Motherhood – when I stepped into it nearly seven years ago – was not something that I slid into easily, like a pair of soft cotton/spandex yoga pants.
Rather, motherhood was more like pulling on a pair of skinny jeans that I hadn’t fit into for years. I yanked and wiggled, I held my breath and contorted my body.
Becoming a parent – for me – was awkward, clumsy, and anything but natural. The pain was shocking, the emotional lows were shameful, and the loneliness was numbing. And all of this was exacerbated by pesky and incessant feelings of failure and inadequacy – most of which I put on myself through preconceived expectations of what parenthood would be like and the kind of mother that I would be.
Through the years, I have learned (and am learning) several hard truths, each one stripping away the expectations and leaving in their place authenticity and courage, vulnerability and resilience. Each hard truth has been a nugget of insight into my family, my spirit, and humanity as a whole. Each one has taken me a step closer to the parent – and person – that I am called to be.
1. You may never feel like the “old you” again. New parents often ask, “When will things feel normal again? When will I feel like me?” I asked these same questions as a new parent. I wondered when the pain would end, when the sleep would come, and when I would feel like the person I was before I had kids. I wanted to feel “normal” again, but really there is no going back to the “old me.” There is only a new normal.
The new normal includes school forms and carpools, watching Gravity Falls and building Lego creations, baskets of toys and marker on walls, too much coffee and too little sleep. The new normal is feeling like my heart is outside of my body, but never feeling alone. The new normal is stolen kisses behind locked doors, Sunday night movies, and conversations in hushed whispers. The new normal is always feeling a little bit guilty, always wondering if I’m doing enough, always worrying about the wellbeing and happiness of these growing little people. The new normal is fewer, but stronger, friendships. The new normal is a deeper appreciation for my own parents, and a fear of failing my children in some way. The new normal is reminiscing about the “good old days,” but knowing that right here, right now is exactly where I want to be.
2. The pain does not end after childbirth. When I was pregnant, I read book after book on “what to expect” after the baby was born, soaking up all the information that I could in an attempt to prepare myself for childbirth and life with a newborn. Despite all the reading that I did, however, I was wholly unprepared for the shocking and debilitating pain that I was in for the days, weeks, and months after my oldest son’s birth. Not only was I physically changed, but postpartum depression changed me mentally and emotionally, all of which left my feeling like a broken shell of a woman. I felt isolated and alone in my pain. I felt weak and defective.
But slowly, I recovered. And slowly and quietly, in hushed voices, other woman began talking about their own struggles after childbirth – physically, emotionally, and mentally. Each whispered confession pulled back the curtain a bit. Each “ohmigosh, me too!” removed some of the shame. And each story of pain and brokenness became stories of tenderness and resilience. The hard truth is that the pain might be unimaginable and long-lasting, but though we are wounded soldiers, ultimately we are warriors of strength.
3. Love at first sight doesn’t always happen. As mothers, we are spoon fed images of love at first sight. We are inundated with images of a mother affectionately cradling her newborn baby. People ask us, “Aren’t you just SO happy?” We are led to belief that because we wanted children and a family, we should instantly fall in love with our newborn babies. We should spend countless hours gazing at them while they sleep. We should long to hold them, we should ache for them, our hearts should be bursting with love every second of the day. But for me – and for many others, I suspect – love at first sight was not how the parent-child relationship developed
While I love my children unconditionally and would do anything to ensure their health and happiness, it was a love that grew over time. After my first son was born, I did not want to spend countless hours cradling him; I wanted to sleep. I did not long to hold him; in fact, I was a little scared of him.
But over time, a deep and abiding, almost shocking love, grew. A genuine love grew that developed on our terms, under our own conditions, and on our timetable. A raw and honest love – based not on sentimentality and expectation, but based on reliance and trust – grew over time as a result of shared experiences, common goals, and mutual understanding.
And that love is as strong as any.
4. Your family may not be what you envisioned. As a young adult, I had always thought that I would have four kids, a mixture of boys and girls. I imagined art projects and coloring at the table. I imagined twirly skirts and hair ribbons, balanced with trucks and action heroes. I imagined a rowdy brood of kids, playing together in the yard, coming inside for an occasional glass of lemonade or a band-aid for a skinned knee.
Now that I am a parent, my family looks nothing like I had expected or imagined. With only two boys, it is smaller – but louder, rowdier, rougher – than I had imagined. There is a hard truth that my family is smaller, messier, less balanced, and more complicated than I had planned – but it is also full of more love than I could have ever imagined.
5. Motherhood is not necessarily instinctual. Before becoming a parent, I expected that much of it would come naturally, that I would know my children well enough to know what they needed, that I would know enough about parenting to know what to do in any given situation, and that I would know enough about myself to handle it all gracefully and organically.
