When I decided to have kids, I knew it would be hard. But, I didn’t think it would be that hard – I’d lose some sleep, have to make a few big decisions about healthcare and education, buy a bunch of diapers. What’s so tough about all that?
I never read a single “what to expect” book, nor researched life with kids. I never even Google searched labor and delivery, I felt so sure that I’d figure everything out as it happened. I wanted to live in the moment, rather than worry about a bunch of stuff I couldn’t control. And why the need for advanced planning? My mom instincts would surely kick in; when that baby popped out, all of the knowledge I’d ever need would instantly download into my brain with the flow of oxytocin and other post-partum hormones.
As it turns out, I didn’t know a damned thing. I didn’t even realize I was in labor, I had absolutely no mechanism for handling the physical pain and discomfort of the birthing process, and when my son emerged from my southern parts, I had just one, single thought rolling around in my brain: NOW WHAT?
I hardly recognized the bluish-purple, wrinkly mound of skin placed on my chest. The nurses said he was my baby, but he may as well have been an alien. Everything I’d heard about the warm fuzzies and love that I’d feel at the birth of my child fell flat, my emotions didn’t match the ideal picture. I felt uncertain about how to care for this being, embarrassed that I didn’t already know what he needed, exhausted – and then frustrated at this living thing making me exhausted – and indescribably fearful of leaving the hospital and facing this new world on my own. I suppose I felt awe and wonder, but they were largely overshadowed by my inner voice screaming, “what the f*ck did I just do?!”
None of my confusion dissipated when I left the hospital. I only came up with more questions. How often do I feed him? Why is he always crying? How do I get him to sleep? Do I let people hold him? Why won’t he burp? Am I hurting him? On and on and on, I had so very many questions, and absolutely no sense of what (or how) I was doing.
So, I turned to family for advice. My own mom and mother-in-law, older women who had raised children of their own, who surely knew all the right answers. Only they were a few years past raising small children, and there were so many things they didn’t remember, so many things that had changed since their child-rearing days. Panicking, I turned to friends, and friends of friends, and siblings of friends, and Facebook – there are a million moms in this world, somebody must have some information for me.
And they did. They all had information to share about everything under the sun I could possibly need to know. But oftentimes their suggestions didn’t work, or didn’t feel right, or sounded like entirely too much effort. I ended up feeling like I was doing everything wrong, and it was stressful, and exhausting. And when I stumbled upon an answer that seemed to resolve one problem, it brought only short-lived relief, as yet another problem quickly reared its ugly head.
And then I had another baby. I’m a glutton for punishment, what can I say? For all of the insecurity and discomfort and inconvenience that children bring, there is also a measure of delight and wonder and joy. I did end up finding my way through mothering two newborns, and I did uncover the emotions I was “supposed” to feel along the way – but I also found a whole mess of other emotions, like anger, apathy, and disappointment.
Becoming a mother, for me, felt like a five-mile free fall onto a cement sidewalk, but I’m trying like hell to stay in the game, get my mind right, and see this thing through. I don’t really have a choice at this point (and sometimes that scares the shit out of me), but I’m also one thousand percent glad I made this leap.
I’m not aiming for perfection here, I learned early on that’s a losing battle. I get up every single morning and try to give my best, which admittedly, at times, isn’t nearly good enough. I’m trying to give my kids what they need, and get what I need as well, and some days nobody wins. But to me, success is simply “not giving up,” and well… I’m still here. I’m doing the damned thing. And I’ve learned some tricks to help keep me going.
These are the things I’m going to share with you. They aren’t the answers to every parenting problem, nor are they specific instructions about how to raise your kids. Those decisions are entirely yours to make. My hope is that you can begin this journey into motherhood from a place of strength (rather than constantly comparing yourself to other moms), trust (in your own instincts, decisions, and abilities, and in the larger picture), and self-compassion (rather than giving in to the crushing weight of disappointment and disapproval of your own performance).
