I spent some time recently with a pregnant friend -- her first -- and we got to talking about this and that and it occurred to me that there were several things I wish someone had bothered to tell me. I mean, I'm sure this information was out there somewhere, but while I was pregnant, it just wasn't something that stuck well in my brain.
There's all this advice out there about parenting, and a lot of it just served to make me feel guilty because I wasn't doing all of it, wasn't feeling the way everyone said I should feel, or just wasn't doing the right things the right way and well enough for them to count. This is not that kind of advice list. This list is for the parents who are quietly terrified that they are going to seriously eff things up, but can't tell anyone, especially their spouse, because that would just be, well, awful.*
1. You are about to be a member of a club that is simultaneously well known and completely unknown at the same time. Everyone knows that there are parents out there, but until you actually are one you really, really don't get it. I'm not trying to make parents out as having some magnificent mystique that make them better than everyone else, 'cause they aren't, but parents just feel differently about the world once their offspring is part of it. I can't explain it, but it's partially a feeling of absolute vulnerability that never goes away.
2. If you are a pregnant mom right now, you are tired. Growing another person is tiring. It's exhausting. You want to sleep all the time. This may not seem possible, but once the baby is born, you will be more tired. More exhausted. All. The. Time. The good thing? It gets better. It will take a few years, but you will actually get to sleep through the night again. Until you have another baby.
3. Being exhausted and sleep-deprived will make you crabby. This is okay. Your baby will survive crabbiness. And there will be times that you will hate your baby. Believe it or not, this is okay, too. You are not a bad parent for having this feeling. (You are only a bad parent if you give in and act on it. Despite what some religions and parenting gurus espouse, thoughts don't count.) This, like sleepless nights, is temporary. It goes away. You really will, or do love your baby. But hours and hours of endless, unwavering screaming for no reason when you are absolutely spent would give anyone the urge to fling baby down a flight of stairs. In your deranged state you will think that at least in jail you could sleep. Instead you put baby down safely in her crib and shut the door for 15 minutes. You regain some sanity, and baby will survive a few minutes of alone time. Let the guilt go for this one, okay?
4. Speaking of loving your baby, not everyone feels the instant overwhelming love that everyone gushes about. Maybe all you feel is panic, or just a sense of unreality. (Having a human being come out of you is sort of an unreal experience, really.) Give it time. It will come. Do all the things a parent who was wildly in love with their baby would do--coo and cuddle and say all sorts of loving things, sing and smile and rock him gently, feed and stroke and play with tiny toes and fingers and gradually you will realize that you do, in fact, love this baby more than you've loved anyone in your entire life. If this doesn't happen, and isn't working, and you just feel, well, nothing, you might have post-partum depression. (see #5)
5. (Caveat: I have never had post-partum depression, but I do know people who have, and I know, for sure, it is REAL. It's real as a tumor and about as funny.) Post-partum depression is when your body chemistry doesn't get lined up right and your brain doesn't make the right kind of neurotransmitters to keep you functioning properly. It dampens everything. Blankets your mental landscape with a layer of dust so thick that to think or feel properly about anything takes so much energy that you can't do it, especially when your energy is at low ebb to begin with because you are trying to take care of a baby and not sleeping. If you feel like this, GET HELP. The problem is chemical and there is better living to be had through chemistry. And feel free to give a resounding "f*ck you" to anyone who tells you that you should just be able to get over it on your own. If they did, well, bully for them, but this is about you and you are entitled to the help you need.
6. This one is entirely of a practical nature, and has to do with women's bodies. So if you're a guy and would rather not know, skip ahead. Okay, ladies, now that we're alone -- I had always thought that during pregnancy your period just stops. Turns out it doesn't. It just stops coming out. While you're pregnant, there's this big buildup of blood in there, along with fluid and baby and god knows what else. And it all comes out. For me, I had two c-sections and thus did not push any of it out along with my children. I suppose some women do. For the next several days I had to wear the world's ugliest lingerie, a diaper-thick papery/cloth-diapery thing with webbing to hold it up, and I had to change it several times a day. It is, in a word, gross. And disturbing. (Okay, that's two words, but it really is. It is odd to bleed that much and not have it be of concern to medical personnel.) The point is, nobody told me this would happen. It was just "here you are, dearie" from the OB nurses like I should be figuring out why the hell I want these god-awful things and they're all surprised that I wasn't expecting this.
7. You will sometimes suck as a parent. Despite all your best intentions, you will do things wrong. You'll stick your kid with diaper pins, or accidentally bang their little noggin into a doorway (they stick out a lot farther than you think when you're cradling them in your arms.) You'll overheat the formula and leave something dangerous lying around and make the bathwater too cold. You'll lose your temper and yell at your toddler, and maybe even swat his behind because you just can't stand it anymore. You'll let her eat nothing but cheese for three days because that is all she will eat without screaming for 15 solid minutes. You will forget to buy diapers or bring a change of clothing, and you will hire at least one incompetent babysitter. It happens. Not that it's good to make a habit of being forgetful, and it's a good idea to learn from your mistakes, but it's not a good idea to beat yourself up about it and lie awake at night berating yourself -- or your spouse. Neither of you are going to be getting enough sleep as it is, so forgive yourself and each other.
8. Keeping number 7 in mind, be very, very careful of how you judge another parent. The one who has a coatless three-year-old in 30 degree weather as she hustles the 20 yards into daycare? The one who gives her child melatonin at night? The one whose floor hasn't been vacuumed in months? The one who dozes on the couch for two hours while her kids watch Sesame Street? Don't judge. Especially if it's before you've given birth and tried this for yourself. There could well be a some day when you pray that nobody is watching you be a parent because you know you'd be found wanting.
9. You don't suck as bad as you think you do. If your baby has colic and does nothing but scream for 3 hours a night every damn night no matter what you do, it's not because you suck as a parent. It's because mother nature is sometimes a real bitch for no reason, and your baby just has colic. Babies come with lots of built in things, and sometimes you get an easygoing baby, and sometimes you don't. If you get the hard kind, it's not because you deserve it or that you're doing something terribly wrong. You know more than you think you do, and you're better at this than you think. Have faith.
10. Last, but not least, you will be getting a lot of advice. A LOT. You might seek it out, or have it thrust upon you by well-meaning grandmas, mothers-in-law, sisters, friends and strangers. Keep this phrase handy "Oh? Okay. Thanks for the advice. I'll keep it in mind." Then you can deep six anything you think is not for you, or just total crap. Feel free to do it now. Won't hurt my feelings a bit.
*there are parents out there who are truly awful. They do wretched things to their children out of their own mental illness, addiction or raging narcissism. If you are one of those parents then please go get help now. You can start here.