The hard truth is that very little of parenting has come naturally to me and I am constantly second-guessing myself. I am reminded on regular basis just how little I know about this how parenting thing, just how much I have to learn, and just how much room there is for difference and for improvement.
Though I don’t have all the answers and I stumble my way through much of this parenting thing, fortunately, I know enough to ask the questions, look for advice, and try to figure it out.
6. In marriage, liking each other becomes just as important as loving each other. Before having kids, I knew that my marriage would change. I knew that we would have less time alone, more obligations to manage, and a new life to tie us together. I was prepared for a few bumps in the road and even a few nasty, blow-out fights. I was not prepared, however, for the subtle ways that we could quietly pick each other apart at times.
After our first son was born, we stepped into that all-too-common game of comparisons, with us each keeping our own score. Who was doing more? Who was sleeping less? Who was working harder? Who was sacrificing more? Finally, we both – in our ways and on our own terms – realized that this comparison game has no winners; it only leaves a couple of bitter, angry individuals who aren’t all that likable despite the fact that they are still so very much in love.
The hard truth is that marriage after kids is a whole new ballgame, with constantly changing rules. Sometimes, the best thing that spouses can do for each other (and their kids) is to quit the comparison game. Because liking each other, treating each other with the respect and kindness that a good friend deserves, is sometimes just as important as falling madly in love.
7. Loving differently does not mean loving better. Before I had children, I knew that there would be enough love to go around, but I had not expected love my children as differently as I do. Circumstances and personalities had a significant impact on my relationships with each of children right from the start. Post-partum depression took a serious toll on my early relationship with my oldest son, but as my first child, he is what made me a mom and each of his “firsts” are also my “firsts,” giving us a fierce and unbreakable connection. Conversely, my younger son was a miracle baby of sorts, the child I had thought I might never have, and unlike my firstborn, the bond with my youngest son was not clouded with hormonal imbalances and mental instability, giving us an easier and more comfortable relationship.
While it has come as a shock to me just how different my relationships are with each of my boys, the hard truth is that there are circumstances beyond our control that impact how we treat our children and the relationship that we have with each one of them.
The hard truth is that each child is so uniquely different, and that we parents change and grow over the course of time, that it would be nearly impossible to not have different relationships with our children and to love our children in different way. In fact, it would be an injustice to our children to force our relationships with them to be the same. Because different does not mean better or worse, different does not mean more or less. Different means unique, special, and personal. Different means one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable, and exceptional. Different means amazing, remarkable, and treasured.
8. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to good parenting. While I seek out advice and information, I am also continually reminding myself that there is no one “right” answer, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to parenting. Rumi said, “There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the earth.” Similarly, there are a thousand – millions – of ways to be a good parent.
Parenting is more difficult, more fulfilling, more everything than I expected. To quote Coldplay: “No one ever said it was easy, but no one ever said it would be this hard.” Yes, parenting is harder than I ever expected, but it is also more fun, more fulfilling, more satisfying, and more meaningful than I ever could have imagined.
9. Perfect is impossible – and not that much fun. When I was pregnant with my first son, I would sometimes lie in bed, feeling his little feet kick my ribcage, and snippets of my future life would flash through my head. I saw myself gracefully walking out of the hospital wearing non-maternity clothes. I saw myself preparing home cooked meals each night while my son happily played in his bouncy seat. I would be one of those hip, put-together moms, organizing fun craft projects and outings with my kids during the day and showering my husband with affection at night. And, of course, the backdrop to all of these visions of motherhood was clean and stylish house.
Little did I know that the only way I could leave the hospital in non-maternity clothes was in elastic waist yoga pants, that peanut butter and jelly sandwiches would soon qualify as a “home cooked meal,” that the picture of a donkey (taped to the wall by my animal-loving son) would become the focal point of our family room décor, that some days our outings may be nothing more exotic than a trip to World Market, that sometimes my husband and I wouldn’t share more than a sentence or two until 10:00 at night when the kids were finally in bed, and don’t even get me started on how much I have grown to loathe craft projects.
There are days when I get a little jittery and angsty about all the ways that my life doesn’t fit these visions of “perfect,” but the hard truth is that perfect just isn’t that much fun. Stressing about fitting into my skinny jeans isn’t any fun, but making (and eating!) cookies with my kids sure is. Nagging my kids about keeping the couch cushions in order and worrying that they break fancy artwork on the walls isn’t any fun, but hearing guests ask, “Why, in the world, is there a picture of a jackass on your wall?” sure is. Nothing about parenthood (or life for that matter) is perfect, but truthfully, I wouldn’t want things to be perfect because the messy and complicated imperfect is so much more fun.
10. Parenting is nothing like you expect… it’s much, much more. In the best possible way.