So, without further ado, I bring you the following scraps of wisdom from my own journey – just in case you, too, can’t find anyone who can remember.
The Mommy Manifesto: A Guide to Mothering in the Modern Age
There is SO much advice out there for new moms. There are literally hundreds of books dedicated to the art of feeding your baby, sleep training your baby, wearing your baby, and raising your baby The Right Way. If you don’t have time to read the books, don’t worry – your family members, friends, neighbors, and even complete strangers will freely share stories, and provide detailed instructions on becoming The Perfect Mom.
The trouble is, you aren’t just a mom. A new baby can make you feel like all you are is “Mom,” but you are also a wife/ partner, a daughter, a sister, a career woman, and an individual with other needs and interests outside of motherhood. Children (and especially newborns) have a way of engulfing you in mom-ness before you realize what’s happened, and it can be difficult to find your way back to sanity, and to yourself. The noise and advice get so loud, sometimes it’s hard to turn down the crazy and find joy in the midst of the chaos. When that happens, here’s all the advice you need to truly be the perfect mom:
1. Feel All the Feelings
I never liked kids all that much. They’re messy, loud, and unpredictable. I never knew how to relate to them. When I became pregnant, there was a small part of me that worried about my ability to love my own children. Everyone told me that I’d feel the warm fuzzies from the moment they placed my newborn in my arms.
After all of the physical mess and chaos of labor, my first thought was how odd this tiny person felt in my arms. How do I hold him? What do I do now? He was a total alien to me. It turns out that motherhood isn’t always an instinctual switch that turns on the second you push out your offspring. Sometimes, it’s more of a gradual feeling that grows in the midst of a HUGELY steep learning curve, as you go through the motions of changing diapers, eliciting burps, and pumping breast milk in the middle of a crowded parking garage on a blazing hot day (you’re welcome for the peep show).
Whatever your experience of pregnancy and motherhood is, allow yourself to feel what you feel. Don’t try to force feelings that aren’t there, or pummel yourself with guilt because you don’t feel something that you thought you would, or should. Be where you are. Allow time to do its work. We are immensely complicated beings; our experiences don’t all look the same, and that’s okay. Your journey is your journey, and being honest with yourself about it is the only path to freedom. You are not alone, as I’m sure you will find when you choose to open up to others about your experience of motherhood.
2. Don’t Put Your Kids First
Whatever you do, do not make your kids the center of your world – at least not 100 percent of the time. Create space that is just yours. Make time (however brief) to reconnect with your partner, your friends, and yourself. This is important, not just for your own sanity, it also models for your kids how to prioritize relationships healthfully. Also, kids (particularly toddlers) don’t make very fun friends – they can’t keep secrets, they’re terrible listeners, and they’re only nice to you when they want something from you (and sometimes, not even then). Spending all of your energy solely on them makes for a lonely, frustrated life.
3. Go Your Own Way
I’m a really, really good rule follower. I perform best when there’s a clear plan in place. That’s why, when my firstborn arrived, I glued myself to Google and researched every possible instruction on sleep training, breast feeding, colic, diaper rashes (with images, gross), and any other obstacle that reared its ugly head. As you might guess, this made for a very anxiety-riddled existence. If you’ve spent any amount of time Googling a misshapen mole, or an inexplicable dry cough, you understand that it doesn’t lead anywhere positive.
There are countless opinions, well-informed or otherwise, on the worldwide web about everything baby-related. At times, it can be helpful to seek advice, but I’d advise caution about where it’s coming from. I’d also encourage you to practice relying on your “gut feeling.” Women raised babies for thousands of years without help from the Internet, largely by seeking counsel from women in our immediate circle of influence, and by trusting our instincts. They are there, I promise you. Mine were misplaced under mounds of fear and other random baggage.
And when I talk about “mothering instincts,” I don’t mean that you enjoy snuggling, or surrounding yourself with home-baked goods – I mean that you know when something doesn’t feel right for you. You know when a certain plan of action seems sound, and when it doesn’t feel true to your nature, or appropriate for your exact situation. Practice recognizing this feeling, and learn to trust it in your role as mother. It won’t often steer you wrong.
