10 things that I learnt parenting
Sarah Tennant has been parenting for ten years and writing about it in OHbaby! for just as long. Here, with characteristic heart and humour, she reflects on the parenting stretch, and ten things she’s learnt in the process.
Has it really been ten years since I became a mother? Actually that’s pretty easy to believe right now, being pregnant with my fourth. With my first baby I remember a lot of “You look so young to be having a baby!” comments. This time around they’re more like “Well, I have these pamphlets on food safety, but I bet you’re a pro by now. However, we should talk about screening tests; you know, because of your age.” Yikes.
Ten years isn’t enough time to accumulate a vast store of parental wisdom (well it may have been, had I not spent so much time on Pinterest). I don’t even have finished-product young adults to point to as proof that I knew what I was doing. Nevertheless, here is my decade’s worth of sleep-deprived observations.
1. Tricky things get easier
At first, taking all the children out to the supermarket seems terrifying and impossible. THREE carseats? THREE different children to keep from being flattened in the carpark? Surely the thing cannot be done!
It is perfectly normal to send your partner off to do the shopping for a few months after each birth. Eventually, miraculously, the terror does pass. Mostly.
2. According to Google, you’re not alone
We like to think we’re unique; fortunately, the internet is here to assure us we’re not. No matter how specific, embarrassing and/or bizarre your pregnancy/birth/baby situation is, someone else online has already been through it. Not only that, they were less shy than you and asked about it on a parenting forum, where six pages of “me too!” replies proved that no symptom is too weird to be relatable.
Seriously, whatever it is: Google it. Your contact lenses fall out now you’re pregnant? You feel briefly but intensely depressed every time your milk lets down? Your docile baby hit ten weeks and suddenly morphed into an inconsolable rage-monster? There are reasons behind all these things (actually all those ones are pretty common, which just goes to show), and validation, empathy and possible solutions are only a click away.
3. You’ll enjoy some stages more than others
Me, I’m a baby person. Give me a kid fresh out of the womb until about the age of three, and I will love and adore them. Then, if you love me, take the kid away again, because from experience, I know I’m going to find the next few years pretty challenging. I find babies easier because their needs are relatively straightforward and physical compared to the social, moral and educational angst of older preschoolers. (That, and the not-insignificant cuteness factor – I mean, look at them!)
My sister-in-law is the exact opposite. She’d be much happier if her children arrived ready-made at the age of three. She finds children vastly easier when they can walk, talk, feed and toilet themselves, and communicate their needs verbally. (Yes, we could probably figure out some kind of time-share system here.) In other words, we both like different stages of parenting – and I think that’s pretty common. It can take a while to realise it though. A friend of mine went through repeated guilt-sessions wondering why she suddenly ‘went off’ her oldest ... and then her next oldest ... and then the one after that. Finally it clicked: she didn’t loathe her children per se, she just found two-year-olds really hard work. Once each child grew out of that stage, the connection was back. Now with child number four, she’s braced for it: it’ll be hard, but it won’t be forever.
It might seem a tad grim to expect to dislike all your children for an entire phase of development; but it’s better to acknowledge honestly that you find some stages harder than others, rather than feel like a monster who suddenly can’t stand her own offspring.
4. Don’t buy anything for your kids without asking around first
Seriously. Those newborn carseat capsules you only use for six months? You probably know five parents or grandparents who have one cluttering up their garage. Other short-shelf-life items include bassinets, cots, exersaucers, Jolly Jumpers, cloth nappies, toys, and clothes in glorious abundance.
Do check for safety issues (expired carseats, ancient death-trap lead-painted cots etc), and make sure they’re a gift, not a loan – “I’d like to have it back when she’s done” is a guarantee the heirloom baby dress will become irrevocably stained with banana. And of course, pass the items along when you’re done – if not for karma and goodwill, to save on cupboard space.
5. Every baby, mother and family situation is different
For some babies “hold me tummy-down across your arm and thwack me on the back” is nirvana; for others it’s an exquisite form of torture. So giving out concrete baby-rearing advice is pretty scary. In general, it’s safer to stick to vague principles. But there’s one tool in my arsenal which has been so gloriously life-changing that I can’t resist sharing it (with all possible caveats about individuality, of course). It is this: if you can learn to safely co-sleep and nurse in the side-lying position, do it. It can make your nights go from “Eugghh, I had to get up four times to feed the baby!” to “Oh yeah, she’s great at night! I mean, she wakes up to feed, but I just roll over and hardly notice.” For instructions on safe co-sleeping, read James McKenna. For learning to nurse side-lying, channel a blissfully torpid mother sow.
