Monday, October 2, 2017

Welcome to Parenthood: Advice for New Parents That Might Actually Help

People love giving parenting advice. Those of us who are parents know how profoundly difficult nurturing, raising, and caring for a human being is. We want to help, even when our advice is condescending or misses the mark. Non-parents want to help, too, but tend to greatly underestimate how difficult parenting is.

The result is an onslaught of useless parenting advice that, at best, wastes our time. At worst, this parenting advice makes us feel shamed, incompetent, and alone.

We've now made it through a year of parenthood. Most of what I've learned has been through trial and error. Much of it is highly specific. What works for us won't work for someone else. That's true for all parents.

A few things remain constant. Here's what I've learned about parenting that, I think, is applicable to most parents.

It's Normal to Feel Overwhelmed 
I thought parenthood would be easy for me. I spent years as a nanny, and a decade immersed in child development literature. I love kids, and was always able to get gets to behave, listen, and learn.

Caring for a child 24/7 is far different from spending time, even a lot of time, with children. The newborn period is uniquely exhausting for most parents, especially mothers, who must recover from childbirth while contending with intense sleep deprivation. New parents also must adjust to breastfeeding, which can be difficult and painful, or start formula-feeding, which can be a source of unrelenting guilt.

It is normal to feel overwhelmed, and perhaps even hopeless. The first few months of parenthood are, for the overwhelming majority of parents, shockingly difficult.

Know this:

It gets better. 

Some parents will tell you the trouble is just beginning. They're part of the small group of parents who found the newborn period easy, and so for whom other seasons of parenting were comparatively more difficult.

If you're one of the lucky few parents who find early parenthood easy, know that this is simple luck. Maybe it's because of an unusual newborn who sleeps well, nurses well, and cries infrequently; because of lots of help from loved ones; or because of tons of paid leave. Know that you are the exception to the rule. Most people are struggling. So don't shame a friend for struggling. And keep your mouth shut about the baby who sleeps through the night, lest you push someone over the edge.

Slow Down. Cultivate Mindfulness. 
Parenthood can feel like a race--a race to get out the door in the morning, to keep the house clean, to lose the baby weight, to get back to work. Everything takes longer than it once did, and you may feel like you have a much louder ticking clock. Parenthood is really great at reminding us of our mortality and our shortcomings.

That ticking clock can be frustrating. It's hard to feel calm when you need to leave for a meeting but your baby wants one more nursing session. It's hard to get up 12 times at night during the four-month sleep regression. Yet some cliches are true: when you are on your deathbed, these are the moments you will miss most. Slow down. Soak them up. Take in as much as you can. Mindfulness helps us see the monotony and frustration for the magic they really are.

Set Boundaries and Guard Them Like Your Life Depends On It. 
When you have a child, people begin treating you like an object for public consumption. That's doubly true if you're a woman. You may also find that people are interested only in the baby--not the people who made and are raising it.

Set clear boundaries to preserve your bonding time in the postpartum period. Then apply the lessons you've learned in setting boundaries to the rest of your parenting life. Your most sacred job is to protect your child--not to preserve the feelings of the grandmother who guilts your child into a hug, the aunt who tells your daughter she needs to be pretty, or the uncle who insists that boys don't cry. You have a right to parent in the way you choose, and a duty to protect your child from outsiders for as long as possible.

The conflict is always worth it when your child's well-being is at stake. Your child is neither a bargaining chip nor an object about which you can compromise. Set boundaries and defend them. Your child will thank you one day.

Trust Your Instincts (But Read Some Research)
Parenting fads are constantly changing. A decade ago, everyone thought leaving kids to cry would destroy their psyches. Now they're just as certain that not leaving them to cry will destroy them--even though there's little research to support either conclusion.

Trust your instincts. Parenting is largely an intuitive undertaking. You don't have to do what other people do.

Consider also that your instincts might be wrong. We all do a lot of things automatically because they feel right, or because they're how our parents did things. We know, for example, that spanking harms children--even though it might seem like hitting kids would give them a good incentive to behave. So spend some time reading basic parenting research, but don't go too wild. Your gut is probably right, especially if it tells you to do things differently than your own family did.

Know That No One Knows Everything--Not Even Your Pediatrician
No matter what medical skeptics tell you, pediatricians are not part of a conspiracy to harm children. They are human beings. Human beings are sometimes wrong, and often led by bias. Your pediatrician might not know the latest research about peanut allergies, and might make recommendations that contradict that research, or official opinions of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Don't feel like you must do everything your pediatrician says. Doctors and other experts are guides, not gods. Follow your gut. Read research from credible sources. Then make the best decision you can. If things go poorly, try something different.

Stop Feeling Guilty 
You are going to make mistakes. Something you think is a great idea will turn out to have been a terrible one. Society teaches parents, and particularly women, that they must be perfect to not be monsters. The result is painful guilt that can cloud our judgment and make us worse parents.

Apologize when you're wrong. Fix your mistakes. Get on with your life. Don't live with guilt. It serves no one.

Take Lots of Pictures 
For the rest of your life, you will look back on the past--a day ago, a week ago, a decade ago--with the aching knowledge that it is gone forever. Document everything. And moms, document that you were there. We tend to spend more time behind the camera capturing others. Tell your husband, your boyfriend, your wife, your mother, someone to snap some photos of you and your baby.

And if you read nothing else, let me say it again:
Parenting gets better. 

You can do this.

No comments

Post a Comment

I moderate comments. Don't waste your time leaving a comment that I won't publish. All comments are subject to my comments policy. I welcome open discussion and differing opinions, but not abuse.