And when you’re confronted with the latest, greatest, must-have baby paraphernalia, or the absolute authority on how to raise the world’s greatest kid, ask yourself: is this really for me? Is this really something I will enjoy doing, and will be able to sustainably continue? I fell in love with the idea of reusable diapers, and I used them faithfully… for about 10 months. When baby number two came along, it was out with the cloth, in with very earth-unfriendly disposables.
But it was the only way to save my sanity. Those feelings of self-righteousness and pride in my choice to cloth diaper only lasted me so long. Eventually, my true nature won out, and I had to do what was sustainable for me, and what allowed me to love my kids best, without the seething resentment that emerged as I power-sprayed fecal matter into the toilet (and onto the walls, and floor) night after night.
In the end, do YOU. Maybe everyone you know is growing, steaming and pureeing veggies for homemade organic baby food, and that’s great! Will you be able to sustain that lifestyle? Listen, we all make promises to ourselves during pregnancy (i.e. my baby’s butt will never touch a disposable diaper, my baby will never consume inorganic food, my baby will never be allowed to sit and watch television on a tablet). Some of these promises we will keep, and some we will break (or, if you’re like me, you’ll break all of them), but don’t spend a lot of time fretting over it.
I can’t begin to count the hours I spent agonizing over decisions about baby food brands, whether or not to vaccinate, whether or not to formula feed, and all of that guilt and fear of “mommy judgment” ate away at the joy and fun amidst the circus of raising my kids. Let it go, man. You’re the one in the trenches, so make choices based on the lifestyle YOU can sustainably manage. Make decisions based on your own gut feelings. Tune out the other noise.
Your kids won’t feel less loved when you microwave chicken nuggets instead of crafting a gourmet dinner. Honestly, they won’t remember, and in all likelihood, they won’t eat the food either way. They just want YOU, plain and simple. Let go of the guilt and the “shoulds,” and just be with them in a way that feels right to you.
4. Trust the Journey
Yes, you are helping to shape the life of a tiny human, and that feels like a lot of pressure. Take a deep breath. You are not the sole decider of their fates. You do play a big role in their lives, you will shape some of their ideas about the world, and that is not something you should take lightly. However, they will also learn important life lessons from friends, other family members, and by living through their own experiences. I’m giving you permission to let go of the reins a bit, release some of the pressure, and worry less about how they will grow up, and who they will become.
You are who you are partly because of your parents, sure, but also as a result of a series of life experiences outside of your parents’ control. Is it scary to think that our kids will encounter experiences we cannot control? Fuck yeah, it is! But it’s also a little bit of a relief to know that they will make their own decisions (and yes, some mistakes), and they will forge their own way in the world. Absolutely keep them safe whenever possible, but also trust that their journey will lead them where they ought to go.
5. Don’t Take Yourself (or Other Moms) Too Seriously
Very few decisions that you must make will be “life or death.” Pick your battles. Bribe your toddler with popsicles. Feed them peanut butter and jelly at every meal, if that’s all they will eat. Don’t take their actions too personally. When all of your kitchen utensils wind up scattered across your backyard lawn because your son chose to catapult them off the upstairs porch… when your daughter’s swimsuit begins to ooze poo during a dip at the public pool… when your son abandons his bribery popsicle in the backseat of your car, and you don’t find the sticky, orange remains until a week later… find a way to laugh. You cannot fight the chaos. You must find the humor, and take solace in the fact that nothing – not teething, not the Terrible Two’s, Threatening Three’s, or Frightening Four’s – lasts forever. Learn from your mistakes, and more importantly, learn to laugh at them.
6. Find a Squad
You cannot go it alone. I applaud your independent spirit, I can appreciate your Type A, highly organized way of life – but you need backup. You will have days that get away from you, that test every fiber of your being, that make you wonder “what the hell was I thinking, having kids?!” These days will not last forever, but sometimes it feels like they will.
