The Only Pieces of Parenting Advice You Need

by Jennifer Ball
Originally Published: 
A girl pulling a wheelbarrow with another girl in it in a garden

I became a parent in 1994. And then again in 1995. And 1997. And then, because all of the cool people were having Y2K babies, once more in 2000. That’s four kids. Four kids who all are now teenagers and a mother who is no longer young. (No, there was little math done prior to conceiving these angels… but I wouldn’t change a thing.)

Throughout my parenting journey, I have learned a lot. I’ve learned things that have benefited me (and my kids), and I’ve learned things that have made me cringe and doubt my ability to parent.

When I first became a mommy 19 years ago, I had no idea what I was doing. I went from self-absorbed party girl to a crying mess, wearing giant mesh underwear pleading with some poor soul on the 24-hour hospital nurse line to come take the red-faced shrieking baby-shaped creature writhing in the bassinet. “YOU LET ME LEAVE THE HOSPITAL WITH HIM!” I screamed “I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO!” I’ve had several more “not my best” moments since then, but I’ve also had some really good ones.

These days it seems that everywhere I go, I see fresh new mommies. I see them at Costco, at the mall, walking on the trails near my house. They remind me so much of my past self and my past babies. I want to talk to them and tell them what I’ve learned, but the creepiness factor (and the realization that I’m about to be late for something) always stops me. Well, creepiness be damned today, friends! I’m going to talk now. I want to tell you stuff I’ve learned along the way and the things I wish someone had told me about all those years ago. Would it have changed the way I parented, made any difference at all? Who knows. But humor a tired old woman, okay?

Here are my 10 best pieces of parenting advice:

1. Trust your gut. Always. Your gut is trying to talk to you. Listen to it. This is one thing I’ve learned a little late in the game, and I regret that. I remember stifling gut feelings way back in my children’s lives when a situation didn’t feel right. A kid they started hanging out with made my mama-bear senses tingle. Something a teacher said (or didn’t say) felt off, somehow. Mother’s intuition is real. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. That said, there is a difference between the pangs caused by intuition, and those caused by guilt, worry or temporary insanity. It takes a while to figure out that difference, but it will happen. When it does, stand up for your gut and take action. If it means being the “bad cop” with your kid, or “that parent” at school, so be it. When all is said and done, YOU are your child’s number one advocate. Never forget that.

2. When your kids start school, get to know their teachers. Start with preschool, and don’t ever stop. Get to know the people who are with your kids every day. These people work hard, often for meager wages and iffy benefits, because they LOVE what they do. Stop in and say hello. If you have time, offer to help. If you don’t have time, be sure to keep the lines of communication open and don’t be shy. Let them know when your child tells you something wonderful that happened at school. Teachers hear a lot about what makes parents mad; let them know what makes you happy, too. Keep an open mind when dealing with the teachers, and try to keep a level head. It’s scary, sending your kid off into the wilds of school. Their teachers know that; most of them are parents, too. As your kids get to junior high and beyond, the opportunities to meet their teachers become less convenient and take a little more work. But they are there, and guess what? They still love what they do. And, for the most part, they’d be happy to meet you.

3. Get to know other kids–and their parents. This one is easy when they’re little. As they get bigger, not so much. You have to work at it. My kids have had some of the same friends for YEARS. I have wiped some of their butts, these boys who are now over six feet tall and boom out “YO, JENNY” as they walk in my front door. But some of these kids, I don’t know from Adam. I have no idea who they are, who their parents are, what they’re like or even where they live. It’s taken me a while, but I am now comfortable with finding out more. Now I will call a parent I’ve never met, just to introduce myself. It’s hard, but I think it’s necessary. It takes a village, and sometimes you have to be the one to round up the villagers.

