We know “what to expect when we’re expecting” … but then what about afterward? Is parenting harder because we don’t know what it’s actually like? Before parenthood, we can only speculate about what raising a child will entail – and usually, the idea and the actual experience are vastly different. Like how I once swore I’d only give my kids a perfect, healthy diet, yet now I find myself looking up things like “do pickles count as a vegetable?”
Parenthood is full of the unexpected. I thought about things I wish I had understood about having kids before I had kids. Things that might have brought me a little insight, a bit of clarity, made the journey a little easier. Things such as …
1. You’re not as knowledgeable about kids as you think you are. Before I was a parent, I smugly considered myself an expert on kids (I know … if I could time-travel, I’d slap me). I have more nieces and nephews than I can count on both hands. I started babysitting by the time I was ten. In college, I took child development and child psychology classes. I volunteered at the campus child care center, and after that, worked as a preschool teacher. Kids? Oh, yeah. I knew all about kids.Only, I didn’t.
Books can tell you a lot. Babysitting can teach you how to change a diaper or mediate an argument over whose crayons are whose. But the experience of having your own child, whom you love with every fiber of your being, is completely different. You are acutely aware that every parenting decision you make can directly affect them for the rest of their lives. You are bombarded with advice from every angle – some decent, some ridiculous – and it’s your job to determine which is which. Throw in the worry, the pride, the frustration, the all-encompassing love, and the different personalities and circumstances of each individual child, and it’s like you’re playing a ranked chess match while someone throws basketballs at your head. No matter how much you think you know, you have no freaking clue. Parenthood is largely trial-and-error; go in with flexibility and an open mind. You’re going to make mistakes, so allow yourself to feel okay about that, because everybody does it. And anyway, as you’ll find out …
2. They aren’t as fragile as the Internet makes them out to be. When my oldest was born, I hunched protectively over him at the slightest gust of wind. Hauled him to the pediatrician if he coughed. Eased him ever so gently into his crib and his car seat and his bath tub. Followed him around obsessively as he took his first steps so he wouldn’t bump into the coffee table.
By the time my fourth son came around, I brought him home from the hospital, plopped him into a beanbag on the living room floor, and let his brothers pummel him for about ten minutes while I laid on the couch staring tiredly at the ceiling. Okay, maybe not pummel, but they got all up in his face and poked at him a lot. And it was okay. He still loves them, and he’s not missing any eyes, so there’s that.
Horror stories abound on the Internet. Take them with a grain of salt (and stop Googling everything because that is the fastest route to a freakout). Relax and let your kids be kids and use your intuition. If you listen to your gut, it will tell you a lot more about what they need than any book or website.
You will miss your pre-parental life … and you will feel guilty about it. It will happen when you’re elbow-deep in baby poop and knee-deep in toys and your childless friend calls up like, “Oh yeah, I just left the salon and now I’m heading to dinner and then we’ll probably hit the club after that. Give me a call tomorrow. Oh but not too early because I’m planning to sleep in.” You’ll look at your poopy, cluttered surroundings with the Dora theme song playing in the background, and you’ll want to cry because you wish you were somewhere – anywhere! – else. And then, like a knife twisting in your heart, you’ll feel like crap because oh my gosh what kind of terrible parent am I?!
News flash: it’s okay to miss those things. It’s normal to miss those things. You can love your kids and want to be away from them at the same time. And trust me, no matter how much you love the little darlings, you’ll fantasize about doing things by yourself again. Because …
Kids can be dictators and jerks. You’d never work for a boss who woke you up in the middle of the night with ridiculous requests, or demanded that you shape your personal life around his schedule. If he asked you to wipe his ass or threw his lunch all over the room and expected you to clean it up, that’d be a deal-breaker. Yet that’s basically what you do as a parent. Thank goodness you adore your kids, because they can be like tiny little tyrants. You will find yourself, for example, frantically searching for things – no, the red cup! – nooooo,the red cup with the picture of Mickey Mouse! – Nooooo, not milk, juiiiiice! – while your own breakfast scorches in the skillet. Oh, and also?
3. You will go without things you never currently go without. I’m not saying you should neglect yourself for your kids’ sake. In fact, it’s more important than ever to take care of yourself, because a happy mom is a happy household. BUT. If you’re used to weekly manis and pedis, or getting your hair trimmed religiously every six weeks, or regular massages, or buying a bunch of new clothes every season … you might want to realize that kids are freaking expensive. And unless you are rolling in expendable income, your “me” budget will dwindle to virtually nothing because of stuff like bills from the pediatrician, school lunches, clothes and shoes and backpacks that will keep wearing out, and the “whatever-toy-is-currently-being-shown-on-TV-a-million-times-a-day” that they just have to have.
Case in point: the photo you see here.
These are my actual shoes. That is a hole big enough to stick my finger through. The hole appeared four months ago, yet I still wear the shoes three times a week when I teach Zumba. If you’re wondering why I haven’t just gotten new shoes, re-read the previous paragraph. And then read this: Kids. Are. Not. Cheap.
4. Nobody cares as much about your kids as you do and it will piss you off. I distinctly remember my first experience with this phenomenon: my first son was about six months old and had just learned to wave. We’d go to the grocery store, and he’d wave at everyone he saw. Sometimes, people waved back – but other times, they’d just look at him and walk on. And I wanted to be like, “He’s waving at you, you big jerk!” I mean, how could you be waved at by an adorable baby and not even bother to wave back? Ugh.
There are entire websites devoted to ridiculing parents who talk about their kids too much. The sad but harsh truth is, no one will ever think your child is as cute or as smart or as witty or as amazing as you do. The only exception: their other parent, and their grandparents, and maybe their aunts and uncles if you’re lucky. Find one of these people to brag to when Junior chooses peas over pudding or uses the toilet for the first time – because even though you’ll want to shout it from the rooftops, other people don’t care, and it will make you feel disappointed inside.
5. Your tolerance for grossness will increase because it absolutely has to. So you’re a little squeamish? Don’t worry – because having children is the best remedy. Being squeamish isn’t an option, and parenthood is like a crash course in getting used to disgusting things. Luckily it starts out with smaller, easier-to-manage messes: the occasional newborn diaper blowout, a little spit-up here and there, some drool. By the time you get a few months of practice with the rookie-level grossness, your child gets older and ups the ante with man-sized dumps, and vomit (which, until they learn to sprint to the toilet, means that you get to clean it off of beds, out of couch cushions, your hair, or wherever), and six-inch smears of snot on the thigh of your pants. They’ll play in their poop.
They’ll urinate in weird places (such as inside a water gun, which they will then stash in the corner of their closet for a month until the pee turns rancid and you make a most unpleasant discovery when you tip it over onto your foot). They’ll bring you boogers the size of Brazil (or just wipe them on the wall). When they get older, they will come crying to you with blood-dripping injuries – but by that time, you’ll be such a seasoned pro that the first thing out of your mouth will be, “Don’t bleed on the carpet!”
By nature, parenthood is surprising – and this is just the tip of the iceberg of things you’ll discover when it happens to you. But I figure the more we can take the mystery out of it, the better equipped new parents will be to handle the challenges their kids throw at them.
… Until you spill a water gun full of rancid pee on your foot. Nothing can really prepare you for that.