Our children, bless their hearts, are under the impression that we know what we’re doing. They seem to think we had it all figured out before they were conceived. I’m flattered they believe this, as it suggests we’ve done a good job maintaining the illusion. The truth is, we’re making it up as we go. There’s no college degree in parenting. There isn’t a certification exam to demonstrate parental competence.
I was shocked when the hospital staff allowed us to take our first baby home from the hospital. She’d been surgically removed from my uterus three days prior and I was still under the influence of narcotics. Yet they seemed confident we knew what we were doing. The only requirement was that we had a properly fitted infant seat in the car. As my husband pulled away from the curb, I sat in the backseat beside the rear-facing infant carrier. “Step on it!”, I almost screamed in my drug-induced haze. I was expecting a security guard to run us down saying they’d made a mistake and we couldn’t take this baby home.
I got pregnant with our first daughter, Rachel, nearly twenty years ago, when the internet was still a novelty. I didn’t have access to the plethora of websites and videos on child-rearing that new parents do today; a fact for which I’m grateful. Even back in the dark ages, however, there were parenting and childbirth classes, parenting magazines, and a dizzying array of books on the care and feeding of new humans. The topic has been around since the dawn of humanity and there are hundreds of so-called experts. Like many sciences, the recommendations change as knowledge evolves. Even if I’d gotten a PhD in the subject, however, I wouldn’t have been prepared for the realities of becoming a parent.
I hadn’t planned to be an at-home mother, but I cut down to per diem status at my nursing job shortly after my maternity leave ended. Passing off our infant to my husband in the hospital parking lot before my 3-11 shift was grueling. I felt like we were in a relay race and Rachel was the baton. Mark worked all day and found himself alone with the screaming baton for the entire evening. The smiling, gurgling baby I’d cared for all day morphed into a shrieking banshee by 4 pm. We’re both grateful we were in a financial position that allowed me to stay home.
I worked at the hospital once a week, but most of my work days were now unpaid and my boss was a tiny tyrant. None of the books I read had prepared me for the isolation that comes with being home all day with a demanding infant. Or for living in a sleep-deprived fog, smelling of baby vomit and leaking breast milk. Motherhood was a challenging transition.
When Rachel was six weeks old, I was fortunate to find a local MOMS club. We swapped stories of teething, diaper rashes, and breastfeeding difficulties like colleagues in the workplace. We shared war stories of difficult labors and c-sections as our infants slept in their carriers or practiced tummy time. Like soldiers after battle, sharing our experiences provided validation and eased the loneliness of motherhood. This group of women saved my sanity. I’m still friends with many of them years later as we’re sending our kids off to college.
Like many new mothers, I was anxious. I not only worried when the baby was crying, but also when she wasn’t. As a result, I checked on her throughout the night. I hadn’t planned on co-sleeping and wasn’t even familiar with the term. I stumbled across the practice by accident after bringing Rachel into bed with me to feed her and dozing off while she was nursing. I awoke a few hours later, grateful for the stretch of uninterrupted sleep and comforted by the sound of the baby’s breath beside me. I felt like I’d discovered an ancient motherhood secret. It was genius.
The experts, I later learned, have differing opinions on co-sleeping. The positive is that it promotes mother-baby bonding. The danger is that it places the baby at risk for suffocation. I hadn’t read that chapter, apparently. I was just thrilled I could feed the baby without having to get out of bed. As I learned the benefits of co-sleeping, Mark took up the practice of solo-sleeping. On the couch.
Years after waking up to find that precious infant sleeping beside me in bed, I woke up and found teenagers living in our house. Seemingly overnight our cuddly little girls had been replaced by prickly, moody adolescents. A simple conversation about school or what to have for breakfast was now an emotional minefield. Innocent questions were met with biting sarcasm or a one-syllable reply. A miscalculated word or facial expression would trigger an explosion. My MOMS Club comrades were engaged in the battle of the teens and we were all too busy to meet for coffee to compare notes. I couldn’t even risk reading up on the topic. The kids might find the books or see my browsing history. They would learn our strategies and change their own tactics. At the very least, they’d see behind the facade of competence and learn the truth: we’d been parenting on the fly and making it all up as we went. Any semblance of credibility we had would be shattered.
I can imagine my pertinent, but very astute, seventeen-year-old asking, “Why did you even have kids if you don’t know how to raise them?”
“Exactly!”, I’d think. It’s the same question I was waiting for the hospital staff to ask us the day we took her big sister home nineteen years ago. It’s too soon to tell her this, however. We’ve got to keep up the charade a little longer. Someday when she’s older and has kids of her own, I’ll tell her the truth.