4. Don’t judge other moms. Well, try not to, anyways. It’s natural for women to judge each other. Time was, I hung out with a different group of women. We had kids the same age and we lived in the same neighborhood. I enjoyed their friendships. But I remember going out to dinner one night, and talk turned to a fellow mom from our ECFE class. It started out only slightly catty, and then it got bad. This was mean, mean stuff. And I partook in it. When I got home, I felt like shit, and I said to my then-husband, “I need to make some changes in my life.” A few days later, the woman we had been verbally eviscerating over dinner was injured in an accident. I made dinner and brought it over to her, and we became friends. Our friendship lasted several more years, and then, like some friendships do, it faded out. But I’m glad that I decided to take the high road.

You are going to cross paths with many other moms over the next several years. Some will be your friends, others won’t. But let me tell you this: the more you put yourself out there, and the kinder you are to others, the better you will feel at the end of the day. For every mom out there, there is a life story just waiting to be heard. Get to know as many as you can.

5. Starting now, be aware of what you’re feeding them. I’m not saying you should go buy shares in an organic farm, but there are a lot of scary things in food today. Do you hear judgment in my voice? No, you do not. I have the number for Costco Pizza on speed dial, we get slushies from Super America, and I love me some Twizzlers. But read the labels, people. Do a little bit of research about additives and preservatives and artificial sweeteners and nitrites and hydrogenated oils and CORN and everything else. It’s overwhelming, but try to do at least a little bit. Feeding your kids things that aren’t processed and full of chemicals takes a little getting used to, and it can be a little more expensive, but it can be done. Believe me-if my broke, busy ass can do it, anyone can. Lifelong eating habits begin NOW, when your kids are little and they still think you are smart. If you can make sure most of those habits are healthy ones, that’s a win, Mommy. (Please note, I said most. There are enough Flaming Hot Cheetos in the cushions of my living room couch to feed a small country. Choose your battles, right?)

6. If your kid needs help, make sure they get it. Don’t let pride, fear or ignorance get in the way of your child getting help. Academic, mental, physical–if they need it, make it happen. I know that time and money are precious commodities, but if you can get help for your child via a tutor, a program outside of regular school, a good therapist, whatever, you should find a way to do it. Check with your pediatrician, your local school district, or other parents to find the help your child might need.

For a long time, I denied that there was something broken in one of my boys. Something in his sweet mind wasn’t right. I blamed it on my icky divorce, on the Nintendo, on hormones. Hell, I went all Milli Vanilli and blamed it on the rain. Turns out, he had a chemical imbalance and needed some help. If I’d addressed it earlier, we could have avoided some really scary stuff. He’s growing up to be a kick-ass young man, but those few years of darkness could have been made a bit lighter if I’d just faced the music sooner and asked for help. Please don’t make the same mistake.

7. Spend some free time with your kids. At least once a week, but preferably once a day. We schedule our kids to death. They have swimming and soccer and baseball and t-ball and Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts and Hebrew and Confirmation and Interpretive Dance and karate and basketball and EVERYTHING ELSE. And it only gets crazier, trust me. My giant OfficeMax calendar (yep, it’s a paper one…I’m old school) has not only my crammed itinerary on it, but also the schedules of four teens and their jobs, sports and appointments. So now, while you still can, do this: Try to find some time when there is nothing scheduled for either one of you. Time when you can just chill with your kid(s) and talk or watch clouds or match socks or observe your dog twitching in his sleep. Time where the two of you can connect. Time when you’re not worried about whether or not they have the right uniform with them or if it was your turn to provide snack. Clean and pure mommy/kid time. They crave this. You need this.

8. Find the funny. To quote the Joker, “Why so serious?” Everyone has a sense of humor, and there is no time like parenthood to get that sucker out and use it on the daily. Now, I’m not saying that you should be the whackadoo laughing in the corner all day, but open your eyes to the glorious funny that presents itself to you. Not everything is life or death, not every mistake you make is going to send your kid into a downward Miley Cyrus-spiral.

I’ll never forget the exact moment I decided to laugh at motherhood: the aforementioned screaming baby-shaped being (my firstborn) was about 3 weeks old. I was changing his diaper and he, of course, was wailing away. Suddenly, a magnificent arc of urine shot forth from his teeny nethers and splash-landed in his eyes. He peed on his eyeballs, people. I had a split second there where I could have gone the serious route: I could have made a panicked call to the pediatrician’s office or the poison control center to find out exactly when my precious boy would be rendered blind from his corrosive urine…or I could laugh. I LAUGHED. Because there was my now-quiet angel, blinking in bewilderment with droplets of tinkle flicking from his eyelashes. I wiped his eyes with a cloth, kissed him and finished diapering him. And I felt better. Choose laughs; always choose the laughs.

