My littlest, last baby turned one last week, which made me want to bury my face in his little sweet neck repeating "nom, nom, nom, nom" over and over again until everyone in the room, including my baby, is looking at me like I’m some kind of crazy person. [Editor’s note: Karen, you realize that you actually are umm… oh never mind].
People keep saying "Oh he is one! Congratulations to him!" Congratulations to him? Him?! Are you kidding me? He has done nothing in this first year but look cute and shit his pants. No matter how exhausted he his from learning to walk or sucking on my boob, he can always take a nap. His arms never feel like they are going to fall off from hauling his fat ass around in a car seat. He is bathed, massaged, fed, and worshiped by the masses like a prince wherever he goes. Congratulations to him? I don't think so.
Congratulations to me and my tired husband. Together we have kept him alive and well while dodging the clinical depression bullet, and we actually still like each other. Now, in fairness, I am 40 years old with decades of experience and more perspective than any one person really needs. And this baby is possibly the world's happiest baby who has slept through the night ever since he was a few weeks old - but most people don’t have it this easy and I realize that parenting a baby, especially when you are new at it – seems like the hardest thing EVER. Now, the more argumentative of you are thinking "No, getting my doctorate degree was the hardest thing ever", " "Climbing Kilimanjaro was the hardest thing ever", "Wrestling a grizzly bear while I was on fire was the hardest thing ever" and my response to all you highly educated self-immolating grizzly-wrestling mountaineers is that no, you are wrong. And seriously, why would you light yourself on fire before wrestling a bear? Do you think that gives you some kind of competitive advantage? Because it doesn’t. The bear is just going to sit there quizzically watching you burn as you desperately try to stop, drop and roll, screaming the entire time. And then he’ll eat you. Crispy outside, juicy warm center. Yum, yum. But I digress.
There is nothing we are more invested in than the lives we create or commit to nurturing - nothing. Because of this, nothing is harder than the arrival of these little invaders who come into our lives and take over our identity and sanity. I love my kids so much and I appreciate being a Mom, I really do - but the truth is, it kind of sucks. Young children consume every waking moment of your day and threaten to consume every sleeping moment as well; they wedge their way into your hopes and dreams and all of the sudden your ambition jumps into the back seat - then gets kicked out of vehicle entirely to make way for car seats, strollers and high chairs, and remember when you felt potent and attractive? Not so much any more. You know what’s sexy about booger-stained sweat pants adorning a body that desperately needs a shower? Nobody else does either.
But here is the thing kids: I know you can't see it through your jealousy and rage toward all the childless adults complaining about not having enough time in their day - but there is a light at the end of this child-rearing tunnel. The problem is, the light only begins to shimmer when you approach that point when your kids no longer need you so much and by then you will be yearning for the days when they woke up from a nap with that sweaty, sweet smell of baby sleep and you could just cuddle them up and love on those precious cheeks that (hopefully) only stay pudgy for so long. But, alas, everyone warns us how this precious time is fleeting, yet it doesn't really help get us through the sucky parts of parenting.
Hopefully, the following advice will:
1. Nothing is More Important to a Child Than Happy Parents
This is #1 for a reason, kids. NOTHING is more important to a child than happy parents.
You may feel like your child absolutely must eat only organic, be exposed to zero media, and sleep in your bed until they are 10 - and if these things come easily for you, by all means, I won’t get in your way. But if your self-imposed restrictions are making things really tough and you crave simplicity - go for it! Your child will not suffer long term effects from being put in front of Yo Gabba Gabba while you use the bathroom in privacy - but they will suffer long term effects when you develop a valium and Jack Daniels addiction to alleviate the pressure of being "on" all the time.
You matter in this equation and if you are not taking care of yourself, you are not taking care of your child. Show them how to be happy and fulfilled, by example. You may think sacrificing everything for the sake of your children will make you the greatest parent in the world - but think about it, do your children want you to do that at your own expense? You are in charge of taking care of your child's care giver.
2. Nurture Your Relationship
Closely tied to #1. Of course, this is if you have one. I was lucky enough to be a single mom for my first three years of parenting and in some ways, it was easier. No one to blame or resent, no time-consuming relationship work - but, that being said, it is scary and exhausting to be a single parent. So if you have a partner, take care of your union. If you don't have a relationship and want one, grant yourself permission to explore and pursue. The bottom line here is just don't forget that you are a grown-up with desires and a need for intimacy.
