In my conversations with new and expecting parents, there are a few themes that I hear again and again. I was lucky enough to have a few people I trust pull me aside before my kids were born and talk to me about their first year as a parent. Here are 3 of the most important points that I’ve gleaned from these conversations.
1. It’s SO MUCH work!
Babies mostly sleep, eat, cry and poop and don’t really “interact” a whole lot at first, at least not in the usual social sense. It can feel like a lot of giving and not much in return. You’re deprived of sleep, stripped of your normal outlets for socializing and self-care, and not getting much response from your baby to know if you’re doing it right. There are times of joy, surprise and playfulness, but the proportion of good times to difficult times is different than most parents expect. When my wife and I were expecting our first children (twin boys), my dad shared his experience of the first year of parenthood. The first year is mostly work and don’t be surprised if the times of real connection and happiness are sporadic. He wasn’t trying to be pessimistic, just the opposite. His point was to help prepare me that it was not all snuggling and giggling. This conversation was invaluable for me. When we had our children, I thought of this conversation many times, especially when things were hard or it seemed like way more work than I expected it to be. Expectations are very important. They help us frame and make meaning of the experiences in our lives. That one brief conversation with my dad, helped me frame my experience as a parent at times when it wasn’t fun or exciting – when it was scary, confusing or bewildering….or just plain exhausting. I didn’t automatically think something was “wrong” because it wasn’t all bliss.
2. “Comparison is the thief of joy.” (Theodore Roosevelt)
One of my first peer role models for parenting was a good friend and teammate of mine on my coed soccer team. I respected his parenting style and valued his opinion, so I listened when he talked about parenting. His advice (ironically) was to be careful listening to “advice” from other parents. Each child is so different. Just because they’re all little humans doesn’t make them very similar. They can be vastly different in temperament, personality, habits, behaviors, and needs. Your child is his or her own person. They have tremendous strengths. Comparing them to other children, although natural, can lead to questioning, anxiety and potentially missing out on your child’s unique gifts because you’re busy worrying that she isn’t meeting that milestone “on time”. Why aren’t they sleeping through the night yet? Should we be using a pacifier? Why aren’t they walking yet? The comparisons can be endless if you let them. That’s not to mention comparing yourself to other parents and “measuring” yourself against that “perfect” mom or dad that you know. “Perfect” doesn’t exist by the way, they’re struggling too. More on that later. You might compare your life now to your life before children and what you used to do on a Saturday night. As Ariel mentioned in our previous blog, there can be a real grieving process of the person that you were and the life that you lived prior to parenthood.
One way that I try to help myself with this natural tendency to compare is to be intentional about who I reach out to for help when it comes to parenting. It can be vulnerable to ask someone else about something you’re concerned about in your child. Finding people that you trust enough to reach out to is important. It may take some trial and error. Reaching out and receiving judgments and unsolicited advice can be painful. Don’t let that stop you. Support is invaluable. You’re not alone in your struggles and experiences as a parent.
3. The “right” thing is what’s right for you and your family.
It’s common for parents to wonder if we are doing/saying/providing the “right” things for our children. Being a parent who is sensitive to your child’s needs is a good thing, and it also may lead you to wonder if you are somehow causing lasting “damage” to your child because of your own “short comings” as a parent. In my experience, there is no “right” way to parent. It’s not black and white. The “right” thing is what’s right for you and your family. I find relief in this thought and it helps me let go a little bit. There are no perfect parents. That parent who you hold up as perfect is struggling too – maybe with the same things you are, maybe with different things. Your idea of them is only serving as a comparison point that causes guilt, fear and anxiety. Let go of that ideal and let yourself be the parent you are. Your kids are influenced more by who you are and how you carry yourself in the world, then whether you made the “right” decision about sleep schedules or childcare.
Andrew Bednarzik, MA, LPC, specializes in new dads, transition into adulthood and men's issues.