Looking back over my 13 years of parenting so far, I see many common “truths” about parenthood that have proven to be more fiction than fact. And dishonesty sucks. As someone who prizes truth, especially regarding parenting, I thought I’d shed my own personal light on some of these beliefs. Here are the five biggest lies about parenthood I was told…
1. Breastfeeding Shouldn’t Hurt. Maybe breastfeeding shouldn’t hurt, but it does, at first. Sometimes like a mofo. My mom is a professional lactation consultant, and I nursed three babies into toddlerhood, so I speak from experience. With each baby, breastfeeding hurt for the first couple of weeks. The first time, I was surprised by the pain. The second time, I was like, “WTH, breasts! Don’t you remember we’ve done this before?!” And the third time, I knew to expect a couple of weeks of fairly major discomfort. The latch was fine, but my nipples were on fire. Maybe my newborns had tiny mouths or I have oddly shaped nips or something, but there was a distinct “adjustment period” where nursing hurt like the dickens with each baby.
After a couple of weeks, everything toughened up and evened out and it was smooth sailing from there. But telling parents that breastfeeding shouldn’t hurt is a bit dishonest. Yes, a bad latch can make it worse. Yes, an infection is a whole other ballgame. But the vast majority of moms I’ve talked to say breastfeeding hurts at first.
And it makes sense, really. If marathon runners get chafed nipples from their shirt rubbing against them, moms can certainly get tender nipples from a surprisingly strong little suction cup pumping at their breasts several hours a day.
The problem with saying it shouldn’t hurt, is that when it does, new moms think there’s something wrong with them, like they have some defect that means they shouldn’t breastfeed. It hurts for a while, then it doesn’t. There are ways to mitigate the tenderness until then (Lansinoh was a life saver for me). But let’s stop telling moms it shouldn’t hurt when that’s just not the reality for many.
2. Sleeping Through the Night. I think the entirety of “sleeping through the night” – as if it’s a milestone like crawling or walking that, once achieved, is permanently established – is a big fat lie.
Just last night, our nine-year-old came into our room at 2 a.m. with a bad dream. Last week, it was our four-year-old. Now that we’re fully past the baby/toddler stage, we have long stretches of time where we get to sleep without interruption, but it’s never a given.
And when they were babies? Around three months, they slept through the night just long enough for us to start telling people they were sleeping through the night. Then they started teething. Then they started crawling and walking and talking, and for some cosmic joke of a reason, felt the need to practice those things at ungodly hours of the morning.
Then the occasional bad dreams kicked in. Then our eldest went through a weird insomnia phase. As I said, we usually get a full night’s sleep these days. But again, it’s never a given.
And you know what the “experts” consider sleeping through the night? Five hours. Five hours is not “through the night.” Five hours is a long nap.
I only watched one episode of “Desperate Housewives,” but one scene still sticks in my mind. A harried mom gets pulled over by a cop, and in explaining herself to the officer, she says, “I haven’t slept through the night in six years, ma’am.”
Best excuse ever.
3. If You Ignore the Whining, It Will Stop. [a.k.a. “If you don’t give in to whining, they won’t do it.” Or, my personal favorite, “Kids only whine because it works.”] Bull phooey.
Kids whine for about 147 reasons, only one of which is to get something you’re not giving them. They whine because they’re cold, because they’re hungry, because they’re tired, because they’re frustrated, because they’re four, because life is unfair, because they can’t find something, because they want attention, because their cereal is soggy, and, perhaps – just perhaps – because they like the sound of their own whiny little voices.
I swear whining is an instinctual response for kids, like gasping or giggling or screaming. Our kids know that whining is not going to get them anything, yet they still whine. Over the years, we’ve tried ignoring, mirroring, laughing, reasoning, punishing, sympathizing, and every other -ing you can think of to override the whine reflex, yet our offspring continue to do it.
Our 13-year-old doesn’t whine anymore. THANK GOD. They do eventually outgrow it. But it happens at much older ages than I ever thought probable before I had kids. And there’s no foolproof way to get them to stop.
None that wouldn’t result in therapy, anyway.
4. Good Parents Never Have Terrible Thoughts. This one is more a lie of omission, as it’s something people just don’t talk about. But from heartfelt conversations with other parents, it’s not an uncommon phenomenon.
