My oldest child is three years old, so in terms of parenting advice, I’m your basic punch-line. My friends and I talk about raising our children every time we’re together, but most of us are early on in the journey, babes in the woods with nothing but our flashlights and instincts to guide us. And by instincts I mean parenting books, research articles, and stories we heard from other people. I laugh when someone asks me for advice because I know I’m about 40 years away from having any real perspective on all of this, but I also love to engage in the fray with other parents, wincing and climbing our way through the trees right in front of us and the mountains up ahead.
It’s all quite daunting if you let yourself think about it too much. But it’s easier when you know everyone else feels just as crazy. Which is why I love to talk about this business of being a parent.
Three years in, with our third baby on the way, all I have to offer at any given moment is a list of my mistakes and a tiny handful of tremendous minutes of success. Yes. Minutes. That is the most accurate way I can imagine measuring my successes.
And yet! When I see parents pregnant with their first child, there is such a momentary disdain for their plans and dreams that I have to catch myself before the moment becomes an actual remark. Me, the punch-line of parenting advice, young mother with exactly 2 minutes of successful child-rearing under my belt, has the audacity to scoff at those dreamers, those planners, those “my baby won’t do this” and “my house won’t look like that” and “we’ll never” and “we’ll always,” those people inebriated with anticipation over their first child.
They’re a sack full of sugar that I’d like to unceremoniously dump out and sweep away. They’re annoying.
But really, they’re not. It’s natural. We all did it. We all said we wouldn’t have a house full of toys, and that our kids would never talk to us like that, and that our babies would sleep because we would create the perfect sleeping environment, and our kids would work around our schedules, and oh my gosh, remember saying that crap? Do you remember how dumb we were?
You cannot know how insanely out of touch your parenting “style” is until you are actually parenting. Until you have not slept a full night in a month or two. Until the baby hates the expensive pacifiers you bought, and the one year old throws his first fit, and the two year old runs away from you in public, and vacations are a practical joke in which you actually sleep less and have more to do, and you are just so tired and just so outside of yourself: and then you know your parenting “style.” It’s called, “I love my baby, but this is really hard, and I have no idea what I’m doing, and I wish did, but I’ll keep trying, because I love my baby.”
There are no parenting books with that title. Because it’s long, and because new parents would never believe that about themselves enough to buy the book.
So, I’ve been thinking about all of this, and wondering if there is anything at ALL that you could ever share with a non-parent about what is coming their way. Surprise! There isn’t. But I want to try. If only to remind myself of these very things I’m writing, and to scratch the words deep into the bark of the trees that I’m currently passing, not only as a message for those who will follow, but as a mile marker for myself. A roughly hewn inscription etched onto this snap of a second in my life when yes, I am a parenting punch-line, but I am also still reveling in the newness and goodness of what it is to be mother.
Brand new parents,
Hi. Hey there. Congratulations! In one way or another, you have a child joining your life. This is big. This is HUGE. You probably know that. But wait: do you know that? It might not seem huge at first. When Sam and I were waiting for Clara to be born, the only baby item in our living room was a little bouncy bunny chair that sat lonesome in an empty corner. It looked like an art piece. So “huge” didn’t seem like an appropriate term for what was coming. It all seemed quite manageable, before she arrived. All of her clothes were always clean in her drawers. She never cried. She never fussed. She slept and ate just fine. Because she was in my womb. That detail somehow gets lost among all the daydreaming and chit-chatting about how wonderful the baby will be and how happy you will be when they arrive. A living, breathing, helpless baby will soon join you. That’s huge.
I can’t tell you how hard it will be. You won’t believe me. And it doesn’t matter anyways, because you’ll know soon enough. Just like I have no idea what three kids will be like, or how my son will act when he’s 13, or how it feels to watch my daughter be crushed by disappointment: we can’t know. And we shouldn’t know. The knowledge can’t come without the experience, because it would kill us. The experience, the grinding decisions of parenting, the pain of our missteps coiling in our bellies; we can’t know until we’re there. We need to experience the long days and the short nights in order to know anything at all, because with the knowing comes the love.
New parents? You have no idea how demanding this will be. But you also can’t begin to understand the love. You know, of course: You know that most people love their kids. Or at least, according to their facebook feeds and their conversation topics, they are slightly obsessed with their kids. I used to roll my eyes when people would talk about their children, wondering if they were talking about the same kid I had just seen screaming about bed time. I knew they loved their kids, but what I didn’t know was that the love I could see was merely a faint echo of how they truly felt. I know this now because I’m staring at my daughter as she sleeps beside me, hands behind her head like she’s laying on the beach, curls matted against the pillow, her cheeks still round with babyhood that has not completely left; and I’m crying. I am crying! Because I can’t believe she’s mine. Because I can’t believe the luck in my blood to call Clara my daughter and Sam, my son.
When they call my name in their sleep,
when they stroke my hair while I hold them,
when they kiss their little sister in my belly,
when they were infants drinking milk at my breast,
when their fevers run high and they melt in my arms,
when they learn a new word,
when they sing a new song,
when they are kind,
when they are strong,
when through the lens of their youth we are allowed some glimpse of their future selves, of their shining gifts or their deepest struggle,
I cry with love.
I pull them to me, I smell their hair, I kiss constellations across their skin, I am wrecked and resurrected with love once more.
This, you cannot know. This love, it is a secret and unreachable well within me, so deep I know it will drown me, today and all the days that follow.
The pain of parenting is also an unknowable force until you are inside it, shoulder deep in rising waters, questioning and fighting and treading for your life.
This is what we can’t tell you, new parents. This is what we can’t explain. It’s more than lost sleep. It’s beyond messy kitchen counters and cancelled plans. It’s bigger than your ideals, more grand than your dreams, more devastating than your nightmares. It’s fuller than the ocean. It’s harder to count than the stars. It’s every story you’ve ever heard about anything, translated in every language, injected into your heart.
You won’t believe us until you’re there. And we’re so excited for you- a little bit because we want to see your hair get messed up and your assumptions knocked out from under you. That’s the bad, slightly delirious part of us talking (we haven’t slept in years). But mostly because we know that pain, and we know that love, and we know it will change you. It will make you into you.
It will make you better. Stronger, and somehow softer. It will humiliate you and restore you in the same breath. I know this won’t make sense now, but remember this for later: the heartache doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. It means your heart is actually growing.
If I could make a line of greeting cards for new parents, I would make one that said on the outside,”Congratulations on a lifetime of heartache!” And then on the inside, “This will be the bravest love you’ve ever known.”
Now go stare at your nursery and pretend like your baby is going to sleep in there. And congratulations!
This is going to be amazing.