Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Parenting's dirty little secret 

Wow! I can’t believe that Isabella is now two years old. I have learned so much the last couple of years; it’s been a vertical learning curve. Sometimes people ask me about having kids, how to know whether or not you’re ready, and what it is “really like”. Honestly, I don’t think you realize what you're getting yourself into until you have the baby in your arms.

So for those wondering, I’m letting you in on a dirty little secret about new parenthood that people don’t tell you because they're afraid that it'll scare you away from having kids: parenting is a total loss of freedom; your old life is GONE. Some people have difficulty adjusting to the demands of the realities of motherhood, especially if you’re used to a certain life style. I think that many mothers who were pretty comfortable in their current lifestyles could get frustrated with the adjustment as they try to fit their ''old life'' into their ''new life.'' If you have spent a considerable amount of time on yourself, it is hard to fit the self sacrificing demands of total reality motherhood into your prior self-conception as self-determining woman. Sometimes it’s as if the old you is gone and an entirely new you is born with the baby.

And yes, the adjustment to a new baby is huge. And it could be rough. You can read all the books and talk to all the people you want, but you really don’t know what you’re getting yourself into until you’re actually a parent.

Many new Moms wonder whether they should stay at home or return to work. I believe that everyone needs balance. How much of that you need depends on what kind of person you are because all women have different requirements of themselves, career and family life. For some women, work is good “me time” where they get that intellectual challenge and do something for themselves. Or, just be able to sit still and breathe in peace.

As a career woman turned stay at home mom, I know that what I'm doing is important and I take great pride in how smart, funny and sweet Isabella is. But with 18 years of education and a successful career before motherhood, I definitely believe that work is easier than staying at home full time! Staying at home full time is hard work physically and mentally. I have days – usually sometime after my 12th hour straight with the kid where she only napped 30 minutes or after 60 minutes of temper tantrum - where I could just scream. Some days I find the tasks itself – chasing her around to do basic things like put on shoes, planning meals she will eat (only to hear “No!'' after I’ve spent an hour preparing it), and constantly getting down on hands and knees to clean all the messes and spills - to be frustrating. Parenting is not that much fun a lot of the time! I believe this article has nailed the pros and cons of staying at home spot on. And although I was ready for all of the responsibilities and sacrifices of parenthood, sometimes I admit that I feel selfish (mixed with guilt for feeling this way). I miss having the independence to do as I wish with my time, whether it be to snuggle with my husband in bed for hours, going out to eat, or doing ANYTHING spontaneous. Or, just ending the day without having tons of food stains all over the floor and toys strewn about. In addition, great husband aside, it has taken a great toll on my relationship with my husband. I resented my husband when he seemed to have the time to relax and read on weekends while I was caring for the baby or cleaning up her messes. I miss staying up late without worrying about missing precious hours of sleep. At times, I feel caged by motherhood, by my being so needed all of the time, especially when I was still breastfeeding. But I’ve realized that it’s OK if we don't always feel so gushingly happy all the time. We can still love our children, be good parents to them, and not particularly love every moment. It’s just being human.

It is important to talk to other Moms to give yourself some sanity that you’re not the only one feeling this way, and they can be a great support network. But you must beware of the Moms I call “Uber-Moms” who insist on doing all the “right things” and therefore making you feel worse: the ones that look down on you if the child cries longer than 2 seconds, etc. Judith Warner, who wrote the book "Perfect Madness", summarizes her thoughts in this article about how Moms are too stressed these days because of all of the pressure on them to do all the “right” things.

I think that more Moms would be much happier and enjoy themselves more if they had an easier going attitude like this “Slacker Mom”. A funny quote: "Domestic standards popularized by women’s magazines and Madison Avenue, she argues, have gotten too high. It’s not enough to keep crumbs off the kitchen counters, these days you have to keep the counters bacteria free. “And you can’t just make a lemon pie like June Cleaver,” she says. “These days you have to use Meyer lemons.”

Isn’t that silly?

You probably want to bring that same zeal to parenthood as you do to your career. It's hard to fathom that lightening up, slacking a little and being "just good enough" is the better way to parent, but I think you'll have a more balanced child who doesn't demand first class service all the time, and a happier life that way.

There are lots of things that I’ve learned in the last two years to make your life with your first new baby much more enjoyable. Many people will tell you these things, but they're all TOTALLY TRUE so don't forget them! It is important! So here are some things you can do to make new parenthood easier to manage:

* Carve some time out for yourself to take care of yourself, or do something you enjoy. Have a friend come over or hire a sitter, join a babysitting coop, i.e. have someone else look after your kid for a few hours each weekend so that the you and your partner could have some one-on-one time with each other. This is critical because you don't want to wind up resenting your kids and husband and make them bear the brunt of your dissatisfaction and stress. You can justify this because your child will surely benefit if your marriage is happy and strong. When I say happy and healthy, I mean both physically and mentally.

* Try not to do too many other things when caring for baby. When you give her lots of good attention, she tends to behave better and you both have more fun.

* When the baby is napping, relax! Do something that gives something back to you and will make you happy, like a hobby that you love. Nap if you need, read, take it easy on yourself. Do NOT waste the time by cleaning up and doing chores because that activity doesn't give back any of yourself as a human, and instead will probably make you frustrated that you're doing all the household chores. (UNLESS that kind of stuff indeed relaxes you.)

* Have a loose schedule on weekends so that both your husband and you get time to yourselves without baby. (to sleep in, take long showers, run errands)

* Managing the friendships with your childless friends. You may see your childless friends less often because your life styles have become so different. Plus many people who don’t have children do not comprehend the exhaustion of raising a young child. They do not understand how it is sometimes difficult to keep your child up past nap/bedtime, eat out at a restaurant, etc. How doing this is really no fun for the parents because they aren't able to eat, have a nice conversation, etc. Solution: suggest an outing with friends so it can be on your terms and baby friendly, or without baby at a time that is convenient for you.

While you can physically do things to make the adjustment easier, the best thing you can do is change your outlook and attitude. Changing your mentality can be challenging when you’re smack in the middle of it, but find time to stand back and gain some perspective:

* Let things go, and don’t worry too much if things are not as clean or neat as you like them to be; if you need your house to be in a certain condition, hire help or ask for help from friends or relatives. When the kids are older, you can teach them to help you clean up but that’s several years away.

* Recognize that the baby/toddler stage goes by quickly, so enjoy it instead of feeling nothing but exhaustion and annoyance. They will soon be in school, doing things on their own, and not wanting anything to do with Mom or Dad

* Don’t beat yourself up for not being the "perfect" Mom. Be kind to yourself, make sure you get some alone time. Accept your strengths and weaknesses as a parent. A lot more moms would have a lot less anxiety if they admitted that sometimes being a Mom just plain sucks sometimes. But that’s okay because know that many moms feel the exact same way you do several times a day

* Enjoy your child, chill out and don’t sweat the small stuff.

* Accept that your life has REALLY changed - and permanently. So might as well enjoy it. Life is too short.

I can honestly say that when you as a parent don’t freak out over every little thing, you accept and adjust to your new life, you build a little confidence as a parent, and you are a little smarter, parenthood does become really fun. (Plus, it helps that as the child gets older, you can communicate and understand each other more...) I guarantee that being with your child can go from being a frustrating chore, to a fun time where seeing them happy and being a part of that happiness warms your heart. And how amazing that feeling is is something you can't imagine until you have a baby in your arms.