Find a shoulder to cry on, a safe place to vent, to cry hot tears of frustration, and be that safe place for other moms. Raising kids is a marathon, a battle, a contest of sheer will power. Ninety-eight percent of it is a mental game, and you need a pep squad who can prop you up, bandage your wounds, remind you how kickass you are, and shove you back onto the field (after a hot bath in a quiet room with a cold drink).
7. Use the Social Network for its Intended Purpose
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat… they will all suck you into an alternate universe in which every mom is better than you, prettier than you, and happier than you. Remember: nobody posts pictures of those awful, “off” moments, when everyone is screaming, crying, and pulling out their hair. Utilize your web surfing powers for good, not for evil. Join mom groups, schedule play dates, ask for advice, find babysitters, connect with (rather than compare yourself to) other moms. And yes, post photos of your children when they are well behaved and everything is going according to plan – just be honest about the 50 photos you took that didn’t work out.
8. Be Intentional
Let’s face it: being a mom is going to take precious time away from other important and interesting things you want to do. This never gets easier. It’s certainly not a cakewalk all of the time, but it doesn’t have to totally suck, either. Motherhood will surely take over the majority of your time, brain space, and energy, but this is ultimately a wonderful gift – when you suddenly have less time for yourself, time becomes extremely precious, and you tend to get better at not wasting it. Introduce intentionality into your daily rhythm, and practice living purposefully.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Motherhood is a mind game. It’s 98 percent mental. Above any other priority, you must prioritize your sanity – find ways to keep yourself focused, and in the game. Pace yourself. Nobody gets a gold medal for crossing the finish line fastest. I’m not even sure there is a finish line in this whole mess.
Motherhood is. never. over.
So, find ways to cope on the days that are hardest. Figure out what lights you up, which activities, or relationships re-energize you, and furiously pursue those things. Find creative ways to reward yourself for hanging in there, for keeping these tiny walking garbage disposals alive.
Book a regular spa day.
Schedule an annual girls’ trip, sans kids or husbands.
Take up jogging, mixed martial arts, crocheting, or baking pies.
Hike into the woods.
Whittle small gnomes out of reclaimed bark pieces.
Get a part-time job, or volunteer.
Whatever activity really gets you going, relaxes you, or brings you joy, DO IT. Having these activities outside of the world you create with and for your kids is SO important. It gives you a place to vent your frustrations, and renew your energy. It gives you something to look forward to, something to focus on in order to plow through the inevitable “yuck” days. It enables you to maintain your mental focus, and reminds you that you are more than “mom” – you are a whole person.
Your kids can be the greatest source of joy and purpose in your life without being your whole life. And even if you’re one of the lucky gals who finds joy and meaning in your stay-at-home mom duties, they will one day come to an end – the kids will grow older, become more independent, and you will need outside activities to keep you busy, to ease the ache of missing them.
It’s highly likely that your friend group will shift, evolve, or change altogether once children arrive. Kids take over schedules and priorities, making a mess and a mockery of all the time you used to have for your friends. There’s less time and energy for late night bar hopping, last-minute karaoke invites, and spontaneous dancing and drinking outings. It’s entirely possible to stay social after babies enter the picture, but it’s much harder, and your ability to maintain witty repartee is diminished, at least in the short-term.
Sometimes, it feels easier to incubate – to hole up in your home, where your diapering supplies, breast pump, bed, and Netflix are comfortably within reach. This lifestyle makes it difficult to maintain meaningful social connections. It feels lonely and isolating, even when it’s the only way you know how to cope. It’s okay to feel conflicted about it. Know that it’s only temporary. You WILL, eventually, feel up to going out again, and toting the kids and their paraphernalia WILL seem second nature. Until then, don’t beat yourself up too badly if getting out of the house feels akin to climbing Mount Everest. But DO push yourself to invite people over, talk to friends on the phone, or, at the very least, send out the occasional “Hi, I’m still alive” text.