This is connected to your happiness and sense of being a person and not just a parent. Ironically, one of the hardest things on a marriage is creating a family. Sometimes I don't know how any unions survive the first years of parenting, especially with more than one little one. It is difficult to make the transition into a family - but think of your partner as being on your side. It is you two against the overwhelming chaos that comes with expansion of your unit. Share stories and responsibilities, give each other breaks, and for the love of God - don't stop having sex! It is free and you don't have to hire a babysitter (although it is sometimes a good idea to do this, just in case waiting until bedtime is leaving one of you staring at the other as they sleep - endearing, but not sexy). Do what you have to do to make it happen - take showers together, light candles, brush each other's hair (OK, for me this is one-sided as my husband is bald - but you get the idea), make sure your bedroom is clear of toys and baby stuff and don't hang pictures of your kids in the bedroom - that is not going to get you where you need to be.
Showing your kids an example of a strong relationship is one of the best things you can do for them.
3. Don't Get All Bitter
Everyone thinks they are doing more for their child than anyone else is doing, or has ever done. or will ever even think of doing in the future.
The workload shift that comes with going from taking care of only yourself to taking care of a child as well is so huge, everyone thinks they could not be doing any more. If you are partnered, I’m sure each of you think you are pulling more than your share of the weight.
If you stay home, you envy your partner who has time to do things like commute in peace and go out on business trips and dinners in places that don't have any menus you can color on. If you work outside of the home, you feel like you bust it working to support everyone and your partner stays home doing god knows what all day.
Easy to be bitter.
You look at your friends or people around you and you think they have it so easy because they have more money than you do to hire a nanny, or go out to dinner all the time, or they have grandparents who are always helping, or they live in a better neighborhood or they just naturally have more energy than you do. Somehow, something about their life makes it possible for them to breeze through the parenting thing while you can barely get up from the couch by 3 in the afternoon.
Easy to be bitter.
But don't do it, especially with your partner. It sometimes take a huge effort to think about what you do have instead of what you don't have. Make that effort.
4. Find Your Tribe
I know I said the same thing in my post about surviving divorce - but raising young children can approximate trauma so the advice is the same.
If you can manage it, live near your family. They are an invaluable resource of comfort and you can depend on them like no one else in your life. Even if they never actually take care of the kids for you, just being able to visit people you don't have to stand on ceremony around will be a huge relief. Besides, this is a good time to realize maybe your parents did the best they could, but, like you, they are just flawed humans.
If you can't live near family, or if they actually are just horrible people who were not doing the best they could, then figure out something else. Church groups, parent groups, play groups, school groups - however you can create a support network, do it. I used to have a group of friends where we always took each other's kids for all kinds of reasons, big or small. We would often drop them off saying "Thanks, it takes a village!" This can be the difference between you feeling supported and healthy at the end of the day, or rocking in a corner ripping off your finger nails with your teeth.
If you have trouble finding a support network - buy one. Hire outside help. We joined the YMCA because they have free child care for up to four hours a day while you work out. We are inadvertently getting in shape and it is worth every penny of the membership. It may seem like you can't afford it - but this is a rainy day people! It is more important to save your sanity than to save for college. And, believe me, getting a housekeeper is a lot cheaper than getting a divorce.
5. Get Your Groove Back
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating in times of trouble.
Before Children you were pretty sure you could take over the world - now with each passing diaper change that may seem less & less likely. Having children may lead to big changes: leaving a city and all the opportunity that comes with living there, or taking a less fulfilling job in exchange for higher salary, or maybe taking any job where you could work from home or get health benefits for your kid. Your passion may shift a bit - but that doesn't mean you have to throw on your frumpy jeans and resign yourself to only working lunch duty at the elementary school to be close to your kids.
There is a different way to look at all this change. Instead of thinking you have to give up on your passion so you can be a good parent, think about pursuing your passion to be a great role model for your kids. Stretching yourself thin to get a bigger house does not make you a great role model for your kids - but living happily and healthily every day does.
The things that are amazing and special about you serve your kids in ways you don't have to even think about, so keep those strong. It doesn’t matter what your passion is, it can be bowling in a local league or breaking a world record, but doing it is good for you and good for your kids. They are much more likely to thrive when they see you thriving.
Having small children can be tough, but soon enough they will be 20 years old and think you are lame and the cause of all their problems, so bask in their all-consuming desire to be with you while it lasts. It is finite, and it is adorable.
This is your big opportunity for unconditional love from some of the greatest people you will ever know – try to remember that as you answer 642 questions about milk and get up way too early in the morning to a little person sitting on your head and laughing. They are super cute for a reason – nature knows that you are less likely to run away screaming after they give you that very first toothless grin.