Several new moms have entered my life recently, so I’ve been revisiting my list of things I wish I’d known before I became a mom. You can never truly prepare for everything that’s coming, but I think it helps to be aware of realities that may peep over the horizon.
Here are some of those realities, in no particular order:
1) Cutting your baby’s fingernails for the first time is one of the scariest things you’ll ever do. And after that, it’s pretty much a full-time job until they’re old enough to do it themselves. I wish I was exaggerating.
It also doesn’t get any easier with subsequent kids. I thought I knew what I was doing with our second baby and drew blood the first time I cut her nails. With our third, I gave up the clippers and just tore them off during the newborn phase. Sometimes asking the question, “What would a mom living in a tent in the Outback do?” helps to simplify things.
2) You will be up close and personal with someone else’s bodily functions—on a daily basis—for years on end. Assuming you have more than one child and space them 1 to 4 years apart, you will literally wipe butts more times than you can count. Pee and poop. Poop and pee. Every single day. You might be saying, “DUH, Annie,” but you really should consciously prepare yourself for this reality. Motherhood is not glamorous.
You’ll know you’ve officially been initiated into motherhood when you have to carry the entire car seat—baby included—into the bathtub, peel layer after poopy layer off your child, and hose the whole business down while trying not to heave. Or when your child wakes up at 2:00 a.m. with a tummy ache, and while you’re feeling for a fever, the little darling suddenly pukes down the front of your pajamas. No, no glamour at all here.
3) The word “Mama” can be the sweetest sound you’ll ever hear. It can also make you want to poke your eyes out with a crochet hook. We mothers look for those first discernable babbles, that first verbal recognition, with rapt anticipation. When your baby finally gazes at you and says, “Mama,” it just takes your breath away. Treasure that moment, because in four years when you’re trying to drive through traffic or talk on the phone, you’ll do so with the incessant, whining chirp of, “Mama, Mama, Mama!” ringing through your ears, over and over and over again.
Just hide the crochet hooks during those years, and you’ll be fine.
4) You will never sleep soundly again. Well, maybe not never, but for at least a decade or two. Everyone expects sleep deprivation during the newborn phase, but even after your baby starts sleeping through the night (which, in my experience, happens around three months for about three weeks and then goes to pot once teething starts) you won’t sleep the same as you did pre-kids.
Any noise you hear could be one of them needing you. Your kid might be going through a phase of nightmares or insomnia, or he has a cold so he can’t breathe. Or, maybe the kids are all sleeping fine, but you’re worried about their health/behavior/development/schooling/etc. Or maybe you just want to treasure the time you have while they’re asleep, so you stay up way too late, only to be woken up at the butt crack of dawn by a kid sticking her fingers in your face and asking for cereal.
Whatever the reason, your sleep will never be the same, so don’t fight it. The good news is, by the second or third kid, you’ll get so used to being sleep deprived, you’ll hardly notice it anymore.
5) You will share all of your children’s joy and pain. The intense love you have for your children will result in an intense amount of empathy. You will feel every hurt your children feel, from skinned knees to broken hearts. And you will rejoice in every one of their triumphs, from rolling over to tying their shoes for the first time. The connection between their emotions and yours can sometimes be overwhelming. And I’m told by moms with grown children that this doesn’t end. Ever.
6) You will never hear about a child being kidnapped or killed without feeling like someone has kicked you square in the stomach. I remember watching an Oprah show about child abduction when my first baby was a week old. It was my first “mama bear” moment—the one where I knew with every fiber of my being that I’d step in front of a train without a moment’s hesitation if I knew it would protect my child. I was blown over by the force of it.
I had a similar reaction with my third baby when I realized that, as a boy, in 18 years he could be drafted and sent off to war. I believe my exact internal words were, “Over my dead body.” And I meant it literally. If someone wants to send my beautiful, sweet baby boy whom I’ve spent 18 or 20 years loving, teaching, and nurturing into a war zone to experience unimaginable atrocities, they’ll have to do it over my dead body. The instinct to protect is fierce.
7) There may be moments—brief, but frightening moments—where you can understand how child abuse happens. While the instinct to protect is fierce, certain circumstances can push your instincts to the brink. Your baby is colicky, you haven’t slept in days, you’re hormones are all out of whack, you’re trying to comfort a screaming child, and for an ever-so-brief moment you feel like shaking them or tossing them across the room. It’s awful, but it’s true. If you’ve never had a moment like that as a mom, count yourself lucky.
My mom told me about her own brief new mom moment when her instinct was to chuck my brother out the window when he wouldn’t stop crying, and I was so grateful to know that it was normal. My mom is incredibly gentle and even-keeled, and about as far from abusive as you can imagine. If she could get pushed to the brink, anyone could. I’m not talking full-on postpartum depression or psychosis. Just flickering moments when terrible thoughts flash through your psyche.
Later, your toddler might be screaming uncontrollably at the worst possible time, or your six-year-old might be whining relentlessly, and for a brief moment you just want to slap them. It’s hard for me to even write that, because it goes so completely against my normal instincts. But there are moments. Everyone has them. Be aware of them and let them pass, and don’t beat yourself up. Thinking about it and actually doing it are two very different things.
8) You will always love your children, but you may not always like them. There will be phases your kids go through—irritating, obnoxious, rude, dramatic, moody phases—where they ride your last nerve. And you’ll feel guilty and wonder what you’ve done wrong. And then the phase will pass and you’ll wonder how you ever felt any negativity toward them.
This is hard to imagine when you have a baby or a toddler. Babies start out cute, and they just get cuter and cuter until you can’t stand it and think you might explode from their adorableness. And then they turn three. And then four. And oh, seven can be a doozy. But these are just phases, and with patience and a little decent parenting, they pass.
9) Whatever good behavior you think your kids have mastered, expect to have to re-teach it again, and again, and again. I remember being so proud of how polite my first kid was at age three. Please, thank you, excuse me – she was the poster child of courtesy. If she had it down pat at three, surely I could check that off my parenting to-do list, right? HA!
There’s a reason it takes 18 or so years to raise a child. And it makes sense that they’ll have setbacks, when you think about it. They go through phases and grow and change and have to adapt what they know to the stage they’re in now. Learning the art of the “gentle reminder” and being prepared to use it often will save you much frustration.
10) Your kids will change constantly, from their very first day out of the womb. And you’ll change right along with them. Motherhood will keep you on your toes. As soon as you start to think you’ve got a handle on things, your kids will enter a whole new phase, or do something totally unexpected and awesome, or do something totally unexpected and atrocious, and you’ll have to re-figure out parenting all over again.
And you’ll find your own identity constantly on its toes as well. Your life and your purpose are no longer yours alone. Each baby brings with them their own life’s purpose, their own blessings, and their own destiny—all of which become intricately woven into your own.
You might worry about “losing yourself” in motherhood. But it’s important to recognize that on some very fundamental levels you’re never going to be the same person you were pre-kids. And that’s not a bad thing. You will get lost in motherhood, and it’ll be scary and disorienting and painful sometimes. But in the process you’ll discover a stronger, wiser, tougher, softer, realer version of yourself. Just give it time.
Welcome to Motherhood, new Mamas. It’s a wild and wonderful place to be.
A version of this post was published on Motherhood and More in February 2011 with the title “10 Things I Wish I’d Known about Motherhood.”
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