9. Take it easy on yourself. For real. Don’t beat yourself up if you have a crappy day (or week, or month) as a mom. I thought there was so much pressure to be The Perfect Mommy back in my day, but holy crap! You fresh young mommies have it coming at you from all directions: Pinterest, Facebook, a plethora of Mommy Blogs, and celebrity mommies who have perfect bodies, perfect homes and loads of perfect parenting advice. Please know this, ladies: There is no such thing as The Perfect Mommy. She is an urban legend created by some evil marketing genius. So what if you whip your hair back into a ponytail several times a week, say “fuck this shit” every once in a while, or decided to let your kids watch Disney channel for an hour while you DID ABSOLUTELY NOTHING other than eat some chips and emptied the dishwasher? The world will continue spinning on its axis, your kids will be okay, and hey, the dishwasher is emptied. Sounds pretty perfect to me.

10. Be prepared to let go of dreams, hopes and expectations. Be ready to replace them with different dreams, hopes and expectations. It threw me for a total loop when I discovered that one of my kids had a hard time reading. Me, a voracious reader since I was four, and with my three older kids following suit. They picked up books and just took off. Same with spelling. I never once had to help them with spelling words, they just knew. When my sweet, youngest baby began school, it became apparent that he’d be different. And I’ll be honest with you-it baffled me. I didn’t know how to handle it. So for a while, I didn’t. I figured that it would work itself out, this reading thing. Guess what? It didn’t. He needed help. I had to accept that.

Nobody becomes a parent and thinks, “Gosh, I hope I get to know everything there is about Aspergers or ADD or speech impediments or developmental delays or juvenile diabetes or (insert any sort of childhood detour you can think of here).” We have these babies and we picture them doing everything that “normal” kids do. We dream of our little ones playing peacefully at the playground, side by side with other cherubic kids, and growing up to be productive, happy members of society.

You know who doesn’t care what we dream and hope for? Our kids. They come to us as they are. Perfectly imperfect little beings, flawed and beautiful. The mommy who dresses her baby girl all in pink and surrounds her with dolls may have to get used to the fact that her little princess wants to wear boy clothes and play football. That little boy you had hoped would inherit your math prowess and go on to great academic success may surprise you and instead be fascinated with cars and become a mechanic. You may find yourself struggling to get your child out of bed in the morning because he’s too depressed to face life. You may be the parent sitting in a doctor’s office, learning the next steps in your child’s treatment. Who knows? Maybe your child will grow up exactly as you had hoped. Stranger things have happened.

I remember reading a fact once, something about how the chances of egg meeting sperm, about zygote becoming embryo, embryo becoming fetus, and fetus becoming baby are slim. Something like only a 10% chance of getting, and staying, pregnant each cycle. Having kids, whether you make them yourself, adopt them, or find yourself inheriting them through marriage- it’s a miracle. A blessed, everyday miracle. I consider my children to be my masterpieces, the best things I’ve done with my life. Would I go back and do some of my parenting differently? Yes, of course I would. I’d also go back to my size 4 self and tell her “DON’T START EATING YOUR FEELINGS!” It is what it is. There are no do-overs.

There is only today. And this worn-out, frazzled old mom hopes that YOU have a great one. Just remember this one thing: You are a good mom. You’ll make mistakes and you will second-guess yourself sometimes, but you ARE a good mom. And nobody can take that away from you.

Now go on out there and be that good mom you are. You, my dears, are the face of parenting today. Those of us who have gone before you are cheering you on, feeling a mix of melancholia and nostalgia over those days gone by. We wish you nothing but the best, and we want you to know that most of us are available for advice, or support… or an old, tired shoulder to cry on. We’ve got your backs, young fresh mommies.

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