Becoming a parent changes everything. That may seem like an obvious statement, but many of us don’t contemplate it when we decide we want to have children. Instead, we feel the desire and choose to move ahead – and then the due date comes or we get the call from the adoption agency (or both), and poof, as if by magic, everything has changed overnight.
I’ll never forget bringing my first child home from the hospital. One minute we’re ensconced in the protective arms of the maternity ward. And there’s someone to always tell us what to do and how to do it. Then there’s the car ride, and all you can think about is keeping their head up as the road bounces you along. And then we arrived home, put our precious bundle down on the living floor and thought, “Now what do we do?”
Becoming a parent is overwhelming. Often times terrifying for many. For those of us who had less than optimal role models in our own parents – or no role models at all – the terror and uncertainty only increases.
My parents split up when I was young, as many people’s parents do. From there the similarities pretty much end. My mother left my older brother and me with our grandfather, so she could move into a cult. She then raised us in that cult – the Unification Church, the Moonies. My dad, whom we lived with from that point on, was a New York City drug-taking (and dealing), bartending hippie. Our life with him was way less than normal and safely structured. Basically I sometimes guide my parenting by asking myself what my parents would do and then aiming to do the complete opposite.
But whether the lack of a role model is as extreme as mine or not, many of us are left without parents whose parenting we respect. Or at least respect enough that we can look to them for guidance and best practices. Many of us are left to figure it out on our own. And in case it’s helpful for anyone with this challenge, especially when they first are becoming a parent and their kids are young (and perhaps even for those who have the greatest role models ever), below are a few of the becoming a parent tips I learned – and made up – as I walked my way through becoming a parent.
(Oh, and by the way, one of the other upshots of my less-than-normal childhood is pretty extreme perfectionism – I’m working on that. I therefore don’t easily give myself credit for many things, but even with all that, I do think I am a good mom. And even more importantly, I think my kids would generally say the same.)
Becoming a Parent Changes Everything: 6 Truths About Raising Kids
1. The most important thing is that my kids know they’re loved
I decided years ago that, if nothing else, my kids would know that they’re loved. I’m pretty sure they do. I am, perhaps, too effusive and demonstrative. I tell them I love them “most” (both of them) so often that it may bounce off of them, but it’s important to me that they know it. My parents may have loved me – they probably did – but I certainly didn’t know it or feel it. My most important goal was (and is) that my kids always, always, always feel loved.
2. My kids have their own needs and agendas, separate from mine
One of the first parenting books I read was Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting by Jon Kabat-Zinn. It was not the only parenting book to suggest to me that my children, from the time they were infants, had “work” of their own that was at least as important as my agenda. Their work was to play and learn. My pulling them away from their work because I had something that we had to do was interrupting something that mattered. I’m not saying that I didn’t pull them away to do the grocery shopping or run an errand or two, but it helped me to remember that what they were interested in or what they were doing was as important as what I was interested in or doing. That we were, in that way, equals.
3. Put my own oxygen mask on first
There is a reason the flight attendants say this when they’re taking us through the safety routine before a flight. If you can’t breathe – if you don’t have oxygen – you get lightheaded and mush-brained, and you’re no help to anyone else. You need to make sure you’ve got the air you need before you try to help someone else breathe deeply. This obviously goes much deeper than oxygen masks in a flight emergency. When my first child was born, I had no childcare help and I was launching my business. I worked during nap times and every “free” moment I could. Bottom line, I had no free moments, and I wasn’t happy…or nice. I’ve learned that I need to put myself first and love myself first, or else I’ve got very little to give to my kids.
4. The days are long and the years are short
You hear this over and over when your kids are little. If you’re like me, you probably think, “Yeah, but someone help me through the days!” The days are long. The days can be hard. But one day you’ll look back and those days will be gone – the days when all they wanted was you and your attention; the days when there was no one else they’d rather be with; the days when you think you’re curled up on the couch reading “one more book” for them, but you come to realize how much it was for you. Enjoy the long days as much as you can. Someone recently said to me, “You get your kids for eighteen years, and then they’re gone.” That’s often true. Soak up the days and your kids when they’re little.
5. Ask for input and trust yourself
I firmly believe in doing my research. At times I’ve had numerous parenting books that offered me the “best practices” of the moment or the author. Perhaps especially because I had such questionable role models – and “just do the opposite” doesn’t always work – I turned to others again and again with a “What should I do now?” question. But then I also learned to trust myself. I learned to trust my heart and my thought processes. I learned that no one could be a better judge of what was right for me and my kids then me and my kids (and of course, my husband/life partner – he got to weigh in too). I’ve learned that there very rarely is one best answer, that it all depends based on the people and the situation, and that if I don’t trust myself and my instincts to see how it works out, I’ll never know if my gut (or well-thought out) responses are on-target or mildly insane.
6. It takes a village
Raising kids is impossible to do alone. It’s impossible to do alone even when there are two adults in the family who are sharing the duties. There’s always/often the moment when you need a break, or the two of you need to get away, or you thought you coordinated, but neither of you is around to get the kids dinner or pick them up from somewhere. I have an (internal) policy that I will help any parent in any way they need (that I can), so that when I need a village – even if it’s a village of one – I can freely ask for help. It takes a village. Find your peeps. Build your village. Be there for them and call on them in your hour(s) of need.
Becoming a parent does change everything – your outlook on life, your priorities whether or not you have time to use the bathroom (alone). Probably for most of us, and definitely for those of us who had less than ideal role models, it can seem to be an insurmountable task. But I’ve found that parenting is something that I can do at least relatively well, and it’s certainly has been – and continues to be – the most rewarding path ever.