6. “It goes by so fast” is profoundly unhelpful
Yes, it does ... in hindsight. My squashy newborn girl is now a leggy, bike-riding Harry Potter reader with feet almost as big as mine. It’s startling, and I can understand why people feel the need to grip new parents by the shoulders and tell them they’ll be missing these days in the blink of an eye. The trouble is, what’s true in hindsight is of no use whatsoever in the moment. It’s night five of a six-day, three-kid flu? Well, one day they’ll be grown up and you’ll be sorry! Maybe so, but that doesn’t magically clean vomit off sheets.
As platitudes go, I prefer Gretchen Rubin’s version: “The days are long, but the years are short”. It combines a certain gritty realism with the searing inevitability of nostalgia, and isn’t that what parenting’s all about?
7. Milestones are laughably unimportant
My daughter learned to walk at eleven months. My son, uh, learned to walk. At some point. My second son didn’t learn to walk until he was a whopping seventeen months old – and while I admit I was slightly perturbed by that one (he didn’t crawl either), he’s nearly three now and trots around just as handily as quality control requires.
Yes, of course extreme milestone-missing is a cause for investigation but the spectrum is wide. Five years down the track it will be utterly, unbelievably irrelevant whether little Josie got her pincer grip three weeks before Samuel. No serial killer or presidential runner-up has ever traced his failure back to saying “Dada” two months later than average. Don’t sweat it.
8. New Zealand is a great place to give birth
I’m not unduly patriotic. There are a lot of things New Zealand lacks that I wish it possessed – castles, IKEA, well-heated housing, the ability to import hamsters, an ozone layer, to name a few. But one thing we do really, really well? Treating women like humans when they give birth. We don’t have hospitals that charge families $15,000 for the privilege of pushing a baby out on their premises. We don’t routinely knock women out with twilight-sleep drugs, give them episiotomies, cut their babies’ cords the second they emerge and whisk the newborns away to be measured.
Sure, the system isn’t perfect. But I have friends from all sorts of different countries who think it’s just plain fantastic that we can choose our own healthcare support, decide where and how we want to give birth, and reasonably expect that research-based, biology-respecting practices will be carried out. And you know what? It really is.
9. Some babies are hard, some babies are easy
Not sure which one you have? Can you give the baby to somebody else – its father, say – for ten minutes without triggering a wailing meltdown? Yes? Easy baby.
I’ve had both varieties of baby. The difference was ... how can I put this without sounding dramatic? Heaven and hell? Winter and summer? The Empire Strikes Back vs The Phantom Menace? Actually, perhaps a closer analogy would be that parenting an easy baby feels like being in love. Sure it can be hard work sometimes, but the hardships are all cushioned by your glorious cloud of bliss. With a hard baby it can be more hardship, less glorious cloud of bliss. You still feel love, but – to be honest – you can also feel trapped, unsure of yourself and permanently on edge.
A little dark? Well, yeah, it is. Hard babies are hard. My lesson is this: if you’ve been blessed with easy babies, please respond with sympathetic awe and respect, not judgement, to the mother who’s had to jiggle her baby just-so for the last 36 hours to stop him screaming. You are not living in the same universe. She will not miraculously achieve a baby with a temperament like yours by swaddling him/sleep-training him/baby-wearing him the way you did. The best you can do for her is help around the house (not hold the baby, he won’t let you) while uttering private but devout thanks for escaping her fate.
10. Cheap, white maternity bras should not be worn for a decade straight
I’m pretty sure I’m right about this one and no further explanation is required.
Sarah Tennant is a freelance writer in Te Awamutu. She has three children – Rowan, Miles, and Morris – with a fourth on the way. She recently did buy new nursing bras, but will probably keep the old ones just in case, which either demonstrates prudence or a complete loss of self-respect.
PHOTOGRAPHY: Elisabeth Kumar
AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 41 OF OHbaby! MAGAZINE. CHECK OUT OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE BELOW