Top 10 things we all wish we had known when we first became parents
This is for you. The parent who is struggling with sleep, or feeding, or crying, or tantrums or picky eating or sleep again. The one whose friend seems to have it all figured out, or whose doctor was shocked, SHOCKED, to hear whatever it is that you just revealed about how you are parenting your child. The one whose mother-in-law claims that her babies never cried, or potty trained at 9 months or slept through the night from birth. The one who is frantically googling and buying baby books and asking everyone what the magic secret is that seems to elude only you. This is all for you, because we were once you and we wish someone had told us. And if this helps you, please pass it on to the next mother you meet, because she feels exactly the same way that you do.
1. There is no one "right" way to do any of this.
While our role as protectors and nurturers of our children is an essential one, the actual nitty gritty of how we handle every little aspect of parenting does not seem to matter all that much in terms of how kids turn out. Whether you co-sleep and baby wear and breastfeed for years or sleep in separate rooms and use the most high-tech stroller and bottle feed from birth, your child is essentially going to thrive and grow into the person they are destined to be, as long as you build and maintain connection with them and respond to their needs. The most important thing is finding the way that works for you and your family, and being flexible about adjusting it when it stops working. And I would also recommend biting your tongue when you feel the urge to tell another parent that you have it all figured out. (Because your approach won’t apply to her family in the same way and because you seriously risk jinxing your current good luck. As soon as you start to gloat or pat your own back, is inevitably when it all goes horribly pear-shaped. Just sayin’!)
2. Nobody else has it any more figured out than you do.
Though it may feel like you are the only one struggling while everyone else’s child sleeps through the night, eats like a dream and behaves like an angel, you are wrong. We are all muddling through and feel just as clueless as you do. If my child is sleeping great this week, she won’t be at some later date, and chances are if sleep isn’t my big worry right now then eating or toilet training or puberty is. And if a parent is not wondering out loud whether or not they are doing something wrong, then they just are not being honest with you. Or you will find that just as you feel like you have this current stage pretty well under control, your child grows, and changes, and it is all unknown again. This is normal. With your subsequent children you do not feel any less unsure or out of your depth—you just have a greater appreciation for how temporary it all is and often feel less stressed about the new baby. Your worries about your older child who has just been unseated as the center of your world, however, will only be increasing! Worry is just what we parents do!
3. Children come how they come.
Your baby was born with a genetic code which determines a whole lot of his or her temperament, personality, likes and dislikes, unique qualities and needs, and essential personhood. Your child will continue to be that person, more or less, throughout life, regardless of what parenting decisions you make. Your kid will be totally different from your friend’s kid, from your mother-in-law’s kid, from your pediatrician’s idea of the perfect kid, and from any other kids you may have now or in the future. This is not a textbook baby. This is a person, with characteristics and needs that just are, regardless of how you decide to parent. If your kid is not keen on sleeping alone or for long hours at a stretch, or is cautious about foods, or finds loud, busy places stressful or has a hard time sitting still, this is not because of anything you are doing wrong. This is just the person you got, and your job is to figure out how to live with the reality of this person while unconditionally loving him or her exactly how he or she is. You don’t have to love everything your child does, (who does?) but you do have to accept them for who they are and find the best way for both of your needs to be met as much as is humanly possible.
4. Parenting is 99% trial and error.
You can have a general philosophy or approach, but there is no way to know if it will work for you (and your child) unless you try it. You will adjust and alter it as you go, depending on what is working or not, how your circumstances change, and how your child grows and changes (every single day). Parents who buy a book and plan to follow its instructions to a T, like following a recipe or building plans, are the ones most likely to be frustrated and disappointed. If you buy a book and look at it as some tips to try, along with several other sources of tips and some of your own instincts and a whole lot of patience and flexibility, then you are much more likely to find parenting more satisfying and less stressful. Parents who I see really thriving approach this job like a science project---observe your child, learn how he or she ticks, experiment with different strategies and adjust as you go. You will never feel like you have 100% “nailed it,” but you will find it interesting and you will not take it nearly as personally when things do not go as you had “planned.” Most parents laugh when they think about all the parenting rules and plans that they set before they became parents. The last time you know everything there is to know about parenting is the day before your first child is born! Let go of all those untested assumptions and open yourself to experimentation and never quite knowing what the heck you are doing!