And don’t fret too much over friendships that seem to fade away for a time. It’s difficult enough to maintain relationships with other friends who have kids – it’s insanely hard to sync schedules with, and relate to, friends who don’t. Some friends will hang in there with you, and deal with the chaos of your new parenting lifestyle. Some friends won’t. Don’t take it personally, and don’t stress too much about how you will find new friends. As an adult, it seems that friendships are always in a constant state of flux. Parenting tends to exacerbate this feeling.
You’re entering the parenting world – a different dimension, and one that, for all of its faults and judgmental nit-picking, is extremely welcoming. Becoming a parent is somewhat similar to being a sports fan: you have a toddler, I have a toddler, so we instantly share common ground. Let’s bond over a chit-chat about which sunscreen is most toxic, and the latest disease circulating at our daycares. You will be forced to step out of your comfort zone to meet new people. Some of them will be your kind of people, some of them won’t. But you will find good eggs. Just keep looking.
I’m going to say this, and you’re not going to like it: your sex life will change post-children. You will not have it as often, or as openly, as you might wish to. Your body will look and feel different, and your hormones will fluctuate wildly, affecting your libido, and your mood. You might find out that your husband feels weird about intimacy, because you’re a mom now (WTF). YOU might feel differently because you’re a mom now. Plus, you’re fucking tired. You spend all of your energy figuring out how to keep a tiny person alive, and it may feel like too much to also think about how to be sexy and mysterious. Your underwear drawer might become the place where lacy, barely-there panties go to die.
You are normal; there is nothing wrong with you. At some point, you may feel the need to spice things up a bit, and that’s when you’ll know you’re becoming a well-adjusted, whole person again. In the meantime, keep a small spark of that flame alive the good old-fashioned way: hold hands, kiss each other when you walk through the door, or before you leave, and MAKE TIME FOR EACH OTHER. Kids kill spontaneity. It’s just the truth (at least for awhile). Embrace it. Schedule time to be alone with your partner, whether you’re binging on Netflix, hastily stuffing your face with food (because there’s never time to eat a proper meal), or staring at each other blankly (wondering what the hell you’ve gotten yourselves into) over a nice meal on the town.
Also, be honest with each other. Figure out how to become true teammates, because that’s exactly what you are: a team, trying to shape little lives together. Neither of you were born knowing how to be parents. There seems to be a misconception in our culture that women just know how to mother, that it comes naturally. This is untrue. We learn how to do it, just like Fathers do, through practice. Biology and the unavoidable aspects of pregnancy and breastfeeding just throw us into the deep end a little sooner, forcing us to figure it the fuck out, or die trying.
And sometimes it’s hard for us to relinquish control over this new life we carried, and had a very big hand in creating, but we need to get better at inviting Fathers into the process of parenting from Day One, and at giving and receiving feedback about our parenting skills. When raising a kid together, we succeed or fail as a team, and nobody wins when our efforts are divided. Get help. Find a good therapist, or marriage counselor. Practice talking about the hard stuff, and going deep with each other emotionally. However you are able, create a safe space to be honest and open with each other. You need each other to survive as parents.
A quick word about meal planning: it sucks, but it is part of your life now, and you’ll have to get used to it. For the next 18 years (and probably beyond), your mind will be consumed with what your kids are (or are not) eating. There are programs, Pinterest boards, meal delivery companies, and people to help you with these sorts of things.
Above all, remember that you are never alone. Whatever you feel or don't feel, whatever misbehaviors or odd quirks your kids develop, whatever (legal) substance you have to ingest to get through the day, you aren't the only one. You are one of many in this Mom Tribe, and you matter greatly. Whatever your shortcomings, struggles, or flaws, you already are The World’s Perfect Mom to your kids. Walk in the truth of that, and don’t let fears about your parenting performance crowd out the overwhelming, awesome-in-the-true-sense-of-the-word love, joy, and wonder in the journey.