I am not a motherhood expert. In fact, I love to accost more experienced moms and beg them for snippets of advice or wisdom that might help me through my mothering journey.
But with ten-plus years of parenting under my belt, it recently hit me that I actually have some experience, and perhaps even a little wisdom, to share with moms who are just setting out on this journey. I won’t offer any parenting advice – there are 12,537 books you can peruse for that. I also won’t wax rhapsodic about the beauty of motherhood – I think the gifts, miracles, and awesomeness of motherhood are best discovered as you go along.
What I offer here are some of the large and small realities – not negatives, but realities – that I wish I’d been better prepared for as a mom. Things that took me by surprise, or that I didn’t expect, or that I was relieved to find out were normal. It’s by no means an exhaustive list – just the first ten that came to mind that I deemed worth sharing.
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’s also one of the things that doesn’t get any easier with subsequent kids. I thought I knew what I was doing with my second baby, and drew blood the first time I cut her nails. With my 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’ll wipe butts more times than you can count. That may sound like a “duh” statement, but you really should prepare yourself for it. Motherhood is not glamorous.
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. Mothers so look forward to those first babbles, that first verbal recognition. 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 have to endure the incessant whining chirp of, “Mama, Mama, Mama!” over and over and over again.
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 3 months for about 3 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.
(Yes, I’ve used the word “butt” twice in this list already. Prepare yourself for that, too. Especially if you have boys.)
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 get so used to interrupted sleep you don’t even notice it anymore.
5) You will share all of your children’s joy and pain. 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 be intense, and sometimes 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 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 trying to comfort a screaming child, and for a brief moment you feel like shaking them or tossing them out the window. I know that sounds 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 the “pushed to the brink” moment she’d had when my older brother was a baby, and I was so grateful to know that it was normal. My mom is incredibly even-keeled, and about as far from abusive as you can imagine. If she could get to the breaking point, anyone could.
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 to make them stop. 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. When I was feeling nervous about having my surprise third baby, my sister-in-law told me something I’ve never forgotten: Each child who comes into your life brings with them their own destiny and their own blessings, which become intricately woven into your own. Chew on that one for a while.
Sometimes we fear “losing ourselves” in motherhood. While I think that’s a valid concern, it’s also important to recognize that on some very fundamental levels you’re never going to be the same person you were. And that’s not a bad thing, as long as you go with the flow, grow with your kids, and stay open to change.
OK, so maybe I did throw in a small piece of advice or two.
So how about other experienced moms? What have you learned so far in your mothering journey? Post a comment and share a snippet of wisdom or two. What do you wish you’d been better prepared for?