5. We are all doing the best that we can, and "good enough" is good enough.
Nobody can be a “perfect” parent all of the time, nor should we be. Everyone does the best they can with the information and support (and sleep) they have at the time. Nobody ever feels like they got it all 100% the way they had hoped, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Sarah Ockwell-Smith, gentle parenting advocate, educator and author, says she shoots for meeting her gentle parenting goals 70% of the time. 30% of the time she’s just trying to get through the day (or night). When we do things that we don’t feel good about we can always try change what we do the next time. And if our relationship with our child has experienced a rupture because of these interactions, it’s the perfect opportunity to reconnect and model how to repair the wear and tear that occurs in all important human relationships. As the “Good Enough Mother’ theory by D. W. Winnicott states, if we were “perfect” parents all the time our kids would not learn all the lessons that they need to learn. It is our inability to be anything more than "good enough "which ensures our babies’ and kids’ normal transition to independence over time, automatically and organically, without needing to train them or force independence prematurely. The system works!
6. You shouldn't be doing this alone.
Our modern way of parenting kids alone in a flat or villa with just 2 parents (or even 1!) is very recent and quite unnatural for our very social species. Our ancestors would have raised their young in an extended family or village full of people who all took responsibility to look after the children and support the parents. Many mothers tell me that they feel like they SHOULD do everything themselves, because they have taken time off from their education and careers, and this mothering thing is their new job that they expect to master single-handed. I tell them that they are nuts. Some mammals raise their young on their own. Humans and other primates do not. Because we no longer live with extended family (and may actually be quite happy about that), we need to find and create our village to help raise our kids. This means approaching parenting as a team between partners, seeking out like-minded fellow parents, asking for help from trusted professionals (ESPECIALLY when it comes to breastfeeding--one of the most difficult struggles which can really be improved with the help of a skilled lactation consultant) , and maybe even hiring help for the day-to-day grunt work of keeping a family going. And even then, it is not what our ancestors would have experienced, so remember that THIS Is the reason why you feel so exhausted and stressed out—not because you are doing everything wrong.
7. You need to prioritize your own needs and make time for you.
If you are struggling with your child’s behavior, I can almost guarantee it is because you are not getting your own needs met. Because we are doing so much of this parenting job in unnatural, isolated circumstances (see #6 above), and because modern society expects us to “parent like we don’t work, and work like we don’t parent” all while getting back to our pre-pregnancy body size in 6 weeks and maintaining an immaculate and stylish house and wardrobe, not to mention a smoldering love life with our spouse, modern parents very often let their own needs drop to the bottom of the to-do list. In fact, we usually feel guilty if we take a moment to do something JUST FOR OURSELVES. But when we allow ourselves to be deprived of time, sleep, food, exercise, me-time, friends, or whatever it is that meets our needs; clears our brain; fills our soul; and recharges our batteries; it is our children who will pay the price and show the strain. Children are a mirror and a barometer of our own stress levels and if they are frustrating you with their sleep behavior, eating battles, temper tantrums or bickering, it is almost always a sign that our stress is leaking and is affecting them. Also, our ability to take their behavior in stride and to respond to it in helpful (as opposed to less helpful) ways is completely dependent on our own emotional, mental, physical and spiritual well-being. As they say on the plane, put the oxygen mask on yourself first, so that you will be able to do what you need to do for your children. They tell us that because our instinct as a parent would be to put the oxygen on our child first, and then we would both be dead.
