It seems insane to me that my son is a year old. Look at him! So sweet! So big! So full of wonder!
I wrote on Facebook that this year has simultaneously felt like the longest and shortest of my life. There’s a lot I’ve learned about myself and about parenting and motherhood so far, and I thought I’d share some of those secrets today:
9 parenting secrets I learned in my first year of motherhood.
1. Being a parent is something you learn.
I was never the kind of person who longed to be a mom. I’m driven, busy, intellectual, idealistic, a researcher and teacher and writer, and and and… Babies have never been my thing (DEFINITELY not saying that you can’t be all those things and also love babies. That just wasn’t me.). In the past, I mostly held other people’s babies to please their parents, but the second the kid started to fuss, it was back to mom or dad. I rarely babysat as a teen, and never for actual babies. I’m great with teenagers. Seniors in high school love me. I spend my time week in and week out with teens during the school year, so I know what I’m doing. Until I had my own kid, I didn’t even know how to change a diaper.
The prospect of having a kid was daunting to me for many reasons, not least of which being that I was a virtual newb at the whole business, and I hate doing things I’m not good at. (<—character flaw alert) I also had serious doubts about becoming a mother—I’ve never been what you might call “maternal” or particularly nurturing, and it’s not like it’s a situation you can reverse if you’re bad at it or you decide you don’t like it. But being bad at something is not necessarily a good reason to avoid that thing either. You can become all kinds of things with practice. And being a mom takes practice.
Like any skill, I’ve learned to be a mother. I’ve acquired skills, learned new ways of thinking and acting, and I’ve never in my life successfully juggled as many different things as I do now every day. Things like remembering to pack my son’s lunch and milk and sterilize my pump parts and bring my pump with me and all my school books and papers and my wallet and phone and keys and remember to remind my students about the special assignment they’re working on and the field trip in two weeks and hey what am I going to post on my blog this week and what should we have for dinner and what did we say we’d bring on Wednesday night? … you get it.
I think I feared that motherhood would shrink who I am down to diapers and baby food in my hair and endless laundry and sleep deprivation. It didn’t. Instead, it’s stretched and expanded who I am. There are things I like about myself and things I don’t right now (I hate letting people down, and I’ve had to do that a lot this year in order to make life work), but I’ve definitely learned a TON. And I feel like I’m actually pretty good at this whole motherhood thing so far. I know my son well and care for him, and I can tell he feels safe, loved, and cared for, and that’s so, so good.
2. Motherhood is not a race.
I spent an inadvisable number of hours on Pinterest during my pregnancy. Part of that was a result of having to go in 3 to 5 times per week for doctor’s appointments in my third trimester for non-stress tests and other precautionary check-ups—I spent A LOT of time in waiting rooms or strapped up to a monitor sitting still for 40 minutes at a time. That’s a lot of time to pin and read and form opinions about best parenting practices and toddler birthday party ideas. It made me ambitious. I had a vision of what I wanted my son’s life to look like when he was finally in my arms.
His life does not look like this vision I had. There is dirty laundry on the floor. There are dishes in the sink. I did not get to feed my son homemade organic purees because he didn’t like the homemade organic purees I made for him.
I had visions for what I wanted my own life to look like: feeding and sleep schedules that would keep everyone happy, losing all my baby weight (and then some) by six months postpartum, cheerfully cooking and cleaning during nap times, etc. None. of. these. things. happened.
But it’s still okay. I learned which things were essential to us, and I learned to let go of that vision of perfection I’d started to form. Ideals are good and all, but they aren’t reality. Reality is what you need to reckon with on a daily basis, and reality for me meant that for over two months, my son refused to nap if he wasn’t nursing, and he cried any time you put him down. Reality meant that I was so tired at times that I couldn’t muster up the energy to make toast for breakfast, let alone try to cook or clean for our family.
There are no Pinterest/Instagram moms that you need to race to keep up with. Pinterest isn’t real life, and motherhood is not a competition. Do what you can, do the things that matter, love one another, and let everything else go.
3. Your relationship with your child is a process.
Instincts are a real thing—I’m honestly amazed how many times I know what my son needs or wants without him communicating it—but instincts don’t always help given that the little person you are caring for is constantly changing and growing. Just when you think you’ve mastered something, your kid grows and changes and upends your expectations and competencies like he’s flipping tables. You’ll master getting your kid down to nap one way only to find it suddenly doesn’t work at all the next week. Your kid’s favorite food will suddenly become an object of detestation. It’s all part of the fun.
I actually mean that: it’s part of the fun. People aren’t static. What a cool thing that we get to acquaint and reacquaint ourselves over and over again. We get to cultivate love and care and grace in ever-changing ways. You wouldn’t want your baby to be six weeks old forever—that would be both exhausting and boring. You get to keep getting to know your kid better and better and loving him and delighting in him as he grows and changes.
4. You’ll realize how much free time you used to have, and you’ll become an efficiency master.
The number one thing my husband and I both say when people ask us the most surprising thing about parenthood or the biggest change in our lives since our son was born: we can’t believe how much free time we used to have. And we were busy people. Gone are the days of watching an episode or two of a favorite show after dinner. Gone are the days of browsing online and showing each other funny internet memes at 11:00 pm. I used to run a Tumblr book blog with thousands of followers. I haven’t posted anything there since I was on maternity leave.
