Before you actually have a child, you think you know how you’ll be as a parent. I will never let my child drink juice. I will limit screen time until he’s in preschool/third grade/college. I will only feed my baby organic food and will only use cloth diapers.
Then you have a kid, and it all goes to potty, err, pot.
I should know. I spent over six years of actively trying to have a child before my son was born, and during that time, I thought more about what I would be like when I finally got my bundle of joy than probably anyone else on the planet. But even so, it was not enough. No amount of preparation can possibly make you ready for the ways a child will change your life—and change you.
So this is what I learned about myself after having my son, Sam:
1. The minimum amount of sleep I need to function like a human being is five hours. I did not get this at first. Newborns are up every two to three hours, and since I was nursing, I was the one who had to feed the baby. This meant that I was a “mombie” for the first six months of Sam’s life. Gradually it got better, but he still woke twice a night until he was a year old. Having experienced all different types of sleep patterns—my own, that is—I discovered I need at least five hours, preferably in a row, to be able to function. That’s a lot different than the nine hours I got pre-baby.
2. I’m a mama bear. Threaten the well-being of my son in any way? I will turn into a wild animal. I have literally just about growled. It’s truly an animal instinct when faced with other kids who hit, a pediatrician who dismisses your claims of sickness or a grandparent who ignores the rules of car seat safety. The chest clip goes at the armpits! Otherwise my child could fly out of the seat! Are you trying to kill my child? So much for my pre-baby shyness.
3. I need to chillax. OK, so that mama bear instinct can sometimes get a little too overzealous. Probably due to all those years of waiting and hoping for a baby, when I finally got one I was super protective. And with good reason—Sam is a very active, adventurous and strong-willed little boy. I need to constantly hold his hand in public to make sure he doesn’t take off. He climbed out of his crib at 18 months. He’s a constant source of anxiety for me, but I could drive myself crazy thinking of all the bad things that could happen. So, I’m trying to take a page out of my more relaxed husband’s parenting stylebook: Do what you can within reason, because there’s only so much you can do to protect your baby from the world.
4. I have a temper. I never considered myself particularly hot-blooded, but it turns out I do have a bit of that Italian flair in me. Sam just knows exactly how to push my buttons—and boom, there's the crazy, frazzled, yelling mother I never thought I’d be. Did I mention Sam was strong-willed? He tests me, and I too often fail. So, I started making a concerted effort to remain calm, even in the face of kicking legs and flying poop during a diaper change.
5. I need to work on patience. Toddlers are tough cookies because they are asserting their independence and pushing boundaries. So along with my temper, I’ve learned that I lack a little something called patience. We’re constantly trying to teach this to our toddlers, right? They can’t have everything at the exact moment they want it. Well, the same goes for us as parents. Sometimes your kid just won’t stop crying, or changing his mind about what he wants to eat. The worst is trying to get out the door—just getting a coat and shoes on can be a ten-minute process. Patience, I tell myself. Patience.
6. I am a multitasking queen. I’m quite good at keeping a million balls in the air, going over the schedule for the day while getting lunch ready and breakfast made and the diaper bag put together and backpack packed and clothes on and teeth brushed (alright, that last one doesn’t happen all the time). But yeah, I’m pretty good at remembering everything that needs to be done on any given day. It’s a skill I’ve worked hard at.
7. I don’t have to be perfect. I’m an everything-has-to-be-a-certain-way type-A person. But after becoming a parent, I learned that it is just not physically possible to be perfect, even given my multitasking prowess. Perfection just doesn’t exist in the world of parenting. As many preconceived notions we all had about raising kids, as much as we’ve all said, “I will never let my child behave like that when I’m a parent,” when it actually happens you realize it’s all just a pipe dream. All those rules you created for your children—and yourself—cannot possibly be followed to a T. You will occasionally use the TV as a babysitter. Once in a while (or more than that) you will serve your children pizza, mac ’n’ cheese and chicken nuggets. You will let your kid have a total meltdown in the aisles of Target. And that’s OK. As long as you’re trying, cut yourself some slack. You’re doing the best you can. At least, that’s what I tell myself.
Being a parent is like holding up a mirror through which all your flaws are reflected. I have learned a lot about what I need to work on as a parent and as a person. But that mirror also shows the things you excel at, and the things you never thought you could be. It shows you the pure love and devotion you have for your child. And this huge capacity to love is perhaps the most important thing anyone could ever learn.