Essley is now 13 months old. I officially completed my first year as a new mother. And I survived. I also learned a lot, especially in regards to how I anticipated the experience to go versus how it actually played out. It would take me a novel (or several) to outline all of the lessons that surfaced along the way, but there are a few in particular that stand out for me.
Before I get started, I want to clearly state that this is my experience. No one else's will be just like mine. There are countless books, articles, and blog posts out there that claim to know exactly what to do and how to do it when it comes to parenting, especially in the first year. There are also plenty that detail personal experiences with an assumption that others' experiences will be the same. This post is not any of those things. I will get into this more in #2 and #3, but I wanted to make certain that I explained this. These are just things that I learned. Me. And I'm sharing them on my blog. That's all. So here goes.
1. I am a very different kind of parent than I thought I'd be. For me, this was the biggest lesson. If you are pregnant (or in the adoption process) for the first time, you probably have a pretty clear idea in your head about how you are going to parent. I did anyway. And guess what? I ended up doing things a lot differently once I was actually experiencing motherhood. I had my opinions about various parenting methods (more on that in #2), and I was sure that I knew exactly how I was going to go about sleep training, weaning from breastfeeding, feeding, schedules, etc. For the most part, I've done everything at least somewhat differently than I'd anticipated. Many things I've done completely differently. I could ramble on forever about the specifics with this. From how I would react to her right after birth to how I'd handle sleeping to when I'd stop breastfeeding, I've done almost nothing the way I pictured. So I'll just leave it at that. (I'm happy to answer specific questions about these things in the comments.)
2. It doesn't matter what anyone else thinks about my (or anyone else's) parenting. I'm not going to sugarcoat here. Parents judge one another, and parenting topics can be very polarizing. Do a quick Google search about sleep training, or vaccines, or just about babies in general. You will come across what seems like an infinite number of conflicting arguments on how to handle things, from message boards to legitimate articles written by 'parenting experts.' Often they're not very nice when it comes to others' ways of doing things. Sometimes they even end up focusing more on questioning the validity of others' experiences than the issues themselves. I mean, you can probably just look at your Facebook feed for a couple of minutes and there will be some sort of parenting debate. Guess what? I used to judge parents too, mainly because I had created an idea of what was right and what wasn't. Then I became a parent. And then we started to go down different paths than initially planned. And as a result, I started to worry about what other parents would think.
Here's an example. Referring back to #1, when I was pregnant, Robbie and I were sure we'd do sleep training with Essley, possibly even a mild cry-it-out type of technique. We were also certain she'd be sleeping in her own room by 12 weeks. Well, it didn't work out that way. We decided that letting her cry for extended periods of time wasn't something we wanted to do, even though it worked for some of our friends. She ended up sleeping in our room exclusively until she was 6 months old, and even then, on the nights we didn't co-sleep all night, she didn't stay in her crib for very long. Now, at 13 months, she usually sleeps about half the night in her crib, and half in our bed. Sometimes when Robbie is on the road, she and I co-sleep all night. And it works great for us, but I can't tell you how many times I felt scared to admit to my pro sleep training friends that we partially co-slept. On the other side, I also worried about telling my pro co-sleeping friends that she spent at least a few hours of each night in a crib. Eventually I realized how ridiculous this was. There isn't one right way. Period. There is only what works best for each child, each parent, and each family. And if someone is doing their best to be a genuinely good parent and someone else chastises their methods because they're different, that's really too bad - because if we all encouraged one another, regardless of parenting techniques, parenting would likely be collectively easier for everybody.
3. I don't need to read parenting books. (Or other 'how to' sources.) This isn't because I know everything, because I don't. Not at all. Not even close. I just mean that I learned that I was mistaken in thinking that I needed to read all the parenting books ever in order to function as a parent. I mean, you guys should see the stack of baby books I have sitting in my bedroom. I was so scared when I was pregnant (and later, caring for a newborn) that if I didn't read every manual on childbirth, nursing, baby sleeping, and baby behavior, I'd end up traumatizing my kid for life. No really, I was. It ended up being a substantial source of stress for me, because not only was there a ton of contradiction between different books, I also felt a lot more overwhelmed by all of the information with which I was bombarding myself than I probably would have knowing nothing at all. There are a couple that I did end up finishing, but with most of them, I got through a chapter or two. Lucky for me, slowly over the course of the first 6 months of Essley's life, I realized that I was able to - gasp - figure it out on my own along the way by paying attention to the process and educating myself on the important issues rather than feeling bound to follow endless parenting instructions. And so far, she seems to be doing pretty well.