It’s understandable that parents who suffered abuse as kids would have to overcome impulses to harm their children. But I never expected to have those thoughts myself.
I didn’t grow up in an abusive household. My parents didn’t even spank. And I’m not a hot-tempered person. Yet I’ve had a few brief moments when it was all I could do not to slap, or shake, or otherwise hurt my child. That’s awful to put into writing. But it’s true.
When our first baby was a newborn, she wasn’t sleeping well, she cried much of the night, and I was utterly exhausted. I’d never been so tired in my life (and still haven’t). I instantly understood how shaken baby syndrome happens.
And in that desperate instant, my mother told me something so shocking and honest and beautiful, I thank her every day for it. She said, “When your brother was a baby and wouldn’t stop crying one night, my instinct was to toss him out the window.”
Holy crap. It wasn’t just me. My even-keeled, emotional rock of a mother had had a terrible mothering thought. Not only that, she used the word “instinct” to describe it. I thought mothering instincts were all fuzzy and warm and protective. But I think we also have a deep, dark, alter-instinct, which, in rock-bottom moments of exhaustion and desperation, briefly surfaces to duke it out with our protective parenting instincts.
It doesn’t show up often, thankfully, for those of us who were blessed with loving upbringings. But it’s there. I know I would never hurt my children, but it’s a terrifying feeling to understand how child abuse can happen. I’m generally quite a patient and loving mother, but I know I’ve set a child down too hard in frustration. I’ve squeezed an arm too tightly in anger. I’ve spoken with a fierceness in my voice that didn’t fit the severity of the situation.
Parenting combined with life in general can push us to ugly places. And the veil of civilization that keeps us in check can sometimes feel very thin. Obviously, my mother would never have thrown my brother out the window, and I know I would never strike one of my children.
But those used to be unfathomable thoughts. Now it’s just the actions that are unfathomable. The thoughts I can understand.
5. Childhood Goes By So Quickly. I’m guilty of perpetuating this lie, even right here on this very blog. It’s a lie that’s true, actually – but only in hindsight.
Have you ever noticed that the people who say childhood goes by quickly are people who are past whatever parenting phase you’re in? Of course it goes by fast when you’re looking backwards. When you climb a mountain and look back down, your perspective from the top makes the distance from the bottom look surprisingly short.
But ask the climber halfway up the slope how short it feels.
When you’re in the daily throes of parenting, childhood goes by very, very slowly. Telling parents it goes by quickly may seem like motivation to enjoy every blessed moment, but it’s a bit like constantly telling a mountain climber to enjoy the scenery. It’s not always helpful.
Sometimes a thick fog rolls in and completely obscures your view. All you can do is look down, put one foot in front of the other, and hope you’re moving in the right direction. Sometimes you’ve just crossed a raging river, narrowly avoided an animal attack, tripped and twisted your ankle, and are hanging by your fingernails from a cliff. In that moment, the last thing you need is someone telling you to “enjoy every moment” because it “goes by so fast.”
Climbing a mountain is awesome, and the views from the plateaus are incomparable, but much of the hike is spent navigating and tackling the terrain. That’s not a bad thing. The climb is where you build muscle, stamina, and character. But it is slow, hard work and should be honored as such.
So yes, it’s easy to say childhood goes by quickly when you’re at the top looking down. But perhaps it would be more motivating for parents who are still scaling that mountain to call down, “I know it’s hard and sometimes you think you might die, but keep climbing! You can do it!” rather than “Enjoy every moment! Doesn’t it go by so fast?”
Perhaps those of us still climbing can agree to stop and smell the flowers in between diaper changes and bedtime battles, and those of you at the summit can save those sweet “doesn’t it go by so fast” sentiments for when we’re able share those gorgeous views with you, k?
And if you could toss down a rope every once in a while, that’d be great, too.
These aren’t the only lies about parenthood we tend to pass along. And most of the time, we perpetuate these falsehoods with the best of intentions. But if we aren’t honest about parenting in all it’s gory glory, folks start to believe they’re alone in their struggles. And no parent should feel alone.
Our views may look different from our particular vantage point, we may hit different rough spots at different times, but we’re all traipsing our way up this crazy, treacherous, beautiful mountain together. So keep climbing, Mamas and Papas, and share your true experiences with others, please.
We can do this thing. Together. Honestly.