8. Modern society has unrealistic expectations for small children and for parents.
Human babies are born prematurely when you compare them to other mammals who can walk and feed themselves from birth. Because we grow such big brains and have such narrow, upright pelvises, we must birth our babies before their heads are too large to pass through the birth canal. This means that we are born with 25% of the brain size and capacity compared to adults. Human babies are helpless, and they are dependent, and it takes decades for them to reach adult size and ability (24 years when it comes to full cognitive development). So, your baby or toddler isn’t manipulating you, or controlling you when she or he cries to be held, prefers to sleep close to your, wants to nurse regularly and for more than the 6 months that modern society seems to accept as normal. While our society has evolved very quickly in recent centuries, and our expectations now reflect a world where small children are expected to sleep for 12 hours at night without parental assistance and parents are expected to work away from those babies for 8 or more hours during the day, our babies are exactly the same species as those ancient babies. Humans evolved with babies who were carried in arms at all times during the day and slept at the breast all night for protection from cold, from being eaten, and from all the other dangers in the world. Our milk evolved to feed a rapidly growing brain and to feed it often, both day and night. Our babies are naked of fur and cannot regulate their body temperature without us. Our hard-wired instincts are to hold our babies and meet their needs quickly in order to prevent long bouts of crying that would attract predators. We can, and do, fight these evolutionary instincts, but we do it with great difficulty, and babies cannot understand why they would do anything other than what their brain is hard wired to do. If you are in doubt about whether your parenting expectations are realistic, check in with your baby. If he or she is struggling to live up to those expectations, think back to their ancient ancestors and ask yourself if this is what those parents and babies would have done. We are still those parents and babies, just with fancier shoes, faster modes of transportation, stranger modes of communication and different expectations about what a night’s sleep looks like.
9. You know more than you think you do, and you can follow your instincts (as long as you are also listening to your child).
There are always going to be times when we don’t know what to do next as parents. We will never feel we have all the answers, and even when we do, the questions keep changing. But if you take the time to listen to your child and to your heart, you will realize that you know more than you think you do. Short of abuse and neglect, if what you are doing as a parent is working for you and your baby and feels “right,” then you are probably on the right track and should just carry on, regardless of what others may be advising you. If what you are doing, or the parenting advice you are trying to follow, leaves your child miserable and you feeling like something just isn’t “right,” those are your parental instincts kicking in and trying to get your attention. Check with Dr Google, by all means, ask your friends and Facebook groups for their opinion, read a book or meet with a professional to see what the science and their training and experience says, but in the end—your child will teach you what you need to know and your heart will tell you when you are on the right or wrong path.
10. They really do go through "phases," and this phase will pass, quicker than you can possibly know.
When my first baby was small and didn't like to sleep without me and suddenly it got worse and she wouldn't be put down at all I totally believed that I had done it all wrong and created all the bad habits that everyone warns you about. Now I know that she was smack dab in the middle of the 4 month wonder week/sleep regression, and I beat myself up for nothing. In fact, she was experiencing cognitive development, though it felt like regression, and her increased needs to be held and nursed constantly were temporary and nothing I had brought upon myself. Whatever phase you are currently struggling with will go faster than you think it will and before you know it your child will be older, bigger, and going through a completely new phase of development. I can 100% guarantee you that whatever troubling behavior your child is doing this week will be quite different next week or next month, regardless of what tactics you employ. Children grow quickly and their needs change quickly. No parent has ever had to go to university to breastfeed their child to sleep at night, nor has a healthy child not learned to feed themselves. They all learn to use the toilet and get themselves dressed in the morning and not bite their friends, so all of the time and energy that we spend fretting about these things could be better spent on enjoying the nice aspects of this phase (and getting some me-time—see # 7). The one constant is change and the one guarantee is that this will pass, and you will look back on even this phase with fondness, or at least a bit of pride for surviving it.
All of our classes and workshops are designed with these kinds of tips in mind. We provide lots of information, often science-based, but we do not offer prescriptions for parenting, one-size-fits all recommendations, or quick fixes. We have developed the classes and workshops that we wish we had attended as parents-to-be and new parents. We want you to be informed and supported so that you will feel confident to chart your own path and follow your own instincts while moving through your own parenting journey!
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first became a parent? What do you wish some experienced parent had told you back then, and do you think it would have helped? What advice did you receive that did help you through those bewildering early days and months of parenting? We would love to hear your tips and hope you will pass them on to some other new parent who is feeling like she or he is "doing it all wrong."
Amy is a former midwife, an International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant, a licensed BabyCalm and ToddlerCalm consultant, a Certified Infant Massage Instructor, co-founder of Love Parenting UAE, and a mother of 2 girls who are growing up to be kind, confident and lovely young women, despite the fact that their mother "did everything wrong!"