I don't want to completely discount parenting books, because there are some that are incredibly helpful, and I did learn some things from the ones I read/partially read. The same can be said for parenting websites and magazines, online parenting groups, classes, and even message boards. I think that it's crucial to educate yourself (thank goodness for my birthing/newborn class, our awesome pediatrician, and the occasional Google search), but for me there needs to be a balance between consulting outside sources and learning through our own experiences as a family. For me, real life experience has been 95% of what I've learned.
4. It's not as hard as I thought it would be. I think that this, more than any of the other 5 lessons I'm sharing here, differs greatly from person to person - so I want to reiterate that these are things that I have learned about myself as a parent, and by no means can they apply to everyone. I have friends who are wonderful parents with wonderful babies who have had much more difficult experiences than they anticipated, and I have friends who, like me, have been surprised to find out it wasn't as hard as they thought.
In my case, I think I really built it up in my head that raising a baby would be almost impossibly difficult for me, so ultimately, it just feels much easier in comparison. First of all, I got pregnant later in life, and I spent my twenties and much of my thirties focusing on my career, traveling, and only worrying about myself. I had a long time to convince myself that my freedom would be all but destroyed upon becoming a mother. Second, my husband works for a band and is gone on the road for nearly half the year. I work full time from a home studio, and knew that if we had a baby, we'd have to find a way for me to continue to work the same hours on top of taking care of this baby, often by myself. This terrified me. Add to this all of the usual fears and legitimate concerns that people have about becoming parents (pre-parent experiences sitting next to screaming kids on airplanes and in restaurants, imagining the days when that will be your child, don't help either), and I was convinced that it would be the hardest thing I'd ever had to do.
It turns out that, for the most part, it's actually (usually) easier than it is hard. Once I got used to the lack of sleep (and truly, I have just gotten used to it, because it's still there 13 months later), the rest has sort of fallen into place. Robbie and I have somehow figured out ways to make our work schedules, well, work, and I've actually become a much more productive small business owner as a result. (It's amazing how much better you become at time management when you don't have much time.) As for the freedom part, we've made a conscious effort to go on dates without Essley, which has made a big difference. I also took a two day trip and met Robbie in Atlanta for New Year's Eve last month, without Essley, which was an incredible break and time to focus on myself. But truthfully, Robbie and I both feel more free (cheesy, yes, but true) when the three of us are doing stuff together as a family.
It's not all rainbows and unicorns, obviously. There are times when I feel so overwhelmed I can't do anything but cry - especially when Robbie is gone for long periods and it's up to me to be both parents, on top of working. Without fail though, every time I'm feeling really frustrated, Essley will do something to remind me how much I love being her mom. And it's in those moments that I think back to the nightmare I imagined this would be and feel grateful for how wonderfully different it actually is.
5. Time flies. It is such a cliche, I know. It's also probably the thing you're told more than anything else by other parents when you're just starting out, which makes it sort of annoying by default, to the point where you (okay, I) assume it's not going to be that way for you. Also, in the beginning - in those first few weeks (months, even) when your baby cries all night long and vomits on everything all day long and your hormones are all out of whack and you have absolutely no parenting experience - each day can feel like an eternity. You might even want to punch the next person who tells you to "hold onto the moment, because it will be be gone before you know it" square in the jaw. (I'm not saying I wanted to. Not saying I didn't either.) But for me, after about 9 months, I was like, "wait, what happened to our baby? Where did the time go?" Truly. The other day I was looking back through pictures and videos on my phone from just a few months ago and I was genuinely flabbergasted. Babies change so much in the first year. I mean, wow. And I can't seem to get a grasp on the fact that the little girl who is sitting on the floor of my office right now, turning the pages of a book with her hair in pig tails, basically fit in my freaking hand a year ago. It's intense. The sensation of time passing so quickly with a child has also taught (and continues to teach) me how to better live in the moment and focus less on the future and the past - which means this lesson is one I can take well beyond parenting.
So there you have it - five of the greatest lessons of my first year as a parent. If you're still reading, you're a champ. Thank you for letting me share this stuff, and for being interested enough to read it. I can't wait to see what I learn this year.
If you're a parent, did you learn any similar lessons in your first year? Or anything completely different? I'd love to hear.
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