthy images of worst case scenarios involving my baby. I was shaking, horrified at what could have happened (although very unlikely). Once I had taken a couple deep breaths, I’m then unable to shake that horrible possibility from my mild, complete with mental images.
If this happens to you, know that it’s normal! There is nothing wrong with you. Having this response is likely caused by your biological need to protect your child, triggering your fight or flight response from fear. Everything will be just fine, and I’m sure I’ll watch my step even more while carrying my child.
6) All children are very different. No joke.
Just from reviewing my 7 nieces and nephews, the differences in how they were as babies is so unique it’s almost laughable. No baby is easy. Let’s just make that clear. But, some babies are easier to please, cry less and are sometimes referred to as “happy” babies. Others are more challenging. What works for one may not work for another.
My husband will talk about our first child with his coworkers, and their eyes go huge at our daily challenges. They tell Chris how their child slept through the night at such and such time, listens well, soothes easily, and so on. There seems to be no end to how different experiences are from one child to the next (most notably between siblings). And it’s so hard to see past our current circumstances to notice not everyone has the same successes or hardships. Comparing our lives to others seems to be our lot in life. But there are enough similarities that we CAN help each other, even if that is merely with empathy and support.
7) You may have moments when you don’t like your child
When your child is born, I guarantee you will be filled with so much love and adoration you will think you are glowing with it. No matter how hard things may get, that feeling will never go away. You will ALWAYS love your child. However, there will be times when your child will test your sleep deprived devotion. There will be times you want to throw everything in the car and drive far far away. You will always love your child, but it’s ok to not like them sometimes.
Imagine being with your significant other (whom you love deeply) and never allowing yourself to hate something they do or say. Then, imagine them without the ability to speak or have rational thought. I bet there’d be even more moments when you didn’t like them. It’s ok to let yourself feel more than just love. Just know the love is still there and will fill you up again in time.
8) Routines upon routines
Your child will develop an ever changing routine of needs from eating to sleeping to pooping. It’s great to build some structure! What this also means is you will be limited by that routine, needing to be home by a certain time, food ready at a certain time, and constraints on anything else you can do and when.
While it’s very helpful to know what your child needs, my day is structured around what I have time for at certain times of the day (though less so now that I have two kids age three and under – I just have to make time for things). I know that if my baby doesn’t get a nap by 10am, he will be cranky and cry like crazy (and take longer to get to sleep because he is over tired). If I need to go to the grocery store in the morning, I have to make sure I’m home in time for nap or reap the consequences.
But with routines comes consistency (for the most part). You and your child will know what to expect and when. Think of it as another form of communication between you and your child.
9) Unimagined strain on your marriage
Going in to becoming first time parents, we didn’t know what to expect. We had heard stories of other couples’ experiences having a child, but having a deep, honest conversation with people about their marriage or relationship after baby wasn’t something we could easily do.
There are the cliches you always hear about: lack of intimacy, jealousy, fighting, and others. But we got all the cliches and more. As I’ve told you, we didn’t have an “easy” first child and breastfeeding turned to full time pumping. Chris only received two weeks off from work for paternity leave, then went right back to work. What followed was a great distance between us as challenge after challenge mounted, including lost sleep and resentments (both ways) that spurred fight after fight. It took a very long time (almost a year) before we finally decided to go to couples therapy. Although our therapist made everything worse, our shared disbelief at her methods helped bring us back together.
I do believe that having a child is great at bringing out any marital or relationship issues present before birth. But I also know that some couples grow an even deeper love for each other as parents. What I can guarantee is that issues will arise under the strain of parenthood, but you can work through them and build a stronger bond with your partner in the process.
10) Love that goes deeper than you think possible
We have all heard this over and over. I can’t tell you how many times someone told me this before giving birth. There was no possible way to understand the desire to watch my sleeping child for hours or to never stop seeing his beautiful smile that made my very soul feel lighter. Sure, times can be very hard, so hard I can’t see past the moment to the love I feel. But it’s always there.
Being a parent is 24/7. No breaks. And that includes when you go out and leave your child in another’s care (or daycare). One moment you can’t wait to get some you (“adult”) time, but then you miss your child the second you leave. It’s an impossible combination. But all it really tells me is that no matter what you are doing or where you are, there is no greater love than what you feel for your child.