If you’ve ever taken an Intro to Psych class, you’ve probably heard about operant conditioning (not the dogs salivating because of a bell one—that’s classical conditioning). Operant conditioning works by rewarding desirable behaviors and punishing undesirable behaviors. When they studied this process, they also discovered that varying the reward interval so that it was unpredictable produced a much higher response rate for the desirable behaviors. So let’s say the desired behavior is for a rat to push a button, and the reward is food. If the rat received food from pushing the button only a fraction of the time and on an unpredictable schedule, the rat would sit there and push the button all day long, hoping for food. This principle is why we check Facebook impulsively for new notifications. This is also why gambling works.
Free time as a parent feels a lot like gambling, too. You don’t know how long a nap is going to last, how well your kid is going to sleep at night, how long he’ll be content to sit and play. The second I close the bedroom door after my son is asleep, I’m starting on whatever thing most needs doing. Does the trash need to be taken out? Dishes need washing? Assignments need grading? Bills need paying? I rush around, trying to get as much done as I can in the little windfall of time I’ve been given, because I don’t know how long it will last, and I don’t know if I’ll get another chance. Free time is now cooking, cleaning, working, responsibility time, and it’s incredibly intentional. I do usually get a little time at night between my son’s bedtime and my own bedtime to read and write, but not always (not last night, for instance, even though I had my end of semester grading deadline to meet). I cannot tell you how valuable spare moments feel now.
5. Your kid can be a built-in social shield.
File this one under surprising benefits of parenthood for introverts! It was a super weird transition at first—when I was pregnant, everyone wanted to know how I was doing, how far along I was, what the baby’s gender was, etc. The moment I had my son, no one cared about me anymore. When they looked at me, they saw my son. (Sounds harsh, but it was in my experience totally true and super weird.)
This has great advantages if you are an introvert. Chatty cashiers ooh and aww over your bundle of joy and ask you rote questions that are easy to answer. I love taking my son with me to parties and events because people talk to me about him and want to interact with him, and I don’t feel awkward. Plus, I can play the kid card if I’m tired or overwhelmed and want to leave early. No one argues with, “Sorry, it’s his bedtime!”
6. Your kid can be a built-in social bridge.
I will say that I’ve talked to a lot more random strangers this year than ever before, and that’s because parents get it. Other parents see you out and about and know what it’s like, and there’s a kind of instant kinship between you because of it. Moms and dads in line at Target ask me how old my son is and tell me about their kids and reminisce about their kids as babies. I’ve had moms stop and tell me how adorable my son is, or how well behaved he is, or how I’m doing a good job even if my son is getting grumpy in the grocery cart seat. I love it!
We’ve become closer to other parents in our communities just because we’re parents now, and that’s kind of awesome. You can trade war stories and cute stories, and laugh and swap hand-me-downs.
You make friends in school because of proximity, and parenthood is kind of similar in this way, but it’s been really awesome. I’ve always been told that it’s harder to make friends the older you get, but parenthood feels like a free pass to friendship. Share a good diaper-blowout story with another mom, and you’re in.
7. Babies are just as fascinating and wonderful as everyone says they are.
I said it before, and I’ll say it again: I was not a baby person before having my son. Everyone says things like “it’s different when it’s your own,” and I found that to be (obnoxiously) true. Like, I feel a little bit like I’ve been consumed by baby cuteness.
Hormones are awesome and powerful and do a lot to help forge that special bond between you and your kid, and that’s really really cool, actually. It’d be hard to do all the things you need to do as a parent if you didn’t find your kid as fascinating and delightful as you do.
I’ve been really glad to know that the effect hasn’t waned at all with time, either. Each milestone my son hits makes me so proud and excited. I don’t sigh for the days when he was smaller or couldn’t crawl yet or anything like that. I just feel massively privileged to be his parent and to get to help him and witness his wonder and delight and genius.
8. You won’t love every minute of it.
Whoever says you will is lying. You will not love it when your kid is waking up every 45 minutes to nurse for the third night in a row. You will not love it when your kid vomits on you and your bed repeatedly as you try to get ready for work in the morning. You won’t love cleaning the oatmeal that your kid threw at you out of your hair.
Parenthood is not, in my experience, very glamorous. It will reveal things about you and your spouse and your kid (and probably your parents and your upbringing, too) that you won’t like. Your plans will be spoiled, your feelings will get hurt, you’ll think uncharitable thoughts. That’s okay. You’re not perfect. You don’t have to love every minute.
9. Grace changes everything.
This sounds like one of those unhelpful needlepoint platitudes, but hear me out.
The sleep deprivation and vomit and oatmeal I mentioned above? Grace won’t change those things, but it can change your perspective on it. When I think about my son throwing his oatmeal at me, I think about how frustrating it probably is for him to not be able to control his arms and fingers in the way he wants. He wants so badly to do everything just like his mama and dada do, and he watches us carefully to figure out how things are done.
When he thrashes and fights me at nap time, I think about the ways I needlessly fight what’s good for me, too.
When I’m exhausted and running on two hours of sleep, I think about how grateful I am to have a husband to help me. How in awe I am of single mothers who have to provide and care for their children on their own.
How priceless is this gift of parenthood, this particular, precious child of ours. He needs grace, and so do we, and so does everybody. If we commit to seeing each other in this way—not making excuses for each other, but really seeking to understand and love one another despite our rough edges—we won’t take each other for granted. The hurt feelings and spoiled plans will matter less, which gives us the capacity to love more.
I beg a little grace for me, a new mother, still learning.
What are your top parenting secrets? Let me know in the comments!
P.S. If you found this post helpful, please pin it! 🙂
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